Telling Stories

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, speaks eloquently in a TED Talk about the dangers of the “single story.” By single story, she means reducing a person or a group of people to a one dimensional description or assumption, which we in turn carry with us for years. We cling to these insufficient bios of each other for many reasons – often it goes back to our own experiences and stories. The danger of the single story is that it produces an incomplete picture of those around us.

During the course of a school year, many of us find ourselves carrying a single story about someone. Our students may have a single story about a few of their teachers. We may hear them say, “This teacher is fun and approachable.” “That teacher is hard and does not seem to care about my success.” “She is old.” Adults can carry single stories with them too. “She is so smart, she can do anything.” “She is always late to everything.” “That student is never engaged in my class.”

When reducing others to a single story, we miss all of the rich details and experiences that comprise a person’s full character. The narratives of our lives are more complex than a sentence or two based on someone else’s assumptions about us. Let’s admit, however, that it is human nature to infer, assume, and condense a person’s story into something pocket-sized. We need these stories to be flat, small and portable because we need to make room in our minds for everything else.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes Peter Senge’s theory of a “ladder of inference”.  “The first five rungs of the ladder are: 1) observing a person’s behavior; 2) selecting data from what we observe;  3) interpreting that data through the lens of previous experience;  4) making assumptions; and 5) drawing conclusions about that person.” Our problem when operating within the context of our busy lives is that we climb that ladder far too quickly. We draw conclusions based on insufficient data. Taking the necessary time to talk to each other is the magic that builds our narrative and gives us the scaffolding to understand the complexities of each other’s worlds. Listening to each other’s fuller stories is probably the most important way we spend time in our community.

Every adult on our campus knows that our students need to be heard and understood. We also know that students “do not care what we know until they know that we care.” We have to build authentic relationships with our students before they want to learn about chemistry or British lit. Out of these relationships, a simple label given to another person is now a paragraph of description. From a single story grows a data center of connections and inferences.

Thankfully we are part of a small school and small community, which allows us to form meaningful narratives about each other. Most of our students and teachers have been together for years now and have had time to form intricate and complex stories of each other. We carry volumes of stories about the members of our community and are always called to create more stories in each class in each new school year.

 

Zooming Out

 

When my husband and I were expecting our first child, he used to joke with friends by saying that we wanted to have grandchildren, but we soon realized we couldn’t do that without having children first. The line always got a laugh or two, but there is something about that idea that still strikes me. If we could have younger children now, we would have such a great perspective on what is important and what doesn’t matter at all. We would not worry as much about the bedtime or the pacifier, but might linger a little longer with the stories and the first words. Grandparents always seem to have the ability to sit back and focus on the important things, while parents are still worrying about daily schedules and play dates and shoe sizes or any other quantifiable measure of comparison.

gravitational-waves-simulation It is easier to bring the larger truths of parenting into focus now that those early years are in the distance. What will we say in ten more years about parenting our children through the teenage years? Will we wish we had talked to our daughter more about her tests, grades, and GPA, or more about her thoughts and feelings? Will we wish we had kept up more with how other parents were parenting or will we wish we had the courage to do it the way we thought best? Will we still think about a college acceptance, deferral, or denial, or will we think of the way our daughter now approaches the inevitable highs and lows of adult life?

Almost two weeks ago, physicists detected the ripples of gravitational waves across the universe. It was a huge discovery in the field of physics, as it was seen as confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity made 100 years prior. Turns out Einstein was on to something with his work proposing the “warping” of space and time. Scientists detected these waves after the collision of two black holes an estimated 1.3 billion light years from earth.

This scientific discovery of gravitational waves is so large and at the same time so far away, that it is difficult for us to comprehend what it means for our individual world, our zip code, or our small life. It is at once, hugely momentous in the world of science and seemingly insignificant to our particular day to day existence. But as we are brushing it off and moving on, should we worry that we are moving back too swiftly to the mundane? Are we zooming in too closely? Even focusing on the wrong thing altogether? No one can argue that the average person cannot fathom the significance of something that occurred over a billion light years away. Perhaps the only meaningful residue in our lives is that it should serve as a great reminder of the need for a “zoom out” feature. We have zoomed in so closely to the minutia of our lives and the lives of our children and students that it is sometimes hard to consider the other side of town, much less the other end of the universe.

