On Monday, the Chatham Hall community gathered in St. Mary’s Chapel to mark the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year with Fall Convocation. Along with celebrating student academic achievement, the ceremony provided Rector Rachel Connell with her first official opportunity to address the community. In her remarks, Rector Connell spoke to the power of new beginnings, sharing stories from her own life and encouraging students to embrace the opportunities provided by new beginnings. Rector Connell’s full remarks can be found below.
“Be willing to be a beginner, every single morning.” – Meister Eckhart
Soon after I was notified that I had been selected as your next Rector my friends and acquaintances started sending me congratulations and also missives about leadership, life transitions, the importance of change, girl power, new beginnings, etc.
The quotation I just shared was one of those gifts and it has stuck with me in all the weeks and months since the formal announcement. Meister Eckhart, or Eckhart von Hochheim, was a German theologian, philosopher and mystic and truthfully, that is all I know about him because my knowledge of German philosophy is nominal. As the old girls know from my April visit, if this message had come from a Russian scholar, I might know a bit more.
But I believe the message is relevant to me and to all of us. The more I reflected on it, the more I realized that being a beginner is really where we spend much of our time during our lives, and maybe, far more than we realize.
There are the big beginnings or milestones, such as when we are born, begin school, have an important birthday, get married, start a new job, etc. Each of these carry different emotions for many different people. Some of it joyous, some it fearful, some of it sad. But we keep on going because that is what life demands.
Even the person who is averse to change and new beginnings cannot avoid them because the change will happen around them and they will still need to adjust.
And then there are the beginnings we might not think of. Every time we meet a new person, that is a new beginning. Every time we start a new unit in a subject, a problem in a problem set, a chapter in a book, a new skill, technique or play in a sport, a new play or a piece of music. You see where I am going here. We are always in the midst of beginnings.
This year is a significant beginning for me at Chatham Hall, we all know that. But I have several other beginnings in my life that I remember as clear as yesterday that I will share with you now.
When my family moved to Washington D.C. I was 8. I went from being in a school that had only a couple hundred kids to a giant public school in the heart of Washington DC. I was thrilled and utterly clueless. The clueless piece really helped actually because I just tried to dive right in.
Looking back a few years later, I realized all the things my mother and father had put into place so that the only thing I focused on was going to a new school and making friends. I had the very real privilege that every single other thing was completely put together by my parents. Oftentimes those closest to us work very hard to make our new beginnings more manageable.
That was definitely true when I moved from public school to a small private girls’ school for high school. National Cathedral School in Washington, DC is larger than Chatham Hall but that is also because it starts in fourth grade. It could not have been more different than going to Alice Deal Junior High that had about 1000 kids for three grades.
I don’t know exactly how many siblings are in this chapel right now, but I can tell you that my older sister was already at Cathedral and made my transition so much easier for me. It was the 80s and I walked into high school and did not know field hockey existed. I did not know there was girls’ lacrosse. I knew I could run track (not very well) and I could dance but these other sports had never been on my radar or available to me. My sister helped me make my way to the glee club and the theater. But I often wish I had tried field hockey or lacrosse because it looked so fun. My bravery could not stretch itself that far which was too bad.
Another significant beginning for me was when I started taking Russian in college. I had prepared myself for it for three years in high school taking Russian history and literature, traveling to what was then the Soviet Union, but I was not a strong enough language student in high school to be able to move out of French and into Russian. And when I got to college I jumped into Russian and was a solid B-ish student – emphasis on the ISH – the entire time. And that B was incredibly difficult for me to earn. But it was the beginning of my love of languages and Russia and all things associated with the culture.
My clear-as-a-bell memory to share was when I collected my son at his orphanage in Russia. It was the beginning of my life as a mother. He was almost nine years old and it was Christmas Day. Russia operates on the orthodox, Gregorian calendar so Christmas is 12 days later than in the nonorthodox Christian world which is on the Julian calendar, so it was a typical workday in Russia.
I had already spent quite a bit of time with my son the summer before, so he knew me and his dad, and he knew we were coming for him. We had written letters and sent packages in the interim. When we saw each other we hugged and I gave him gifts to leave for the rest of the children that would remain at the orphanage. One gift was a set of all the Harry Potter books that had been published by that time translated into Russian – and he dutifully marched me to the tiny room that was the orphanage library to give them away.
He was happy to see us and wanted to leave but as we drove away, I will never forget his face as he silently cried nor will I forget his brave face as the airplane took off from Moscow a few days later. He had no reason to trust us. There had not been a single adult in his life that had looked out for him and yet he took on what must have been the scariest of new beginnings. Without question, it shaped how I parented him. And I get much of my strength to embrace new beginnings from this memory and his story.
Why are beginnings important? I think we know this, but it bears repeating. New beginnings challenge us; they stretch us. There is ample evidence out there that beginning new things helps to keep our brains developing – learning and using a second language later in life has real benefits in older years in helping prevent Alzheimer's. New beginnings open our minds to new experiences, perspectives, and people, all of which enrich our lives. When you think about it, beginnings are how we find love.
You came to Chatham Hall for a totally different school experience than most of your friends. Even if they are at other boarding schools, and even other girls’ schools, it is not the same as being here at Chatham Hall. You were willing to be a totally different level of beginner than your non-Chatham friends. I admire you for that.
What makes beginnings successful? How we approach them.
It is absolutely fine to be nervous, shy or worried. I have experienced all of that here, and more, already. Expecting the unexpected is essential. Even if you have already been here for a year or two. Being able to pick oneself up after a disappointment. Practicing forgiveness. Being open to new things and people. Being able to laugh. Making time to reflect.
This year – we are all beginners. I am beginning as your Rector. You will begin as a new student or returning student but in a new grade. Thank you for being willing to be a beginner with me.
I will end with another quotation. This is not from a philosopher or a scholar, but it is from one of my role models that I mentioned in April – the late, great comedian Gilda Radner. Dr. Edmonds and Dr. Spearman found this quote and welcomed me with it along with some delicious cookies when I arrived in late June.
“Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what is going to happen next.”
Let’s start seeing what comes next for all of us at this beginning of the school year.