Generations are shaped by shared moments and experiences. Baby Boomers recall the wonder of the first moonwalk and grief following the assassinations of President Kennedy and Dr. King. Generation X can still conjure up the tumbling of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent seismic shifts in geopolitics. Millennials remember the disorientation, shock, and sadness that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
What stories will our children tell about the fall of 2020? Will they tell stories of ubiquitous hand sanitizer and the anonymity of mask wearing? Will they remember an election that manifested a nation deeply divided? Will they speak of racism whose roots in our nation’s soil revealed themselves once again to be entrenched and pervasive?
My hope is that we can help give our children another story to tell about this fall, one of collective responsibility, of a renewed commitment to democracy, and of the necessity of activism and engagement for building the world that we want. This ability to see possibility amidst challenge is not new for Georgetown Day School. Philleo Nash, our founding Board chair, wrote, “It is of paramount importance that we should develop knowledge and awareness of how we Americans came together to become what we are—and what we would like to be but are not. It is not enough to assert that democracy is good. It must be lived through and made to be good, in our time and place.”
How can our students help make democracy good? How can they view the present moment through a lens of opportunity? One important answer lies in the work our students are already doing. While very few GDS students are old enough to vote, that did not stop them from participating in the democratic process this fall. Dozens of GDS high school students volunteered as poll workers or worked on voter mobilization initiatives. Others worked on campaigns, taking breaks from homework to make nearly 5,000 phone calls to voters in Maine, Iowa, Georgia, and more. This year our 8th grade students will once again undertake an in-depth exploration of Constitutional issues as part of their Hill Day project, ultimately meeting with policymakers for the purpose of sharpening their own thinking. Our Lower School students will explore civil rights through a range of different lenses, learning about Gandhi’s Salt March, about the Stonewall uprising, about Fannie Lou Hamer’s courageous activism, and more. Throughout their education, GDS students learn of the power that lives within each of us to make a difference and of the imperative to engage as just, moral, and ethical citizens.
The challenges that we collectively face as a nation can be met with despair—or with hope. As educators, our obligation is to provide hope. To be clear, this does not mean glossing over the real challenges that we face, whether they be climate change, systemic racism, or a global pandemic. It means providing our students with the critical thinking skills to understand these challenges and the tools to help solve them.
When our students reflect back on the fall of 2020, I hope that they’ll remember their own growing sense of agency—an identity informed by citizenship, courage, and purpose. There’s no question that recent months have presented us with new and complex challenges. Still, in spite of what 2020 has dealt us, we can also believe in the individual and collective capacity of our kids, guided by our dedicated faculty, to respond with compassion and tenacity. They will help us build the future they deserve.