On Tradition and Translation
by Margarita Curtis
2006 Head of School Induction Address, September 17, 2006
I stand before you today, as we begin our first year together, full of hope, yet humbled by the opportunity to lead this extraordinary institution. I begin with deep gratitude to Jeff Louis, who as head of the board led the thoughtful process that brought me to this community. His dedication, and the level of collaboration he inspired throughout this process are not only praiseworthy but, as I have discovered, truly emblematic of Deerfield. To the members of the board, thank you for your vote of confidence. The energy you have invested is such compelling evidence of your love for this place. Faculty, staff, and students, thank you also for your participation in the search process. Along with many of the members of the surrounding communities, I am indebted to you for the warm welcome you have extended to Manning and me as we settle into this beautiful valley. To the members of the Physical Plant Office and to the dining hall staff, whose tireless efforts make this celebration a reality today, thank you.
I would also like to extend a warm welcome to guests, family, and friends, and especially my predecessor, Bob Kaufmann. Welcome also to James Schoff, former head of the board; Barbara Chase, my former head of school at Andover; and Paul Bassett, Andy Chase and Shelley Jackson — heads of schools in the Pioneer Valley. Thank you for honoring us with your presence today. Finally, I welcome with great joy my parents, Maria Teresa and Alvaro, and my two children, Heather and Patrick, whose unconditional support and love I count as my richest gifts.
A new chapter in the history of this venerable academy begins today. What better time to reflect on two basic, interwoven questions: one that predictably looks to the past, the other, to the future. What elements of this long-standing academy should remain constant in the face of change? What aspects, on the other hand, should be subject to review and respond to the demands of time? As the pace of change and the volume of information reach bewildering proportions, these questions seem more relevant than ever.
But Deerfield Academy has faced this tension between permanence and change throughout its long history, and owes its success to its ability to affirm traditions while making them relevant to changing contexts. On this campus, the Deerfield Door and the Koch Center for Math, Science and Technology stand within yards of each other, heralding a place both for tradition and innovation. In this valley, our day-to-day work constantly gains perspective by a “look to the hills,” and toil is framed by majestic permanence.
Deerfield’s current position of strength, regarding its human and its financial resources, inspires confidence as we prepare ourselves to define excellence and leadership in the context of the 21st century. Identifying the new skills, cognitive dispositions, interpersonal sensibilities, and cross-cultural understanding that will be required of our next generation of leaders; sustaining and developing a talented and inspiring faculty; increasing our resources to make this educational opportunity affordable to deserving youth — are the matters that will determine what it means to “be worthy of our heritage.” In these months to come, as we get to know one another, we will define these goals.
Let me now tell you a personal story that portrays the importance of seizing new beginnings as an opportunity to both affirm a mission and to embrace growth.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the summer of 1965, as my parents, my four siblings and I traded the land of earthquakes and the towering Andes for a steamy city on the Mississippi, built under sea level and prone to hurricanes, I knew my life was about to change in dramatic, unforeseen ways. You new students who received my welcome letter may remember how I felt. As I faced the beginning of my school journey in an unfamiliar country, I was filled with uncertainty and trepidation, but also with optimism. Was I well prepared for the challenges of a new school? What would my teachers expect of me? What courses and activities would I enjoy most? Would I excel at anything? How long would it take me to speak English proficiently? And most importantly, would I make friends easily?
What I haven’t told you yet is that, as a 12-year-old, I was supposed to start 8th grade — not begin high school — that September. However, when my mother began the process of placing her five children in the best schools she could find in the middle of that summer, she was told, at the all-girls, Catholic school she had selected for me, that I could not be admitted into the 8th grade. The class was full. Any other mother, fully aware of her child’s rudimentary command of English, might have asked for a slot in the 7th grade. But then, you don’t know my mother. To my horror, I heard this feisty, “no-nonsense” lady ask, convincingly, about a place in the 9th grade. The rest is history. That September, a timid, bewildered, tall and lanky 12-year-old began her life as a student in America.
