For several reasons, I welcome the space, albeit short, from the recent presidential election for some reflection. There has been time for more and different perspectives to come my way, and with just a little distance we’re less likely to give free rein to leading with the emotional in what has been an extraordinarily charged situation—whether you celebrated or rued the outcome. Having said that, however, Spence has remained clear on who we are throughout the election. Our expressed values of inclusivity, engagement, trust and respect remain the bedrock of our foundation. Our Community Standards, perhaps, say it best:
“Understanding that good, strong community can never be accidental, The Spence School asks every member within its fold to meet the high standards necessary for effective citizenship and valued humanity. Beyond any calculus of rules, Spence strives, always and in all ways, to be a place of ethical stance and substance, a place in which students, parents, faculty and administration cultivate personal integrity in service to the collective values of respect and trust. This we believe for school and for life.”
So, in the din of this contentious election and in its equally loud and fraught aftermath, Spence’s values and bottom-line standards set both tone and momentum in this not-quite-business-as-usual time for our school. As a framework for this piece, I offer selected voices from the many emails, notes and comments I have received from community members illustrating the range of perspectives, the many layers of complexity and, throughout, the consistent love of this school regardless of electoral satisfaction or disappointment.
I am glad and comforted to know that you and Spence are taking care of the students. I am glad to know that at Spence, the political discourse will not cease and that students’ optimism about the world and the future will continue to grow. On a college campus, four years away from graduating and becoming an adult, I find it very easy to fall into the trap that is cynicism and doubt about our future—particularly because it seems so close and almost tangible. We still have not shattered that “highest and hardest glass ceiling,” but I know someone will. Maybe it will be someone who graces the halls that Clara Spence built.
There is no doubt that the day after the election those very halls carried a tremendous amount of so-close-and-yet-so-far-away disappointment in not electing a woman to our country’s highest office. As girls and women, we celebrated the historic moment of the first woman presidential nominee. As a girls school that champions all benchmarks of equity in gender, this was a huge moment that lived beyond any party platform or loyalty. But the largest eye opening was not, perhaps, in the final electoral count, no matter your opinion of Secretary Clinton, but in the many times throughout the election process that women were categorized in language that moved from indifference to misogyny with the startling ease of the not-new, with the comfort of the well-practiced behind it.
And I think it is this very surprise that should give us both pause and hope, seemingly disparate but actually related outcomes. There’s work to be done and plenty of it, and what better platform to change gender stereotyping than in a girls school with 125 years of hard work behind it. Perhaps that very surprise allows our students to recognize better that the landscapes beyond the Red Doors can be decidedly different from those within. Recently, some of our students organized a protest of the Stanford rape case decision, and I know that many of our students plan to walk in the Women’s March on Washington in January. Maybe the surprise is our very hope.
We talked about the election outcome in class, and I felt pressured to agree instead of showing my opinion.
This quotation came directly to me from a Middle Schooler who made an appointment to see me in the aftermath of the election. Poised, thoughtful and caring, she made two things very clear to me: that she loved her school and the teachers in it, and that as a conservative with a different feeling about the election outcome from the majority, she felt silenced.
Our faculty is completely committed to making every child feel she belongs, and they wholeheartedly believe in the sacred space of openness and learning that we call school. This particular election, however, has been especially challenging and in ways beyond the usual tension between a teacher’s political leaning and a safe, open classroom for all. As shared in The Atlantic article Learning in the Aftermath of a Divisive Election, “Teachers face a difficult task of fostering respectful dialogue in classrooms where some children come from Trump-loving families, and others from families terrified that the president-elect will bring them harm.” This balance is difficult and essential, and our teachers work hard at striking it every day. And yet we know that my Middle School visitor is not alone in our school. As my respected colleague and friend John Palfrey at Andover wrote on his blog in response to a conservative alum who felt closed out, “I’m sorry to hear that you received such negative reactions to your viewpoints at Andover; it’s not acceptable…and something that so many schools, including ours, still have (a) ways to go on.” Again, as Spence, we will always stand strong in making our spaces open and free to discourse, while taking care of those who feel vulnerable or silenced simultaneously.
There is an eerie silence…
This message came to me from a Muslim, Latina immigrant parent recounting what she felt when she came to Spence in spite of the forums and communication afforded by the School. What she describes here is the quiet when no one reaches out or checks in during a difficult time. Jack Saul, again from The Atlantic, offers this advice to counter exclusion: “Strengthening connections with families, communities and organizations is the most important preventive approach.” Spence will continue to model caring on all fronts, recognizing that sometimes silence serves to further isolation. We will, as always, engage on issues of equity and inclusivity, knowing that our strength as a learning community and our full success as an excellent educational institution depend on this very engagement in the classrooms, in the hallways, in our community gatherings.
As I try and make sense of recent events, I felt the need to express my gratitude to you and to Spence. I have never valued my Spence education more than in moments like this, and it gives me hope that communities like ours still exist. When I woke up this morning, it was the Spence community I turned to for comfort—not Princeton, not my team, not even my family—and I am infinitely grateful these women will soon be leading the next generation. You lead an incredibly special place.
This letter from a recent graduate affirms what Spence has long afforded every one of its students: the capacity to engage, the understanding of civil discourse and the critical value of listening to one another. This is why this young woman turned to Spence when challenged. It is less about her candidate not being elected and more about the promise of her and her classmates’ future leadership as an absolute given. She names the particular and extremely significant relationship between Spence and its students: they count on us, and now we, in turn, count on them as they leave those Red Doors. And although I wonder with the long-in-the-making fracture we suffer as a nation if we’ll be finding common ground any time soon, I am certain that Spence, as always, will never surrender to sexism, misogyny or racism and will have an important role to play as we move forward. Ultimately, I agree with our recent alum: Spence is an “incredibly special place,” and that doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes the full efforts of our teachers, our staff, our parents, our alumnae and, most important, our own students to keep our light strong and steady no matter the politics at hand. It takes the full embrace of our mission, day in and day out.