The Poignancy of Endings

My youngest daughter Haley graduated from college last week. A large troupe of friends and family arrived at her college campus to join in the various events, share meals and ultimately cheer her on as she walked across the stage. Some of these same relatives and friends teared up at her Lower School and Middle School promotions, and celebrated her at her high school graduation from Head-Royce. And yet no matter what level, each and every one of these events served as an important marker in her and our lives. As I watched her during her graduation weekend, I was reminded, once again, why ceremony is so valuable. While we were all celebrating Haley and her accomplishments (and perhaps patting ourselves on our backs as parents and support team), Haley was also using the weekend in other ways. This “big event” was even complicated for her: not only was it a time to acknowledge her growth and accomplishments over four years, but it was also a bittersweet moment to say farewell to friends she has spent hours with over late-night discussions, and a way to transition to what’s next.

Daniel Pink, the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, writes about the power of marking beginnings, mid-points and endings. According to Pink, taking note of special moments “shake us out of the tree so we can glimpse the forest”; in other worlds, these ”temporal markers interrupt attention to day-to-day minutiae, causing people to take a big picture view of their lives and thus focus on achieving their goals.” Haley was doing just that--and so were we as her parents. As one stage ends, we often use the ceremonial moment to stop and assess where we are in life. In the ideal world, we are able to stop and reflect--look back with pride, pleasure, joy, and even regret--and then, when it’s time, turn to look ahead.

As May draws to a close here on campus, we prepare for a series of promotions in Lower and Middle Schools, and Commencement in Upper School. We are indeed lucky: this is one of the unique features of a K-12 school. Those of us who work here see our students progress through each stage of school life and are able to revel in watching whole-child development unfold right before our eyes. It seems like just yesterday that some of our graduating seniors were little ones in kindergarten, in 6th grade, or as freshmen in high school—and now, as 18-year-olds, they are ready to venture into the world with strong academic and social-emotional skills--and will take the yet-unknown step into independence, college life, gap year, summer jobs and beyond.

While I know our seniors are academically well-prepared for what’s next and have the advocacy skills to work with a myriad of adults, they will certainly benefit and blossom with the gift of time and space. In a series of lunches with seniors this spring, many told me that they feel ready for the work of college but now want “real world skills”--cooking, financial management, gardening, even sewing! And they crave time. One senior said: “I’d like to have more time to pause and take time to look around.”

So, we prepare for the ceremonies that will launch our 5th graders, our 8th graders, and our seniors. Daniel Pink aptly calls this a time for experiencing “poignancy.” According to Pink, “the best endings don’t just leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer--a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted, we’ve gotten what we need.” I felt that at Haley’s graduation. I hope that we all share a moment of poignancy in these next few weeks as have the opportunity to use this temporal moment to also pause and look around.