I would love to have that wonderful zoom in and zoom out capability. With it, we could see the significance or insignificance of the objects of our attention. Our girls and young women need us to be the ones with the perspective and the long view. In many cases, they have zoomed in too much on themselves, which creates an inflated view of the consequences of each mistake made. We are called to see the bigger picture and bring it into focus for them. It is impossible for us to have the perspective of a grandparent when we are doing this parenting thing for the first time, but it is not impossible to zoom out at least a little bit. Remember to ask yourself if you are focusing on the right thing. Ten or twenty years from now, what will we wish we had tended to instead of these things that consume our thoughts today?

 

Miss Popularity

 

One of the many things I cherish about being an adult is the realization that the adjective “popular” is rarely used in social settings anymore. I still remember, however, the first time I heard my 4th grade daughter use the word. I was astounded that she already measured other girls and boys by the social currency of popularity. How was it that she already knew that word as a 9-year old? I suddenly wanted to unload all of my experience with the popular set on her. Tempted to rise up and pontificate, I wanted to tell her to stay true to herself and not to do things in order to be popular or worse, to be considered acceptable by the popular group. I wanted to protect her from thinking that was the ultimate goal in life. In that instant though, even I could see that saying anything about those popular girls or boys would be equivalent to telling a young child the truth about Santa.

5th grade

Unfortunately, there are some things that our daughters have to learn for themselves. It is learned through simple social maturity in most cases, but sometimes it is learned the hard way through emotional hurt that helps guide us to our true friends. Being a popular person is not in and of itself a bad thing. Popularity can be used for good or not so good, and it is interesting to take a look at how psychologists have studied the concept among adolescents.

In one of the chapters of Dr. Lisa Damour’s new book, Untangled, she takes the mystique out of a teen’s journey through, around, and finally on the other side of popularity. She begins to dissect the concept by pointing out that psychologists have divided peer popularity into two categories, “socio-metric popularity” and “perceived popularity.” Socio-metric describes “well-liked teens with reputations for being kind and fun.” Perceived popularity “describes teens who hold a lot of social power but are disliked by many classmates.” Think back to your middle and high school years—you know the ones to whom we are referring.

When girls (or boys) are asked to name the popular girls or boys in their class, we discover that being popular does not always imply being well-liked. In fact, many times they are referring to “perceived popularity,” which implies being powerful and domineering. Girls or boys who are friends with these classmates want to remain on their good sides and in some cases are fearful of social repercussions, if they fall from grace. This phenomenon seems to appear in full force around the seventhgrade, give or take a year. As parents, it is difficult to refrain from pointing out this behavior and micromanaging middle school friend groups, but we can begin to ask a few well-directed and well-timed questions. When you hear your daughter say that a girl is popular, Dr. Damour suggests that you should “deconstruct the term” by asking a question such as, “Is she popular or just powerful?” “Do girls like her or are they scared of her?”

The good news is that it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the “popular” label, when you are securing it by acts of social aggression or domination. Thankfully, sometime around the 10th grade, most girls feel more comfortable with their true friends and begin to isolate the “mean girls.” Of course the other bit of good news is that the domineering or “perceived popular” girls grow up too. They realize it is best to be respected and not feared. At this point, the term “popular” may be applied to the girls in the class who are kind and at the same time are able to stand up to someone who DSC_0116is being unkind to them or to a classmate.

Personalities and social groups can be hard to navigate as adults, much less as a middle or upper school girl in the halls and lunchrooms of school. Dr. Damour points out that girls sometimes perceive the world as having either “Cinderellas,” who are the “doormats,” yet always kind, or the “step-sisters,” who are always cruel. We need to help our daughters know that “good girls” can also be assertive and stand up for what they know is right. Remaining respectful to others, while standing up to unkind behavior, is the social bullseye for our girls. We can all rest assured that one day, being popular will not have the cachet for our daughters that it once did. Having a few friends or even one quality friend who is supportive and loyal is what we all want in the long run.

