"How Do You Know?" by Head of School Catherine J. Hall, Ph.D.
This week in assembly, I shared a story with the students about the day last September when I told my children we were moving to Boston to join the Nobles community. My oldest son, Matthew, who was nine at the time, was not particularly excited at the prospect of our move. In fact, when I shared the news with him, there were a lot of tears. Matthew was understandably panicked about leaving what he knew to be his safe and happy place with his friends and his home. When I tried to reassure him by telling him he would be fine, he immediately asked me, “How do you know I will be fine? How do you know I will make new friends? How do you know I will like my new school? How do you know I will be ok?”
Amidst tremendous uncertainty, when we feel we have the least control over our lives, it can feel like our foundation is shifting on us. All of the assumptions we have about what allows us to be happy are suddenly thrown up in the air. This is certainly true for our students as they are facing what feels like very high stakes choices or events, with little life experience to reassure them that they will actually be fine. For our seniors choosing a college, or our students facing tough outcomes with grades or challenging social situations, it can feel like there is little control with everything riding on getting one particular outcome, and with indelible consequences from any major failure.
The truth is, of course, that the stakes are very rarely as high as our students believe them to be. Very few choices or mistakes are truly unfixable, just as very few great decisions are really as perfect as they may seem at first. At times, there may be consequences we don’t like from a misstep, but we can still almost always find our way to a happy place, even if things seem dire in the moment.
I knew my son would be ok, not because I knew he would be immediately ecstatic at his new school, but because I knew he ultimately controls his happiness. He is very loved, he has a safe home, and he is surrounded by tons of people eager to support him. That foundation gives him the gift to make decisions along the way to take charge of his happiness. If the first choice does not seem right, there is always the next few dozen choices that follow to toggle in the right direction. Sometimes, our bigger missteps in life actually provide the best opportunity to make a great next decision, pushing us to reflect and regroup to right the ship, often gaining great insights along the way.
I shared with our students that millennials are, on average, changing jobs four times in the decade after graduating college. That statistic does not suggest there were three prior mistakes! Rather, it means our students should take it in stride that they will throw their hopes in one direction, and may then unexpectedly shift sights somewhere else. Rather than seeing that change as a sign of failure, it should be embraced as part of their smart, informed way of navigating life, their willingness to be responsive and adaptive to their emerging experiences, interests and skills. This more flexible, less high-stakes lens takes the pressure off the worry that any one success or failure will issue a verdict of some kind in their lives.
It is a given that the big moments in our students’ lives are filled with at least some degree of worry and stress. Ultimately, though, I hope our students embrace rather than fear these decisions, recognizing the tremendous possibility that lies within them, and the large group of family, teachers and friends who surround them with unending support as they navigate their journey.