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A Message from the Head of School

TUESDAY - MAY 9, 2017

 

Dear ECFS Community,

 

Founder's Day proved to be a sparkling highlight of my first year here. Few schools can boast such a wonderful tradition. The sense of occasion was palpable and magical from the divisional songs and esprit de corps among students to the opportunity to honor retiring faculty.

You may watch the Founder's Day program here. Alumna Kaia Stern '90 delivered a powerful talk about restorative justice and the ethical imperative, and below I am sharing the text of my address to our middle and upper school students along with tributes to retiring faculty

ECFS Founder's Day Speech 2017

Jessica L. Bagby, Head of School

 

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

 

Mary Oliver concludes her poem "The Summer Day" with this question that I love. Please indulge me as I read the poem to you and then share some thoughts about it, about us and our common purposes, and about my hopes for all of you, indeed for all Ethical Culture Fieldston School students.

 

The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean--

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

 

 

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In posing this question, Mary Oliver is not asking us, nor am I asking you, "What do you plan to do for a living?" While your parents may be keenly interested in your answer to that question at some point because they hope they will not be supporting you forever, I have every confidence you will know in good time the work that excites you and that you will find gainful employment doing it, particularly if you consider Oliver's question deeply. So what is Oliver asking? What am I asking? I mean to provoke your thought with my inquiry: "How do you intend to live, truly live, and who will you be in the world in a spiritual and ethical sense—heart, mind, and soul; deed and creed?" I certainly do not expect any of you to proffer a definitive answer to such an inquiry right now at this juncture in your young lives—though I would surely be eager to listen to any response any one of you might be formulating and willing to share with me. I do believe that, ultimately, your response will make all the difference in "your one wild and precious life."

 

Oliver's poem itself presents a way of living and being in the world that I would characterize as spiritually wakeful. When I read the poem and try to picture the events leading up to the grasshopper eating sugar from the poet's hand, I imagine her out for a walk on a gorgeous summer day—as she says, "strolling through the fields"—and stopping for a rest. As she lounges in the meadow, her senses are filled with sunlight, a whispering breeze, the scent of warm grass and baking dirt, the twittering of birds and the humming of insects along with the steady rhythm of her own breathing and heartbeat. She is fully present in the moment. She stretches out absorbing the scene about her and notices the grasshopper at eye level among the blades of grass in front of her. She remembers the packet of sugar she did not need for her morning tea, and gently and quietly, she extracts it from her pocket, tearing the paper open carefully and pouring the crystals into her palm. She stretches out her arm in slow motion, languidly resting her hand just inches from the grasshopper, and in utter stillness she watches. When, in one flashing leap, the grasshopper lands on her open hand, the poet's eyes blink and her breath catches, but she does not move…until the creature finds the sugar feast, that is, and then she can exhale ever-so-delicately and observe transfixed as the grasshopper munches.

 

The poet is filled with wonderment—awed by creation. The serendipity, or unexpected blessing, of the grasshopper that is "gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes" while crunching sugar crystals in Oliver's hand humbles her, provoking the deepest metaphysical ruminations. She wonders, "Who made the world?/ Who made the swan, and the black bear?/ Who made the grasshopper?/ This grasshopper, I mean—" A relatively tiny and even simple creature in the grand design of nature, the grasshopper is still a "marvelous work wonderfully made" in the words of Psalm 139. The parallel between the insect and the poet herself is obvious. Indeed, the poem portrays the poet too as "gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes" and taking in the world through all her senses, eating it like sugar, and marveling over it. When she concludes the poem with the question, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" she extends the parallel to you and to me, to each of us as readers, as her audience; we are like her and the grasshopper. Each of us is a marvelous work wonderfully made, and we each have "one wild and precious life" for "gazing around with [our] enormous and complicated eyes" to take in creation.

 

I also imagine Felix Adler, our school's founder, would have appreciated Mary Oliver and her question. He was certainly spiritually and intellectually wakeful as he imagined and created a school that meant to offer an education that enlarged the humanity of its students—students from all backgrounds and of all means. This is not the type of education everyone has had access to for most of human history, nor in 1878 in New York City, nor is it even today, I am sad to say.

 

Adler understood that one mark of a good education is to understand one's own humanity more fully in all of its complexity because self-knowledge usually precedes deep empathy and compassion for others and the world one inhabits. Adler's clear belief in moral goods or virtues that result from a robust life of the mind and spirit is why he wrote, "The ideal of the school is not the adaptation of the individual to the existing social environment; it is to develop individuals who are competent to change their environment to greater conformity with moral ideals." Adler also understood the value of a learning community united in a common purpose, the value of individual reflection and contemplation, and the value of the interplay between them.


In your exploration of Oliver's question—"What will you do with your one wild and precious life?" you will need time for quiet contemplation, and you will also need others. In both solitude and in community, you will need to be wakeful. In his book The Sacred Journey, the writer and theologian Frederick Buechner asserts, "You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own; but you cannot become human on your own." Your classmates; your peers, present and future; your teachers, present and future; your families are your fellow travelers in this quest. You are surrounded by many of these individuals right now. I hope you will embrace us all just as this annual assembly marks our school community's embrace of our founder's vision, our school's legacy and purpose, and our embrace of every student here as one of ECFS's own. We are the Ethical Culture Fieldston School community, and each of us, no matter who we are, how young or how old, has much to teach and to learn. Some of that teaching and learning occurs in the study of history, literature, ethics, and the arts; science, mathematics, and language. Much more of it, I daresay, occurs as a consequence of our relationships and interactions with one another, both in our school and in the world around us.

 

On the occasion of my first Founder's Day and my first address to the upper and middle schools together, I have some hopes to share for every student who passes through the doors of this school. I would even call them prayers in the spirit of the verse from Psalm 139. To each of you, I say, "I hope in your moments of deepest doubt and insecurity about yourself or others—and you will certainly have them—that you will remember the truth of this verse in the psalm and your soul will come to know it very well. Each of you along with all of creation is awesomely and wonderfully made, a marvelous work. Mind you, to be marvelous does not mean to be perfect. You are a marvel even in your imperfection—more so I believe because of it. That is the nature of being human. I hope you will learn to love and to forgive yourself, even when it's difficult. Allow yourself to be human. You were made to be. In learning to care for yourselves, I hope you will learn to care for one another and creation, and to practice that care. I hope you will be spiritually and intellectually wakeful and gazing, that you will take in the world through all your senses; engage it heart, mind, and soul; eat it like sugar and marvel over it. That's the essence of a true education—and education that will enlarge your humanity.

 

Finally, I hope you will come to know that like Mary Oliver with her grasshopper, your teachers, your parents, and I will be wakefully attending to each of you in rapt wonderment, both in your years here and beyond. Indeed, my heart will be full every year as each of your classes reaches commencement day and I watch you as group and as individuals "snap your wings open, and float away"—off to new experiences and further discoveries about yourselves and the world along with fresh understandings and the deep commitments that can come with them. With respect to your sojourn through this passage of your life in this school, I can promise you all that the day of "snapping your wings and floating away" comes more quickly than you think. Savor the interlude between now and then in genuine wakefulness, whether is it is six years from now or, my dear seniors, six weeks from today.

 

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Warmest regards,

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Jessica Bagby


 
 
 
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Ethical Culture Fieldston School

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3901 FIELDSTON ROAD • BRONX, NY 10471 • (718) 329-7300

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