2019 Opening Convocation Message

September 11, 2019

Opening Convocation Speech from Head of School, Pilar Cabeza de Vaca -

Good Morning, Madeira!  What a glorious morning to have our official first day of school.  Class of 2020, you’re starting out in style!  I am so excited to see all our new and returning students.  Let me begin by welcoming all of you, and especially our new students and faculty, and sharing a little information about our Madeira community this year.  We begin the year with 324 students total, with 89 new girls joining us on our journey to change the world.  Our senior class is one of the largest in history, with 81 students. We have a record-breaking number of countries represented:   we can all learn to identify the 32 flags on display from nations spanning the entire alphabet and most continents. 

Over the summer, I had time to think about the year ahead, reflecting on how far we’ve come and the many changes yet to come to our community. I would like to pass along some of the thoughts that I shared with faculty and staff last week, some advice from an alumna, and a little nostalgia.

Seniors, this is your first of many “lasts” that will become cherished rites of passage in your final year at Madeira. This will be my last year too, and I look forward to sharing this special journey with you.  Juniors, you’re more than half way through your Madeira adventure, and you are realizing that maybe time moves a litter faster than you’d like. Sophomores, you survived your first year and are ready to share your well-earned wisdom. 

Fresh women and all newcomers to Madeira:  Welcome to a wonderful community, where you will thrive in every way possible and become your true self, taking your place among an impressive group of young women who will change the world.  SuJ Johnson Rodgers, who graduated from Madeira in 1977, wrote a letter to all of you offering poignant insight into homesickness, getting along with roommates, and how your choices—to take advantage of all that Madeira has to offer or spend your time here cloistered in your room—have a lasting effect on your high school experience.  She offers three pieces of sound, and I must say, timeless, advice. The first is “to be tolerant, respectful, and accepting of others.” The second is to “get involved in activities or clubs on campus.” Finally, she recommends that you “take advantage of your location,” near Washington DC and promises “You won’t regret it!”

I hope all of you were able to have a relaxing summer break with time for family, hobbies, and travel, and home cooked food. I was fortunate to have two full weeks with my family in Quito and was greeted with the news that my son and wife have a new baby girl, Emilia, on the way, who I hope will be a member of the Class of 2038!  I was also able to celebrate granddaughter’s Eva fifth birthday, which was a call to all unicorns and celebrated with many children.  I got a renewed taste of what it is to spend considerable time with fifteen plus kindergarteners and toddlers and why I always leaned more towards adolescents and high school.           

We begin this year with a focus on how to best manage transitions, because of course, schools are always about transitions and change: from one graduating class to the next, bringing in new students and new faculty and staff, and to this coming year, the passing of the proverbial baton to a new Head of School. Knowing that "School is Messy," especially in times of transition, our goal is to make it a manageable messy, helping everyone to get excited about and embrace change, and ensuring that we all participate in making Madeira the best it can be.

Looking back over the nine years that I've already completed here, it feels a bit strange to think of my tenure coming to an end. I believe that while Madeira is still fundamentally the school that Miss Lucy founded in 1906, that is, a place where all of you become your best selves, we have also brought it firmly into the twenty first century and positioned ourselves as leaders in innovation. While change can be messy and difficult to cope with, the results of change at Madeira have definitely made the discomfort worthwhile.

At Madeira the idea that "School is Messy," has been literally the case, as builders and our crews are still cleaning up after a summer filled with construction. I am happy to say that our dorm renovation project is now complete thanks to the generosity of alumnae, parents, and faculty and staff, and to the hard work of everyone who made the project happen on the ground.  In the process, this summer we have also renovated some of our old water mains, dating from the early 1930's and up to now held together by the clay that supported them. Unfortunately, the hot water in North, East, and Main was a little reluctant to move into the 21st century, and I appreciate everyone’s patience and resilience as that messiness was resolved.  Though I will not be here to see it, you can anticipate and get excited about the messiness of a brand new academic building going up in the next couple of years, giving a permanent home, finally, to our budding robotics, maker space, and fab labs as well as offering state of the art facilities for the sciences, arts, math, and other classes.

"School is Messy" is also a reflection of life. We are lucky that, while we do have routines, each day brings something different: you might be more excited about one topic than you were the day before; your mom or dad might send a care package or let you take the car; or maybe your dorm adult arranges a “bolt” to Chipotle! On a larger scale, things change from year to year as well. New girls join our community each year, and they bring fresh perspectives, traditions, cultures, and experiences. Facing the new year from the vantage point of someone ready to retire, I find myself reflecting on what I will miss most as I transition to the next phase of my life.

What I will miss the most, of course, is the community at Madeira, from girls to adults, from predictable to unpredictable--you are part of the messiness that has always made school fun for me. Yes, I also love knowing what is planned, but it's the messiness of having to deal with the unexpected that challenges and excites me because I have to be creative about addressing it. I will miss listening to people share stories over lunch or marveling at the extraordinary talents of our teachers. I will miss having advisories and having the privilege of observing you interact with each other, with my co-advisor, and with me.  I will miss senior dinners at The Land, chatting about inane and serious topics.  I will miss running into riders at the stables when I walk Napoleon, winter and spring fests, spirit days, seeing athletes coming back exhausted but happy from the fields. Most of all, I will miss the joy and unpredictability of working with all of you on a daily basis.  But enough of nostalgia.  I still have a full school year to savor all my favorite things at Madeira.

Messiness truly is good! We have so much to look forward to this year! We have new students to get to know, new faculty and staff you will meet today, an active search for a new Head of School that is bringing forward three candidates for all of you to meet, newly configured Co-Curriculum and Admissions teams, and a fresh perspective in the Dean of Students office. We look forward to exciting classes, loads of activities, brilliant performances, championship banners, and all the crazy and unthinkable things that will make us scratch our heads in wonder. We all have permission to take risks, to fail, to try again-in other words, to be innovative and creative.

As we begin the 2019-2020 school year, we also have much to celebrate and to focus on. We will always celebrate the great work we do together and our wonderful traditions. We will celebrate our collective successes while making sure that we always seek out opportunities for improvement.  We will celebrate opportunities, open dialog, and sharing different points of view, because they open up our horizons and provide so many opportunities to expand our minds and learn more from each other.  We will celebrate girls and the power of women, and we will explore areas where we can and will make a difference.

Personally, I will certainly be in the mode of savoring and celebrating each day, each experience and each opportunity, and I will save them as precious memories to take with me when I join the Class of 2020 in bidding good-bye, or in my native tongue, “hasta luego”—see you later-- to Madeira.

As we begin the 2019-2020 school year, let’s always remember to make haste slowly (festina lente) and honor Lucy Madeira, and finally to heed her advice to Function in Disaster, and Finish in Style! 

Have a fabulous beginning to a fabulous year.  Class of 2020, make it your best!   GO SNAILS!!!!