 

 

perfectionism

Practice makes Progress, not Perfect

A few days ago, one of our teachers told me she was afraid we had an epidemic being spread throughout one of her classes. It was a different sort of epidemic – it was an epidemic of perfectionism. In an all-girls school, we are fortunate to have engaged and conscientious students. Not only do they care about their work, they care about how well it is done. Simply studying or doing one’s homework is not always enough. Our students want to do well, and we would not want it any other way, right?

As adults, we can spot a perfectionist in our midst pretty quickly. Perhaps we are one ourselves, or we live with one or work with one. That guy who is critical of everyone and everything around him because they did not meet his expectations, or the woman who is not very happy because she struggles to find the right career, or the colleague obsessing over a tiny detail — all of these examples could be closet perfectionists.  They are striving for the unattainable. Perfectionists cannot help but become frustrated as they grow older, especially if they have been crawling toward perfection since they were young.

In a teenage girl, perfectionism can still appear hopeful. These girls and young women have youth and energy, and let’s don’t forget they have internalized the constant background noise that hums, “you can be anything you want to be.” In the younger set, it is difficult to distinguish ambition and hard work from the unhealthy extension of high achievement, which would be perfectionism.

Perfectionism is not relegated to the halls and classrooms of Harpeth Hall. Furthermore, it is not just an independent school issue. After all, in the late 18th century Voltaire wrote, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” We have known for centuries that extremes are not in our best interest, and yet we sometimes have a hard time putting aside a paper or project when we just need a few more hours to perfect it, hours that might be better spent sleeping.  The artist who needs a little more time to perfect the painting is not to be admonished, but when that painting is past due and other work is piling up, a student needs to see that her painting is “good enough.”

Certainly, mediocrity is not what we are about at Harpeth Hall. We want movement and growth and yes, hard work and focus. We want students who strive for excellence and envision a time when they can master a difficult concept that is beyond them in the present. We want our girls to aspire to great things. All of these things I have listed are about a girl’s progress. We do not want them to fixate on some final outcome or goal of perfection.

When students refuse to accept anything short of perfection, they can become stagnant.  We want our students to keep the ball rolling and not give into the gravitational pull of what is perceived to be perfect. More often than not, that gravitational pull, for our students, begins with a need to be accepted and to earn approval even with their flaws and imperfections. The best way for our girls to begin to feel acceptable is for them to be less critical of themselves. They can be imperfect, and at the same time, worthy.

gardening

20-20-20

My sister-in-law has an incredible green thumb. If she has a flowering plant given to her in April, it is twice as large in September. Her summer impatiens and geraniums are spilling out of their pots beyond Labor Day, and her bountiful houseplants are beautiful with soft leaves in all shades of green. I have one ivy plant in my kitchen that is hanging on for dear life.

A few nights ago, she told me her secret. “Just add 20-20-20 or 10-10-10,” she said. I thought I had been given the Holy Grail of horticulture. “Say that again,” I stammered. She explained that if you add a fertilizer that has the same three numbers, plants will do what they are meant to do. If they are supposed to have luscious blossoms, they will produce lovely flowers. If they are meant to have nice foliage, they will produce ample green leaves with plenty of new growth.

If only it were that easy with our children. What if we could just add three identical numbers of fertilizer and they would grow into the beautiful, curious, and wonderful young women and adults they are meant to be. As educators, that concoction would come in handy as we are discerning when to push them and when we should ease up a bit. Has a student’s schedule stretched her enough? Is it too much? Are we supporting her enough while letting go at the same time?

The beginning of the new school year, gives us a reset button. What was too much last year, may be just right this year. At our Grade Level Parent Meetings during the opening of school, we discuss trying to find that sweet spot for a particular grade in the upper school. In the 9th grade year we talk about backing off a little as parents. Let her try something new and falter or fail. We have to remind ourselves that if we smooth the road for our children, we are actually crippling them in the long run and not helping them. We are signaling that we don’t truly believe in them or their abilities. With the parents of 10th grade students, we talk about making sure we don’t make excuses for our children. By sophomore year, they are in the middle of the teen years, and are going to push against expectations and rules. In turn, we want them to take responsibility for their actions. The list continues for each year and each meeting as we try to anticipate the sharp turns in the road ahead.

