What graduating during a pandemic taught me about pausing to look up at the hills
“We have preserved those fundamental, high traditions of character and scholarship on which our school was founded, and none of the vital things which have given a feeling of permanence and security have been lost or changed. We still study and work, play and sing, and pause to look up at the hills.” That was a quote from the late Mr. Boyden. I think if he were to visit Deerfield today, he would find his words hold true for all but one phrase. We still study and work. We still (occasionally) play and sing. But, we have lost the art of “pausing to look up at the hills” — that is, until last spring.
In the spring of 2020 — my last spring at Deerfield — I truly learned the meaning of balance. I watched the news and taught a class on immigration at the Mexican-American border. I attended online yoga and dance lessons.. I meditated in the woods. I went hiking and explored my hometown by bicycle. I wrote 12,000 words of a novel. I ate dinner every night with my parents. I even got nine hours of sleep – consistently. Other students shared similar stories with me. Juliette Lowe ‘21 used her free time to fill paper bags with nutritional food and drop them off around the Greenfield area. Angela Osei-Ampadu ‘21 used her newfound flexibility to stockpile and sew masks for nearby health care workers. Both agree that they wouldn’t have had the means or the time to give back in this way during a normal term.
This is not to make anyone feel that the months they spent in quarantine should have been the most productive, well-rounded, and fulfilling times of their lives. Nor is it to say that anyone was expected to write the next Hamilton or invent the next calculus. This pandemic is hitting different people in different ways, and as the instagram account @feminist reminds us, sometimes “just getting out of bed is an accomplishement in itself.” In the midst of tragedy and uncertainty, however, I found one silver lining this spring: time and space. For the first time in my high school career, there was room in my life for everything: academic engagement, extracurricular pursuits, passion projects, social activism, outdoor adventures, time with my family, rest, and relaxation. For the first time, I had the chance to reflect on the adventures of the last four years and the lessons learned in the last 18. For the first time, I was able to “pause and look up at the hills.” Needless to say, it wasn’t always like this.
There were times in my Deerfield career where I felt guilty for getting an extra hour of sleep, taking the time to reconnect with a friend, going out in nature, writing an optional op-ed, or doing something just for fun, because I could’ve spent that time doing work. Why did you spend so long discussing the border crisis in the dining hall? I’d ask myself. You have a paper due tomorrow. Or, Why did you go to bed so early last night? You should’ve stayed up later to study. It sounds ridiculous, in hindsight, that I would regret every moment I spent not doing schoolwork. Clearly, sleep, socializing, and civic engagement are all important parts of a balanced life.
But, I spent the last four years in an environment that told me otherwise, an environment that told me there was no room in a day for a non-required yoga class or an episode of the Office if I wanted to get into a prestigious college. It’s true, no one forced me to spend 35 hours writing an essay, to stay up till 3am to meet a deadline, or to criticize myself for choosing not to do those things. I determined how I acted and reacted during my high school career. However, in an environment where I had to choose between getting an 90 on a test or getting 8 hours of sleep, it was easy to fall prey to unhealthy habits. I constantly had to convince myself that relaxation and connection are just as important as hard work. And, even after graduating, it’s a daily battle in my mind.
The work culture we have at Deerfield is outdated and exclusive. It’s rooted in a toxic projection of capitalism that values exponential growth over sustainability. In this culture, work is the ultimate and final priority. It comes before relationships, mental health, and even social justice. So, when a fiasco as serious as last winter’s hate crime rattles the community, those who aren’t directly affected don’t show up for those who are. “Sorry I have a lot of work tonight,” is a normalized excuse for missing an alliance meeting in the Caswell. “We have too much material to cover” is a justifiable reason for glossing over a class discussion on the n-word that was scrawled on the Hess Center window, or the swastika that was etched on the Denunzio sidewalk. Studying for a math test becomes more important than comforting a fellow classmate. Meanwhile, those who are targets of hatred and bigotry on campus watch Deerfield move on without them as they take the time to process alone. As a result, they not only suffer, but also, they fall behind.
My grandfather, the son of Jewish refugees, is famous for telling his children to “work, work, work, think later.” “But, does that mean, ‘work, work, work feel later?,” my mom often wonders now. “Does that mean, ‘work, work, work, love later? Work, work, work, be later?’” By that logic, does caring for yourself come later? Does supporting others come later? Does standing up for justice come later? What else are we willing to sacrifice in the name of productivity?
The most powerful lesson I learned at Deerfield was, to paraphrase the beloved former History teacher, Dr. Bernie Baker, that education of the head is useless – dangerous, even – without education of the heart. It’s time for us, as the Deerfield community, to extend that lesson beyond the walls of the American Studies classroom. We need to teach Deerfield students that school work should never come at the expense of compassion — whether it be compassion towards others or towards ourselves. We need to unlearn our toxic work ethic — the version that tells us we are not okay unless we spend a certain number of hours on Canvas every day. And we need to stand up to it by teaching our students to value imperfection as much as they value mastery, perspective as much as focus, connection as much as effort, and social change as much as personal achievement. We need to teach our students, staff, and administration to think and feel and be, just as much as they work. To clear the afternoon and spend it at the river on the last warm day of the fall. To cancel class and hold a school meeting the morning after a faculty member spots a homophobic slur on the side of the Hess Center building. To dance in the rain in the middle of exam week.
So how do we do this? The pandemic has already shown us that it’s possible. It’s forced us to redesign Deerfield’s approach to education. It’s given us academic policies that allow students to explore every part of themselves — head, heart, and soul. Let’s keep those in place long after the pandemic is over. Let’s carry the lessons of this time into the future. That means fewer classes per day, later start times, and longer transitions. It means requiring teachers to drop the lowest grade from a term and holding teachers accountable for breaking the 50-minute homework limit. It could even mean pass-fail classes, no weekend homework, and Fridays dedicated to club meetings and extra help sessions. It means courses that value quality over quantity. It means educating our hearts as well as our heads.
If there’s one thing that finishing my senior year during a pandemic taught me, it’s that success and compassion — for ourselves, others, and the world — are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’re interdependent. We will not receive a meaningful education by acing our classes or getting into a prestigious college alone. Only by taking care of ourselves as often as we take care of our homework, improving our communities as much as we improve our test scores, and fixing our world as much as we fix our grades, will we get a real education. Deerfield: this is our chance. Let’s be the school that goes back to better.