Let’s Care a Whole Awful Lot: Founder’s Day Reflections

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
—The Lorax

“Change the world—even if ever so slightly—is my goal.”
—Bill Nye

Before memories of Founder’s Day yield to our end-of-year rituals, I want to take a moment to celebrate this annual tradition. Started in 1941 to honor Thomas Sidwell’s birthday, this springtime rite assembles students, faculty, and staff so that we might collectively recommit to our foundational values, recall our shared purpose of educating students ages 4 to 18, strengthen our friendships, and have some fun. Unseasonable temperatures moved some of our activities inside this year, but the weather did not cool the enthusiasm of our students.

With visions of popcorn and ice cream muddling in their heads, Lower Schoolers traveled by bus to the Wisconsin Avenue Campus, where their Middle School buddies eagerly awaited their arrival. Without a word from the adults, our older students welcomed their charges with care and kindness, replacing lingering apprehension with giddy anticipation. Adults who don’t typically trek to Bethesda basked in the joy that the little ones brought to the big campus, and everyone pitched in to make the day special—taking turns serving burgers and hot dogs, chaperoning the moon bounce, and doing their best to keep the lines moving at the face-painting station. Warm smiles, buoyed by the lively Jazz Ensemble, quickly melted the unlikely snowflakes and contributed to the lightheartedness of the day.

While our younger students prepared for adventure, Upper Schoolers met with alumni who shared stories about how the School’s teachers and values have shaped their careers. Entrepreneurs, activists, artists, inventors, scholars, urban planners, public defenders, and an assortment of other professionals inspired students with their tales of trial and triumph and opened possibilities for future consideration.

Bill Nye ’73 the Science Guy served as the keynote. A week before the event, I visited the Upper School senior lounge, where the students were buzzing about his arrival. Whether they watched Bill on PBS, the Disney Channel, or Netflix—where his theme song has been updated by the exceedingly hip Tyler, the Creator—the students revered him.

On Founder’s Day, I asked Bill how he maintained his relevance across generations. “What you see is what you get,” he explained. “I get as much joy from mixing together baking soda and vinegar today as I did when I was a kid. It’s still cool.”

His coolness was not lost on our students, who greeted him with an enthusiasm recalling the way teenagers once screamed for Elvis Presley. Even as Bill completed his remarks, the students begged for an encore, asking him to expand upon his vision for imagining a better, greener world. (His Netflix series is appropriately entitled “Bill Nye Saves the World.”) He encouraged our students to follow in his footsteps, to use their talents to let their lives speak.

In an age when politicians routinely denigrate science and disregard established facts—especially when those facts point to environmental degradation—Bill Nye remains courageously outspoken. “Climate change is happening,” he insists, “and humans are causing it, and I think this is perhaps the most serious environmental issue facing us.” We must rely on our students not simply to face but to reverse these trends.

To honor Bill and the discipline of science, seniors encouraged me to continue my Founder’s Day costume-wearing tradition by dressing as Albert Einstein. And so, after the buildings and grounds crew completed the Herculean effort of moving our gathering indoors, “Albert” wandered into the Pearson Athletic Center to greet students.

Still energized by Bill’s remarks, older students filled the bleachers, Middle and Lower Schoolers sat on the gymnasium floor, and adults lined the indoor track. As tradition dictates, two Lower Schoolers rang Thomas Sidwell’s antique bell, proudly calling us to order. With this simple act, 1,500 souls of all ages gathered after the manner of Friends, embracing silence with an ease and focus that can only be described as miraculous. This moment of reflection, this willingness to listen for the truth we find in ourselves and to be open to that shared by others, provides the foundation of our spiritual and academic culture.

Our Meeting for Worship lasted only five minutes, but those who opened themselves to the moment could experience the radical notion of equality on which George Fox based Quakerism; could feel the power of a community grounded in shared and timeless values; could touch the elusive possibility of peace. No matter how many times I participate in this gathering, I am astounded by the silence, discipline, and hopefulness that it represents. And I am moved by the diversity, talent, and energy represented by our student body.

The Middle School chorus broke the silence with a beautifully moving rendition of “A Million Dreams” (“I close my eyes and I can see/The world that’s waiting for me”), the Lower School lifted our spirits with “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and the Upper School, with soloist Elie McCoy and a duet by Abby Meyers and Caelan Campbell, closed the musical celebration with the irrepressible hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

Music, especially when it is performed as authentically and beautifully as it was on that day, has the mystical power to both deepen community and deliver us to a state of inner calm. So after thanking the students for working their magic, I reiterated Bill Nye’s remarkable message about change. Knowing that our students are taught to practice stewardship, I asked Lower Schoolers how they do so. A 2nd grader raised his hand and, speaking confidently into the microphone, explained that he devoted many hours to removing English Ivy, an invasive species. The entire gymnasium immediately erupted into applause. A second student offered that she recycled, and the applause grew even louder. The pattern continued for additional students.

This moment was meaningful for many reasons, not least of which was that the respondents were exceedingly earnest and adorable. More important, it demonstrated that Meeting for Worship instills courage in students to use their voices to stand up for their beliefs; it affirmed our younger students for letting their lives speak; it connected past, present, and future in seamless unity and enabled our students to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves, that individually and collectively we have the power to transform our situation.

In this spirit, I read The Lorax, the Seussian tale of environmental stewardship that, like Bill Nye, appeals to all ages. As we reached the end of the book, together we recited the word “unless,” the only message the Lorax provided before he fled the landscape besmirched by the Once-ler. After spending years reflecting on his irresponsible actions and the significance of this word, the Once-ler reveals its meaning to his unsuspecting visitor: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” As contrition for his actions—and as a last act of hope—the Once-ler transfers the final Truffula tree seed to the boy who stirred him from his Lerkim, hoping that this visitor might somehow atone for his sins and renew the environment.

Like Bill Nye, Dr. Seuss implores us to take small actions that ultimately enable us to create big changes. In the spirit of simplicity, he urges us to limit our consumption. In the spirit of community, he wants us to recognize the impact that our actions have on one another. In the spirit of stewardship, he wants us to care for the environment. Perhaps Seuss found inspiration in Einstein, who insisted that we must “free ourselves … by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” This lesson carried the day, providing opportunities to widen our circle of friendship, to celebrate and affirm our shared values, and to care a whole lot about each other, our school, and our environment.

Alumni parents who joined us for the day spoke emotionally about the power of connecting with students and their former classmates, about the beautiful relationships that were forged between students of all ages, about Upper School students who joyfully interacted with their former Lower School teachers. The day, explained current parent Marika Cutler Meyer ’94 at a reception that evening, illustrated why it is so important to unify the campus. Founder’s Day provides a fleeting insight into the power and purpose of community, the health of which requires constant caring. So, to paraphrase Seuss (and forgiving grammatical standards), unless we work together to unify our campus a whole awful lot, we’re not going to recognize our full power and promise. We’re not!

I am grateful that what is best about Sidwell Friends is clearly visible on Founder’s Day, and I look forward to when our students can enjoy the benefits of a unified campus every day.

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