Note from the Principal: November 2016

October is usually a low-key month at school. It’s when we’ve hit our stride, students know what’s expected of them, and we’re getting deep into our year of learning. It’s a month that cheerfully hums along on its way to the darker and colder days of November. But this October felt different, less settled than usual, especially over the last week. In a school of nearly 400 students, it’s natural that some children will arrive in the morning more sensitive or anxious than usual. We all have bad days. But over the last week, this sensitivity seemed to be almost collective rather than individual. More children seemed worried. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the presidential election was also entering its final week.

We all like to think we can hide our worries from our children, that the effects of a hard day, week, or year can be compartmentalized and put on hold until our children are safely in bed. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world or country where the nights are safe. But children aren’t so easily fooled, no matter how composed we think we are. Our children have been studying us since they joined our families, and they’re experts at reading us from an early age. They may not know what we’re thinking all the time, but they’re acutely sensitive to the broad outlines of our emotions. Young children are like emotional divining rods that vibrate in response to adult feelings, no matter how deep we think our feelings are buried. How a child responds varies depending on temperament, but no child is insensitive to the ambient anxieties that surround them.

This year, it’s been impossible to escape the ambient anxiety produced by the presidential election. Some older children, like our 5th graders, have been engaged in studying the issues and rhetoric of the campaign. Younger children are less aware of the specifics of the election, but they’ve been closely listening to their caregivers. Snack time conversations in kindergarten often include brief but lively debates about the merits of Donald Trump and “Lillary” Clinton. And even if you’ve never said a word about the election in front of your children, they can still sense that something is making the adults around them anxious, and that makes them anxious too. It’s been a frightening and dispiriting year for many adults, and so it’s been a frightening and dispiriting year for many children.

Tonight, or perhaps tomorrow morning, we’ll know who won the presidential election. But even if your preferred candidate wins, there is no guarantee that the anxiety from this election year will fade quickly. This election has made people anxious because, whichever side you’re on, the process revealed deep veins of fear and anger that were already present before the election began. The geographical, ideological, social, and economic tensions underlying the difficult rhetoric of this election season are real and often extreme. Resolving them, or just making incremental progress, will require making an effort to understand the experiences and beliefs of those who disagree with us, especially about issues that make many of us uncomfortable.

It’s okay to feel anxious about working to resolve the issues that divide us; that’s how we know it’s important work. However, allowing anxiety or fear to shut down engagement blocks progress and sends a message to children that they should retreat from conflict and dismiss the “the other” rather than seeking solutions and working together to solve problems. And if you need evidence that children can meet anxious times with active and empathetic engagement, take a look at our 5th graders’ open letter to the presidential candidates in the online edition of The Boston Globe. They may only be in 5th grade, but they are models for the rest of us, and that includes presidential candidates.