Trustees, Alumni, Faculty and Staff, Families, Friends, and most importantly Students: it is my great honor and delight to be here with you tonight.
Or, given this regal occasion, maybe I should start again with: Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen! I am honored to be here with you tonight.
Thank you to our student musicians, — Q, Ethan, and Sebastian — for the wonderful music and to Martha Stocker on the piano.
I was so touched by Izabella and Yusuf’s remarks and Jordan’s video. And moved by the words of Noah and Semeka, Debbie, and Cynthia. I’m thankful for all of this, combined with the support and partnership that I’ve enjoyed from my predecessor, Dr. Bruce Dennis, whose impactful leadership for 15 years made Packer what it is today.
Now you can see why I continue to pinch myself every day, having so fortunately landed in this truly amazing educational community.
I’ll be honest, when my colleagues in Development said, “Jen, we need to plan for your Installation” I said, “My what? What’s an installation?
We’ve just had a chandelier installed on the ceiling of our apartment. The word conjures major appliances, drills, and concrete. It did make me think of our front hall at Packer, with the portraits of the former Heads of School. Is my portrait to be installed there already? I thank JK Rowling for making the notion of a picture frame more intriguing. In the play “The Cursed Child,” Dumbledore, the hallowed former head of Hogwarts, appears in his portrait frame, issues wise words to Harry Potter.
I like this kind of installation. Sitting in a picture frame, dipping into the life of the school periodically and offering aphorisms. I could do this.
You may be surprised to hear that tonight is not my first installation. Several weeks ago, Bill McCarthy, our Preschool and Lower School Head, ushered me out to the Garden, where the entire Lower School formally welcomed me to Packer. The Fourth Grade made me a throne — ! — a ubiquitous Packer captain’s chair, bedazzled with shining aluminum cake pans held together by multicolored pipe cleaners. (Clearly The Iron Throne was in the minds of some of its creators.) This has given me thoughts about the fierceness that might need to “rule” at Packer. As I sat in my throne, students sang and danced, they introduced me to important Packer traditions I needed to know. This I thought, was a perfect installation.
But then yesterday I was invited to the Early Learning Center, where I was treated to another installation! I was serenaded with song, and invited into disco-ball dance rituals, apparently common for our youngest students. Students presented me with ornate necklaces made entirely out of recycled materials. The Kindergarteners wrote hopes they have for me on pieces of paper that they then rolled into beads for the necklaces.
Some of their hopes were: “I hope that people support her and listen to her.” “I hope that she will go down the slide with me and play on the Imagination Station.” “I hope she feels peaceful.” “I hope that she is one of the happiest people in the world.”
I certainly am.
So what a joy to be here at my third installation.
I love that my first was in the Garden, and it is truly meaningful to me that tonight’s ceremony is here in this chapel. This chapel is used for a great number of purposes for a great number of years — student assemblies, faculty learning sessions, parent information nights, guest speakers, and performances.
On most days, the students fill this space. During Middle School and Upper School Chapel, the students are presiding on stage. Many announcements made by many students; the crowd is responsive and good-humored. The energy is electric.
The experience of standing on this stage is very different from other stages, schools and theatrical. You feel above some people, in the front rows. But the space expands out, more wide than deep. And those in the balcony are above you. So you feel that you are with everyone. You really feel in the middle of it. And though hundreds can fit in, there is an intimacy to the space. And I hope this is how it feels to students when they are up are here on stage. On stage you are clearly seen and fully embraced by the community.
The best definition of installation is not about fixtures on walls. It is “to be set up for use or service.” I know I feel the way that our faculty do, that we are so lucky to get to work with our students. Teaching is our avocation. It is an expression of our desire to serve. And in this particular age, working with and serving young people is an infinite source of my optimism about the future.
On this night of my formal installation, the beginning of my service to Packer, and the next chapter in its history, I want to say that I believe we are all being installed — as members of this community — faculty, families, alumni, friends. We are all here to be useful, to serve our students.
In thinking about what use we could, should, and need to be for our students, in helping them to grow and thrive, I’d like to offer a little Danish wisdom.
I have been interested in existentialist philosophers since college. And I got to know one better when I lived in Copenhagen: famous Danish philosopher Søren Kirkegaard. Native Copenhagener. When I got to Copenhagen, I was amazed: signs all over the city said Kirkegaard. I thought, This guy was really something!
Then I realized that kirkegaard means churchyard.
Ah, the mistakes we make when we are navigating new places.
A few wise words from Kirkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
One thing I love about Packer, is that we can look backwards a long way. We have a great deal of understanding about what students have faced over generations, what support they have needed.
