Head of School Blog: Wanted: Optimists

So begins K.J. Dell’antonia’s short essay in Time Magazine, in which she urges us parents to raise our children in houses where glasses are half-full, to immerse them in marinades of positive thinking. She cites studies that suggest that “optimists are more resilient. They make better entrepreneurs, experience better health outcomes, live longer and are more satisfied with their relationships.” She contends that “optimism enables people to continue to strive in the face of difficulty, while pessimism leaves them depressed and resigned to failure — even expecting it.”


On the heels of a long winter break largely devoid of prescribed tasks and time frames, I wonder if you have found it extra hard this week to get your child out of bed and on the way to school? If it’s any consolation, we certainly have! And if it’s any additional consolation, I think that’s pretty normal. Whether it’s falling into the comfort of adolescent-friendly sleep patterns, enjoying the various festivities associated with the holidays, or just unplugging a bit from the daily academic and social demands of school, our kids (as well as we parents!) have spent the last two weeks in a bit of a fantasy land and though most of us would say, “I don’t think I’d ever want to live there,” it sure was a nice place to visit.


So, of course, the prospect of returning to a set schedule, of exerting physical and intellectual energy, and particularly of returning to the sometimes choppy waters of middle and high school peer relations is going to yield a few complaints. And while I am not advocating an approach so sunny as to alienate your audience, I do caution you from overindulging or co-ruminating when your teen presents as negative or lethargic. Be consistently, predictably, (and realistically, of course) positive, project confidence in your child’s capacity to rise to whatever molehills he or she may be describing as mountains, and at every opportunity, take the time to (subtly) remind your kids of the many blessings we enjoy.


Not long ago, at all-school meeting, I shared with your kids a piece of leadership advice one of my mentors offered. She told me that when you are a leader, “You are responsible for the air in the room.” I encouraged your kids to embrace this advice, in the classrooms and common spaces of our school, at home, and perhaps most importantly, in the virtual spaces wherein, increasingly, they and indeed we are all living.

We all know people who, faced with incredible adversity and hardship, nonetheless improve the air in whatever room they enter. And we know people who, despite blessings large and small, still find reason to complain and we know their effect on the proverbial air in the room, too.  


To underscore the point, here’s a story I first heard from Boston Philharmonic conductor Ben Zander in his Ted Talk: The Transformative Power of Classical Music (totally worth 20 minutes of your day, by the way.) In it, he describes two shoe salesmen each of whom is sent to an underdeveloped part of the globe. Shortly after they arrive, the first sends the following telegraph to headquarters: “Situation hopeless; they don’t wear any shoes here.” The other’s report reads as follows: “Glorious opportunity! They don’t have any shoes yet!”


The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek work “entheos,” which translates to the “god within.” As we head into the heart of winter, I hope we can all invite that god within into the spaces we inhabit. Optimists wanted.


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