Valedictory Address by Gillian Godsell to the Matric Class of Parktown Girls High School, Johannesburg, 15 October 2020.
Thank you for inviting me to address you this evening.
I am grateful for this opportunity to put into words, the respect and admiration I have for the Parktown matric class of 2020. Their teachers, sitting behind me. The parents who are not here in the hall, but watching on livestream, because this is 2020, and the shape of our institutions, of our celebrations, of our everyday lives, has changed.
Firstly, I respect you enormously for the fact that you got here. That you made it to this point where you are on your marks and ready to go for exams. You have made it through 202 days of lockdown! But I respect you even more, if such a thing is possible, for the way you made it. You didn’t leave anyone behind. You heard immediately the first creakings of that great rift in society which Covid didn’t bring, but emphasised and made crucial – the digital divide.
You jumped in and started a fund, right at the beginning of lockdown, to buy data and devices, for people who needed them. Old girls helped. Everyone helped. Not one learner was without a device or data.
Of course, there were aspects of home learning that couldn’t be reached by the school. Who had a quiet place to study in? Who had electricity? Whose parents were at home? But all the bridges you could throw across the digital divide, you did.
You innovated. You called for help. You showed solidarity.
These three things got you here.
And I hope these are things you won’t stop doing, as a school and as individuals, as we make our way through the pandemic and its consequences.
There are other things, four Rs in fact, that I hope you will start doing
– not post pandemic, because who knows when that will be? But post this pioneering stage.
Because even if next year’s matrics have to deal with distance learning, or open windows in winter, or with the roller-coaster of a school that opens and closes and opens again, it won’t be as hard as this year, because you will have made the path. There is a saying about making the road through walking, but you made it walking, falling, laughing, getting up, running, stumbling, tripping, and flying. The path is made, and you are the pioneers.
The first “R”, (when exams are over!), is REST.
And this goes for teachers as well as learners. Please acknowledge the exhaustion that comes with online interaction, with the blurring of boundaries of both time and space. Acknowledge the exhaustion and deal with it. The Nap Ministry on Twitter assures us that sleep is not just restorative, but that resting is a generative space of freedom. Rest makes space for imagination and invention. And here is an important definition of rest. Rest is not just naps.
Rest is anything that slows you down enough for a mind-body connection. Rest is daydreaming, walking, slow dancing, meditation, prayer, hot baths, sipping tea slowly, birdwatching, deep eye contact.
The Nap Ministry posted it on Twitter, so it must be true, but for those of you who aren’t convinced by Twitter, the Nap Ministry account is run by Tricia Hersey, who also lectures at MIT on rest as a form of resistance, and a radical tool for community healing. Find her @NapMinistry.
The second R is to REFLECT.
You have lost things, this year.
Sports captains who didn’t play a single game, LRC members who presided over a ghost school, the list of what didn’t happen, what you didn’t learn, and experience is very long.
But there is a balancing list of what you did learn.
Resilience, for starters. Probably the most important trait anyone can have in the 21st Century. You have learnt to work in loneliness, without contact with teachers or peers. And you’ve worked through that loneliness. You’ve learnt to re-evaluate what’s important and what isn’t. But you have also gained other resources, that I don’t know about and that you may not be aware of until you reflect quite deeply. I urge you to do this reflection for two reasons:
- I want you to realise how good you are, all of you in this hall, what you actually achieved this year, what you learnt and how you changed.
- And I want you to recognise those new psychological and mental and spiritual muscles you have developed, so that you can exercise them, daily.
Who you are, who you become is not just your history, your family, your school, nor your religious context. It is what you do, don’t do, what you say, what you dream, every single day.
So, don’t lose, next year, the hard-won gains from this year, because you haven’t worked out what they are, or what you have to do to keep them.
There are a lot of different ways of reflecting. If you are a writer, you can write. If you are a talker, you can get together in a group and discuss. If you are an artist you can paint this year, or poem it, dance it, sing it, play it, act it.
Just don’t neglect it.
The third R is REMEMBER.
And to do this, you must both reflect and record.
Because you think you will remember, but you won’t. Not all of it. And you need to remember, and we need you to remember. Don’t accept other people’s narratives about this year. Particularly not older people. Particularly not people who didn’t go through what you went through – a matric year in shutdown. A formative year in 2020.
After matric, you will go out into a Covid or post-Covid world that will be narrower, more constrained. It will be broader as well, but it’ll be hard to see and feel that at first. Your challenge will be living well in this world.
First, you need to face down the fear that has pervaded our society, locally and globally, and will not easily depart. Your best weapon is hope.
The opposite of hope is not despair – it is fear.
So, to conquer fear you need hope. My favourite definition of hope comes from writer Rebecca Solnit. Hope, she says, is not sitting on a sofa clutching a lottery ticket and hoping you’ll win something. Solnit says that hope is the emergency axe with which you break down the door to the future. Your future. Hope is active. Hope is powerful. Hope is cognitive – it comes from your mind just as much as your heart. Hope is a decision you make every day. It is something you exercise until it is strong and useful.
In order to live well, in order to live fully and whole-heartedly, in a diminished post-Covid world, along with hope you will need joy. Why joy?
Yesterday I listened to an interview with an African American woman who is a poet. Her name is Nikki Giovanni. She is 77 years old, and a bat has been named after her. Now there’s something to aspire to! Nikki talked about the importance of joy as a survival technique for black women in the USA. She talked about very simple joy: greeting yourself with a smile in the mirror, every single morning.
In good times, joy is a luxury. In bad times, joy is a necessity.
Joy isn’t a gift the world gives you. It is a gift you give yourself, and other people. Joy doesn’t flow from happy circumstances and abundance. Joy doesn’t flow. Joy grows. And the most important thing joy grows from is gratitude.
Gratitude can rewire your brain. If you don’t believe me, check on google. And because you are Parktown girls, I don’t need to remind you to fact check whatever Google throws at you.
Research shows that gratitude is the most powerful of human emotions, affecting the neural structures of the brain. But it has to be intentional. Have a time, or a place, or a group of people, or one person, where or when or with whom you remember something to be grateful for. Keep a gratitude journal, or a gratitude jar. Say “thank you” to the Creator of the world, or to specific people. Say “thank you” to people you know, and people you don’t know. Say “thank you” to living people or to long dead painters or writers or activists. Say “thank you” to places, plants, creatures. Say “thank you” to ancestors.
Be specific and intentional with your gratitude. We need to be intentional about the good things, because our brains are rather strangely wired.
They are like Teflon for good news, and Velcro for bad news. Apparently, this worked very well long ago when we had to instantly recognise, and remember, that a woolly mammoth was bad news. Now when there is an avalanche of bad news and fake news and fake bad news, it doesn’t work so well. We have to hang on to good news for at least 15 seconds – which is actually quite a long time; check it – before it settles permanently in our brain. And gratitude is quite a good way to do this.
- Don’t leave anyone behind.
- Don’t lose the solidarity you have had this year.
- Call for help when you need it.
- Reflect so that you know when to call for help, and when to do more of what you are doing already. Reflect to remind yourself how good you are.
- Practice hope and joy.
And then, a fourth R: ROAR!
Raise your voices.
Please raise your voices. Join in the national conversation. We need your loud voices. Strengthened by lockdown. Brightened with hope and joy.
- Dr Godsell is a past chairperson of the Parktown Girls School Governing Body.