Head of School Jay Rainey delivered the following address at the MICDS Parents Association Holiday Gathering earlier today in Olson Hall.
As of 2012, the most commonly taught book-length text in American high schools was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and I would expect that a survey conducted this year would find it still at or near the top of the list. There is a point in the novel’s progression when two characters, Tom Buchanan and George Wilson, despite the vast differences in their circumstances, are nevertheless united by the shock of parallel unwelcome discoveries in their lives. “It occurred to me,” observes the narrator, Nick Carraway, in remembering both men in that moment, “that there was no difference so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.”
Nick’s observation has been much on my mind this week as I returned to MICDS after the Thanksgiving holiday infected with…something. Thanks to negative results on both an antigen and a PCR test (I am grateful to our exceptional Upper School nurse, Michelle Fox, for administering the first of these), I know that it wasn’t COVID. Perhaps it was the flu, although I had none of the classic symptoms. In any event, I simply felt unwell and “off” throughout the early part of this week—until this morning, really—and as each day went by, I began to conceive of my experience as a metaphor for the more universal experience of living through the present pandemic. (I am a recovering English teacher after all.) The dull sensations of dragging through my days, of having muted interactions with family, friends, and colleagues, of feeling out of focus, and of wondering what exactly this was and when it would let go its grip on me—all of these impressions struck me as consonant, in miniature, with life through a global health crisis that is fast approaching two years of age. We have all been metaphorically under the weather since early 2020.
“Under the weather,” however, is not quite the same thing as “sick,” and the distinction between the two reminds me of an Irish proverb: “It is easy to sleep on another man’s wound.” I am often asked how people at MICDS are feeling these days—our students, our faculty, our staff—and I frequently find myself responding that “the median person seems to be doing okay, but the average person is having a tougher time.” (I am also a recovering math teacher.) Essentially what I mean is that, if one were to select 10 people at random and sort them by their level of stress, my expectation is that the fifth and sixth individuals—the median—would report manageable levels of stress relative to those of their pre-pandemic lives, but that the ninth and tenth would report substantially elevated and challenging levels of stress. Most of us are under the weather, in other words, but some of us are sick, and deserving of care.
Ireland also gave us William Butler Yeats, whose succinct 1909 poem A Friend’s Illness reads as follows: “Sickness brought me this / Thought, in that scale of his: / Why should I be dismayed / Though flame had burned the whole / World, as it were a coal, / Now I have seen it weighed / Against a soul?”
In my address to the Upper School student body on March 13, 2020, which would prove to be the final day of in-person learning at MICDS that academic year, I shared the selfless sentiment voiced by the character Dorothea Brooke in Mary Anne Evans’ Middlemarch: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” In view of what we already knew about COVID-19 at that time–of the particular susceptibility of elderly and immunocompromised persons to the novel virus—I observed to our Upper School community, “What a gift we have in this moment to act in the interests of the most vulnerable among us. I encourage you to rise to this occasion. We have good work to do.”
We still have good work to do in the interests of the most vulnerable among us. Social, emotional, and mental “pandemic sickness” is a difficult corollary of the coronavirus pandemic itself. We must make it less difficult, to ourselves and to each other. On that day in March of 2020 with our Upper School students, I asked them to close their eyes and envision an older or immunocompromised person who was dear to them, and to think of their care and keeping. On this day in December of 2021, I ask you now to close your own eyes and envision a person who is dear to you who may be struggling with elevated stress, and to think of their care and keeping in the same spirit. Perhaps this person is you. What a gift we have in this moment–in this holiday season–to act in the interests of the most vulnerable among us. I encourage you to rise to this occasion. We have good work to do.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. My best wishes to you and your families for a joyful weekend.
Head of School