Head of School’s Welcome Address

June 15, 2021

On Friday, June 11, 2021, the Wheeler School celebrated the graduating class of 2021 at the Wheeler Farm.

By Head of School Allison Gaines Pell

To the class of 2021, since I won’t get to say this to you again today, YOU AMAZE US. This year, you showed the younger students and certainly modeled for one another what resilience, fortitude, flexibility, and positivity could look like. In a year that you could have (and maybe at times wanted to), put your heads in the sand.

Instead, you turned around and led.

On Wednesday, in her parting words as CC Head, Victoria Wassouf demonstrated this class’s ability to see complexity in this challenging time with her Latin quote Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit meaning “perhaps even these things will be good to remember one day.” This was not what you asked for in a senior year, but you took what the world gave you and spun gold from straw. On behalf of all of us at Wheeler, thank you. Today, as we begin, I’d like to offer you only one piece of advice as you go off into the world, and it is this: pay attention to the hyphens.

What do I mean?

A few weeks ago, I fell into a conversation with Young Un, our Head of Strategic Innovation, and an incredible teacher, who clarified a concept from Chinese history I had not grasped and was curious to learn. That is the concept of ren. To be brief, and to pique your interest in a deeper dive into Chinese history (I’ll send a google form around to sign up with Mr. Un), the concept is a Confucian one. During a time of great turmoil and extreme civil and human unrest, Confucious articulated a concept that he believed could restore calm, humanity, and order to a broken world. It referred to a set of relationships – between parent and child, friend to friend, or spouse to spouse. Imagine these pairs of words written on a page, each with a hyphen in between. In essence, Confucius taught that it was not the individual who defined each of these relationships; rather, the space between them – the interconnectedness, the hyphen – could be defined as ren. Simply: one cannot exist without the other in their roles, and that everything is, in fact, interdependent, defined in relation to one another.

This year and last, we have learned this lesson over and over. From our biological interconnectedness made visible by the virus to our reckoning with our nation’s history, to the havoc that human impact is having on the climate and our world, to the profound disconnections that our political cycle laid bare, we too are in a time of upheaval and unrest, and we need a way forward. We need the glue that binds us one to the other.

So, imagine, if you will, the many hyphens here today – between our graduates, between parents, and generations within our families here on this lawn – through thick and thin, wonderful and sad moments, illness and health. Those between you and our faculty and staff through the turmoil and triumphs of learning and growing up. Those between the faculty and staff members, too, as we work shoulder to shoulder together. I urge you to look for new hyphens in your life as well: Find people you do not know or understand, get curious about their experiences and their perspectives, find ways to know them well. Explore the relationship between you and the institutions you are connected to. In doing so, don’t settle for simplicity; always seek to understand problems you see with the complexity and nuance that is worthy of your Wheeler education. Spend time cultivating the relationships with your family members that have no doubt been at times tested this year. While you strive for your achievements, we know you will keep close at hand this idea of the space between us as a thing to behold, cherish, hold up, and seek out. I think that this is the glue we need.

Class of 2021, as you go on your way, you leave us with so much optimism about the future. We see that you are leaving us with strength, courage, empathy, ambition, willingness to have hard and necessary conversations, and the ability to take things on that are harder than we might have ever asked you to do. We see your capacity for joy, curiosity, and wonder. You give us hope that the renewal I hope and even expect that is on the way after this dark time will be filled with more of those than we thought possible before.

And so on that note, we open this well-loved Wheeler tradition. As those of you who have traveled a long road at Wheeler know, we love our traditions. In this past year, when so many have had to be changed or put aside for safety reasons, we have realized just how much they define us. Our rituals help provide the shape of our sense of belonging, our sense of community. We have missed it. I hope that today, this long-beloved ritual, and all that comes with it – the procession, the bagpipes, the lovingly engraved books, the diploma, the opening, and closing benedictions – helps us all bookend this challenging time and also reminds us of who we are and have been together.

Thank you, and let us begin.

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