An Independent School • Grades 5-12

by Felicia Wilks, assistant head of school/Upper School director

On Friday, Upper School Director Felicia Wilks welcomed back Upper School students at the opening assembly. Following is an excerpt from her speech.

I thought a lot about all of you this past summer. I wondered whether you and your families were safe and healthy; I wondered how you felt about the things happening both locally and nationally regarding racial injustice, policing, the November elections, and of course, the pandemic and all the ways it has changed our lives.

When I list out the things we are collectively dealing with like that, I am reminded how trying this year has been. It has not been easy, and yet, I have committed to finding some bright spots here and there, too. For instance, as William pointed out in his terrific speech yesterday, I can wear cozy socks with whatever I wear.

This summer, I had a goal of reflecting on how I might put some things in place to help me get through what has been a tough time for lots of reasons. I reflected on three areas — starting with myself — and self-care, then moving out to my relationships with those around me, and then further still, out into the world. Focusing on these areas helps me manage my disappointments and look for the good. It also helps me to be more alive to the new opportunities that have been created by these particular circumstances we find ourselves in. I hope you will find in my examples something useful for yourself as you begin the year.

The first thing I want to talk about is self-care. Self-care is defined as anything that brings you joy and promotes your mental, physical or emotional health. I’ll begin by being clear that this is not about self-centeredness, selfishness or any of those words that begin with “self” that have a negative connotation. I am talking about survival, and sustaining ourselves for the long haul. It is true that there is a lot to think about these days other than ourselves. But in order to be active, to be an ally, to be courageous in the face of injustice, we need to be healthy and strong.

In examining how I might improve my own self-care routines, I focused on my mornings. When we moved to remote learning in the spring, I was in the habit of checking my email before doing anything else. I rushed through my breakfast — if I had breakfast at all — and I rushed though everything I did so I could get in front of my computer as quickly as possible. Instead of helping me feel prepared and ready for the day, my approach in the spring left me feeling rushed and drained by mid-day.

Now, I get up at least an hour earlier than I need to and I spend some time stretching and practicing meditation. I am not amazing at either of those things, but adding this to my day has had an incredible impact on me. I have less shoulder pain — even after a long day on zoom, I am more calm, even in the face of lots of troubling news, and I feel more prepared for each day. It is not a cure-all, and I still have bad days — that won’t change — but making time for myself each morning has allowed me to be more centered throughout my day, more patient, and more ready to be of service to others.

So my first self-care tip for you is to set up a healthy routine for yourself that includes ample time for rest, movement, food, and breaks especially on long days of classes. I encourage you to find a way to move throughout the day. One thing I miss is walking from building to building between meetings. I’ve tried to recreate this by walking around my home and neighborhood between my own meetings. And I wonder what you can do when you have even a small break, to get moving and to turn away from your screen for a while. I hope you will think about that, too.

My second self-care tip is to manage the news you consume. Be sure you are getting your news from sources that focus on facts and not on sensationalized information. Also pay attention to how much time you spend consuming negative news — as an English teacher, I am interested in words and new words — “doom scrolling” is new term to describe “the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.”

If you have fallen into the habit of doom scrolling, then you are not alone — there’s plenty of doom in the news these days. As responsible citizens of the world, it is important that we stay informed and aware of what is happening, but putting in some limits is also a good idea.

A few strategies psychologists suggest are setting a timer when you are scrolling and don’t want to be sucked in for an endless amount of time — this works for doom scrolling and with TikTok videos, or in my case, dog videos or whatever you are spending too much time online doing; and replace doom scrolling with other activities that contribute to your wellbeing.

Which brings me to my last point about self-care. Spend some time thinking about the things you are grateful for. It can sound counterintuitive that being thankful for what others do for you and for all you have is self-care, but studies have shown that gratitude can contribute to your wellbeing.

Two psychologists, one from the University of California, Davis, and the other from the University of Miami, have done lots of the recent research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

So find ways to reflect on what is going well and what you are grateful for. Consider sending thank you notes or texts, or even just thank people mentally until you have a moment to actually thank them — or if you don’t know how to reach them. For instance, I think often of my 3rd grade teacher, Ms. Jackson, who I have not seen since 5th grade. She was a special teacher who made me feel seen and smart and I thank her mentally for that often.

This brings me to my second area of focus for getting though this time: focus on relationships. During this time of social distancing, it has been difficult to connect in the ways we always have, and yet, it is more important to have strong connections with those around us than ever before. I encourage you to find safe ways to connect. This summer, I started a regular video call with my three best friends. We usually get together once per year, but we had to miss seeing each other in person this year. I won’t say I wasn’t disappointed not to see them, but I have shared so much more with them in the last 5 months simply because we are connecting more often on our new video calls.

Consider doing things like having lunch with a few of your friends on Zoom sometimes, or calling a friend while you both take a walk at the end of your day. There are safe ways for us to connect during this time, but we have to be creative.

The other thing I’d like to say about relationships has to do with ethics, empathy, and equity — three important values at Lakeside. All summer, I watched as our country experienced yet another flashpoint around racial injustice. The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, and countless others, as well as the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, bring the injustice many  Black, Indigenous and people of color experience daily to light for those who do not experience this injustice.

These moments are all about relationships and how we want to be in relationship with each other. This is a time for us to practice the ethical and diversity, equity and inclusion mindsets that are a part of our school’s mission and re-envisioning. In particular, we need to decide what we believe and how we want to get involved. This world will not fix itself. And no one of us can do it alone, though everything you do can lead to a change you could never imagine.

 I was struck by something I heard former president Obama say in a speech recently. He said that the congressman John Lewis, who passed away this summer after spending his life fighting for civil rights, told him that on the day Obama was born, he, John Lewis, who was a young man at the time, was being led into a police station for protesting racial segregation. It would be impossible to prove that Lewis’s decisions that day led to Obama’s presidency decades later, but I can’t help wondering how my actions today might make something possible — something I can’t even imagine is possible - for someone else, now or in the future.

Use these tumultuous times to grow in your ability to be empathetic, to listen, and to learn to be an ally — to learn how to recognize when someone needs support, and to know when it is time to stand beside someone, behind someone, or in front of them. Use this time to educate yourself about history, context, and the whys of where we are as a country today. Use this time to heal wounds — new and old — that are the result of the injustice that is so ingrained in our country’s culture.  Be intentional about looking for the part of the story that was left out before.

Additionally, when you hear an idea you disagree with, go deeper — seek to understand. I am not suggesting that you will agree once you understand, but I encourage you to seek understanding before you make up your mind. Opportunities for this abound — especially as we inch closer to the presidential election in November.

My final point today is about opportunities. All throughout my talk, I have given examples of the things I have tried during this period, and if I told you all the things I tried, from painting to biking, you would be here all day, and I know you don’t want that. But I’d like to end today by encouraging you to seek out opportunities. What can happen now that could not or did not happen before? What is needed now that was not needed before? What can you see now that was not visible to you before?

There are also opportunities to take risks in class — to share ideas, and to show what you have learned in new and interesting ways. There will be opportunities to connect with old friends and to take the risk of making new friends over zoom or in some other maybe awkward socially distanced encounter. Don’t forget all the opportunities to practice self-care, but also, don’t wait for things to get back to normal before you get back to living your life to the fullest — even if it has to be in a mask.

I wish you all health, connection, and joy this year. Let’s make it a great one!


Sources:

NPR Doomscrolling

Mayo Clinic

Harvard Health Publishing