Opening Convocation message from the Head of School

September 2, 2016

Good morning, Madeira! It’s hard to believe that summer vacation is over, and we’re ready to start a new school year. Throughout the summer months, all of us have been preparing for this very special first day. At our end, yesterday we welcomed all our new students, spent some time with our international students and saw our returning students checking in, settling into dorms or helping newcomers as swing sisters. At your end, I know you are excited to be back or to be starting your journey at Madeira. I can also bet many of you were finishing the last chapters of your summer reading and you are ready to begin the school year!

I’m sure all of you noticed our brand new fields as you drove on to campus. I have to marvel at the engineering that went into building them. I actually thought it would be pretty simple: level the ground and replace the old grass with the new artificial turf. Deceptive thoughts! The engineering underneath those spectacular fields, which include multi-layers of dirt, gravel, drainage pipes, and stormwater management solutions took all summer to complete. Centering the "M" for Madeira revealed how optical illusions work as we tackled the challenge of synchronizing our “M” that was already centered in a circle with the center line of the field. Fitting in the storage shed unobtrusively was another feat of good design and engineering. The results are all we expected, and as we roll out the school year, I’m excited to know that we also have an excellent and highly prepared team to lead our interscholastic athletics this year. Hail the Snails!

I think of this new school year as the year of the woman. Coming out of the Olympics, we need to celebrate that American women won more medals than men, and if they had competed as a separate country, would have come in third in the overall medal ranking. Our gymnastics team was truly spectacular, with Simone Biles leading and becoming the best gymnast of all times. Closer to home, Katie Ledecky also set Olympic and world records—and remember, our own Kylie Jordan swam against her locally and even bested her once. More importantly, our national teams not only broke Olympic and world records: they also broke racial barriers and spoke to, and celebrated, the diversity of American population. 

Women are increasingly becoming political leaders around the world. For the first time in history, this year’s presidential election in America features a female candidate representing a major political party. My home country, Ecuador, which will also have a presidential election this year, also features a woman candidate, though not for the first time. Following the Brexit vote, Theresa May is only the second woman Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. Angela Merkel, from Germany and probably the strongest leader in the European Union today, is up for re-election, Dilma Roussef, in Brazil, has just been impeached, and Marine Le Pen, in France, is gaining strength as a candidate for a xenophobic far right. Something that is definitely a gender equalizer is that regardless of whether a leader is a woman or a man, there are great leaders and not so great ones. But something is in the air: women seem to be coming into their own around the world. A very important fact to keep in mind. 

The world is in the process of political change, sometimes driven by hope, others by fear, yet others by the realities of economic downturns, technology, and globalization, all of which have had a painful impact on workers and on the socioeconomic status of the least fortunate. This is not the first time in history, however, that politics are driven by hard times. What is exceptional is that so many women are now taking on leadership roles and becoming increasingly prominent and influential in world affairs. If we take this fact out of the context of controversial elections the world over, it is indeed a cause for celebration.

America is in the midst of an election year, and this will have an impact on our small world within Madeira’s picket fence. Unfortunately, the controversies surrounding both political parties and even more, around the two major candidates, make this a contentious election. However, what I want to emphasize and celebrate above all else is that we live in a democracy. Returning students are probably tired of hearing my story, but for you, new girls, I grew up under dictatorships. When I went to school we had no snow days but rather coup or revolution days. I watched governments toppled from my bedroom window, which looked out at a military school where much of the action happened. I’ve experienced what it means not to have freedom of the press, not to have civil liberties, and what it is to be at the mercy of a dictator’s or a military junta’s whim. Don’t take democracy for granted. Although it may be flawed, and it is always very messy, it is still the best system in our world and for our country. Let’s not forget this as we navigate the ins and outs of this particular election process, which although it ends on November 8, will continue to develop no matter which candidate is elected. Democracy reflects the wish of the majority of the people, and in America it is a balance of three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judiciary. As women who will change the world, you are in place to be the next generation of leaders, and perhaps fill slots in the House or Senate, in the Supreme Court, or become the inhabitant of the White House. What can you do at Madeira to ensure that true democratic values, human rights, and equality and justice for all are your core principles? What can we do to ensure that you are good citizens, that you involve yourselves in the democratic process, and that you really make your voices heard? How can we ensure that you’ll make a difference? That your generation will produce ladies (and gentlemen) that we are proud to consider our leaders?

