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Generous-Minded - Opening Message from Sarah Pelmas
Generous-Minded - Opening Message from Sarah Pelmas

With a nod to the seniors' "time travel" homeroom theme, Head of School Sarah Pelmas welcomed students during opening assembly.

[NOTE:  The following are Head of School Sarah Pelmas' remarks at the opening assembly of Winsor's 2018-2019 school year. With a nod to the seniors' "time travel" homeroom theme, she welcomed students at the start with a brief story about the Red Sox and the roots of the tradition of singing the "Star Spangled Banner" at sporting events. Both that welcome and her address follow.] 

Welcome:

Welcome Class I and all the new students! And welcome to the seniors, on the first day of their final year here, on a day they will travel back to repeatedly throughout the year, wondering how time has passed so quickly!

So, let's time travel to Sept. 5, 1918.

A century ago today, the World Series began, a month early because of the progress of WWI and the U.S. having issued a "Work or Fight" order, which required all able-bodied men to either fight in the war or work as a civilian in a job crucial to the war effort. Baseball players were subjected to this order, like all other men. In this series, the Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs, 4-2. The Red Sox scored only nine runs in the six games, the fewest runs by a winning team in World Series history. It was the fifth time the Red Sox had been in the World Series since its inception and the fifth victory for them. It would be their last such victory until 2004! It was the last game between the Sox and Cubs until 2005.

It is also the first time the "Star-Spangled Banner" (which was not yet our national anthem) was played at a sporting event. During what was then known as the "afternoon yawn" (the 7th-inning stretch), the band that was playing various tunes throughout the game played the "Star-Spangled Banner."  Red Sox outfielder and U.S. Naval Officer Jackie Fred Thomas took off his cap, stood at attention and faced the flag. Soon the entire stadium was following suit, even singing along. Because of that response, the song was played at subsequent games and, in the years following the war, became associated with the patriotism of that first moment.

Opening Address:

What a pleasure to see you all here, to add my welcome to what has already been said, and to talk a little bit about my hopes for the year.

When you go to the third floor of the library this year, which I know you are planning to do early and often(!), you might notice that someone is missing from her usual spot. Not to worry, it's not Ms Stern or Ms Blicharz. It's actually Miss Winsor, who typically hangs on the wall above the stacks and guards you all in your library pursuits. Well, a few months ago, as we were cataloguing and photographing the art that Winsor owns, we noticed that poor Miss Winsor is warped. Her portrait happens to be by a famous painter from the turn of the 20th century named Cecilia Beaux. Many museums have collected works by Beaux, including the Museum of Fine Arts, so I called them and asked if they would fix her. Mr Crompton and I took her over to the MFA one day and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum—its basement where many many beautiful art works are stored, a look at the temperature and humidity controls necessary to store painting, photos, silver and gold pieces, and more. So Miss Winsor is there, for the moment, being re-stretched and reframed, and I hope she will return to us soon.

I mention this because I was thinking about how wonderful the third floor of the library is for me—in fact, it is the favorite spot of many of your teachers—and thinking about why it's so special. I think it is because it feels to me like the entire history of this school is still with us, supporting us. And for me in particular, I love being in a room with all the former heads of Winsor, like the portraits in Dumbledore's office of all the Hogwarts headmasters. He can send them to do errands. Presumably he can consult with them. I have to do this by reading what they said, or (because I am lucky) having coffee with the two most recent heads. They fought huge battles on your behalf, in fact. They fought to keep Winsor here in Boston—several times—and not let it move to the suburbs. They fought to keep out boys, especially at one particular moment in the 1970s when we almost merged with Nobles. And they worked to ensure that the buildings were always the very best they could be.

In 1886, Miss Winsor started a school in Boston's Back Bay for girls who would grow up to be intellectual powerhouses and significant contributors to the world. There was an expectation from those teaching at Miss Winsor's school, and from those attending it, as well as those who sent their daughters there, that they would make a difference. And so they learned math and science and English and history and Latin and French, and they got regular exercise out in the Boston Public Garden. In 1910, the school moved out here to Longwood, which was really far away from Boston (!) into a building created specially for you: it had a swimming pool, science labs, a large dining room, an assembly hall and theater, and well-equipped classrooms and common areas for meeting. The founders of the Winsor School thought of course about what their current students should have, but they also anticipated you. As have generations of teachers after them. They knew then that no one can lead well without being forward-thinking and "generous-minded," a phrase that we have used for well over 100 years about Winsor students and about the education here.

Whenever I feel like I need a little support—you know those days, when things just aren't quite right—I go to the third floor of the library and sit with my predecessors. I look at Mary Pickard Winsor (director, 1886-1922), Katherine Lord (1922-1939), Frances Dorwin Dugan (1939-1951), Valeria Addams Knapp, a 1916 alumna (1951-1963), and then Virginia Wing (1963-1988), Carolyn McClintock Peter (1988-2004), and Rachel Stettler (2004-2016). They were legacy builders, women committed to a bright future where Winsor would make a difference in the lives of its students, and also in the world. It is humbling to realize that each of these women was, without knowing me, invested in me. There is a community from the past that still speaks to us now, that matters for us, that has wisdom for us. That is what it means to be "generous-minded:" that you are thinking about the success of those you may never meet, thinking with great love and excitement about people who will come after you and thrive because of you. No matter who they are.

