Poet Mary Oliver died in January and left a sizeable hole in the universe. Yet, she also left us with an incredible legacy in her shared life’s work and I, for one, am so grateful for her writing.
I am a huge fan. American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her recent book, Felicity – a collection of love poems – was given to me by a dear friend, herself a writer, and her artist husband as a gift for my Installation as Head of Kent School. I own two copies of Devotions so that I can read it whether I am at home or in my office, and Upstream has been the perfect inspiration for me as I left an urban school to lead a rural school.
Oliver’s work illustrates for us the importance of creativity, her insatiable curiosity for the natural world and the great responsibility she feels, handed to her by writers before her, to observe thoughtfully and record her passions. She encourages us to lose ourselves in the beauty of nature and to find time for the creativity that lives inside each of us. “I could not be a poet without the natural world,” she said, “someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”
For over a half century her poems have explored the connection between the natural and the spiritual worlds. She was often inspired to write during long walks as a child growing up in rural Ohio, and later in her adopted hometown of Provincetown, MA. In the words of the late poet Lucille Clifton, “she uses the natural world to illuminate the whole world.”
What better place to appreciate Mary Oliver than in the unparalleled environment for learning that is Kent School. We are located on the bank of the Chester River just outside of historic Chestertown, Maryland, where our students learn on an inviting, open and beautiful riverside campus complete with outdoor teaching gardens and the Chesapeake Bay at our fingertips. I especially love seeing the sun rise over the river from our Library. The view is breathtaking and it is an incredible way to begin each day.
Mary Oliver speaks directly to me daily as I journey outside on a campus that fosters joy and curiosity, while also being home to wildlife, plants and vegetables, amidst a working farm, in a watershed. Now in my third year as Head of School, I would like to share four rules for leading a school, as learned from the poems in Oliver’s vast collection.
Every morning the world is created.
Live each day to the fullest. Let students create and recreate themselves. Try to eliminate preconceived notions about students or employees. Let each person start fresh each day and appreciate their talents and strengths.
Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.
Be kind. Be positive. Care about your students. Care about everyone who works at your school. Care about families. And, most especially, be a great role model through kindness. Kindness is contagious.
I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.
Always be kind, but, once in a while a little mischief is good for everyone (said with a wink). And, singing is always fun, especially singing together. This year my school established all-school weekly meetings. We end school on Friday afternoons with singing. It sets the tone for the coming week!
Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.
For Kent’s 50th anniversary celebration this academic year, I selected IMAGINE as the theme and we are spending this year IMAGINE-ing what the next 50 years will hold. The possibilities are limitless and the future is very bright.
I could not lead without Mary Oliver. She is a part of my soul.