I have a powerful letter from the Hamlin archives in my school office, written by Kate Hamlin, and it tells the story of the day her audacious older sister Sarah walked out of school because she was outraged by injustice. Sarah Dix Hamlin was about 10 years old at the time, and she had heard that there was a man in Westford, MA who was abusing his wife in drunken rages. Sarah’s young mind had made the connection between alcohol consumption and domestic violence, and she saw herself as an active part of the Temperance Movement. Instead of going home as usual, Sarah walked out of school and went directly to the house where the couple lived and banged on the door. Kate writes in the letter that Sarah was not successful in her attempt to seek justice, and she scared their parents half to death when she was late arriving home.
This childhood story reminds me of the feisty DNA of our founder and the lofty mission of our school: “The Hamlin School educates girls to meet the challenges of their time, and inspires them to become extraordinary thinkers and innovators, courageous leaders, and women of integrity.” Our mission guides all of our decisions, both large and small, and it is critically important to be wise and deliberate as we address the significant challenges of our time.
As Head of School, I want to share two thoughts with the entire community before I describe our K-8 plan for the Day of Action and National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14. My dual purpose in writing is to place our K-8 plan into a larger context and to invite us to use this national response to gun violence as a way to reinforce Hamlin’s mission and core values.
First, I want to say that there are numerous causes for which we could walk out of school for 17 minutes or perhaps longer. You may remember that I began the 2017-18 school year singing “Make it Rain” and reflecting on the deep-seated racism we saw in Charlottesville as well as the painful sting of bias my family and I sometimes experience as African-Americans living in Pacific Heights. Gender inequality and sexual harassment have grabbed national attention with #MeToo and #TimesUp, and the Women’s Marches have drawn thousands of feminists out of their homes and into the streets. The Black Lives Matter movement, fueled by youth who are demanding an end to police brutality, is doing its work in cities across the nation. Attorney and author Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative continue their quest to end mass incarceration and to reform the criminal justice system. People defending DACA continue to bring pressure to bear on the government to reform immigration policy. Another large group of Nigerian girls were abducted from their school several days ago by Boko Haram, thereby re-energizing the #BringBackOurGirls movement. Given the recent tragedy in Yountville, I am quite certain that California residents will be discussing mental illness and care for veterans in the coming weeks and months. Indeed, the challenges of our time are significant and numerous.
So, the question should be asked, “Why is Hamlin responding to the issues of gun violence and school safety and not other atrocities?” The answer is this: the school shooting in Parkland, Florida captured the attention and collective conscience of many of our girls, and they appealed with clarity and purpose to their school leaders and teachers for permission to do something. Given our mission to develop courageous leaders and women of integrity, the mission-appropriate response to the girls has been to say yes to their request and to work with them to develop safe, age-appropriate options for girls who would like to engage in some form of activism. Moreover, from an educational and psychological perspective, we know that a sense of purpose can be the perfect antidote to the anxiety and stress that arise when natural and human-made disasters occur.
The second thought I want to share is about Hamlin’s Creed– our bold statement of ethical values– and the decisions that we make every day. While the teachers and I are fully supportive of civic action on March 14th, we are more deeply committed to civility and kindness every day. How will the girls rise to the occasion and become better versions of themselves today on March 12, on March 13, on March 15 and the days hence? Will we allow our girls to walk out for 17 minutes on March 14 to honor the lives of strangers whom they have never met and say nothing about how they treat their own Hamlin sisters whom they see every day? Will we allow the girls to write letters to politicians about the danger of guns without also asking them to place a ban on unkindness and exclusive behavior? Hurtful words and actions, cliques and nonverbal exclusion, and deliberate misuse of social media platforms are weapons used daily in schools across our country, and building healthy school cultures must also be a part of our school safety plans. While the majority of the behavior that I see at Hamlin is “Creedful” and praiseworthy, I also know that there is always room for growth. Therefore, I am asking all parents to join us in reminding their daughter(s) that Compassion, Courage, Honesty, Respect, and Responsibility are not mere suggestions at Hamlin. These values are necessary guidelines as we work together to create a psychologically safe community where all members feel seen, known, and loved.
In what may be a pivotal moment for our country, I want to inspire all of us to live more consciously. Let’s walk the talk. If there is any good that will come out of the Parkland tragedy, may it be that all schools become more closely-knit, inclusive communities. In an ideal world, we will have both gun control and self-control. May we all be well.