Instead of their usual classes, students chose two seminars from a selection of 14; the topics ranged from freedom of speech to gender equity, from socioeconomic privilege to microaggression.
The seminars, led by students, were titled “39 Years of Coeducation: Looking Back, Looking Forward,” “Body Image,” “Destigmatizing Difference,” “Free Speech,” “Healthy Sexual Relationships,” “Mental Health,” “Microaggression,” “Political Satire: The Charlie Hebdo Case,” “Power and Privilege,” “Socioeconomic Class: Show Me the Money,” “Standards of Beauty,” “Telling Our Stories,” “Tough Guise,” and “Unconscious Bias: Stereotype, Threat, and Microaggression.”
Classrooms filled with animated discussions and debates; a few seminars used videos or Ted talks to generate initial conversation. In one seminar, “Power and Privilege,” the student leader pushed those gathered to ponder what power really means. “The ability to sway the decisions of others,” suggested one student. Privilege? “Unearned advantage”—an answer the group applauded.
In “Socioeconomic Class,” students discussed the challenges and benefits of attending a school with students from such a wide range of backgrounds. “We talk about race and sexuality. We don’t really talk about socioeconomic class,” said the student leader. “What assumptions do we make?” Several attendees said class was a non-issue at Groton, while one pointed out that most lower and working class Americans don’t even think about sending their children to boarding school.
Down the hallway, “Tough Guise” was exploring the connection between violent crime and males who felt bullied or disrespected as men, while the “Standard of Beauty” seminar discussed media-driven stereotypes.
The “Coeducation” workshop featured a panel that included four alumni, Polly Reeve ’78, Lili Morss ’77, and teachers David Black ’80 and Jonathan Choate ’60, as well as longtime teacher Cathy Lincoln and current student Rose Lovy ’16. They discussed the slow evolution of Groton from a boys school to a coeducational institution, including the fact that admission officers in the early '70s freely described the school as a “boys school that admitted girls.” While the first form to include females had a female Prize Day speaker, the group could only remember a handful of other female Prize Day speakers over the years, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and Candice Bergen. Prize Day student speakers have not showed much better gender equity. While much progress has been made since students seemed unable to elect a female senior prefect, all agreed that there is more work to do.
In one of the “Mental Health” seminars, Margaret Funnell, an associate professor in Dartmouth College’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and a Groton faculty spouse, shared useful information on the neuroscience of stress. The brain’s frontal lobe, often not fully developed in teenagers, helps controls anxiety, she explained, adding that anxiety often worsens at night because the brain is tired and unable to do its job.
People have some control over their anxiety, Funnell said; meditation and mindfulness exercises strengthen the brain-body connection that helps keep anxiety in check. “I find that really comforting,” one girl commented after hearing the scientific explanation for anxiety.
The workshop most directly tied to current events, the “Charlie Hebdo” discussion, covered the massacre in that newspaper’s Paris office and debated whether Western governments and people more readily condemn attacks on Judeo-Christian faiths than attacks on Islam, as well as the difference between attacking a belief and attacking a person.
The “Free Speech” discussion touched on fine lines between attacking a person and attacking his or her statements. Debate ensued over whether students should put posters espousing their political views in Groton hallways, referring in particular to graphic posters displayed after the Ferguson, Missouri police shooting. Some students found it inappropriate to greet visitors to the Schoolhouse with graphic posters, while others supported the free expression. “Telling someone you can’t express what you believe infringes on free speech,” one argued.
Perhaps the simplest workshop, “Telling Stories,” provoked some of the most profound insights. Students gathered in small groups and, prompted by a few straightforward questions, told their own stories. They were intimate and revealing field-levelers: A student whose prominent political relative suffers criticism because of an intellectually disabled member of the family. A New Hampshire student on financial aid whose summer jobs help her family pay for Groton. A Chinese student who described a test-based educational system at home that demanded total specialization at an early age, not allowing her to pursue both of her passions, chemistry and history. “I like my life to have more possibilities,” she said.
The morning activities were part of an ongoing initiative driven by Groton School’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. It fulfills part of the School’s Diversity and Inclusion mission statement, which promises dedication “to shared examination of our different perspectives, inherent privileges, disadvantages, and prejudices…”