Emma Willard School marked the official start of the 2023–2024 school year with Academic Convocation on Wednesday, August 30, in Mott Gymnasium. We welcomed 16 new faculty members and 96 new students to the Emma community.
Associate Head of School Meredith Legg, PhD, welcomed the Emma Willard School community to the new school year, sharing words of wisdom from her summer reading of The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging by Charles H. Vogl. She reflected on how the seven principles—Boundary, Initiation, Rituals, Temple, Stories, Symbols, and Inner Rings—are mirrored in the Emma community.
“One part of the book that really resonated with me was about the Power of Invitation,” she shared. “Mr. Vogl says there is a very simple solution when you have a ‘crisis of belonging’—extending an invitation. When we extend an invitation we do something magical: we establish ourselves as having the power to invite, and therefore as belonging to a community. [...] Both the inviter and the invited feel a new sense of belonging!”
Dr. Legg noted that, while we start a new school year full of hope and optimism, ready to learn and expand our minds, we also may feel trepidation, perhaps even our own crisis of belonging. “If you are feeling that way today,” she continued, “let me just say, you belong. Each and every one of you belongs. And I encourage you to remember the magical power of invitation this year. [...] Your invitation will create that cherished sense of belonging for the person you invite—and for yourself.”
Head of School Jenny Rao then spoke to the community about backward planning—thinking of your school year based on the end result you want to see, rather than where you are beginning (watch the archive of Jenny's talk here).
Today, as we begin our new school year I’d like to start at the end. For a moment, I want to remember Sunday, June 4, when the Class of 2023 walked across the stage in the inner campus and proudly received their Emma Willard diploma. They each were beaming, joyful, confident. We all admired them with pride and admiration for their journey at Emma. That golden moment is a snapshot in time, but its luminosity is the result of a fuller story, the accumulation of moments that were both hard and joyful, when each of our graduates felt doubt and confidence, defeat and victory, over and again.
When we are at the starting point of a journey, which we all are now as we begin this school year, thinking of our end goal is inspiring. It galvinizes us to work hard to achieve our objective. Let me give you a simple example. I am a mom of two growing boys who are ten and thirteen. If any of you have teenage brothers or cousins, you might have a glimpse of what cooking for teenage boys is like! I can’t fill them up and have considered buying buckets for cooking pans! At any rate, with all of the cooking I do for my family, I muster up my enthusiasm for cooking by looking at pictures of delicious food. So I google the dish I want to make, click on the recipe with the nice picture, and get to work! I don’t even really follow the recipe closely, but it helps me to have a rough idea of the steps and ingredients involved and most importantly it gets me excited to put effort into getting a delicious pollo in salsa or homemade baba ganoush!
As teachers, we do that type of “glancing at the end” too as we begin the year. We do what is called in teacher lingo, “backward planning” and “scaffolding of skills.” I spent many years as a Spanish teacher in both middle and high school, and I remember planning how to teach the past subjunctive to my Spanish IV students. My backward planning was about making sure that my students had mastered the present, past, and future tense before we moved to the past subjunctive. Past subjunctive is a tense that allows you to express desire, opinion, and doubt about past events. Say you went to the Taylor Swift concert and you wished your friend could have come with you, you would say “Me hubiera gustado que vinieras al concierto de Taylor Swift conmigo.” To open this wonderful world of expressing opinions in Spanish with the past subjunctive, your teacher is backward planning right now to make this learning possible for you.
Without even realizing it, you are likely doing some backward planning right now too! If you are a new student at Emma you are probably thinking about how you will find someone to sit with at lunchtime, plotting your moves and conversations today so that you begin to build the connections that you want and need. If you are a senior, I know you are backward planning how to land the Revels part you have been hoping for, or perhaps you are backward planning how to discover the part that will feel right to you. If you are a student leader, you have spent the past few days defining your hopes for our community and your role in supporting your peers in their journey this year. We are all imagining where we want to get to—both small and big goals—we are defining what we want to work for. Setting an end goal that is meaningful to you and planning for it is wise and necessary when we start a new endeavor.
And yet, our planning is not an accurate forecast of how our path will unfold. Let me tell you a story when one of my journeys did not go as planned. I was 25 and had switched jobs from working in finance to education. I was teaching at a school that offered summer travel grants for teachers and was at a time in my life when I was searching for a job and a life that felt purposeful and engaging. As I have shared before, I did a lot of classical ballet growing up and stopped dancing entirely when I was 18. At 25 I wanted to find out if dance still had a role in my life. So I applied for a travel grant that would allow me to take dance classes at a one-month dance institute in Tuscany. Who wouldn’t want to spend the summer dancing in Italy? I was thrilled to dust off my pointe shoes, leotards, and ballet slippers. I packed my bag, and probably did a twirl as I zipped it closed, I was ready to bring dancing back into my life! Well, I had clearly not read the fine print for this dance experience. EVERYONE at the dance institute was 16, I was almost a decade older than all of them! What is more, all of them were actively practicing ballet 20 or more hours a week, it had been seven years since I had put on a leotard and pointe shoes! I was not in “dancing shape” shall we say. Oh! And this institute involved traveling around Tuscany during the last week to perform in piazzas, what had I gotten myself into?
