Home Community Blog Opening Upper School Assembly Talk 2022

This speech was given to students by Nancy Nebeker, Dean of Students at Waterford’s Middle and Upper School opening assembly for the 2022-23 school year.

Culture of Kindness & Joy in the Journey

It is a wonderful opportunity for me to speak to you this morning on this day early in the school year. It is a moment to share with you some of the things that I have been thinking about concerning my work as your Dean. It is also a moment to share some of the things I have come to know—with a great degree of clarity – about what it means to be part of a community.

I love my work as a Dean. I get to work with you amazing students and with outstanding faculty as we all try to navigate life at Waterford and occasionally solve challenging problems that come up along the way. “Joy in the Journey” is a theme that describes my experience as a Dean in four simple words.

I am grateful for all the kindness that you show me and I especially appreciate your willingness to chat and fill me in on the things going on in your life. Sometimes your news is good, sometimes not. On occasion, a student seeks me out simply for a thoughtful conversation around something on their mind or with a concern for a friend. Your trusted conversations with me make my day and give great meaning to my work.

Not surprisingly—because I think like a Dean—the phrase “Joy in the Journey” implies that everyone gets to have joy and that everyone here can make sure everyone else has joy in their Waterford journey too. That’s because everyone has a place here at Waterford. There is room for everyone—both physically and figuratively. “Joy in the Journey” asks each of us to be the one who makes room for a new student, or a familiar face looking for a kind classmate.

You see, all of us are Waterford. You are Waterford. I am Waterford. And Waterford exists because of each one of us and for each one of us. Each day, your Deans seek to build a culture of kindness and caring because frankly, that is the only kind of culture a school can run on.

Right here, right now,  you are learning to be who you will become—who you want to become. During these Upper School years—you are in fact—becoming the unique individual you will carry into adulthood. There is no better way to do that than in the company of one another.

I have come to know over my years of deaning that it is hard to be a “net neutral” when it comes to community life.  It was in fact a Waterford senior who shared this idea with me a number of years ago.  We were meeting on campus for a Saturday class in preparation for a humanitarian trip to India. As a group, we were talking about the significance of our little squad taking care of each other as we traveled around the world and how each of the team members needed to carry their fair share. We were going to work with the poorest of the poor, we would be seeing loss and suffering we couldn’t at that moment even imagine. This student told all of us that in each leg of the journey, and at each challenging moment, we would each be either a net negative or a net positive. She was right.  

Have you made the way a bit more pleasant for a peer? Have you scooted over to include someone into your midst? Have you offered a simple smile and nod as you have passed someone in the hall.  None of those small things are “net neutral”. All of them are small positive gestures that become part of our community experience and I see those small positive  things every day on this campus.

All of you, sadly, will likely have unfortunate social kerfuffles during this year or in the years ahead. What I have come to know about social kerfuffles over the years is quite simple.  First: meanness doesn’t get you far. It rarely leads to trusted friendships and second: when kids act with meanness they are rarely happy kids. I think all of us can agree that we are known by the way we treat others and the way we speak about others. That is simply the truth. What we say and do matters because it paints the picture of who we are.

Truthfully, we are living in a world that permits and accepts meanness as an acceptable social norm. In the name of humor, anything is up for harsh teasing or ridicule. Anything and everything can be turned into a Meme. 

But clearly, that biting, even mean humor doesn’t promote joy in anyone’s journey. So it makes sense to say that such meanness doesn’t belong here.  But in truth only you, each of you really—must be willing to say that.  You can simply say “no” to mean and unkind behavior—in person and online. You can be the “net positive” who says that everyone on this campus deserves to be treated with kindness, decency and dignity.  

Because of so many of you and your good examples, I have come to know that you can “grow out” of a friendship without a “falling out” with a friend or a whole group of friends.  You know the kind of falling out I’m talking about—the one where someone gets iced out, and then a juicy (and mostly or somewhat fictitious) story is shared with all the new friends they are hanging out with now.  You know that falling out—that includes a large or small social media campaign. The one that involves too many people for absolutely no good reason. You know—the one that causes drama and hurt feelings and lasts way, way too long.  Yes, that one.  

Please pause for a moment and think about this one complicated truth: each of you is experiencing your own journey of self-discovery that is mind bendingly complex and too often painful. If we could all acknowledge that truth, we might give others the space, the grace and the kindness each of us needs.  

In order to do that though, we must check our humor and our banter. “Just joking” can’t be given as a pass for cheap or biting or hurtful humor. Yes, I know it’s what you do, but you could choose another way.

It should be reassuring to know that research tells us that all of us are actually looking for the same thing in a friendship—a person or two who we can trust and be our authentic self with. That’s both simple and profound and it is possible to do in our Waterford community.  I see it every day.

My suggestion that you change some of the ways you joke and tease with one another may sound like we are expecting more of you than before, but really this is what Waterford has always been about. It is in fact embedded in our core value of caring. We are asking you—I am asking you—to be better to one another than what is modeled for you through SnapChat, TikTok and Memes. I have seen a sampling of what some of you have experienced on those platforms and it has been heartbreaking.

The challenges of this moment in time have reminded me that Waterford’s core values of Excellence, Integrity, Curiosity, Responsibility & Caring all call us to be better than the cultural tide we are swimming in. But, I am an optimist. I believe our Waterford community can rise to this occasion and do better than the cultural norms of this day—making it possible for each of us to find joy in our journey here.

All of you are here to learn. You are asked to do intellectually demanding work every day that stretches your mind, your heart and your skills. To be successful, all of you will need kindness along the way—from the adults and peers who work with you. Therefore, please lean in with kindness. Offer forgiveness and grace when someone else falters. It will make a difference for you and everyone around you.

Waterford is a space that each of us should want to protect—for our own sake as well as for the sake of others. It is a place and a community we get to honor—for it is indeed a privilege to be here.

And I am privileged to be your Dean. Growing up I was fortunate to attend an independent school in NYC that was very similar to Waterford. It changed the trajectory of my life and prepared me for a life of meaning and purpose. A life of joy.

I stand as your advocate and your voice when you need me to and I am honored to do so.  Thank you for being who you are and for all of your efforts to be a net positive in our Upper School community. I wish you a wonderful year.

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