Earlier today, I was watching a documentary about some progressive teaching methods at a school in California, and one of the educators said that as teachers, and I would add parents, we should be more like gardeners. He said we should concentrate on providing the right environment for our students – making sure they are able to thrive and learn and grow in that environment. Our students need to be able to advocate for themselves, work collaboratively, and communicate clearly all the while. All students do that best when we are not over protecting or spoon feeding them. I have killed many a plant by over watering. We also need to make sure we are not producing delicate hothouse flowers, but rather strong and hardy plants. Here’s to a year with a nice 20-20-20 balance.

garden2

In Remembrance of Leigh

In case you didn’t know, there is a lovely garden behind the dining hall on our campus. The garden was given in memory of Leigh Horton, who died 31 years ago today, July 6th. It was the summer before Leigh’s senior year at Harpeth Hall, when she was taken from her family and friends, after a cancer diagnosis and undergoing the best treatments 1984 could offer. She was a member of the class of 1985, and their Lady of the Hall representative. It wasn’t fair or right or even fathomable that this terrible illness could take her at such a young age. When age seventeen meets mortality, it defies all that we know and hold dear in life.

Through the years I have asked teachers and friends who knew Leigh to describe her. Inevitably their eyes become misty, and they talk about how special she was. One teacher said that she embodied everything good and pure and innocent that we see in our students at this tender age. Caring, loving, and kind are always the leading adjectives, but quickly followed by engaged, bright, and curious.

Appropriately, the Leigh Horton Garden is most beautiful in the spring. Leigh will always be in the spring of her life in our minds. The soft pink and delicate peonies are there, blooming every year to remind us of Leigh. In the midst of the peonies and hydrangeas is a statue of a girl on the beach. Keats’ words, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” are inscribed under the statue. The girl represents all girls at this time of life – hopeful, thoughtful, wistful, and all of them beautiful.

I met Leigh once before she died. I knew she was sick. I didn’t know that I would think of that day so often in the years to come. I didn’t know that her family would become an extension of mine in many ways. Pausing to remember beauty on this day, even when tainted by the grief of loss, is powerful. Slowing down enough in the summer months to remember the many ways in which one person touches this place and our hearts is a good and necessary reason to linger in a garden. For that gift, I am grateful.

garden

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Rites of Spring

It happens every year. I am able to look out my window to beautiful Souby lawn, and watch the white chairs being unfolded and carefully placed in anticipation of the end-of-year events. I see the well-traveled sidewalk that stretches from the senior house to the Wallace Wing. Glancing in the other direction, I see the most sought after real estate on campus, the senior house and patio. The freedom that comes with 70 degrees and sunshine and youth is palpable.

That patio is where I witness the kind of laughter that causes girls to throw back their heads with mouths wide open. I see two seniors, who would never have found common ground in their freshman year, having a meaningful conversation over a piece of day-old birthday cake. I see a teacher stop to visit with a group of students after retrieving his morning coffee. Classmates’ bonds are strengthened, and the teacher-student relationship is infused with a new admiration and respect. Warm memories are in the works and will be savored in the near future by the seniors. In studying the view more closely, the seniors’ faces reflect a deep nostalgia mixed with excitement, sprinkled with a handful of cautious optimism about their next chapters.

The inevitable is here, and with it comes a glimpse at a larger picture. Some of us are still hard at work, studying for our World Cultures exam or our Precal exam or working toward a state championship. There is much work left to do in this last week, but some of us are slowing down. We are no longer in the details of a vocabulary quiz; we are savoring a moment or two from last week. It might be a memory of the seniors swaying and leading us in the alma mater on the library steps last Friday. We are somewhat tired, and ready for summer, and yet our hearts are lifted by something else.

It is a memory of when all of our students, all 685 students, stood in anticipation of and in respect for the announcement of the Lady of the Hall. They stood, little girls and big girls, before the name was even announced. They stood because they knew it was something bigger than an individual. They were part of something meaningful.

Mentem Spiritumque Tollamus

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