Head of School’s Notebook: Bursting the Bubble

March 20, 2021


Last week I went through all of the communications we sent to families and alumni during the Spring of 2020.  What amazed me most, now with the benefit of hindsight, is how naïve we were. How naïve I was. I wrote to our senior class shortly after we made the decision to suspend in-person teaching and learning, expressed my disappointment at the unexpected intrusion of a pandemic on their final season on the Mesa as students, and shared my surety that we would all be together again shortly. Commencement, athletic contests, the Spring Musical (Fiddler on the Roof): all of it would still happen, I assured them. I didn’t know then how wrong I was.

It has been a year of such moments, when we have allowed all that we don’t know or choose not to consider to convince ourselves that all is or will soon be well. I speak not simply of issues relating to public health, but to truths about race and ethnicity, about gender and nationality, about the cultures we have built and the bias and prejudice contained therein. It is a year of reckoning.

On the Mesa right now, amidst the continuing dialogue and education about how to become a truly anti-racist community, we are confronting the fact that race is not the only dividing line in our society or on our campus. We are talking about gender, too, and misogyny, and the work we must do to ensure that our female identifying students feel connected, fulfilled, and supported by the community of the School. Said one of our student leaders to me this week, “Cate was supposed to be this utopia. But that bubble has burst.”

She is right, of course. But that may be the good news. While there was perhaps a time when communities like ours were truly separate from the world and unswayed by its less generous attitudes and behaviors, we no longer stand apart. What distinguishes now is not isolation but opportunity. Our scale, our intentions, our diversity of culture and history and experience, and our ability to speak to each other directly make shared endeavor and understanding possible on our campus that might not be possible elsewhere.

What will distinguish us in this new context is not the forces that challenge us but our willingness to meet them with understanding, compassion, and resolve. Possibility is only valuable if we are willing to reach for it and commit ourselves to fulfilling it. I feel that very spirit now. As one of the senior leaders of our Women’s Forum said to me yesterday, “We aren’t trying to tear things down. We are trying to build a better community.”

It is hard to imagine a more concise expression of our mission at Cate. It’s the very spirit that will drive us to that steadfast light from Biddle’s letter in this new and evolving world. And it will take all of us: young and old, students and alumni, parents, friends, everyone who is in some way connected to Cate.  For schools ultimately are not confined by geography. They are concepts and ideas, commitments and actions, theories and practices, personalities and principles. They are people, too, which is the best news of all.