We start and end every week at Orchard House School with a whole-school circle, where we can see everyone’s faces, hear everyone’s voices, and map out our connectedness physically. The first Morning Meeting of the year is always a special one that starts us off with excitement, when the buzz of post-summer catching up is punctuated by the grand entrance of the incoming 5th Grade class.
This year, Head of School Laura Haskins began the year by urging students to focus on the practice of self-compassion. In practicing self-compassion, we rewrite the scripts of self-criticism, choosing instead to be kind to ourselves. We try to separate our stumbling blocks from our self-identity—we are not defined by our missteps, by our unfulfilled expectations, or by how much we have yet to learn. Maybe most importantly, while self-compassion has an inward focus, we do not practice it in a vacuum, but instead as a member of a larger community, as someone who has much to offer to others, even in our rough patches.
Ms. Haskins chose Maya Angelou as the beginning messenger for this lesson, screening this video that invites us to think about our obligation to be kind to ourselves as the interplay between rainbows and clouds.
“This school year and throughout your entire life,” Haskins told students, “you will experience rainbows in the forms of fun times with friends, scoring a field hockey goal, grasping a math concept you worked hard on, or trying something new.” It is naturally easier to be kind to ourselves when we feel like we’re measuring up to a conventional model of success. But we will also experience clouds, maybe in the form of an argument with a family member, a difficult time with a new academic skill, coming down with the flu on days we have something epically fun planned, or saying something we regret to a friend. “As we learn how to appreciate our rainbows and coach ourselves through the clouds so that we learn and are kind to ourselves, we become people that are well-balanced and ready for life’s challenges.”
Mindful Mondays, a segment of the Monday Morning Meetings where the school collectively takes part in a mindfulness exercise to begin the week, reinforces the need to develop a regular practice of taking our emotional temperature. Language and Theatre Arts teacher Lucretia Anderson reintroduced Mindful Mondays this week, demonstrating with a swirling solution that clouded a figurine in a pitcher until the solution had time to settle. The message was simple: we’re still in there, even when we’re hidden by our clouds; we just need to take the time to let the debris settle every now and then.
When we get better at being kind to ourselves, we become better at being kind to others. If we are able to be mindful of our emotions while separating them from our self-characterization, we can train our brains to keep rumination to a minimum. Even further, if we’re able to recognize that our setbacks can help us in acknowledging shared experiences with others, we can reframe personal challenges as assets to the community. In Angelou’s words, “Prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”
Welcome back, Orchard House students—we’re excited to see you expand your capacity for so many things, but above all, your willingness to be kind to yourselves.
We kicked off our lunch speaker series last Friday with a visit from Grace Gallagher, Executive Director of the Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, which seeks to clear the air for youth struggling with anxiety and depression. As part of the talk, Grace shared the story of her daughter Cameron, whose struggles with depression led her to plan the bones of the Foundation while still a teenager. Her sudden death while competing in a half-marathon preparing her to organize the SpeakUp 5k, a race devoted to awareness of teenage depression, spurred her parents to realize her dream of a far-reaching campaign that could help other suffering teenagers.
Grace began by invoking Orchard House’s collective goal for the year—self-compassion. “Why do we talk to ourselves the way we’d never talk to our best friend?” she asked. Students were reminded of the weekly Mindful Monday exercises we do together and encouraged to remember the self-talk they use when things are going well. “When you’re in a down moment, it’s really hard to find the kind words for ourselves. But if you’ve already found them when you’re feeling great, or even okay, it gets easier to find them when you’re not.” Building a practice of self-compassion does not start only when you need it the most—just like a marathon, you can train for it.
Grace emphasized the power of disconnecting our self-identification from our struggles, pointing out that if we all have brains, we all must also have mental health. “So why then do we always associate ‘mental health’ with ‘crazy?’ If you have the flu, would you say, ‘I am the flu?’” In trying to recognize that we are not defined only by our difficulties, we can identify ups and downs for what they are: not permanent conditions, not personalities, but byproducts of the human condition, of simply having a brain.
Speaking to both faculty and students, Grace also reminded us that all too often adults are quick to regard teenage mental health with a variation of a familiar phrase: “These are just hard years.” While it’s true that adolescence is often a difficult time of transition and growth, choosing to mark depression or anxiety by reducing it to “hard years” can feel dismissive and sometimes take the place of addressing mental health. In a sense, we should start a discussion with our students and daughters by acknowledging the universality of mental health struggles (i.e. “We all have brains.”), but continue by addressing the fact that their teenage brains are distinctive and personal, not a cliché.
The students rounded out the talk asking questions and hearing about practical ways of working through sadness and anxiety, learning both short-term and long-term methods. On top of inner mantras—”I am strong enough. I am okay.”—Grace shared with us the framework of a goal of working through extended rough patches. “When you have passion and when you have pain, you can put a purpose to it.”
Students are participating in smaller interactive workshops with the Foundation all week to learn about stress, positive coping mechanisms, self compassion, and mindfulness. On Thursday, October 4 at 7:00 pm, we will host Jodi Beland, Program Director for Cameron K. Gallagher Foundation, as she presents an informative workshop to assist parents and caregivers in understanding adolescent mental health.
Please join us to continue this important conversation.