Quarterly Letter from William D. Wharton

In the days following the presidential election I held back from issuing a public response to the results. Though Commonwealth has been known for the liberal activism of its founder and students, schools are, given their nonprofit status, more careful now about expressing explicitly political positions. As a result, many of the pronouncements that have come from school Heads and college presidents have dwelled safely in generalities about tolerance and inclusion.

I think Commonwealth’s responses were more particular and textured than many of the official statements, in part because they arose naturally from the students and teachers, and from some fortuitous programming decisions made long before the election. As is often the case, I’m proud and pleased at the way the community responded to the news together.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 9, students and teachers arrived at school shaken and worried; a few of the early classes were given over to discussion of the election and the fears that have been generated in the historically divisive campaign.

At morning recess, I called on one of the leaders of our Diversity Committee, a Muslim girl in eleventh grade. She rose, together with a few friends from the Committee, and read aloud, with their help when she faltered, messages that family and friends had posted on Facebook detailing the fresh, physical fear they had felt that morning as Muslims in America.

Thursday the 10th happened to be Commonwealth’s Diversity Day, given wholly over this year to workshops and discussions about race and social class. Our keynote speaker, Rodney Glasgow, Chair of the National Association of Independent School’s annual Student Diversity Leadership Conference, spoke to students and teachers of the bullying he had suffered as a gay person of color coming of age in a private boys’ school. He spoke frankly of his reaction to the election, saying that, as with the torment he’d suffered in high school, it signaled to him that people like him were not wanted in this country.

Following that talk both students and teachers spoke openly in a series of workshops on the complex signals of exclusion, subtle and explicit, that they encounter as they navigate life and work at a select, privileged place like Commonwealth. The play of race and class in the election came up in many of the discussions, as did the challenges posed by the dominant biases of our community: some students spoke openly of how tough it is to be a conservative or religious person at Commonwealth. At the end of the day there was a palpable sense of gratitude for the chance to speak honestly across the various divides that separate us.

On November 17, our assembly speaker was Mike Firestone, Attorney General Maura Healey’s Chief of Staff. Mike won a national award for his work as Healey’s campaign manager, and has a long list of campaign experience, including serving as Field Director of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for U.S. Senate. We had expected a debrief on the election, but instead Mike’s talk began with his own long involvement, starting in high school, in political campaigns. He went on to detail the work of campaign managers, the requirements for successful campaigns, and finally patterns of voting in presidential elections over the last twenty years. He explained the razor-thin margin in this election, and closed by telling students that the opportunities for getting involved in causes and campaigns are plentiful—help is always needed.

Charles Merrill spoke on December 1st, and in his opening remarks challenged students to think about their education—the books they read, the music they listen to, and artists they love—and its importance to the crucial work of defending truth and dignity.

It struck me afterwards that we had come full circle, from a series of personal reactions as people grappled with the powerful fears and confusion this election has stirred, to a practical introduction to the kind of work needed to bring about the change so many long for, and finally to Charles linking the work ahead to the reading and learning our students are now engaged in.

As so often is the case at Commonwealth, ways forward emerged from the intelligence and honesty of our teachers and students, and from the shared day-to-day life of the community. Lessons so learned go deeper than any pronouncements.

Postscript: For our assembly on December 7, we welcomed Anthony Ray Hinton and Sia Sanneh from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States and stands up for the civil rights of the most vulnerable people in American society. Mr. Hinton was held on death row for nearly 30 years after being wrongfully convicted of the murders of two men in Alabama. He was released in 2015 after winning a new trial. He is the longest-serving death row inmate to be exonerated, thanks to the work of Ms. Sanneh and EJI.

Students and faculty were awestruck by Mr. Hinton’s humor and grace, and marveled at his courage in the face of such dire circumstances; many lined up to embrace him after his talk. As we move into the holiday season, we are fortunate to have had this glimpse of the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome.

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season.

Bill Wharton

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