Dwell in Possibility

by Jess Hill

“I dwell in Possibility.”  
Emily Dickinson

October 2018

Schools are places set apart to be better than the rest of the world. At the very least, the people in them strive to form communities of children and youth where a framework of fairness and respect underpin their structure. As many of us think back to our earliest school experiences, we remember our parents leading us into a classroom for the first time and handing over a large part of our formal education to someone else. That moment was filled with hope and possibility.
Our teacher took our hand as we began our journey of learning new ideas and skills beyond what we knew from home. That moment opened a door for us to learn more than the lessons before us. We observed, if we were lucky, how our teacher treated everyone in the class with care, and we observed how our classmates interacted with each other. If things moved toward mayhem, someone stepped in to help. We observed a community forming over chaos.

As adults, we want to maintain a sense of possibility, yet we find that our optimism becomes increasingly narrow. We observe an environment outside the walls of our children’s schools as one that tends toward chaos and disrespect. The 24-hour news cycle exacerbates our differences and divisions, and our modern-day world becomes foreign and confusing to us. We desperately need the next generation to do it better. We want them to learn to respect each other and communicate effectively with each other, even when we know we cannot always agree on the issues of the day.
At Harpeth Hall we talk a great deal about providing a place for each girl to find her voice. We want this for all students, and today I would like to expand that to say that we want our girls to cultivate many voices while they are here. Our students should not be reduced to only one voice or one refrain.
I am reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist, who speaks eloquently in a TED Talk about the dangers of the “single story.” By single story, she means reducing a person or a group of people to a one-dimensional description or assumption, which we in turn may carry with us for years. How we vote, how we look, our gender, our place of origin, our race, our religion, are only one part of our story. We are complicated, in a good way. We each have many voices and many stories with complexities and nuance.
Schools can continue to be places set apart and better than the rest of the world, only if we resist the urge to label each other. At times we are too quick to place each other in a neat spot on a shelf along with others bearing the same label.
I attended and taught in a co-ed school before coming to Harpeth Hall years ago. In all honesty, I wasn’t so sure about this “all girls thing” when I first began. It took exactly two weeks to get it.  After only two weeks, I could see that the girls in my classroom had intricate personalities. I no longer attributed certain reactions or traits to all of the girls in my class or all of the boys in my class. They were all girls, and I discovered their uniqueness more quickly and thoroughly without the girl label.
When we lump others into categories according to our filing system for politics, opinions, or even a browser’s default news source, we produce an incomplete picture of those around us. When we connect with each other and really listen with a compassionate curiosity, we operate out of respect instead of fear, and calm instead of anxiety. When we realize that the point of our discourse is not to make other people agree with us - the point is to be understood and to understand. Only then can we return to our work of learning, growing, playing, and laughing alongside each other. And only then can we “dwell in possibility.”