The Power of Reflection

The following remarks were delivered to The Middle and Upper School Community during Opening Convocation: 

As the school year ended in June 2021, we finally lifted our heads, stopped sprinting, took a deep breath, and felt the power of the moment and enormity of what had been accomplished. When I think of those final days of the school year and the days after, I remember seeing smiles radiating through your eyes, glimpses of teachers’ shoulders that were once being carried high due to stress dropped down, watching the worry evaporate from the faces of everyone that had kept their head down and worked so hard to keep everyone safe and the school moving forward for 16 straight months. 

Like many people in March 2020, I instinctively put my head down and started working. Never one to see a problem as unsolvable or to go into a situation unprepared, I simply put on my tunnel vision glasses and got to work; as a team we were making plans, sorting out logistics and doing everything we could to make a safe and meaningful environment for the Brimmer community. It wasn’t until last Spring, that I began to slowly pick my head up for short glimpses, not yet taking full breathes or full stock of just how much we accomplished over the last year. 

When the pace of summer hit, so did the opportunity for all of us to find ways to escape and relax. Some of you went to camp, others took family trips. Some of you got jobs that broke free from your normal routine, and some of you found other ways to step away. For me, the Summer Olympics could not have come at a more perfect time. For as long as I can remember, the weeks set aside to celebrate the accomplishments of these dedicated athletes and their families has been a portal into a different time, and this year it was needed more than ever. 

These Olympics, however, felt different. They were still a beacon of hope, but with the shadow of COVID working to eclipse the competition. These elite athletes were forced to adjust their multi-year training, putting their heads down and lives on hold for another year to train for the opportunity to compete in Tokyo. 

Like all Olympics there was controversy leading up to the games and drama surrounding the competitions. But this year, there was something else that stood out to me – something else that felt different. With COVID restrictions in place, the stands that are traditionally filled with family and friends, started off empty and eerily quiet. So quiet that you could hear the stomping of feet on the track and the splashing from strokes in the pool. Realizing the strangeness of competing with no fans, athletes started showing up to cheer each other on. It started with teammates cheering on other teammates, but it quickly grew to communal support. Swimmers cheering for a competitor from another country that recorded a personal best and medalists consoling those that finished off the podium due to an off day. There was a sense of empathy and support that was growing throughout the games. 

Isaiah Jewitt was accidently tripped up by Nijel Amos during the 800m semifinals and instead of getting angry, he stood up and helped Amos get to his feet, then both men ran side by side to the finish line. And after the US Women’s National Soccer Team lost to Canada in the semifinal match, Christine Sinclair of Canada spotted an emotional Carli Lloyd and paused her own celebration to console Lloyd, sensing that this may have marked the end of Lloyd’s iconic career. Athletes around the world rallied to the side of Simone Biles when she pulled herself from the gymnastics competition due to her mental health. 

As we start this new school year, we could all just put our heads back down and get to work: students, you could work hard to learn, challenge yourselves, and get your work done; teachers, you could work tirelessly planning lessons and activities. We could all be successful this way. But that success would be limited. The problem with putting our heads down is that when we do, we only focus on the task in front of us. We lose sight of all the beauty we pass and everything we accomplished. We aren’t fully present. Imagine how these Olympic games would have felt if those athletes never showed up to cheer each other on because they were only focused on their own preparations. 

The 14th Dalia Llama said, “It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself, and others”. I think he is talking about the Power of Reflection. We have to stop ourselves from always needing to move forward and remember to pause to think about what has happened and what is happening around us. What were you forced to do differently last year that you want to bring forward? What was gained? What was lost? How might we each be better humans due to the way we collectively looked out for each other? How did that adversity unlock new potential? 

These past 19 months tested us, but it has also brought about tremendous growth and success. There was not a fairy tale ending at the Olympics for Jewitt, Amos, Lloyd and many others, but they showed us what is possible when we do not let adversity diminish the best of ourselves. They showed us why it is so important to lift up our heads. Few people will remember who won the 800m finals, but many more will remember watching Jewitt and Amos run side by side to the finish line. Why? Perhaps it is seeing the best of what is in others that inspires us to see the best in ourselves. 

So, this is my challenge for you. Let’s all work hard, but let’s all lift our heads up together. Let’s celebrate each other’s victories and our own. Let’s help lift up those that may stumble or fall along the way. Let’s remember how resilient we are and how far we have come. Let’s reflect on the lessons of the last 19 months and use them as motivation to stay present and true to who we are as a community. Let’s focus on looking up, enjoying the moment, and truly being present.

Author: jneudel

father, food allergy advocate, soccer enthusiast, educational innovator helping to maximize collaborative learning in schools. Upper School Head at Brimmer and May School

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