Science teacher holding experiment

Ordinary Magic

Not long ago at dinner my daughter said, “I think I’m going to be the first person in my grade to have two birthdays during the pandemic.” Maya’s birthday is in mid-March. Last year having her birthday “cancelled” felt like a momentary injustice. This year’s COVID birthday has a different weight to it. Something that felt like a short-tem inconvenience has now become a defining feature of her adolescence. Each of our children, consciously or not, has had to recalibrate their expectations of childhood.

To state the obvious, the past year has exposed our children, and us, to chronic stress—stress that threatens to sap some of the joy and possibility from our lives. What do we do in the face of a seemingly endless stream of obstacles that have turned life upside down? How do we support our kids in remaining whole in the face of unprecedented challenges? The good news is, we are not helpless. Even during a global pandemic, there are tools available to help us support our children so that they can not merely survive, but thrive. Decades of research has illuminated what helps young people to be strong and resilient in the face of adversity. Psychologist Ann Masten has a beautiful description of the conditions that foster resilience. She calls this “Ordinary Magic.”

The ingredients for Ordinary Magic are not esoteric nor overly complex. They are things that we have always prioritized at Georgetown Day School, that are in fact at the heart of our School’s mission and philosophy. So, what is Ordinary Magic?

Meaningful Connections to Adults. COVID has meant that our kids are spending far more time at home. While this can test family relationships and try the patience of even the best-intentioned parents, the chance for regular connection can also be a gift. I’ve heard many parents talk about reclaiming the family dinner over the past year, and the new relationship rhythms that have been established amidst family “bubbles.” Many of us have come to know our kids better or more deeply than we did pre-COVID. This is a blessing.

Of course it’s not just connections with parents or family members that are important for young people. Good teachers can be our most powerful allies when we’re growing up, providing us with perspective, wisdom, grace and, at best, a mirror that reflects back to us our finest qualities. When children are seen, known, and valued by adults, they can tolerate quite a bit of upheaval. If growing up means navigating stormy seas—and COVID may just qualify as a “storm of the century”—healthy relationships with adults are the anchor that keeps our kids safe, protected, and less susceptible to capsizing or finding oneself tossed onto the rocks.

Nearly all GDS students have an adult at school whom they feel like knows them or “gets” them. This becomes even more important when masks, distancing, and limited unstructured time can result in feelings of isolation.

Purpose. Children are, by their nature, solipsistic. Part of this is developmental. While empathy begins to manifest as early as two- or three-years-old, most young people remain primarily rooted in their own perspective and experience through adolescence. And yet we know that healthy young people can learn to see a bigger picture. Perhaps the most effective mechanism for developing empathy is experiential learning, the opportunity to engage in work that requires stepping into another person’s shoes.

At GDS we believe that part of our job is helping our students to develop an understanding of and appreciation for those whose life experiences are different from our own. Through this understanding, young people begin to see what’s fair in the world—and what isn’t. They learn the ways in which systemic injustices benefit some and marginalize others. And they develop the tools and will to “bend the arc,” to make a positive difference in the world. We teach GDS students how to engage as just, ethical citizens and believe that this engagement benefits both the world and the students themselves, as a connection to meaningful work serves as a powerful antidote to despair.

A Sense of Predictability and Control. Young people benefit from routines. Whether it is circle time in 1st grade, Middle School advisory, or Monday morning meeting in High School, the rituals of school are foundational to a healthy learning environment. This year our routines have been disrupted again and again. We’ve moved from virtual to hybrid instruction. We’ve learned to wash hands with great frequency and to unmute ourselves on Zoom. We’ve had to quarantine following travel or a “close contact” with COVID. Each of these disruptions has challenged our equilibrium. And yet through these challenges we’ve managed to provide things that our students can count on. Teachers who know and love them. Classes with rich and challenging content. The routines of a school schedule, even one with a changing format. Under challenging circumstances we have maintained some rituals and established new ones that have sustained us through a year of tumult.

Adult connections, a sense of purpose, and predictability and control are all powerfully protective for our children. There are so many ways in which school this year hasn’t looked like what we’ve come to expect. We don’t have in-person concerts or assemblies. We can’t gather spontaneously. We can’t see each other’s faces. And yet in spite of these challenges, we have persevered. “Ordinary Magic” is alive and well at GDS. We look forward to it sustaining us through the months and years ahead.

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