A colleague from my former school captured well the wonders of witnessing young people magically grow more and more into themselves. When retiring after more than three decades of teaching, he shared that every time he thought it was time to go, there would be this interesting ninth-grader who captured his imagination. “I wonder what Sally will become these next four years,” he would question, recognizing there and then that he would stay another four years to “see” what Sally would become. And, of course, in the teaching world, and happily so, there is one “Sally” after another. This cycle becomes both an affirmation and…an addiction.
I often speak about the broad canvas that is Spence—our welcomed stretch from age 5 to 18. This scope alone holds us firmly in the land of becoming rather than the fixed: the Kindergartener we first welcome to our fold is far from the young woman we see 12 years later, and the ninth-grader joining us develops from that watchful, early adolescent to the new leader full of voice and agency. We are always in the process of gauging the distance, marching forward, always with a backwards-looking vista to mark the becoming. This is why the lobbies of both buildings, alive with the crush of many ages, become a land in which every student sees not only where they are headed but also where they came from, and this is why the small but important triumphs such as big and little sisters, the move from one building to the next in fifth grade, the Middle School sing-off and the Upper School off-campus privileges matter. Every fourth-grade “senior” shares space with the 5-year-olds, and every real-life senior recognizes herself in the fifth-grader lining up for the morning elevator. All of us see and live that stretch, that broad canvas, and that daily witnessing reminds us all that we’re part of becoming all the time.
None of this is accidental, of course, and our mission- and motto-driven commitment to this becoming—rather than to the fixed—charts our full path. Our commitment to the moment, mixed with carefully staged opportunities, provide the space necessary for the changing self of every one of our students. This is why phrases such as “purpose, passion and perspective,” and “not for school but for life” command so much of our attention and energy. We live in change, and we design for the transformative.
This is why we ask our students, no matter how young, to face the world and never to turn their backs to it. This is why we teach for engagement and live in questions. In his book, Free Speech, Timothy Garton Ash writes, “Next to a willingness to listen and not just to preach, there need to be platforms on which the exchange of information and the battle of ideas can take place.” Battles notwithstanding, those platforms shape our learning, and the voice that the little sixth-grader brings to the table will be vastly different from the voice she’ll bring three years later. We count on that while making sure that that same voice is never ventriloquized, never dismissed throughout the journey.
As parents, we share with faculty both a joy and a responsibility to this becoming. Recognizing that there is no godlike mastery of things and that specific accomplishments will always live on a changing scale, we raise our children to be more curious than ambitious and thereby provide for the lasting, for the more significant. This doesn’t mean that our daughters will forever be caught in the possible only: there will always be marks of distinction, ways to note excellence. But understanding these moments not as full stops can make all the difference. The daughter who is the “poet” one year and then the “scientist” the next is to be celebrated; the soccer star who becomes a runner and the dancer who gives up the stage for leading community service is to be saluted. And, of course, common to us all is that ancient cry of parents of the years speeding by: whatever it is, whatever she becomes…it all goes by so very quickly. As achingly beautiful as it is, our collective role of launching these wonderful young beings is always, ultimately, about that letting go.
The truth of it is, as parents and teachers, we help provide the compass and the chart, but the stars should be all theirs and theirs alone. Last year while I was hosting a senior panel for an admission event, Charlotte, who had been at Spence since she was 5, talked about this becoming. She shared how while in the Lower School, teachers found ways to bring her quiet and unassuming voice to the table, and, she shared with a smile, that this was an ongoing project. She then said with expressed gratitude to her school, “I would never have thought that I would be a speaker on a panel…and yet here I am.” Charlotte, hedged by her trademark modesty, reminds us all that living gratefully, and thereby more in yourself, can make becoming a wonderful present participle within us all.