Head of School Blog: Be Where Your Feet Are

“Be where your feet are.”


This was the mantra of one of my mentors, a long-time Headmaster at McDonogh School in Baltimore, a phrase I’m told he used decades ago, and one which I believe is perhaps more relevant today, amidst the maelstrom of noise and light that distracts us from things that matter.


I shared this with the students at All-School Meeting last Friday and asked for a volunteer to tell us what my mentor may have meant by that statement.  One brave eighth-grader raised his hand and said, “He means to make sure that you’re paying attention to what you’re doing now and focusing on it instead of letting your mind think about other things.”  In typical Falmouth Academy fashion, the risk he took was rewarded by a warm round of applause initiated by our seniors. I agreed with his comment and returned again to the theme of presence that I established on the first day of school.  


One day this summer, I couldn’t find my headphones and so with a certain sense of dread, I headed out for my jog without the supposed benefit of the usual noise I counted on to anesthetize me from the sure to be unpleasant present.  What I discovered surprised me. Now that I could hear the world around me, I found myself listening, then smelling the salt marsh, then feeling the ground beneath my feet and the breeze on my skin, then I began to concurrently reflect on the beauty and joy of the present moment, and suddenly I noticed my breath… that I was breathing deeply and that that felt good. And amazingly, since I have chosen to be fully present in the here and now of that experience, I no longer consider “bearable” as the best running gets.


So I will continue to invite my fellow Mariners into the important endeavor to be fully present in the here and now of this school year, disregarding, inasmuch as we are capable, however we might revere or, more likely, regret... the Past, however we might look forward to or, more likely, worry about... the Future.  Our wonderful senior class is particularly aware of the debilitating effect of obsessing on the past and the future. The Future is quite literally knocking on their door and its close companion, the Past, may occasionally show up to haunt them as well.


And parents and caregivers, we too struggle in the midst of our busy lives to be where our feet are. In his article, “The Myth of Quality Time” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, a fellow runner, it seems, reflects on the week he spent with his extended family.  “There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence. We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour. And there’s no doubt that the degree of attentiveness that we bring to an occasion ennobles or demeans it. Better to spend 15 focused, responsive minutes than 30 utterly distracted ones.  It was on a run one morning that my oldest niece described, as she’d never done for me before, the joys, frustrations and contours of her relationships with her parents, her two sisters and her brother. Why this information tumbled out of her then, with pelicans overhead and sweat slicking our foreheads, I can’t tell you. It’s because I was present. It’s because I was there.”


Back to that meeting.  I concluded my brief remarks that morning with some advice and another quotation.  The words of advice: setting goals and making plans: good. Obsessing about the future so that it paralyzes you, bad.  Learning from your mistakes; recalling and being nourished by a fond memory: good. Obsessing about mistakes made; living in the past: bad.  


As for the quotation, it comes courtesy of Eckhart Tolle: “Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry—all forms of fear—are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”   


Your kids may have told you that I end All School Meeting the same way everyday: by inviting in a moment of silence, by then asking everyone to breathe deeply, and by then quietly stating, “end of meeting.”  A small gesture designed to center us in the midst of a busy day. How fortunate we are to be in a community as close-knit and supportive and fully present as this one. Have a wonderful week, and don’t forget to be where your feet are!

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