The 2020-21 School Year Begins!

Melissia Mason
Emma Willard School launched its 2020-2021 school year with its first ever virtual Opening Convocation on Friday, September 4, followed by the first day of classes on Tuesday, September 8. Unlike other years, parents were able to join with students and faculty for Convocation, the formal launch of another great year of learning. Mezzo soprano Anna D. ’21 opened the ceremony with a performance of Già il sole dal Gange by Alessandro Scarlatti. 

Assistant Head of School Meredith Legg, PhD welcomed the school community by acknowledging the great sense of anticipation in being together for a new year. She gave a special welcome to the Class of 2021, encouraging them to “recognize what makes this year extraordinary—both for good and not—and then lean in to what makes your senior year like every one that has come before.”

Dr. Legg shared lines from a poem by Maya Angelou entitled “Human Family.” The poem highlights many differences that can be found within the human family. The final line of the poem summarized Dr. Legg’s thoughts for this school year. 

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike. This year there is so much that will divide us—screens, masks, continents, oceans, time zones, classrooms, politics, misunderstandings, friendship squabbles—and we will recognize and discuss and agonize over those divisions. We will have courageous conversations with each other. We will learn how to listen deeply and hear another’s point of view. We will sometimes get it right and we will sometimes get it wrong. But at the end of the day, we will be here, together… and we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

Head of School Jenny Rao opened the academic year with a message on the theme “Emma Connections.”

Greetings, students and colleagues, welcome to all! Today marks our formal beginning to the 2020-2021 school year. New students, welcome. We are so happy that you have joined the Emma community. Returning students, you have no idea how much we’ve missed you. We need you! We need your energy, your courage, your brilliance and goodness, and willingness to be the guides and mentors for all your new peers. 

Faculty and staff, welcome back as well. We are okay, and it’s because of you. I am keenly aware of how hard everyone has been working, continually shifting gears as the situation has demanded. Rising, rising, and rising again to the many demands of your roles through this multifaceted crisis. I am exceedingly proud to be working with you, and am humbled by the honor of leading this community at this point in our school’s history and this moment in history itself. 

Last year during my convocation speech, I spoke to you about relationships and I told you that the connections you would form and nurture in the year ahead would be among the most meaningful parts of your experience. I took for granted that our means to connect with one another would be available. As we endure this pandemic, our routine means for connection have been disrupted or altered, and yet, our desire to connect has never been stronger.

Dr. Naeher, longstanding history teacher at Emma Willard, wrote me an email last spring after we had all been away from campus for weeks. He said, “I am continually struck by how my face lights up when a student pops into office hours or an advisee appears on my Zoom screen. I'm grateful to have this reaffirmation that I am a teacher to the core, as evidenced by the spark that even such connections with students bring.”

Then there is Harper Cartwright from the Class of 2020, who reflected on this community in her Commencement speech. She recently read the letter she wrote to herself four years prior, as a freshman. I quote from Harper’s speech: “There, in my terrible handwriting, it said, ‘I hope you make Emma Willard a place that you miss.’ I haven’t done that. You have done that for me. I miss you.”

I imagine that each one of you, in your own way, could share stories with me today about how much connection means to you and how dearly you have missed it over the past few months. Our conversation would eventually take us to a place where we would admit to each other how much we crave connection and how worried we are about making it happen. A worry that comes from an extended period of isolation and not having our tried and true means of connection readily available. 

Isolation has been hard, and physical distance from one another, be it six feet or 6,000 miles, weighs on us. We are wired for connection and we are missing it. But it is this very yearning for togetherness, this revelation about how fundamental connection is to who we are, that I want to lean into with you today.

This yearning for closeness and for connection is an enormous opportunity.

So let’s unpackage connection together, right here. Connection is what makes a community, and community is a platform for relationships. I see our Emma Willard community as a series of dots suspended in the air, each of us is one of those dots. What makes us a community are the lines that connect those dots, our relationships to one another. Student-to-student, adult-to-student, and adult-to-adult. Every interaction with each other creates a line between us. And that line gets thicker, that bond becomes stronger with each additional interaction. To create the Emma Willard community web, we need to create lines among us.

