Head of School Jenny Rao delivered the following message to students and faculty during Morning Reports, our school assembly, on November 18. She calls the Emma Willard School community to our better nature with empathy, kindness, and the importance of inclusion.
Thanksgiving break is so close I know we can all taste it! Even now, with several more class days ahead of us, there’s a different feeling on campus. It’s like the last segment of a run, where just up ahead you can see the tree or the mailbox or the corner at which your run will end. The last few days before any long break have their own excitement; we can all feel the shift in our center of gravity as we prepare to fan out across the country and across the globe.
Partly because of this, because we are in the midst of that shift as individuals and as the Emma Willard community, I want to seize this particular moment to speak with you about something that matters a lot to me and I believe it matters to all of us.
Everything we do requires continual recalibration. New drivers sitting here in Kiggins will understand this example: As we drive, even on a straightaway, we are constantly making adjustments to our steering. We avoid this pothole, that parked car or that biker struggling up the hill, or are simply adjusting for the random changes that occur when we are zipping along at many miles an hour.
Athletes on the crew team know that moving your boat in the right direction requires continually adjusting to water currents, wind, the natural variations between one stroke and another.
Everything we do requires continual correction, continual adjustment. The same is true within a community. We, too, are zipping along at a good clip, and we sometimes need to adjust our steering, our oar-stroke.
After spending almost 13 weeks together this year, I think we’ve become a family. That closeness and comfort has incredible advantages—there is reassurance in knowing our routines and each other at a deeper level. And yet, I also think we have become enough like a family that people have forgotten that how we treat those who live under the same roof with us matters as much as how we treat anyone. Maybe even more. It becomes more effortful, though, to remain considerate, to think about other people’s feelings, when you feel as though you are at home and you can let it all hang out, be rude to your siblings, testy with your parents, annoyed with the cat that won’t move from your chair.
Letting it all hang out only works in a relationship, a community, a life, if what hangs out is a self that is guided by central principles of kindness and consideration for the feelings of others. Without being grounded in such principles, our free expression and behaviors can become, quite frankly, rude and potentially hurtful. We need to recalibrate. We need to recenter ourselves at Emma Willard by bringing our focus back to our guiding principles of kindness and mutual respect.
An inclusive community offers empathy to everyone in this room. An inclusive community calls people in toward dialogue; it makes it safe enough for everyone to be a part of the conversation. Making anyone feel other is a sign that adjustment and recalibration is in order. No group gets to stake a claim on greater virtue or worthiness of empathy – or belonging here.
Emma Willard School is not, and will not be, part of the cancel culture, the call out culture. We will not have segments of our community competing against each other in the pain Olympics. Not on my watch. We can do better than that, and we need to commit to being better than that. Meaningful, positive change does not label or give up on people wholesale. That’s traveling the same rut we’re trying to get out of. We can do better.
I also see all that is good and kind in our community, and I am proud and grateful for the many, many moments, in which we lift each other up. I’ve heard from many who have been zapping each other with good thoughts all week since Ms. Brockmeyer’s Pick A Card, Any Card segment last Monday. That’s one of many examples of kindness. And yet, I believe so strongly in the hope and light this community is capable of that I see it as my job to hold Emma Willard to a higher standard, where, through reflection and intention, we become ever kinder and more inclusive.
I don’t want you to interpret my message here today to mean that we should avoid hard conversations with each other. I am not saying that at all! Emma has always and should always be a place for courage and truth. It is also a place for kindness and compassion. It’s not so much WHAT we say to each other that I am questioning, but rather HOW we say it.
Relationships are hard work. In my call for a recalibration of our community, I am asking that we all put our oars deeper into the water, to correct our course for better and deeper conversations. In so doing, not only will our community get stronger, our learning will also deepen and our minds and hearts will expand.
I have to share something with you. You all know the Rao Rumbles box. I see all of the notes that appear in that box as little messages from you as my teachers. They help me continually recalibrate, and continually correct course.
Sometimes they tell me I’m heading in the right direction. A recent note said, “You’re like the Mr. Rogers of our school!” – and that made me smile. Oh, good, I thought to myself. Mr. Rogers is a source of light and warmth. I want to be a source of light and warmth. I’m pretty much on course in that regard.
And sometimes the notes tell me I’m not quite on course. This is the one I need to share with all of you. It’s been so important, so helpful to me. It reads:
Dear Ms. Rao: I feel as though we never get to see you sad or angry. Are you a robot? Tell us when you get sad or angry. We all want to form a more personal connection with you, and knowing that someone isn’t happy ALL the time helps with that.
Am I ever sad or angry? This tells me that I haven’t done a very good job of letting you know who I really am. I haven’t done a very good job of letting you know that I experience the same range of feelings that everyone does—I get sad, anxious, frustrated. I feel guilty, I worry. I have a varsity letter in each of those emotions, believe me. And I’m so grateful for the invitation—the nudge, even—to show you more than the Mr. Rogers of me. This note helped me formulate what I want to say today.
We are each responsible only for the light we shine, responsible for taking good care of the heart-space within us from which it shines. We are each responsible for why and how we shine our light. When we use our light to make others feel busted, feel exposed, feel ashamed or hurt, that’s not actually light. That’s a relational weapon. Light is warm and inviting, even when we are angry at someone. We use it to build empathy, connection, and compassion—the only way to truly make a positive impact on our world.
I’m filled with gratitude for this school and for each of you. And I am blessed with a cheerful disposition, yes. No apology there. But a robot I am not—far from it. I’m fully equipped with all the feelings you each have. And I’ve been concerned, and I’ve been sad about some of what I’ve seen and heard. And I need you to know how badly I want us to correct course.
It helps to talk about it—so, thank you for writing your Rao Rumbles questions. Because most of all, in this moment—at this juncture where I am inviting you to check your lights, to recalibrate, to dip your oar a little deeper, and to reset your behaviors to align with your better selves—in this moment, I am hopeful. I am doing a little recalibrating myself. I ask you to join me in that process, however and in whatever ways recalibration needs to be done within you so that we can move forward with everyone feeling included, needed, and good about themselves.