Moving Through Fear and Fog with Love and Light

I hesitate to write this letter in ink. The world is changing so quickly, so unpredictably and so consequentially that my words will almost certainly be irrelevant in a month. As I write this in early June, I am acutely aware that when the rest of this magazine was completed just a couple of weeks ago, our world looked much different than it does even today.

Looking a bit farther in the rearview mirror, in February, we would never have guessed that Durham Academy would move online for a quarter of the school year — joining 191 countries across the globe as they closed K–12 schools, leaving 1.6 billion children at home. Heroically and unsurprisingly, our life-changing faculty rose to the occasion — sustaining connections, learning and joy — despite the distance.

Photo by Kim Walker

In May, we would never have imagined that the murder of an unarmed Black man — a scene enacted with horrific frequency for the entirety of our nation’s history — would catalyze racial justice uprisings in every state. The young people who are protesting now have made clear that they do not intend to live in a world in which they are denied justice and equality like the generations before them.

Harvard Professor Cornel West talks often about “love warriors.” As he puts it, “I come from a tradition of a people who have been traumatized and terrorized and stigmatized for 400 years. And what have we done? We have dished out the highest quality of human beings — tied to love.”

West credits John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan and James Baldwin for helping him understand human suffering, and how to transcend it. He points to other love warriors — Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ella Baker — people who demonstrated “sustained compassion and creativity in the face of sustained catastrophe.”

At this point in our school year, in this chapter of American history, West’s phrase resonates deeply. “Sustained compassion and creativity in the face of sustained catastrophe.”

Last fall, we mourned the losses of three members of the DA community: senior Jack Linger and first-grader Nicky Abraham and his mother. This spring, while 100,000 Americans died of COVID-19 — while we and our neighbors were separated, sickened, isolated or thrust into financial hardship — we kept our chins up, our minds open to the challenges of online learning, and our hearts fixed on the children in our charge.

“Sustained compassion and creativity in the face of sustained catastrophe.”

How did we do this? How can we move through the fear and the fog of the present moment with love and light? How will we navigate our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous future? 

Observing the DA community this spring leaves me with three of the answers to those questions:

  • Mission — Founded during the Great Depression, our school weathered World War II. It was strengthened by the Civil Rights Movement and deepened by 9/11. For the last 50 years, our mission statement has remained steadfastly focused on preparing students for “moral, happy, productive lives.” The stronger the winds of uncertainty blow, the more we rely on the deepest roots of Durham Academy. Whether forced to stay at home or wearing masks on campus, our teachers work with missionary zeal toward long-term outcomes for whole human beings.
  • Community — Kindergarten parents have never appreciated their teachers more than they do now. Hearing high school students say how much they missed their campus and couldn’t wait to return was among the bittersweet fruits of this spring. We will never again take for granted the daily, easily overlooked blessings of living and learning in community. As we survived our quarantines, set new records for consecutive family dinners and reconnected with our old friends via Zoom, we reminded ourselves that personal connections and meaningful relationships matter most of all.
  • Learning — I love this quotation from Eric Hoffer: “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Those who thrived this spring showed agility, curiosity and a willingness to experiment. Those who will thrive in the future (on DA’s campus or in the world beyond) will need to become experts at listening to all perspectives, learning from all sources and building connections with all kinds of people.

This summer, every school and every city in America has the opportunity to become more equitable and more just. Every organization in the world will be transformed by the COVD-19 pandemic. Each will emerge either stronger or weaker as a result, but none will be the same.

By the time you read this letter, June of 2020 will be fixed in history. The uncertainty of the future, however, appears to have no end. This challenging spring convinces me that the DA community will hold steadfast to our mission, take care of each other and be ready for the endless learning ahead.

— Michael Ulku-Steiner
Head of School