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Cartographers, One and All 

At a recent meeting of heads of school, we paused to reflect on the responsibility of leading our schools at this moment in history. I can only assume that my colleagues’ minds were flooded with many of the emotions I was feeling. And yet, when asked, identifying a single feeling escaped me until one friend offered “grief.” A meaningful conversation ensued about how we and our communities are navigating the uncertainty in our lives, particularly around leadership confronting the pandemic and racial injustice.  

This uncertainty requires a different kind of emotional stamina from all of us and it brings up what David Kessler, in the Harvard Business Review article “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” refers to as anticipatory grief, the feeling we get about what the future holds when we are uncertain. As humans our brains aren’t naturally wired to process large, open-ended, global problems. We crave timely problem solving that brings a sense of order, closure and hence equilibrium in our lives.  

As we “settle” into our new normal of the 2020-2021 academic year, I believe it’s healthy to reflect on the emotional toil we are going through right now as we chart our path forward to respond to the epidemic and make the cultural shift to antiracism. That we are on this journey amid so much political strife and divisiveness in our country needs to be acknowledged as well. This is new territory that we are navigating; we are creating rather than following a map. As anyone who has grieved knows, it does get better, but the experience isn’t linear. One has to be open to new strategies. While we may crave routine and discover it in small ways every day, we have to embrace an explorer’s mindset. Each day presents a new set of variables to consider—be they indices of public health or instances of social injustice. We’re prepared for in-person school but aren’t certain it will take place. We are creating new antiracist systems and policies, but that doesn’t mean that the culture immediately changes. We do our best to respond to the needs of our families and communities but are limited by the hours in the day. We seek certainty but frequently find ourselves at crossroads looking for the best way forward. I think this is what Kessler means by anticipatory grief. 

So what can we do? We can name it and pause in self-awareness when we feel it (Geez, I’m not at my best today). We can seek help from others (I’ve been doing a lot of that lately—thank you, Fried family and the Brearley community!). We can forgive the sharpness we sometimes feel in others’ behavior and we do our best to behave with compassion toward ourselves and others. 

We also can recognize that although this is a very difficult time in our country’s history and in our own lives, we are learning together how to manage this adversity. Everything we do to keep our community safe from the virus and anti-Black racism is directly linked to our mission to prepare students for principled engagement in the world. That’s our North Star, and we are the cartographers for this unprecedented moment in Brearley’s history. 

As the school year progresses, I hope to feature stories from community members about their mapmaking experiences this year. 

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