On Sunday, September 8, the Middlesex community gathered in the Chapel to open the 2013-14 school year. Mr. King, Director of Spiritual and Ethical Education, likened the new year to a vessel that requires a name:
"Today, we push away from the dock and begin the year. If a year were a physical object, we might break a bottle over her bow and give her a name. It is curious that we give a boat a name before her first voyage. Maybe it is not so unusual: we give children – many of them – names before they take their first breaths. In any case, as we begin this year – as each of you begins your own year – I wonder what we should name her. Should we call her Fresh Start, maybe To the Grindstone; we could call her Courage, Resilience, or Friendship. Naming is an opportunity to voice our aspirations for the months ahead, to situate the work of the coming year."
School President Ben Painter might name the year "opportunity." He encouraged each person to consider the opportunities available at Middlesex and to take full advantage of them: "I know it's a bit cliché, but this school year will truly be what we make it. If we view school as an obligation, if we merely show up and get by, then this year will be good . . . but not great. If we view this year as an opportunity, then this could be the highlight of our high school careers. So I invite every person in this room to think about our perspective. What can we do to take advantage of the opportunity of a brand new year? If we, as a collective student body, all set our sights high, if we seize this year as our own then who knows what positives could come out of it."
In her remarks, Head of School Kathy Giles introduced the new faculty, discussed summer renovations, and outlined the values that guide our behavior as a community. She also encouraged the community to "refuse to be trapped by 'the bubble'" that can exist at any academic institution. "Find joy and wonder in the world, and to pay attention to what matters," said Giles. "I hope that whether the bubble comforts or constrains you, you choose instead to focus on the opportunities you see – opportunities here, that generations of graduates and their friends and families have made possible for you, in addition to the support of your parents; and opportunities out there, for which the work and play you do here and the relationships you build and the interests you find and the passions you grow will prepare you." (for an excerpt of her full remarks, read below)
"Today the year begins," said Mr. King. "So welcome. Welcome particularly to the class of 2017 and to other new students. We are very glad that you are here with us, that you have joined the Middlesex Community. Welcome also to new faculty. And of course we’re thrilled at all who are returning to Middlesex this year as well, old friends. To you we say not only welcome, but welcome back."
Excerpts from Kathy Giles' Opening of School Chapel remarks:
I have high hopes for this year. At the top of that list is that we will, as a school and as individuals, refuse to be trapped by “the bubble.” You probably won’t be surprised to learn that most, if not all, colleges and universities and many high schools, particularly boarding schools, use the same kind of language around “the bubble” as we use here at Middlesex – as if there is some kind of barrier between us and a “real world” of some description other than the one in which we live and work and play, a world that other people inhabit from which we are either protected or prohibited. The multiple metaphorical possibilities of the bubble are apt and easy– filmy walls that distort perceptions of the outside and cloud vision from within and without; fragile, fragile tensile strength holding the illusion of that barrier together; a bubble blown carefully from specially-shaped wand that floats with the breeze but pops in any kind of wind; or a bubble like a weather barrier over an athletic field that allows us to play on through the worst of weather. Take your pick of bubbles – but I challenge us not to use any Middlesex bubble as any kind of excuse.
Yes, it’s a busy schedule, and yes, we ask more of you than most schools ask of their students. We hope you feel as if your investment is worth it. But feeling isolated here is a choice. Never in the history of humanity has the world been as accessible, as immediate to us as it is today. We see images of events as they happen – we hear about what is happening in real time, 24/7, whether the events are world-shaking or whether they are personal and intimate. We are in constant touch with people everywhere and next to us. If you want something, you can find it and even buy it and have it appear in next to no time – the whispernet gets me pretty much any book I can think of in as much time as it takes me to think of it. What will Google glass do to one’s sense of the bubble – will it integrate us more with information as it happens, or will it create even more narcissistic bubbles in which we can isolate ourselves further and only see what we want to see? If anything, the world is too much with us, to quote the romantic English poet William Wordsworth, when he wrote in 1802,
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; --
Little we see in nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
That, of course, is the challenge – not to give our hearts away, but instead to find joy and wonder in the world, and to pay attention to what matters. And I find it interesting that even as Wordsworth lamented more than two hundred years ago about the isolation and alienation that came with industrialization, human relationships with each other and with nature survived – altered, yes, but still powerful and beautiful today, even as another kind of industrialization is altering everything yet again.
As Ben said earlier, Middlesex extends to you an offer of opportunity, and doing one’s honest and level best, every day, to be ethical and kind and honest and compassionate and fair is challenge enough for most of us. But wow, the world beyond our concerns needs and deserves our attention. What does it mean that George Zimmerman was declared innocent of murdering Trayvon Martin – that a juror subsequently commented that despite police direction not to get out of the car, when he did so, Zimmerman “meant well”? How is it, in 2013, can some of us can walk down dark neighborhood streets in hoodies and others can’t? What does it mean that a country on the other side of the world uses poison gas to quell rebellion and terrorize its people, and that our national Senate has approved military response – military action that will be carried out from office suites in Florida and decks of ships hundreds of miles away, as young men and women program computers and direct drones and conduct lethal strikes designed to induce fear and compliance with human rights? What does it mean that our President just attended a meeting of the G20 countries that control 85% of the world’s economic activity in a country that has recently legalized the persecution of people who are gay and lesbian? And closer to home --we are in the process of converting our campus energy from the worst kind of dirty fuel oil to natural gas, some of which inevitably will be coming from fraked wells – the same wells that are simultaneously polluting water and reviving economic hope in the same communities? What is the net value here? Indeed, “the world is too much with us”; sometimes it is enough to make one want to run for the closet, let alone sequester one’s self in a bubble.
And of course there is all that is so great out there, as well – scientific discoveries that change what we think about a universe so vast we can only really guess what it really is or means, or so tiny and basic, like our friends from last year, the larval zebrafish, that it amazes us what we can learn from them; writing and art and music and ideas that we create and share and collaborate on and get excited about in entirely new ways; search engines that respond to any kind of question, any time we think of one; instant communication at all times, with the intensity of intimacy that contact makes us feel; heroism and kindness and incredible acts of the best kind of humanity that go viral in minutes and inspire us all – it’s all out there, and it doesn’t have to be waiting for you or lurking for you, however you choose to see it.
But I hope that we do choose to see it, and I hope that whether the bubble comforts or constrains you, you choose instead to focus on the opportunities you see – opportunities here, that generations of graduates and their friends and families have made possible for you, in addition to the support of your parents; and opportunities out there, for which the work and play you do here and the relationships you build and the interests you find and the passions you grow will prepare you.