And "generous-minded" also speaks to how we must be with those around us, sitting literally right next to us this moment. And, perhaps hardest of all, "generous-minded" speaks to how we must be with ourselves.

Last week, the faculty and staff did a workshop in which one of the presenters told us a story about the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist spiritual leader of Tibet, who is considered to be the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion. There are actually several versions of this story out there, and I think it has attained a slightly mythical status, but I will tell it you anyway. In this particular version, the Dalai Lama was meeting with western psychologists. And in the question and answer period, someone asked him his thoughts about self-loathing. The Dalai Lama reportedly asked his translator to explain the question and, after a little back and forth, another translator was brought up to explain the idea of self-loathing. And when the Dalai Lama finally understood what was being asked, he started to cry, and asked, "How is it possible that you can hate yourself?"

To be clear, the Dalai Lama has no monopoly on self-love, and he surely has days of profound doubt. And I have met other wise people, spiritual people, whose sense of self-worth was quite secure. So I don't think you need to be a Buddhist to feel grounded and worthy.

But you do need to see the value in others, the fundamental importance of community, and you do need to practice generous-mindedness. When you see yourself as part of a group, you are committed to the greater goals of everyone—to finding happiness and contentment in a whole. When you are really part of a group, it's hard to tell the difference between your own success and the group's success. You say "we" a lot. You are proud of the entirety.

And how do you get there? Well, you need to think that someone else's accomplishments are as important as yours. Imagine that—what would that feel like?

Our own accomplishments are fine, but they are not nearly as good as the accomplishments of a whole group (they are typically not as impressive or important, actually), and they are not as strong without many different voices contributing to them. You need people who don't think like you, people who don't have the same background as you, people whose celebrations are different, whose family structure is different, whose sense of luxury is different, whose joys are different, whose life goals are different. And then you need to genuinely celebrate them, to be compassionate, to see each individual person in front of you as someone miraculous, complicated, worthy of awe and respect, and also as someone deserving of compassion, kindness, and love.

When Miss Winsor created her school in the Back Bay in 1886, it was to educate young women to contribute to the world. This is our mission statement still, and it has always been true. Winsor knows that you can make a significant contribution to the world—and that the world needs you to do that. There are several reasons that schools educate lots of people at the same time, but one of them is that you are better in a group. Everyone is stronger when they work with others, everyone is more creative when they have lots of input, everyone is better able to love when surrounded by those who love them.

The other thing we know is that the point of this school is not to get you into the next school, so that you can get into another school after that, and then a job after that and then maybe a promotion or another job, etc. All those things may well happen—though perhaps they might not. But schools and jobs should be moments, like so many others, that are an expression of your growing self, that are places you can challenge yourself, contribute to things that matter to you, participate in the growth of others, experience the power of people working together, and help change things for the better. Your job is to become you—spiritually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. And you should actively choose places and situations that speak to you, that will help you become you all your life, that will help you be the best part of a community that you can, and that will help you feel significant to that community.

This all takes so much practice.

Those of you who were here last year know that I ask you all the time to see the deep humanity in others—indeed, that is the only way a community can thrive and be excellent. So today I am adding to that request, by also asking that you embrace your own very human, very wonderful self. You have depth, wisdom, experience, thoughts, moments of grace and beauty that you rarely acknowledge because you are always on to the next thing. And you are so self-critical.

So, to do this "generous-minded" thing, you must stop being such a perfectionist. Yes, you. Be generous-minded to yourself. Know why you do things, and please do them because they matter, or they are fun (or because we have assigned them!); do things out of love and compassion. But do not do something because you are worried about what other people will think. Do not do something because you want to seem perfect, or because someone might think less of you if you don't do it. Do what is right and good, for this moment and this community, and for the future as well.

You all know about Malala Yousafzai, I think. She is the Pakistani woman who, as a girl, was an activist for women's rights and girls' education. In 2012, at the age of 14, she was shot in the head by the Taliban for her activism. She endured a long recovery, continuing her activism, and two years later, she received the Nobel Peace Prize. She met with heads of state, and leaders from all over, was interviewed everywhere, and gave countless talks about her work. And still, when it came time for her to apply to college, she was terrified about the interview—worried she would mess up, say the wrong thing, lose her train of thought. She had to convince herself that she could be happy anywhere and it would be OK if she didn't get into her top choice. Malala!

In other words, be good to yourself, and be good to those around you. Everyone has moments of greatness and everyone has moments of doubt. Everyone around you is wrestling with things you cannot imagine. They need your compassion. They need to be reminded that within them, there is light and beauty, strength and wisdom. They will forget—and you should remind them.

It is the greatest of joys to be here with you on this opening day of school. Your teachers and I are already so proud of you, so happy for you, and so excited to start the year with you.