Awards Luncheon 2014: Head of School Remarks

Danae DiNicola – May 27, 2014

“Using Imbalance to Create Motion”

by Dr. Margarita Curtis

This was a topsy-turvy year at Deerfield. With the arts center closed, our patterns and schedules went haywire. Classes started at odd intervals… we camped out in the gym for school meeting… club events turned up in the oddest places–and if you had an arts class, you had to hike all over town. Add a polar vortex to the mix, and things got a little crazy; the winter dance showcase was performed by flashlight!

It became so confusing at one point, I heard campus security lost all the wheels and tires from their patrol vehicle! (…Inside joke.)

But it wasn’t all bad. Imbalance, after all, is what creates motion. New classes and projects emerged. Teachers tried novel ideas and unconventional methods. Our capstone program found its feet–in large part because of the students who were willing to risk taking it.

And we ate A LOT of quinoa and sweet potatoes.

More importantly, you experimented. You formed a Ukulele and Bongo orchestra! And an ethics committee. And launched a radio station. The debate team got team varsity jackets! The new “Deerfield Talks” segment in school meeting is off to a strong start, and I don’t think anyone’s going to soon forget just “how communist” Deerfield really is. (That’s another inside joke.)

Another campus-wide experiment–the “no Accountability Points trial”–added a feeling of uncertainty to even everyday routines. This wasn’t some half-witted scheme. It was a vision, pursued. Our Student Body President, Tripp Kaelin, proposed eliminating the AP system at Convocation–the very start of the school year! Student Council developed a pilot program, while the Ethics Committee urged us to go even further and incorporate restorative practices into our disciplinary system. In the end, what united all these efforts was the desire to align rhetoric with our day-to-day practices, bringing to life the values of respect, honesty, and concern for others in our actions and behaviors.

The experiment was disruptive to community life, but the underlying intention was worthy. Let me share with you the rationale presented by the students in their proposal:

“Accountability in a restorative justice system means taking responsibility for choices, understanding the impact of those choices on others, and repairing the harm done. Restorative justice pays attention to relationships and develops mutually desired outcomes treating misbehavior as an opportunity to learn.”

At a school like Deerfield, with such a distinguished history, there is a triumph in inviting us to experiment. Here, tradition is so revered–a good thing–that sometimes change can feel unsettling.

You performed the hardest task of leadership: nudging the Academy out of its comfort zone… pushing us from rest to motion. The imbalance we felt as a school–and that you leveraged–may indeed be your legacy. You may not have swayed school policy, but you DID change the school.

In a year with so many variables and so much uncertainty, we all felt a little adrift. But you chose to set a course. That sense of purpose–indeed that desire for purpose–that intrinsic motivation that you felt and acted upon… is the very definition of leadership.

Last year, I stood here and talked about Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon. This year I could list other tragedies: the ferryboat capsizing in Korea, the war in Crimea, 300 girls kidnapped in Nigeria… the worldwide crisis of climate change.

Each of these tragedies–and countless others–challenge our balance. Each of the world’s problems–whether it’s access to clean water, the scourge of polio, the pursuit of human rights, or the challenge of cooling the planet–is a source of imbalance and confusion.

I urge you to use that imbalance to create motion. Use confusion to break the inertia of complacency. Use tragedy and challenge as leverage for your own leadership. Pay attention to the world around you. You may remember what I told you at one of the last school meetings this spring, quoting Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” So pay attention and solve real problems. Anywhere there is uncertainty or doubt, there is an opportunity to lead: seize it.

Your character–the ability to turn obstacles into lessons learned, to persist in the face of disappointment and doubt, to organize others, to practice honesty and respect in everything you do–this is what you bring to the world.

Early this year, we hosted innovator and activist, Pablos Holman. I hope you remember him as I do: someone who is successful and happy… but focused on helping. He suggested that if we go out in the world to find and solve “real” problems, we’ll lead fulfilling lives.

Pablos would agree with Nelson Mandela, who passed away at 95 this winter: He once said that, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is the difference we have made to the lives of others,”  Nelson Mandela, along with several of our guest speakers this year–Pablos Holman, Caldwell Esselstyn, Ken Burns, Peter Davis, Robert Ballard, Robert Pinsky, Robert Stern–have all changed the world. They have all done well, while doing good. And they were all once where you are now.

Mr. Boyden–who was a high school student at one point, also–said it plainly a century ago: “the test of worth of any school is the record of service of her alumni.”

Don’t you see it? It is YOU that makes Deerfield worthy, not the other way around.

I’m so proud of you all.