First, let’s focus on our community values. Be aware of, and respectful to, yourself and others. You will meet many girls who are different from you.  Take the time to really know and understand them. Try to walk in their shoes and understand their perspectives. Practice compassion. Be kind, not because it’s the politically correct thing to do but because you really CARE. Be intellectually curious and not afraid to open your horizons—your eyes and your heart—to include other worldviews, ideas, beliefs, traditions, and practices. Be honest in everything you do: academics, your personal and social life, and in your dealings with events and issues. 

On our part, this is what we intend to do: A key word for us this year is harmony. We will practice having difficult conversations around politics and the elections, around tough topics like bias, religious beliefs, personal identity, immigration, and others. Our goal is to promote civic and civil discourse, not to achieve unanimity of opinions and beliefs. We would be a poor community indeed if we had no dissent. We will enrich ourselves by admitting that all opinions and views matter, even if one of them might go against the very grain of our own personal beliefs. Freedom of expression, however, does not mean freedom to offend; it is my hope and wish that each one of you will never offend because you truly know and care for all your sisters at Madeira, because you empathize with them, and because you have a clear understanding of what can be offensive and you don’t want to be hurtful. This goes all ways: whether you are white, black, brown, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, American or international, boarder or day, an athlete or a thespian, a scholar for whom things come easily or a student who struggles to keep up with her work. My wish and my dream for each one of you is to have a wonderful journey this year, to exemplify the best of a solid, inclusive, and caring community, and to demonstrate that women, young and old, can practice democracy in an environment of respect, focusing on issues and not personalities, on healthy debate, and on freedom of expression. You will be setting the example for the adult world that is struggling to take the high road, and you will be strengthening the foundations of great leadership in your generation. We know full well that you are next in line to lead our country and our world. I know and trust that if I travel forward in time, I will see many of you leading in those three branches of government. If we do our job well, you will do Madeira proud.

Now, to truly excite you, let me tell you what we have in store for you this coming year. I’ve already mentioned our athletic fields and the fabulous team that will work with you. We have new and returning faculty that are eager to share their passion for learning in all disciplines. Thanks to the generosity of our donors and following the success and popularity of our Betabox last spring, we have both a maker space and a fab lab where you can design and create with 3D printers, laser cutters, and all manner of simpler tools. This is just a prelude to the new science center that will be built in the near future, and for which we already have an artistic rendering. Our All School Meetings will feature political commentators, authors, women leaders in the STEAM fields, and faculty and students. We have a new drone club that offers exciting projects for you to get involved in. Our weekend activities will include boys more often. In the spring we will be celebrating Co-Curriculum’s 50th birthday with a spectacular array of speakers and activities. We will celebrate girls every day of the year and cheer you on as you make your way through projects, papers, making new friends, and being the best community members you can be.

Finally, some advice. Remember to eat nutritious foods, to sleep eight hours a night, and to take things one at a time. Poor health and stress are not good for you! Be mindful that failure is a good thing: you always learn best when you make mistakes. You are here to learn, not to be perfect. Nothing is complete if we can’t take the time to laugh at ourselves every once in a while, have fun with friends, and enjoy the light side of life. Again, don’t waste the opportunities you have before you: meet and befriend new girls, explore the campus, discover new ways to have fun, and above all, remember not to break the major rules. Disconnect from your devices often enough to focus on the real rather than the virtual world; to enjoy a beautiful fall or spring day and all the nature that surrounds you; and yes, remember to connect long enough to do your homework, communicate with your parents, and keep in touch with old friends.

Keep our campus looking beautiful and be mindful that it takes one instant to throw trash in the wrong place but several hours to clean up if you’re all doing it—be considerate of all the support staff that keeps everything running behind the scenes. 

Seniors, you are the oldest and wisest of the student community. Remember that you are role models for everyone else. Enjoy every minute of your last year here and build those memories that will carry you forward in good and bad times. Juniors, make the best of the myth of junior year. Pace yourselves, be Madeira’s ambassadors on Capitol Hill and remember to pat yourselves on the back for each accomplishment. Sophomores, you are well on the way to becoming old timers here. Focus on learning and on helping out all the newcomers. Freshwomen: welcome to Madeira! We are excited to have a new class on campus. Relish every day of your experience. 

Let’s all make this year a memorable one, and for all the right things: the joy of learning and of being together as a community, and the pride of being Madeira girls. Have a wonderful year.


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