Wisely Positive

by Robbie Pennoyer, Assistant Head of School; Director of Studies

There’s a two-word phrase among the High School Division’s founding documents that has been much on my mind of late:  Grace seeks to graduate students who are wisely positive.  Wisely positive.  The words collide like flint and steel, and lately I’ve found them sparking reflections on life at Grace amid the challenges of the pandemic.

We are a school that celebrates the pedagogy of joy, and we’re dedicated to the belief that stress isn’t the fuel of academic achievement but that students learn best when motived by joy, wonder, curiosity, and their desire to make the world a better place.  Stress is an inescapable fact of life, of course, and one’s school years are guaranteed to have their fair share of it, change being both a reliable source of stress and an inescapable feature of growing up.  But I have geniuses for colleagues, teachers who can hook their students until interest and enthusiasm take them to realms of understanding they didn’t know existed, and it is a delight to work at Grace because of the joy that spills out of classrooms and echoes in the halls.

That joy is ringing at lower decibels this year.  Masks hide smiles and muffle laughter.  Social distancing keeps common spaces clear of classmates who, in other years, might carry that morning’s discussion from the classroom to the cafeteria and back.  Don’t get me wrong, every day there is extraordinary teaching and learning taking place throughout the school, and that’s true whether classes are gathering in person, online, or in a hybrid classroom.  But the pandemic makes almost everything different and harder. 

How is Grace encouraging students to be wisely positive amid this pandemic?  As with any virtue we seek to nurture in our students, the first thing we can do is ensure that, as teachers and leaders, we model it.  That means being honest about the challenges we face as individuals and as a community, resisting the sort of toxic positivity that gaslights one another into vapid optimism.  It means thinking about the range of stories we can tell ourselves to make sense of this moment, and choosing to tell those that are accurate and empowering, those that orient us towards gratitude, generosity, purpose, and hope.

Second, it means pairing high expectations for ourselves and our students with humility, humor, and (lowercase-g) grace.  High expectations are one way we love each other in a school environment:  I know you think you won’t ever be able to untangle this sort of knotty algebraic equation, but I believe in you more than you do yourself, and I’m going to help you get this.  But high expectations need to be balanced with empathy and understanding.  That’s always true, but it’s non-negotiable now.  The pandemic has impacted us unequally, with some enduring heartbreaking loss while others are “merely” facing a yearlong wallop of isolation and fear.  For students to develop wisely positive outlooks, the school must respond to the needs of individuals in the context of the group.  When we do so, students will have the space and support to work on whatever is in their control and to work around or through whatever isn’t, with Grace helping them to gain the wisdom to know the difference.

Lastly, Grace can cultivate wisely positive students by helping them to appreciate the ways that joy is made of sturdier stuff than mere happiness.  A pandemic makes clear how there can exist within our experiences of joy an element of defiance.  You can hear this in my colleagues—brave, dedicated, ready for this to be over—whenever they find or make cause to laugh.  (You can glimpse it too, as when, at the end of a long week, four STEM teachers struck a pose and sent around this smile-inducing testament of how Covid-19 can’t squelch our ability to feel and spread a bit of Friday cheer.) 

As grief shared is divided, so joy shared is multiplied, and many of the most joyful moments of the year have been when technology has bridged our isolated classrooms, allowing us to see and celebrate the good work our students have been doing.  Art has been a sort of ballast during these stormy times, the pandemic’s waves failing to sink the joy of our student artists:  whether fifth graders performing in December on instruments they only learned how to hold a few short months before; or drama students acting in original plays written for them (in the HS) or by them (in the MS), a Zoom window their stage and our auditorium; or dancers collaborating with singers on protest anthems they composed, inspiring reflections of our students’ resilience, drive, and inexhaustible goodness.  A pedagogy built around this sort of joy seeks not to entertain or distract but to engage and empower students till they see how capable they are of guarding and nurturing joy even amid these challenging circumstances, planting joy’s roots within themselves and beyond the reach of the turbulent forces of the pandemic.

The great artists of this sort of hard-won, defiant joy are African-American poets like Ross Gay (whose Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude reads like a blessing) and the incomparable Lucille Clifton (a national treasure, who would inscribe her books by writing “Joy!”).  They are part of a long tradition of Black artists who see how “joy is an act of resistance” (that’s poet Toi Derricotte’s phrase) and who can look without flinching at the trauma and pain of Black experience—at “its long history of having a long history with hurt” (that’s another poet, Danez Smith)—and who refuse to permit them, or the forces of White supremacy that is so often their source, to get the last word.  (I drafted the sentences above before attending the high school division’s Black History Month Chapel, which explored the theme of Black Excellence and Black Joy and was led by Grace students who embody both, their example of wise positivity and defiant joy an inspiration for the broader community.)

Our planning for next year has begun in earnest.  The Board approved a budget.  We’re at work on the calendar of events, full for now of the sort of in-person gatherings we’ve missed since last March.  By the end of Spring Break, most of the faculty and staff will be fully vaccinated.  All of this is cause for hope, for joy of a different order than what may feel available to us for now.  Till we get there, we’ll keep faith in the importance of the work before us and do it with as much wisdom and joy as we can muster.

“blessing the boats”

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back     may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

by Lucille Clifton

Postscript:  It was no great surprise to learn that Sam Wheeler was the source of the phrase, “wisely positive.”  A beloved and long-serving Latin Teacher, Sam is the perfect embodiment of wise positivity.  Thanks for giving us this evocative phrase, Sam!

Two Reading Recommendations

African American Poetry:  250 Years of Struggle & Song.  This new anthology from the Library of America is an extraordinary collection of poems, edited and introduced by Kevin Young.  A New York Times book review that Young wrote about a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay collection taught me the Derricotte quotation and the factoid about Clifton’s inscriptions and described (better than I have) the thread of joy running through the Black literary tradition.

Joy: 100 Poems, ed. Christian Wiman (Yale University Press, 2017).  Wiman writes of joy in his introduction:  “I took on this project because I realized that I was somewhat confused about the word myself, and I have found that, for me, the best way of thinking through any existential problem is with poetry, which does not ‘think through’ such a problem so much as undergo it.”  The poems in this collection will help readers experience and consider many facets of joy.  (At least, they did for me.)