By Allison Gaines Pell, Head of School
As this decade comes to a close, a 16-year-old, Greta Thunberg, is honored as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. This young woman’s vision has captivated people across the world on behalf of hope for our planet. She is not alone. There are many young people like Greta: Bruno Rodriguez, Autumn Peltier, Sahil Doshi, Marley Copeni. So many names you may or may not know. These members of communities all over the world are finding and using their voices and their skills. Young people – still in their teens – are inventing solutions to problems at unprecedented rates due to connections made possible by technology. As we close this decade and enter a new one that I believe we will be defined by change and innovation, I want to ask you to consider three ways you can use this powerful community to gather tools to take along for the journey.
First, put holes in your shoe leather. Last week, Mike Stanton, a Wheeler parent and author of The Prince of Providence, visited our Upper School. He wrote a book in 2018 called Unbeaten about a boxer named Rocky Marciano. Marciano grew up in Brockton, the child of an immigrant who worked in a shoe factory. Mr. Stanton keeps a photograph of one of Mr. Marciano’s shoes in his office. It shows a big hole in the very place where he would turn and pivot over and over again as he practiced to become the heavyweight champion of the world. For Mr. Stanton, this photograph is a reminder to always do the footwork necessary to get the story, to go deeper, to get out from behind the desk, to meet the need for the next question to be answered. I couldn’t help but think of us.
For us, the holes in our shoe leather represent the hard work of learning. Wheeler’s approach requires us to provide challenges pitched just beyond where you are right now and to create paths for you to achieve them. This fall, I have seen you wearing down the shoe leather in the best of ways: I see you in the mornings in the new Cummings Room getting homework done as the sun comes up, seeking out teachers when you need extra support, I see you bring your original ideas to life, practicing the work you will do in advanced study and in your careers; I see your big smiles when you have completed a difficult project, or have come back from a setback with resilience and resolve. I see you putting yourself out there when you didn’t think you could in the play or in the band, or in chess or the art studio, science lab or robotics. I see the adults in our community always restless to do a better job for you, and seeking out new ways to do so. I see them trying to find that part of you you haven’t yet known and shining some light on it. While we may not be prize fighters, our standards are high – our shoes will get worn. And each win will feel that much better. So love those holes in your shoe leather.
Second, lean on each other. Last week, many of us saw or took part in our Lower School performance of The Lion King. A Wheeler alum, Michele Steckler (class of 1980) was the original Broadway producer of this play about friendship, values, and the highest ethical standards. Ms. Steckler, who shared her challenges with our upper schoolers last year, sent our performers a message before the show, reminding them of the importance of the story and its lessons: that we all need guides like Rafiki who bring wisdom and guidance; that we all need friends like Timon and Pumba who keep us laughing and keep the load light; that we all need loved ones like Nala, who remind us of who we are and hold up a mirror when we fall short. Look around: whether you met the people near you in a rocketship to the moon in Nursery or at the Farm in 6th grade or on a soccer team or a 9th grade English class, many of these people will stick with you throughout your lives. Friendships are not easy all the time, but growing up together here at Wheeler is a commitment to seeing each other through all of the turmoil and joy that life brings us. Know that your friends and classmates will have lives of all kinds – transformative, meaningful, exciting, and sometimes difficult. They will need you; you will need them. You will need them to remind you of who you are, to have a good laugh with you, or even more a good cry. Relish these friends, those you have today and those you will find as your Wheeler journey unfolds.
And finally: allow yourself to experience joy. Joy is a tremendous source of strength. At Wheeler, we have lots of joy, and not by accident: we know it is restorative, nourishing, essential. Throwing leaves in the air or building a fort at the Farm, a good old purple and gold Wheeler showdown, an ugly sweater contest, a big old plywood whale with all its parts, a simulated journey to America through the hallways of the Gilder Center for the Arts, an inspiring finish to a tough game, the final project proudly displayed. But today, we have one of the best representations of that pure and collective joy of the year. It has been said that you cannot understand Wheeler until you’ve seen the Holiday Festival and taken part in our finale, Take Up the Song. And it’s true because wrapped up in that moment is the ability to, for a few moments, put it all aside – our unique personalities and identities, all 1000+ or so of them, our differences, our difficulties – to quite deliberately take up the song. Here in this space a few weeks ago, I heard someone say that when there is sadness, the heart can be broken open and the world can come in. So too in moments of great joy do we open our hearts and let the world in, not just because the moment is joyful, but also because we have known challenges too. It’s a gift to be here in this room together; it’s a gift to be able to unite. It is an act of knowing that even though things aren’t always easy, we can put our arms around one another, and take up the song to let our lives sing. Let yourself be both lost and found in this kind of connection among all of us, within something that is larger than any one of us.
I send you off into a new decade with these three ideas: put holes in the shoe leather; treasure your friendships; engage in collective acts of joy. Our school is a place to explore and probe the world’s greatest challenges and dilemmas, a place from which we may launch the next Person of the Year not only with a set of facts but also with a set of experiences. When we Take Up the Song, let’s do so in the spirit of all of the young people whose voices seek a better world we share around the world in their journeys. Let’s bring some joy into the world for us all.
I wish each of you a wonderful, peaceful holiday season and a happy, healthy new decade to come. Thank you for enjoying this wonderful morning together.