I remember feeling pity for myself and was so embarrassed. I could not move like any of the other dancers, but there was no turning back. I was in Italy for a month and was not going to waste the grant the school had so generously awarded me. Slowly but surely I began to form relationships with my classmates, and I became less self-conscious and actually started to enjoy the classes I was taking. Halfway through the program, the director informed us that on the following day, a world-renowned tap dancing teacher would be giving a lesson to those in our group who practice tap dance. I had never tap danced in my life, but in my head, I thought, I did not travel all the way to Italy to not take full advantage of what this program has to offer, they had tap shoes in the packing list so you bet I am going to bring them and use them tomorrow! I showed up the next day for the special tap dancing class with my shiny new tap dance shoes. The floor of the dance studio was not adequate for tap so they gave us each a new and spotless wooden square to dance on. The class began, and once again all of the dancers around me were better and knew what they were doing, but this time my inexperience was even more obvious! As they danced, they left perfect tap spots on their wooden squares. Not me! My wooden square had what looked like spaghetti lines, I had no idea how to tap! I became worried that my secret was now known to everyone, I had never tap danced before. I thought I should come clean. Halfway through the class, I had an opportunity to come close to the tap dance instructor and I whispered in his ear “I just want to let you know I am new to tap,” and he said, “Oh, I know that!”
So my plan to rekindle my love of dance did not end the way I had imagined, I did not and have not brought dance back into my life every day. But I learned some unexpected and important lessons. The tap dance teacher did not shame me; it felt good and right to own up to not having a skill. What felt best of all was being honest about not really knowing how to do something but going for it anyway. It is a trait I continue to have in my life today. I don’t wait to have checked all of the boxes before giving myself the chance to try something complex and new. Stepping into shoes that are “too big” for me has afforded me enormous growth. It is not what I went to Italy in search of, but it turned out better than I could have imagined.
So why plan if your plan won’t work out anyway? Is it a futile effort to make careful plans that don’t work out? No, it is not. A plan not working out is actually a key part of the human experience, it’s where we learn the most. Growth can only happen when there is challenge and friction, when there is something to overcome, when we are required to stretch and reach. And yet planning is key to the journey because it points you in the direction that is right for you. Planning is an exercise of uncovering your hopes and dreams, and your journey needs to be informed by your internal compass of values and aspirations. We learn and grow in the lifelong journey of reaching for our hopes and dreams.
I also want you to notice that your learning is a two-part effort. The first part happens in isolation—you with your thoughts and feelings working to discover and define a path that is meaningful to you—it is your own backward planning. The second part happens in community, that is when you actually begin to pursue your plan in the company of others and it is where life throws us unexpected turns, challenges and surprises. In Italy, the community of 16-year-old dancers helped me accept my inexperience. Their friendship over time eroded my sense of inadequacy and allowed me to learn and enjoy my classes. The benefit of growing in the context of a school community is that there are people around you whose job it is to help you navigate your journey. You have teachers, advisors, houseparents, counselors, student leaders, peers, and family members. All of us are here to support and encourage your growth. Emma is a community assembled to fuel in you the courage to learn.
When I think of each of your journeys I have an impulsive desire to hope for you an experience that is filled with joy and devoid of hardship. And yet, we all know that experiences inevitably will have parts that are good and bad, light and dark, joyful and painful. As much as all of us who love you want to “save” you from hardship and discomfort, that is not possible nor a worthy goal. Instead, our role is to be with you in those moments, to ensure you don’t traverse them alone. And that is your job too, to keep each other company during your journey this year. If you can feel the company and support of your Emma community during trying moments, you will be able to endure them and reap the sweet reward of growth and self-revelation that come from meeting a challenge.
So lay out a plan informed by what matters to you this year. And then, don’t be surprised when the plan starts to go in a different direction. Revels appropriately reminds us every December that “all that is certain is surprise!” When the plan goes off track, our real work begins. The clues for where to go next will be right here in your community, lean on us and allow peers to lean on you. Expect that this year will involve push and pull, being lost and found, gaining and losing—it is that messy journey that will ultimately reveal your authentic path. And when your time comes to receive your Emma diploma, whether it is in one year or four, that moment will matter because of all that the journey entailed. It will be your story of struggle and discovery, of personal growth and community contribution, that will light you up in that moment. And all of us will be clapping for you with profound love and admiration because for these four years, we knew your story and just how far you have come.
Following Ms. Rao’s remarks, Dr. Legg introduced new faculty members from the Science, English, History, Dance, Mathematics, Learning Support, and Student Life departments.
In closing, Dean of Students Shelley Maher offered a poem selection, as has become her custom:
"Success is Risk"
by B. Wright
When you learn to ride a bike, you’ll have to wobble and crash;
you’ll have to skin your knee before you can skate and thrash.
You’ll have to take the punches to be a karate master;
you’ll have to find a steeper hill, to go a little faster.
If you want to be heard you’ll have to raise your hand;
even if your wrong it shows your will is strong.
For every chance you take, you get better each day;
success is around the corner when courage leads the way.
If you want to be on top, then have no fear of heights.
If you want to see the world, then have no fear of flights.
If you want the buried treasure, then have no fear of dirt.
Play the game of life without fear of getting hurt.
To get the lead in the band, you’ll have to play a lot;
you’ll practice for some people who’d rather hear you not.
If a lifetime of effort can fall down overnight,
the WILL to rebuild will win in any fight.
The test you have to pass, the cute person in your class;
with a little prep, you’re ready to take the step.
One hundred percent failure is easy to achieve,
simply do nothing and refuse to believe.
But if you want excitement — the thrill of a win,
suit up for success, get comfortable in your skin.
You may be awkward in your uniform, play poor in every game,
but many a great person had hurdles they overcame.
You’ll miss by an inch, or sometimes a mile.
Disappointment can set in, and last for a while.
But every chance you take, the odds get better.
You’ll achieve your dreams, so be a go-getter.
The newly-formed 2023–2024 Emma community joined together in the alma mater, the first opportunity to learn these soon-to-be-familiar words for many. The Class of 2024 delivered an especially strong “SHALL BE!” to launch us into an amazing year!
View the full recording of Academic Convocation on the live feed archive.
Find more interesting stories about Emma Willard School on our Newsroom page.