What do I remember? Two of the sentences I had been taught in my grammar school English classes year in and year out — “How do you do?” and “How tall is the Empire State Building?” — were never uttered by anyone, anywhere. I’m still waiting! In the school cafeteria, I wondered for weeks about that sticky, brown paste so many of my peers ate with jelly, on their bread, for lunch. Jelly, in my view, only went with butter, and it was for breakfast, not for lunch! I loved basketball. Being 5’8″ at twelve was no longer a curse but a much appreciated advantage. And what a relief it was to attend algebra class! Numbers I could understand, and going to the board to solve an equation was the one accomplishment I could feel good about.
Long Sunday afternoons, formerly spent with more than twenty cousins at my grandmother’s house, playing Monopoly, Parcheesi, or chess, were now filled with hours of undecipherable, demanding homework. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” assigned for my freshman English class, seemed to take forever, including consultations with my father — but what a riveting introduction to American literature! My parents’ heavily accented English sounded so sophisticated and refined to my ears back then. If only I could speak fluently like them, I kept lamenting!
Looking back, through a career studying language and literature, I see this period essentially as a continual attempt at two types of translation, one cultural, the other developmental. Both, however, implied a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from comforting predictability to challenging, disorienting newness. As I struggled to decode this new language and the expectations of a new culture, I had to abandon my childhood and begin to negotiate the rigors of adolescence. Seldom have I engaged in the level of self-questioning and reflection that characterized those first few months of my life in New Orleans. I was translated from Colombian child to American teenager, a stage that most of you know well, but a term that curiously defies an exact translation in Spanish or many other languages. You may want to explore this cultural riddle in your language classes tomorrow…
But why, you are probably asking, have I shared this story with you today? Because it highlights two complementary processes in which all of us engage, both as individuals and as communities, at regular intervals in our lives. One generates meaning, coherence, and perspective, while the other thrusts us into the unknown, and onto experimental ground. Life constantly challenges us to balance the centripetal pull of tradition — that grounding, stabilizing force — with the centrifugal energy of adaptation and growth. Tradition represents one part of the equation, but so does the translation of those very same traditions to changing realities.
While “tradition” is a term familiar to us all, “translation” seems a puzzle. We think of translation first as a means of transforming a text from a language we don’t understand into one that we do. But translation helps us understand anything “foreign.” Social scientists often present their analyses by translation into sports metaphors. Natural scientists translate complicated phenomena into diagrams or equations. So translation is really what we always do when we use the known to understand the unknown. It is what we must do to help us use the past to understand the future.
This negotiation between tradition and translation, at an early age, taught me to reflect on both of these processes. As I attempted to translate myself into a new reality, my values and assumptions came into sharp focus. Detached from familiar surroundings, I had to ponder basic questions about myself and my culture. Why do I do things the way I do them? What gives purpose to my life and how do I remain true to that purpose? It was my very uprooting that challenged me to encounter the other.
And think about it. When you, students, decided to attend boarding school, that home away from home for many of you, with peers from all corners of the globe, were you not signing on to a similar journey? Aren’t you now engaged in the same process of inquiry and self-discovery, of affirmation and growth? As you delve into a world of new perspectives and possibilities, what values and practices will you seek to strengthen? What changes, on the other hand, will you contemplate in the face of new learning
These questions touch us as individuals and as communities. Both tradition and translation defined me. And for an institution, a change in leadership is just such a time. In this moment, we are called to reflect, yet again, on the importance of each of these two elements. Only then can we write the next chapter of this academy’s history.
So we begin again: What do we stand for? What core values define us and provide direction for our collective endeavors? How, in short, do we live up to our school motto and make ourselves “worthy of our heritage?” As we consider these questions, we must not neglect their counterpart: How can we translate our basic principles into our rapidly changing, unpredictable, conflicted world? The academy’s past and present offer valuable guidance as we recommence.
