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May 27, 2019

The Things That Surround Us

Fostering Community

The beauty and the pageantry of Trafalgar Castle School’s 112th May Court Festival was on full display last Saturday with flags, banners, and the traditional May Pole dance.  And then there was the goat.  Yes, the goat. And the llama, sheep, ducks, and donkey.  But in my mind, May Court 2019 will forever be known as the Year of the Goat.

Sometimes life brings easy decisions, like the one to move our annual festival indoors due to a 90% chance of thunderstorms.  That was the easy one.  But then there was the more complicated decision.  What to do with the petting zoo?  Given the weather forecast and space limitations, we had to decide whether to cancel the petting zoo altogether – a perennial favourite of the children – or to set it up in the gym, mere metres from where the ceremonial crowning of the May Queen would take place.  Those were our only two options.  So we did what we always do at Trafalgar.  We made the decision believing that our community is adaptable, supportive, and always up for a bit of good humour.  We held our ceremony indoors alongside the goats, accompanied by the llama, sheep, ducks, and donkey.  I believe there was an Asian cow and baby pig in there, too.   But for what we lost in formality amid the cacophony of a barnyard symphony, we gained in laughter, joy, and a strengthening of the Trafalgar sisterhood.  And above all, we demonstrated that our community is resilient.

Michael Ungar, Family Therapist and Professor of Social Work at Dalhousie University, is the author of the newly released book, Change Your World:  The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. In his work on resilience, Dr. Ungar notes that it is not what’s within us but rather what surrounds us that creates resilience.  Yes, there will always be that exceptional young person who defies the odds and triumphs over adversity.  In education, we hear of these “jail to Yale” stories – tales of that one special child who was raised amid violence and poverty but who found the inner strength to achieve unbelievable success.  The problem with these stories is that success or failure is located within the character of the individual.  If you don’t overcome the odds, then bad on you.  If you can’t find the strength to persevere, that’s on you.  The message it sends is that resilience is yours and yours alone to find.

Through research we know that reality is different.  Resilience comes from what surrounds us – from community supports, from family and friends, from universal healthcare, affordable housing, and timely disaster relief for victims of earthquakes, or floods, or devastating fires.  In a school, resilience comes from caring teachers, from dedicated coaches, from friends, counsellors, daily routines, nutritious food, well-resourced classrooms, and even the dogs that live on campus.

I remember a number of years ago when I was going through treatment for cancer – something I am very open about.  People often commented on my positive outlook and courage.  Those were kind things to hear but I knew the reality.  My strength came from the things that surrounded me – from the unfailing love of my family, from the high-school friend who flew thousands of miles to stay with me, from the colleagues and friends who took time out of their day every week to drive me to treatment or take my dogs for a walk, from exceptional healthcare that didn’t require us to mortgage our home.  It was the homemade dinners, that wonderful “joke of the day” book, and the hand-knit slippers magically landing on my doorstep that gave me strength and made me more resilient.

We talk a lot about resilience at Trafalgar.  We are proud of the down-to-earth nature of our girls, the kindness and compassion they are being taught to value, the strength they demonstrate on the soccer field, or the courage they display in the school play.  I’ve come to realize that these are the outcomes of the things that surround us.  They are the manifestation of what we have and what contributes to who we are.  Each new student arrives at the Castle with some inherent level of confidence, inner strength, and any number of helpful coping tools.  But every student grows stronger and becomes more resilient because of what they find when they arrive.  It’s the warmth of our community, the support of our teachers, and the sisterhood our girls join when they graduate.  We are not perfect and neither are our girls.  We are human and flawed and sometimes less than we know we can be.  But we are surrounded by things that build us up, that make us want to be better, and teach us how to rise again after we fall.

When the sheep bleated like a clarion call at the exact moment we introduced our May Queen for 2019, we all laughed.  And throughout the ceremony we had moments of levity when barnyard sounds reminded us that we are powerless to control the whims of a braying donkey.  But when our May Queen stood at the podium to deliver her powerful speech on virtue, her eloquence and intelligent words blocked out the noise; her poise and resilience captured our hearts.  She was among friends and family, supported by each and every Trafalgar girl, and held up by a sisterhood that has endured for our school’s 145-year history.  These are the things that surround us.  And for these things, we are truly grateful.

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