TOADTalk: 2020: The Best Year Yet?

In the midst of a year that has been repeatedly disrupted by factors beyond our control, Mr. Sullivan focuses on what we can do right here, right now.
Each week, an All-School Assembly launches with the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) sharing something of interest—a reflection, a story or song, a demonstration of some sort, or a simple poem. In this way, the community gets to know one of our own a little better. This week, our TOAD is Tim Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan teaches English, is also the head coach for the boys’ varsity lacrosse team, the Upper School dorm head, and advises a group of senior boys. He is active in the School’s DEI work as the co-head of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Educators (AWARE) and advisor to Alliance of White Anti-Racist Students (AWAS). His TOADTalk is below.

The title of this talk is 2020: The Best Year Yet. I know. Hearing that you’d be forgiven for thinking, “Mr. Sullivan, you’ve gotta be kidding.” I think that has a lot to do with the numbers. You look around (and I looked last night). The U.S. has seen about 9.3 million cases of covid to date; 231 thousand people have died. You think about the environment: Greenland lost about 279 billion tons of ice over the last 25 years, while Antarctica lost about 148 billion tons of ice. If you think about politics and you look back to 2016, regardless of whether you supported Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, over 60 million Americans cast votes for the other person. We feel really divided.

And those discouraging moments have hit closer to home, too. Many of us spent the summer reading posts on social media about harm done right here, on these 427 acres, in our midst; in some cases, harm that we ourselves have done, or have been a party to, or have been the victims of. Some of these stories have described events that have happened in the last year; others go back 20 years or more. 

So, let’s have a moment of honesty. Raise your hand if you’ve had a moment this year in which you’ve thought, “Man, I can’t wait for 2020 to be over.” Raise your hand if you’ve had a moment during your time here at Thacher in which you’ve thought, “This school isn’t all I hoped it would be,” if you’ve had a moment when you’ve wished you could be somewhere else.

Yeah. I get it. We’re in a moment that all but begs us to question everything we’ve ever trusted, to be suspicious of one another practically all the time, to feel alone, to feel rudderless, to feel powerless. And tomorrow comes an election that has the potential to be more of the same: to make us feel that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we hope and pray and march and rally and speak up and persist and vote–nothing changes. I think this might be why, at the end of Friday’s fantastic panel, the concluding question was along the lines of “What can I do? What are we supposed to do?” 

And in that environment, I’m here today to tell you three things: Number one is that you have far more power than you think. Number two is that the key to harnessing that power is to control what you can control. And, number three is that what you can control is right here: it’s Thacher.

At the beginning of this talk, I gave you a lot of big numbers. Now, I’m going to give you another number. That number is 389. That’s the total number of students, faculty, and staff members here at Thacher—389. When you think about that in contrast to those big numbers that I mentioned before, 389 starts to feel pretty manageable. We may not be able to change 60 million minds, or recover 500 billion tons of ice, or heal 9.3 million people with covid. But we can pull this community of 389 people together and make this place what we want it to be—what it ought to be. Not only can we do that; we have to do that.

And I’m optimistic for a lot of reasons. I’m optimistic first because it all comes down to us; we’ve all bought in. We could all be somewhere else. Students, you all had different choices: you could’ve gone to a different boarding school, or a day school closer to home, or the public school down the street. And yet, you saw this weird little place in the middle of nowhere that for some reason thinks you should shovel manure and sleep on the ground, and you thought: “Yeah, that’s the one. I’ll go there.” And even during some of the school’s toughest times, when many of us were questioning all that we thought about this place, you came back. You showed up.

The adults, too, are here despite a host of other possibilities. We didn’t have to be teachers: we could’ve worked in finance or the arts, could’ve been lawyers or farmers or doctors or politicians or professional athletes...but we all chose this life, and we chose it for you. Because working with young people isn’t just a career, it’s a vocation. It’s something you’re called to. And that’s why, when we too were given reason this summer to doubt everything about our work and our School, when 2020-21 promised to be the longest and most trying year of all of our careers, we all showed up. For you.
  • I’m optimistic too because it’s already started. Change is already moving. This School, when it comes to inclusion, is in a much different place than it was just a few years ago. That’s not to say that it’s perfect. But, change is happening.
  • We have an environment here in which our affinity and ally groups are more active than they have ever been. We’ve changed our schedule to make sure that we have dedicated time for those groups to meet.
  • As you all know, we’re engaged in deep restorative work with real experts on a regular basis.
  • We’ve expanded our team of mental health counselors so that it includes more people of color.
  • We’ve hired a consulting firm that specializes in hiring and retaining faculty of color at independent schools to lead our major searches.
  • Our faculty are working hard every day, led by Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson and others, to develop a more inclusive curriculum.
  • The board itself is engaging in anti-racist and anti-bias training to help lead us more effectively.
To be clear: this is not “mission accomplished.” This is the opposite of that. This is not to say that the work is done. We’re just at the beginning. I’m not telling you this because I think we deserve a pat on the back for doing work that should have been started long ago. I’m telling you this for one simple reason, and that is that you have real power here. All of the work that’s being done is because of you—especially the students and faculty of color, led by the tireless Mr. Balano. It’s because you had the courage to tell your stories, to hold the school accountable, to not be satisfied with gestures toward progress. You wanted the real thing. 

But this has to be everyone’s fight. If we’re going to make this the place we want it to be, the place that we know it can be, the place that feels like home to everyone who belongs to our community, a place where those among us who feel the least valued, the most vulnerable out there in the real world, feel the most loved in here at Thacher—we’ve all got work to do.

And, it’s worth focusing for a moment on tomorrow. I recently read a study that said that 55 percent of Americans believe that election day will be the most stressful day of their lives. 55 percent of Americans. If you don’t feel that way, that’s ok, but remember: there are folks on this campus who feel, with good reason, that there is an incredible amount at stake: like their control over their own bodies is at stake because of their gender, like their physical safety is at stake because of the color of their skin, like their right to be here in this country is at stake because of where they were born, like their right to love and marry and build a family is at stake because of their sexuality.

So remember as you watch the returns come in tomorrow night, that this is not the Super Bowl or the Bachelor: this is not something that you watch just for fun, and try to figure out who’s going to win, and then tease your friends who guessed wrongly. This is a big moment with real consequences, so we need to approach it with empathy, with humility, and with special care for those among us who feel less secure than we do.

But as that happens, don’t forget about the power that you have. Tomorrow can be yet another big step in the right direction for us. If we can go out of our way to support those among us who feel the stress of this election day the most, tomorrow night can be a moment we can remember for a long time.

I wasn’t kidding with the title of this talk. Yes, 2020 is off to a rough start, but here on this campus, we’ve begun to see things move in the right direction. And, among all the things that Instagram has taught us is that people remember their days here for a long time. So, we have an opportunity, one that comes along very rarely. We know that people are going to be looking back in 20 years at what this School is—what it was in 2020. And, with just these 389 people: students, faculty, and staff of the School, we can make it so that when we look back 20 years from now, and Thacher has become the place that it has always needed to be—the place that is inclusive and welcoming to every single person. When that vision has been realized, you can make it so that you get to say, “I was there at the start. It is what it is because we pulled together. And I’m proud to be a part of that.” That’s what we want for ourselves. That’s what you want your memory of this place to be. 

It’s a hard moment right now, but opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day. So tomorrow, and every day after, put your arms around each other, stand up for each other, take risks for each other, be courageous for each other, and this place will be everything we ever wanted it to be.

Thank you.

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