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Harnessing Our Superpowers

Dr. Jessie Barrie, Head of School
I imagine that most of us looked on in wonder last week, as Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate, took the world by storm on the inauguration stage with the reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb.” Gorman, a graduate of New Roads School, an independent school in Santa Monica, CA, spoke of unity, collaboration, and togetherness alongside the need for a national reckoning of truth and justice.  

What was far from obvious to most anyone watching Gorman’s amazing speech were the significant challenges she overcame to arrive at that moment. She has a diagnosed auditory processing disorder, is hypersensitive to sound, and had a speech impediment as a child. Gorman told The Harvard Gazette, "I always saw it as a strength because since I was experiencing these obstacles in terms of my auditory and vocal skills, I became really good at reading and writing. I realized that at a young age when I was reciting the Marianne Deborah Williamson quote that 'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure' to my mom."

Last year, the world was equally amazed by another incredibly impressive young woman, Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. At the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, the 16-year-old  spoke with poise, conviction, and passion as she urged the world’s leaders to take more dramatic action in support of climate change. Equally hidden from this groundbreaking speech is the reality that Thunberg had been battling depression for years and diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism. While acknowledging that her diagnosis of Asperger’s has limited her before, Thunberg does not view it as an illness, but has instead called it her "superpower."

Both Amanda Gorman and Greta Thunberg are considered by much of the world as total stars. Yet, they both achieved this status by overcoming what many would see as significant challenges—instead of seeing their realities as hindrances, they recontextualized them into strengths and superpowers. 

For our students, I look for every opportunity to highlight the realities of superstars’ stories because it can be all too easy, in our perfectly filtered social media world, to see only perfection in others and imperfection in ourselves. Research affirms over and over that this perceived reality contributes to disturbing statistics of loneliness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, despair, and suicidality (one of many such studies). 

Perspective, defined by Merriam Webster as “the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance,” may be one of the most important traits for every individual. Within each of us lies many characteristics that could be viewed either as an impediment, or a superpower. I am an only child, and while growing up, I received constant negative messaging about this. While I didn’t have the benefits of siblings as instant playmates, I did have others: my parents’ full focus, access to resources that didn’t have to be shared, opportunities to interact early on with adults that strengthened my confidence and communication skills, and a closeness with my parents that has defined the arch of our relationship. At the age of 33, months after losing my mum far too young to lung cancer, I developed Crohn’s Disease. This autoimmune disorder ravaged my body and spirit for years until I was able to identify the right medication to manage it. Losing my mum and my faith in my body was devastating. Yet, I also gained such a deep perspective for the quality of the relationship I had with my mum (that continues to infuse every element of my own parenting style). I also have developed a keen awareness and compassion for pain, fear, and despair that has dramatically enhanced my empathy for the trials of others that I would never have had without my health challenges. 

Another important element of perspective, the idea of a growth vs. fixed mindset, is explored in the research of Carol Dweck.  Per Dweck: “A ‘fixed mindset’ assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A ‘growth mindset,’ on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.”

Growth and fixed mindsets are also at play as we engage with our perspective of our inherent challenges—do we see them as an impediment or as a superpower? Do we use them either as an excuse that holds us back or as a perspective that drives us towards our full potential? 

I am inspired by individuals like Amanda Gorman and Greta Thunberg, and I am deeply inspired by our students and staffulty who model growth mindsets each and every day as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic, push themselves to grow as learners and leaders in our community, and manifest our mission to “...compassionate[ly] contribut[e] to a more just world.” 

We all have our superpowers—they make us human, humble, and fascinating. What current element of YOU would benefit from a shift in perspective and mindset? 

With gratitude and to the hill we all climb together, 

Jessie Barrie, PhD
Head of School 
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