A Community of Kindness, Compassion, and Respect

By Eric Niles, Head of School, read at Convocation, our annual all-school kickoff meeting.

Welcome to our seniors, the Class of 2017. Welcome to our 8th graders, the Class of 2021. And welcome to our 6th graders, the Class of 2023. I always like to say that because it sounds so futuristic. Welcome to the faculty and staff—I hope you all had a great summer and a great start to the year. Welcome to members of the Athenian board of trustees.  These trustees are all volunteers, so they do this work not to get paid, but to support the efforts of a school they love. They are, in short, making a very meaningful contribution in our world.

My summer was mostly great.  I am not one to focus on the negative—trust me, my “glass” is way more than half full as a member of this Athenian community—but there was one particular time that was very hard.  In early August, about 30 of us came together in the CFTA to honor the life of Safar Shakeyev, an alumnus from 2010 who sadly passed away in late July. Mark VanWarmerdam, Michelle Park, and Emily Shinkle are in Kazaksthan with Safar’s family as I say this.  He was actually the second young alum who died this summer.  Dan Goldberg ’03 had passed away just the week before.  Also, this summer was a time of deep unease, both politically and socially, in the United States.  We have a presidential campaign that is more divisive than any in my lifetime and this June we witnessed the death of unarmed people of color at the hands of police and then the death of 5 police officers in Dallas.  I was reeling.  And you know what I wanted rather than the quiet of summer vacation?  I wanted my community together.  Sure, there was a smattering of us here working this summer and we hugged and cried at the deaths of our young friends.  That was comforting, but I wanted the power of the whole community here.  We feed and nurture each other.

So I see some people looking around.  Is he advocating year-round school?  Is this the end of summer at Athenian?  Well, no.  Selfishly I would want you around, but I understand the power of summer to help us all catch our breath.  But that is what I wanted in that moment.

Why?  Because this community, at its core, is about kindness, compassion, and respect for everyone. Everyone.  If you are new to Athenian, that is an important message for you to take in today.  Because not all communities have those values, live those values.  But we do.  It means that you will be welcomed here, respected here, with open arms.  It means that we will soon be confused about who is new to 9th grade and who came from Athenian’s Middle School.  Wait, hasn’t she been here for 3 years?  Well, no.  Three months.  It means that if you fall short of that standard—if you are mean—your fellow students will likely intervene before any adult has a chance to respond.

I wanted to thank you for that ethic of kindness.  It is a power of this community and, trust me, the world needs all of you right now.  We need to be strong and united in the face of a world that sows divisiveness and fear.  Equity and inclusion can’t just be words we say to be politically correct; they must be truths we live because they are the right and human things to do.

Not having you all with me this summer, more than anything, reminded me not to take it for granted.

There is so much power in this community each day that I can sometimes take it for granted, I can feel entitled to this and more.  Not deeply thankful, but instead wondering what the world has done for me lately.  I lose my perspective.  The deaths of Safar and Dan gave it back with a slap in the face.  And I can see that entitlement around me at times.  The dishes left out at lunch, the complaints about things—from all of us—that honestly seem so small in the face of all we have.

Knowing that we have each other, the respect and kindness of each other to lean on, let’s together shed that entitlement.  Instead let’s see what we have as a call to do more, to be of deeper service to our community and our world, to be a beacon of kindness to which other beacons can attach and gain strength.  We are not simply the joiners of communities at Athenian, we should be the creators of communities.  There is so much human goodness out there.  All of you are proof to me of that.  It took Safar’s and Dan’s deaths this summer to remind me of it, and I won’t soon forget.

I hope you had a rejuvenating summer and thanks for coming home to Athenian for this year.  I am glad to have you all here.  Have a wonderful year.