The present moment has limited the ways in which we can create those lines. Casual conversations in the hallway, in the dining hall, in our dorm alcoves are not available to us right now. But I would argue that sharing space is not what is most critical to establishing a connection. What makes a connection possible is a desire to connect and an action to make that happen.

What gives me enormous hope for this moment, what makes me believe that this context can lead to the closest and strongest community we have ever had, is that we are all more motivated than ever to connect. 

The eternal optimist, I don’t want to make it sound like the Emma community web will miraculously happen simply through our yearning for it. It will not. We will have to work at it, more than ever before, but I believe we are all highly motivated and capable to do that important work.

So how do we connect with one another in this context? It seems like an oxymoron to create closeness while social distancing! Relationships are woven together in the tiniest moments and with the simplest gestures. Asking someone how their day is going, reaching out to a new student to say welcome or ask if they need help, saying thank you to a teacher. These gestures that take seconds of our time, make an enormous difference in our lives. They are not hard, but they do take intention. You will need to be more planful in ensuring that these connections happen. But I assure you that your efforts will be worthwhile. These small moments will connect you and our entire community in profound and powerful ways. 

Spend time and energy making these connections. Plan to do it every day. Be creative! Maybe this is the year where you go back to the good old-fashioned handwritten letter. You would light someone’s life up with such a gesture, and in turn that light would illuminate you too.

The reason I care so deeply about community is because here, at Emma, community is what makes our work possible. Being in relationship with one another allows us to be brave and take risks as we grow. Knowing that we are together and confident in this community’s support gives us the courage to give an announcement in Morning Reports, speak up in class, and share our point of view or question. It allows us to try something for the first time, make a mistake, and try again.

Being in relationship with one another is also at the heart of being inclusive and open to one another. Our lines of connection open our lines of communication and lay the groundwork for honesty, equity, and respect. The rich diversity at Emma comes to life when each of us places a premium on connection and understanding, above all else. And I think this moment presents an unprecedented opportunity to do just that.

All of this brings me to what I most want to say to you today. The silver lining, the pot of gold after spinning our community web, is discovery and revelation. We discover ourselves through conversation with each other. We are each other’s best and truest mirrors.

As you come to this year ready to embark on your Emma journey I want you to know that this place will not change who you are, it will reveal who you are. In this year, may you hear your own voice more clearly, may you be intentional in reaching out to others to develop your connection, may you learn more about what matters to you, may you have compassion for what is hard for you, may you fall in love with the immensity of your heart and mind, and may we get to see you become more of who you are.

Following Ms. Rao’s inspirational words, Dr. Legg introduced two new faculty members: English Instructor Emily Desmarais and Chinese Language Instructor Holly Ye. 

Dean of Students and Wellbeing Shelley Maher closed convocation with a poem entitled “The Journey” by Mary Oliver:

The Journey by Mary Oliver

By Tuesday morning, students and teachers alike were ready to dive into the first day of class—teachers in their classrooms and students participating remotely. There was a great sense of excitement within “ ye grey walls” as instructors greeted their classes for the first time this school year. We are looking forward to an exciting year of intellectual curiosity and building on our Emma connections!
    • Anna D. '21 performed the musical interlude for opening convocation

    • Assistant Head of School Meredith Legg, PhD welcomed the Emma community

    • Head of School Jenny Rao shared words of wisdom about Emma Connections

    • Dean of Students and Wellbeing Shelley Maher closes Convocation with a poem

    • English Instructor Emily Desmarais in the classroom on Tuesday, the first day of classes

    • Math Instructor Brett LaFave in front of the white board. Although students are remote at the moment, new classroom technology allows teachers to instruct in much the same way as they normally would.

    • Spanish Instructor Gina Egan connects with students for the first time this semester.

    • Science Instructor Liz Smith welcomes students to Chemistry.

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