On New Year’s Day, 1799, as the academy prepared to open its doors for the first time to thirty-nine boys and eight girls, Reverend Joseph Lyman, a Charter Trustee, clearly articulated the central tenet on which the school still stands today. He said, “Wisdom renders men useful… Nothing is important, or valuable, in the character of man, which does not render him beneficial to others, either by his example, or by his labours… The higher are his attainments in science and wisdom, the more extensive are those effects which benefit human society.” From the academy’s inception, the pursuit of excellence and superior performance has been inextricably tied to moral distinction and the notion of service. In this sense, we are all called to do well, not with the exclusive goal of self-advancement, but with the intent to do good, to have a positive impact on the lives we touch, directly and indirectly. At a time when our culture seems increasingly focused on consumption and the quest for comfort, our founders challenge us to consider not what we can have, but what we can be and do for others.
One hundred and forty five years later, in 1944, Frank L. Boyden, the legendary headmaster who transformed our school from a small, regional, financially-shaky institution into an academy of national stature, underscored this very principle in his dedication of the first issue of the Alumni Journal. I quote him:
“The citizens of any state, and particularly a democracy, can never achieve the more abundant life if those who have been privileged by birth or by education do not fulfill their obligations to society and take their rightful places in community, state, and national life. The test of the worth of any school is, in the last analysis, the record of her alumni… it is our sincere hope that the tradition of service instilled and nurtured here under such wise guidance may endure always to the lasting benefit of the country and the world.”
Let’s fast-forward to the school I visited last fall, under the leadership of Mr. Boyden’s former pupil, Eric Widmer. As founding headmaster of King’s Academy in Jordan, Mr. Widmer will not only be instrumental in translating the Deerfield ethos of service into a distant, yet critical area of the world, but will continue to open valuable educational opportunities for those of us back home. It was King Abdullah himself, class of 1980, who in his address to this year’s graduates in June, urged them to sustain this finest of the school’s traditions. He said:
“That sense of character, that heart, is what you bring to the future, and it has never been more important. That’s because for all that has changed, some things haven’t changed enough. Vast numbers of people across our globe still suffer poverty, hardship, and relentless conflict… no person, no nation can ignore the hopes of others around the world. We are tied by inseparable kinship and shared dreams.”
As many of you heard me say at the school meeting last fall, this is why I value the school’s growing commitment to a global perspective in curricular matters and faculty development initiatives. Contact with people who are different from us is no longer a question of choice but a matter of fact. The solutions to the more serious problems we face today, from terrorism, to climate change and infectious disease, to name just a few, demand transnational, collaborative approaches. Therefore, the education of leaders for the 21st century will require that we equip you, our students, not only with a firm knowledge and understanding of the self and of our traditions, but also with the flexibility of mind and appreciation of the other that will prepare you for responsible world citizenship. What better way to achieve this goal, than to open our doors to students from different regions of the globe, from the Bahamas, Bermuda, Botswana, Croatia, France, Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Panama, Singapore, Thailand, Ukraine, Korea, Canada, and Hong Kong, as is the case this year?
As we further consider how to translate our founding values into our current context, I also applaud the emphasis on merit as the main criterion for gaining access to this community of learners. This emphasis is embedded in the school’s commitment to redress what the late John Rawls called the “undeserved inequalities of (inherited) wealth and natural endowment.” For, as he explains, “the natural distribution (of advantages) is neither just nor unjust… These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way institutions deal with these facts” (Theory of Justice). What could be a more compelling testimony of the academy’s response to this challenge than its determination to make the experience available to an increasingly diverse group of students? Isn’t this the worthy principle that Bob Kaufmann, as Headmaster in 1989, invoked in opening again the school’s doors to talented young women? Without his leadership in this regard, I wouldn’t be standing here today.
What an exciting and promising opportunity this historical juncture brings us! Our success, as we move forward, will depend on our ability to translate our founding traditions to the Deerfield of the future, a task that will demand hard work, but also creativity, courage, spirited debate, as well as a joint sense of purpose.
Let me end by reflecting briefly on our school’s motto. It calls us to “be worthy of our heritage.” It is a motto that wisely embraces past and future, the certainty of former accomplishments, and the challenge of becoming the shapers of a better world. My sincere hope, as we begin yet another chapter in the history of this academy is to live up to the formidable legacy of my predecessors, and to join you in our collective effort to translate this age-tested maxim into relevant, responsible action.