To A Totally Unpredictable/Predictable Year

September 17, 2020

Upper School Student Welcome 2020-21

By Neeltje Henneman, Head of Upper School

Speaking to Upper School students at the start of the ’20-’21 school year, Upper School Head Neeltje Henneman inspires and uplifts with reminders of the importance of everyone’s story, and the uncertainties — yet pure joys — of being in a school community.

Welcome to the beginning of the 2020- 2021  school year. Like everything else associated with COVID, things are a little bit wonky, and I’m talking to you on your second day of classes — not your first. No matter, it is exciting to be back together in whatever form that takes for you.

Last year in the Upper School opening assembly, I began by saying, and I quote, “it’s a great pleasure to see you all sitting in front of me, and it’s exciting to think about all that lies ahead — some of which is totally predictable but more of which is completely unknown.” Turns out that I was right and the completely unknown probably far exceeded the totally predictable last year. It certainly exceeded my expectations, at least for the last quarter of the school year.

To each class

I’m tempted to say that everything about the year to come feels totally unpredictable because I’ve had moments when it absolutely feels that way. But actually, it’s not true — many of the things you are excited about or worried about would be the same even without COVID. Every year our new 9th grade students, who deserve a particular shout out, welcome Class of 2024, carry a healthy dose of excitement about starting high school along with questions ranging from how hard will it be to make friends to how will I find my classrooms and where is the bathroom. Every year 10th-grade students are excited and nervous about applying the things they learned during their first year in high school, 10th graders – this is not a lost year, it may be the year when you really start to identify your powers. Every year juniors are facing the fact that they are starting the year that has the reputation of being the “year that matters” Spoiler alert — they all matter,  and junior year is no different. Juniors, I encourage you to stay focused on your individual journey and to resist the temptation to assess everything through the still a way’s away “specter” of college. Every year I am delighted to give a special welcome to our seniors — this year, to the glorious Class of 2021. You are our tangible reminders of how quickly time goes.  I suspect you feel that too, and I imagine that some of you are having a hard time thinking of yourself as the seniors. You remember those who were the seniors your 9th-grade year and you can’t believe that’s you. It’s my hope that you will model the kindness and welcome that those in the Class of 2017 showed to you. With all the excitement and celebration that comes with being a senior, and there will be plenty of both, also comes a reminder that you have the capacity to shape this community in meaningful ways — with your help and through your leadership we can realize our desire to be a community of kindness and compassion, a community of engagement in and out of the classroom, a community that radiates school spirit, supportiveness, and commitment not only to this city block but to the city beyond.

The actions you take, big or small will leave a mark. Wear a mask and maintain a physical distance of 6 feet. It matters.

To our new students and faculty

Every year there are some people here who may be particularly aware of the unknown  — this year in addition to our brand new 9th-grade class 97 strong, we welcome two new 10th-grade students. There are also some new adults among us — who are certainly feeling the newness of Wheeler and who have met some of their new colleagues only over Zoom — Ms. Giancola ‘04 is joining the Math department, Dr. Vasquez is a new member of the Modern Language department, Ms. Sullivan ‘16  is teaching a section of Biology, and Ms. Mason is our NuVuX fellow. Ms. Bell is on leave right now, and Ms. Ramos is my assistant in the Upper School office. We have others joining our community with Ms. Harrison ‘16, Mr. Primiano, and Ms. Barr ‘16 will be helping out in classrooms as well.  I know you join me in extending a warm welcome to all of them.  We know we will benefit from the perspective and talents that our new students and faculty bring to us.  Please make sure to introduce yourself when you see them.

How this year is different

While much of the excitement and anxiety we have about the beginning of the school year is a version of the excitement and anxiety that students feel every year, it’s true that there’s a lot that’s different. We are wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart — giving air high fives and distant hugs. We are using technology all day every day, even when we are in school, and we don’t have quite as much freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we want. I suspect none of us had our “usual’ summers. Neither have your teachers. To get ready for this school year, the faculty has done a lot of professional development this summer. They’ve considered new technologies and pedagogies, and they have adapted their syllabi to our new 8-day rotation. And, of course, they have had their own experiences as people, as parents, as siblings, as children themselves, who are coping with life inside a global pandemic. In addition, all of us have been affected by our ongoing fight for racial justice — and teachers have taken a look at their curriculum, participated in anti-racist groups, and embarked on their own learning all in the service of continuing to center anti-racist work in our practice.

Last year demanded a ton of us, it demanded a ton of all us, no matter whether we were at Wheeler or elsewhere.  It demanded flexibility and resilience and patience. It demanded quick thinking and fortitude and from some it demanded bravery. But let’s face it — it demanded more of some than others. It demanded more of our students and faculty who live the reality of systemic racism and racial violence every day; so let me begin the year by clearly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, and that is a given for all of us.

Last year, in this assembly,  I talked about how meaningful I found the book What Their Eyes Don’t See, a compelling look at the Flint water crisis. In it, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, who made it impossible for government officials to deny this health crisis (which they had been denying for years), writes:  “The world shouldn’t be comprised of people in boxes minding their own business. It should be full of people raising their voices, using their power and presence, standing up for what’s right.” (p. 252). Let’s commit to that — let’s commit to the energy and pain and discomfort and joy found in fighting for what’s right, in fighting for what’s long overdue. Let’s commit to being there for each other.

The joy we will find together

After all, we have the capacity to find and create great joy together. There is joy found in being a community. There is joy found in having each other’s backs.There is contentment and happiness in learning new things, there is justifiable pride in a job well done. And we will experience all of that. There is such fun and silliness to be had with teachers and peers — and we will have that, too. There is joy found in the science labs, on the sports field, and in the art studios. There is joy found in a Zoom room. It is my great hope that we will all find joy this year.

In one of our opening faculty presentations  one of our speakers shared a quote by Mary Lou Kownacki that has really stayed with me: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”  Think about that — “there isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”

Let us learn each other’s story

Think about what that means to you, think how often we default to assumptions.  Let’s really, really, remember how important it is to learn someone’s story. When you are mad at someone, wonder if you know their story. When you are confused by someone, wonder if you know their story. When someone hurts your feelings, wonder if you know their story, wonder if they know yours. Remember that if you haven’t really listened to them, you probably don’t know their story. It might not be enough, it probably isn’t sufficient by itself, but it’s a start.

It’s my hope this year, that we will have time and space to know each other’s stories. This is our school — all of ours — no matter what your particular story is, no matter where you’re from, no matter where you went to school before you came to Wheeler, no matter your financial circumstances, your parents’ educational background, your own educational background, no matter your cultural identity, your racial identity, your gender identity, your religious identity. This is your school.

And so it’s on to the 2020-2021 school year and in what feels like just a minute we’ll be sitting here again at the end of the year. If we’ve learned anything, we have learned that we don’t know what the year ahead holds. But one thing I do know is that I feel extremely lucky to be here with all of you.

Related Reading