And Off They Go on Long Fall

Dear Parents,

We’re off and running! The student leaders, who have been here for a week now, did a truly wonderful job of organizing the welcome for our new students and setting up their own areas of leadership responsibility this year. They have also been enormously helpful to Karen Guttentag, our new Dean of Students, and other adults who are seeing Putney in action for the first time and are simultaneously expected to help run it.Veterans here are remarking on a calm, competent and self-possessed group of new students. Most are figuring things out remarkably quickly and know how to ask questions when they have them. Long Fall trips head out today – hiking, biking, canoeing, camping. Many new students are doing this for the first time. Learning how to read a map, how to build a campfire, how to cook over a fire, how to paddle, how to poop in the woods…. these are useful skills and ones that build confidence and bragging rights. Tarred roads can take you to only a fraction of the planet, and 85% of Vermont is woodland, so there is great freedom in feeling at home on the land. And the dorms will seem very luxurious to the kids when they return!

On the evening of September 1 we had our Convocation (which is not as formal as the word sounds). It is our first official gathering of the community for the school year. I introduced new faculty, thanked various people, and showed the map of where students have come from this year. Students read out the school’s Fundamental Beliefs. And as usual, I gave the students a certain amount of unsolicited advice. I’ll share some of this with you so that you know what they heard.

I love the very last line of our Fundamental Beliefs: “So that we may move along the long slow road towards a civilization worthy of the name.” This is another way of saying that the arc of history bends towards justice.

The faculty talked last week about what it means to create a civilization worthy of the name. Not only have we gathered together from around the world, but regardless of where we were born, we are all different people—different racial and gender identities, different religious beliefs, different tastes in food, music, and clothing, different ideas of fun, different experiences of family, different experiences with privilege. (Almost half of you get financial aid to be here—so if you come from a family without many resources, don’t feel like you are alone or need to hide that.)

A civilization worthy of the name is one that can make a strong and happy and forward looking society out of those differences. The word civilization has the same roots as the word city—it means a group of people living closely together, and how they do that. In the Fundamental Beliefs, “A civilization worthy of the name” refers to the impact we hope you have on the world after you leave here, but first we must create that civilization here. And we must re-create it every year, because we have new people here in the community.

I don’t kid myself that this is always easy. Putney is in many ways a huge social experiment. But we have a great advantage, in that each one of you chose to be here; you chose to be in a place that where you would be more than a passenger, where you would be part of the work and the stewardship of the place. All the choices each of us makes every day will build our school culture, will move us—or not move us—forward in the creation of that civilization. I have enormous faith in your ability—and your goodness—to make this a wonderful year.

And remember: there must always be a balance between the individual and the community. You will be helping to form and shape the community, and you also need to pay attention to yourself. Ultimately you are responsible for your own health, happiness, and productivity—you will get lots of support and encouragement, but nobody can actually do any of these things for you.

Pay attention to what makes you happy, what helps you sleep well at night, what helps you to be able to do well what you want to do. I will remind you often to sleep at least 8 hours every night. I will remind you to take some time every day to pay attention to something beautiful—stop for a bit and look at the view of hills, look at a great piece of art, listen to a great piece of music. Practice letting beauty make you happy. Beauty is free, it’s all around you, and you don’t use it up by paying attention to it.

Figure out what is important to you and be sure to carve out time for it. Unlike beauty, time is something we can and do use up, and you will learn a lot by observing where yours goes. My first year out of college I had a job in which I had to log my time every 6 minutes all day—I only lasted a year, and I don’t recommend keeping track that closely—but do pay attention to what you are spending your time on and make sure you mean it. You don’t waste time by slowing down, or by sleeping, or by taking time to spend with friends, or by walking in the woods. But when you frequently realize that you have no idea what you did with the last week….then you should worry. Many of you who are new here this year have never had this much freedom—or this much responsibility—to choose what you do with your time, and it does take some learning to do it well.

For all of you, remember—I say this to you every year—that at the end of the day, as your head hits the pillow, you should know that you gave more than you took that day. Or at least five days out of seven. If each one of you does that, we will find ourselves proving that we can create and run an increasingly just, kind, and civil society up here on this hill, and that we can have a whole lot of fun at the same time.

Thank you all. There is nobody I would rather spend my time with than the people in this room.

And after Convocation, we sing, which is the best bonding ritual ever invented.

Best to all of you,

Emily H. Jones
Head of School