I am grateful to our former teacher, Ken Rush, who taught art and art history here for over 30 years, for helping me start to learn about the history of Packer, and particularly this room.
Tonight you are all sitting in pews made of New England white Pine. These, and the gallery (balcony) woodwork, are originals from 1854. They are clear heartwood, stained to look like black walnut — apparently a less expensive solution than using walnut hardwood.
Young people have sat in these seats for 165 years. Thanks to the great work of our student historians in our Advanced Archives class — taught by Dr. Sarah Strauss and in our partnership with the Brooklyn Historical Society — Packer’s past is alive with us today. For 165 years, Packer students have sat here, grappling with the exciting, urgent, devastating, complex aspects of their times.
In the 1800s, Packer students wondered about women’s education and role in society.
During the civil war, Packer students reckoned with death, dislocation, abolition.
During the World Wars, Packer students grappled with how to care for German and Japanese members of the community.
In the second half of the 20th Century, Packer students questioned communism, debated Vietnam, fought for civil rights.
We can look backward and understand the challenges they faced. But what about the challenges for our students now? We don’t have the gift of hindsight that Kirkegaard says leads to true understanding.
So much is being written today about how the future is unknown, how the speed of change is accelerating. The job world of the future will be completely different. Speaking as a parent, many of us are concerned and even alarmed about the world our children may face. We feel that we want to protect them from difficulties.
The characterization of parenting has gone from nurturing to helicopter parent. And now it is snowplow parents! Incidentally, the metaphor for protective parents in Scandinavia is a bit softer: “curling parents” — have you seen curling on the Olympics? — where you sweep with brushes to decrease the friction so that the granite stone glides smoothly across the ice. It’s only natural that we want to smooth the way for our kids so that things go well for them, so they can find success.
Another bit of wisdom from Kirkegaard applies here: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
Here I think Kirkegaard is, in a sense, calling us out. We do want to solve problems for our kids, resolve issues, make it easier. But Kirkegaard is saying, That is not what life is about. It is about experiences. Wonderful! Exhilarating! And also sometimes messy and difficult.
Our work is not about brushing the ice to decrease friction for our kids. We must do the opposite, in fact. Our role is to lead our students toward rich complex experiences, to invite them into challenging opportunities. And as they get older, to support them in seeking their own experiences.
Packer has been and we need to continue to be in the business of growing kids who are not afraid of jumping in. Who do so even when they are not sure what the uncomfort will be, how it will go.
So here we are, all together in this chapel tonight, installing ourselves for this service to our students. For students ranging from age three to eighteen. So what does our service really look like?
The windows in this chapel are so meaningful to me. They add beauty and majesty to all of our gatherings here. Let’s consider the one over here to your right.
This is a turn-of the-century Louis Comfort Tiffany design. The center pane depicts Harriet Packer — our founder, who reinstated the school quite literally out of the ashes of a New Year’s Fire in 1853. You will recognize the Christian imagery: Harriet’s position and garb evoke Mary. To her left and right, behind her, we see a route to be navigated. Perhaps the journey of life.
Harriet is caring for two children. The younger one on the left is “under her wing.” Harriet is protecting, nurturing. The older child is by her right side, standing independently, She lays a caring hand on the child’s arm.
This image reminds us of the different roles we play for our students at their different ages. The younger child is connected to Harriet in a way you would imagine. The older student is standing more independently, but glancing up at Harriet. I take this to mean that older students need us just as much, but in different ways. They learn from our expertise and insight, they gain subtlety and perspective, they learn compassion from us.
It is curious to me how placid and assured Harriet seems. She’s calm with the kids - even though the path of life is clearly headed into the troubling mountains in the background. Harriet is saying: “I got this!”
But how can she be this way? Maybe it’s the confidence you get when you are immortalized in Tiffany glass? Today we seem somehow less sure.
Coming back to Kirkegaard, if we are supposed to be wise and lead students, but we don’t truly have an understanding of the significance of challenges of our time, or even less, of the future, we feel on shaky ground.
What is it Harriet knows? Then it came to me.
Harriet is looking at us. Her gaze takes us all in, travelling over us to those across the space. All of us in this chapel: Trustees, Alumni, Faculty, Families, Friends: our community.
This is where we can find confidence in our power to lead our students.
With all of our perspectives, insights, and experience,
with all of us seeing and supporting the students on stage,
with all of us committed to being learners ourselves
with all of us here, rooted in this phenomenal city,
installing ourselves in our students’ service.
Now, we are on firm ground. We got this.
It is a true honor and joy to be at the beginning of this work with you, together in this remarkable community, serving our students, who amaze and delight us every day.