Two weeks ago, I was welcomed back to my alma mater, The Agnes Irwin School, in Rosemont, PA, to give a keynote address as the school celebrated its 150th birthday on Founder’s Day. It was one of the greatest honors of my life—a life that has been shaped by girls’ schools. I was a “lifer” at AIS, spending thirteen years in an environment that taught me how to think and write and question and how to lead. There, I learned that what I thought was more important than what I looked like and my opinions had worth. I learned to “stand up and be counted” (though I did not meet the headmistress who told her girls that until later in my career). As I prepared for my talk, I counted up my years spent in girls’ schools: thirteen years at AIS, 20 years at a girls’ school in Manhattan, and fifteen years at Laurel, the school I am privileged to lead. That’s forty-eight of my fifty-eight years on earth. I have drunk the Kool-Aid of girls’ schools. Girls’ schools are in my DNA. At an all-girls’ school, it’s not equal opportunity for girls, it’s every opportunity for girls.
Gazing out at the whole school—assembled on a Sunday afternoon, dressed in their uniforms—blue and gold as it has always been--I saw a group of unfamiliar girls and young women. Yet they were instantly recognizable. Before me floated my Laurel girls, their plaid skirts and jumpers in different hues, the beloved faces swimming up. I saw my own two daughters, girls’ school alumnae. I saw every girl in a girls’ school and felt the privilege and the weight of tradition and innovation in the air. From the corner of my eye, I imagined I had conjured my grandmother as a girl, her hair in a pompadour, her skirts to her ankle, learning and studying with the AIS’ founder’s sister, the second headmistress. And I saw myself, too, as a girl—wide-eyed, curious, expectant in a cable knit sweater and clogs, certain that I was being prepared to change the world. It was humbling to consider how best to inspire this gorgeous, brilliant group.
The spine of my talk was the life of the school’s founder, Agnes Irwin. I spent the summer reading up on her, trying to imagine what she would want me to say to “her” girls. A formidable woman—well ahead of her time—she established and ran the school, served as the first Dean of Radcliffe College, maintained devoted relationships throughout her life, read voraciously, and considered herself a life-long student. Miss Agnes led by example, striving to learn and to accept challenges throughout her life. She was a tremendous role model. Recently, a colleague shared with me that the level of learning in a school for children can never exceed the level of learning for the faculty. Miss Agnes never stopped learning.
Among the girls sat the faculty, thoughtful, smart, deeply committed professionals. When I blinked, in their place, I saw my own teachers—majestic in memory. My teachers inspired me, invested in me, reminded me of my worth, urged me to use my voice for good. During my speech, I spoke the names of those teachers I loved—not because many in the room would recognize them, but because I wanted to honor them, to thank them for all they had given. In girls’ schools, faculty design extraordinary experiences for girls, asking them to think critically, to detect bias, to express their authentic selves, to stretch, to grow, to risk—it is hard work; most of our teachers are undercompensated. They show up and offer their minds and their love to our girls. Our girls’ school faculties are exceptional.
The mission statement at Irwin’s is “To learn, to lead, and to live a legacy.” At first, it puzzled me. I thought the “live” was a typo. Aren’t we supposed to leave a legacy? “Live” was correct. So, I mulled over what it means to live our legacy, to be conscious of the example we set as we are setting it. Does it mean we are aware that actions have consequences? Does it mean that we are living not only for ourselves but for others? I was overjoyed to be in the company of the Head of the School, a colleague I cherish, who is, I think, living her legacy in her gracious, wise leadership of this school that we both love.
The weekend was glorious. We celebrated Miss Agnes in style. I greeted old friends, struggled to connect names to faces, smiled a lot, enjoyed being a demi-celebrity who did not have to make a single decision all weekend or be in charge of anyone or anything. I returned home to Laurel, so appreciative of my colleagues. A few days ago, I learned of the death of one of the great luminaries in girls’ school, Burch Ford. Her death was not a surprise; she had been ill for a number of years, but knowing that she was gone saddened me. I began to think about the other women who have walked before me and beside me, guiding me, challenging me, lifting me up: Agnes Irwin, Anne Lenox, Martha Goppelt, Meg Donnelly, Millie Berendsen, Blair Stambaugh, Stephanie Balmer, Sue Bosland, Penny Evins, Julia Heaton, Yanni Hill Gill, Kathryn Purcell, Wanda Holland Green, Wendy Hill. Yesterday, still aglow from my time at Agnes Irwin, I read an essay written by another school head I admire, Kathie Jamieson. She characterized our roles as heads of school as being the “encourager-in chief.”
That term feels apt. It is our job to inspire, to encourage, to offer a word, a smile, a hand. Miss Agnes Irwin was stern, forbidding even. Her standards were high, yet her girls and faculty sought to please her, to win her affection and respect. As I consider her legacy and my own, I think about the opportunity I have to live my legacy, to encourage, to take the time to show a girl that I see her, that I know she is trying her hardest, to take the time to reassure a parent that all will be well, to tell a faculty member I appreciate how hard she is working and how effective she is.
To be chosen to lead a school is a remarkable privilege and obligation. I grew up with the mantra, “of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Returning to, AIS meant swimming with ghosts--my childhood self, my mother and grandmother, other formidable relatives who expected me to use my gifts for good. Agnes Irwin took attendance at the end of the day and asked each of her students, “What good did you do today?” It’s a big question, a reckoning centered in character and generosity. Thinking about my own mentors and the faculty and staff and girls in my school as well as the children and adults in other great girls’ schools, I am filled with awe and humility. How lucky I am to live among girls, lifted up by exceptional educators who lived their legacies.