By Ms. Shelly Killeen, History and Social Sciences Faculty
Chapel Talk: The Year of the Prolonged Out-of-Body Experience
2020 is the year of the prolonged out-of-body experience. I don’t know about the rest of you, but more often than not, I feel like I am watching some bizarre version of my existence play out in front of me. I don’t know how to be a good teacher in this weird, half-in-person, half-on-Zoom format. I don’t know how to make Maple feel like home when everyone pretty much stays in their own room. I don’t know how to stay connected with my advisees about life at St. Mark’s when they aren’t here on campus. In general, I don’t feel like I know what I am doing. But that also describes much of my life at St. Mark’s before the pandemic.
First, I am the head coach for our girls’ squash program. I love coaching. And I played a lot of different sports growing up, so I would be pretty comfortable coaching in a lot of different programs. But I am NOT a squash player. I went to public school; I come from a blue-collar family and went to college on financial aid: not generally the demographic of squash players. And I’ve played tennis since I was four years old. No, tennis is not like squash. They both involve racquets. That’s about all they have in common.
So when Mr. Levandowksi asked me to take over the girls team, I hesitated – what do I know about squash? Then he told me the co-captains at the time had asked if I would step into that role. I still don’t know whether that story is true, but Mr. Lev knows that I have a hard time turning down requests from kids.
The next thing I knew, I was trying to learn the rules of squash within weeks of the start of the season. Imagine conducting tryouts for a varsity team when you truly have no idea what you are looking for. Fortunately, I had patient and kind captains and seniors, and an amazing assistant coach (shout-out to Ms. Bryant!). Here we are, four years later, and that is the role of which I am most proud.
Part of what makes coaching this team so much fun is the collective attitude of the girls. They will outwork anyone who steps on the court with them, no matter how much better their opponents might be on paper. They never believe they are better or worse than their opponents. When someone loses, she is upset that she let down her teammates: the individual results don’t matter; the team result does. That’s just how this team rolls.
Second: All of my advisees are boys. And that’s been true since I got here. Mind you, I only have sisters. Most of my cousins are girls. I have many more aunts than uncles. So maybe it is subconscious self-defense that I have an all-boy advisory. Or maybe it is some great cosmic joke that I just haven’t figured out yet.
What we do usually have in common is a need for sports. When I was in high school, I worked hardest at sports. Because that was the place where the world made sense. Sports were my sanctuary. I would not have made it through high school or college if I couldn’t retreat to competitive athletics almost every day. I just did the best I could everywhere else. Kids like me – and my advisees – may not be able to explain why sports are critical to their existence, but rather than being hard on a student who is more concerned with athletics than with academics, I will give him a little space. Because I am pretty sure he will turn out okay.
But I’ll tell you, my advisees don’t make it easy. I love them all, but most of my gray hair can be traced directly back to their collective decisions over the past six years. My advisees are particularly good at coming up with new and creative ways to make life challenging for themselves and for everyone who cares about them.
I don’t know why it works. I’m not sure Henry, or Eamon, or Adam, or Brady, or Si, or Ryan could tell you why it works. Any reason they give you would also apply to plenty of other good advisors here. And more often than not, I am improvising anyway (don’t tell their parents). They only take my advice on occasion. There are definitely times when they wish I would just let them flounder through life on their own. And that is when I remind them that they asked to work with me.
But for all the nagging and hair-pulling, they do know that I have their backs. We won’t always agree, but they know I am in their corner. And on Prize Day, inevitably someone will pull me aside and say, “I wasn’t so sure about that advisee of yours, but he turned out okay.” Sometimes this comes from one of their parents. And I have to refrain from responding, “Amazing, isn’t it, how we are all still works in progress.”
As I look back on all of that, I have to laugh. Because there is no version of my life in which this was the predicted outcome.
Not that I ever had a plan. I went to college intending to major in science simply because I liked science. When I graduated with a degree in history, people said, “Oh, you must want to be a teacher.” Nope. Never. Not a chance. And boarding school? Absolutely not on my radar. So maybe I haven’t known what I’m doing for my whole life. Without question, I am a better person for all of those experiences with the unknown.
So here we are in a year when planning, or being comfortable, or knowing what we are doing, is all but impossible. Where is there certainty? This pandemic will eventually end. How do we get from here to there? We accept that life is unpredictable. We trust that, as humans have done for thousands of years, we will figure out a way through, because we are a creative and resilient species. We can survive on our own, but we thrive when we work together. We all need reinforcements: people who hold us accountable, people who challenge us and who help us whether we want them to or not, and people who trust that we are more capable than we believe ourselves to be.
Humans are constantly taking on things we don’t know and don’t understand. Like creating democracy. Or coaching a varsity sport you have never played. Or inventing the internal combustion engine. Or starting at a brand new school. Or flying to the moon. Or making it through a pandemic. But we only move forward when we all look out for each other and work together.