Find Your Spot Under the Stairs
Chelsea Denlow, upper school history teacher

Upper school history teacher Chelsea Denlow shared the following remarks at the Class of 2021 graduation. 

What a crazy year this has been. I still recall finishing last spring with half of this grade. I vividly remember our last in-person, zoom-free class. You may remember, too; We were doing a simulation of the 1929 stock market crash. You were furiously trading stock options, buying on the margin (Avi was secretly dealing some on the side). And, predictably as I had rigged the simulation, the market suddenly crashed. Then I went to Whole Foods and there was no toilet paper. Both were ominous signs.

I started at Nueva when you were in 10th grade, but we didn’t really know each other. I taught 11th and 12th and to me, you were the group of kids who hung out under the second-floor stairs. I remember walking by you, smiling, sometimes waving, overhearing conversations about what to put in the next issue of the newspaper or a debate about the merits of capitalism. The next year, many of you landed in my US history class. I was amazed by your intellect, your wit, your willingness to dig into whatever material I threw your way. I thought, those stairs must be pretty special.

But then as fast as the toilet paper left the grocery store shelves, you lost your classroom, lost your hallways, your lunch tables. You lost your spot under those stairs. So, you had to adapt.

“Zoom” became the most used noun, verb, and adjective in our lives. You still did amazing things—adjusting to new schedules; producing a virtual play; organizing a Reclaim Our Vote campaign; hosting countless round tables, Science Fridays, Coffeehouses—and all through Zoom. You also got really good at attending class from bed, learning TikTok dances, attending class from the car, finding funny background images, attending class from a trampoline, cutting your own hair, attending class from a moving skateboard (Sean, that one was impressive.) But, while Zoom and technology kept us moving, it didn’t inspire us. Nothing could really replace what we had before or the spot under the stairs.

This year has taught us the value of community, the value of human connection. That there is simply no replacement for sitting together and having a conversation. And it doesn’t always come easy, but it is always worth the effort.

I want to tell you about the hardest physical challenge of my life. It was a month-long Outward Bound backpacking trip in Alaska for outdoor educators. I had trained a little, but I was not prepared to carry a 70-pound backpack, over the treeless, spongy tundra terrain. On top of that, we had gotten a briefing on new grizzly bear policies. To ward off bears, everyone had to stay in groups of four, even while going to the bathroom. Apparently, there had been a recent attack.

We started our journey in Coldfoot, Alaska. The farthest north inhabited town in the state. I’ve always been a little shy, and I nervously started chatting with people next to me as we ate our last dinner in civilization. It’s funny starting trips like that. No one knows each other. We all wonder, “Will I connect with anyone? Do we have anything in common? I hope they like me.”

The next morning, we started our journey. We took a little plane even farther north, got dropped off in the middle of the tundra, no trails, no buildings, no people. We pulled on our 70-pound packs and started walking, eager to keep our pace to meet our food drop in a few days. But about an hour in, the girl next to me started complaining about her stomach. We stopped. I trotted along with her to a distant spot in the open tundra (and two others per policy), we turned our backs to give her privacy. And then kept walking. A few minutes later, one of the guys started complaining about his stomach. And we repeated the same scenario. Then my stomach gurgled. Oh god.

It became a sight to behold, 15 people, squatting across the open tundra hillside, packs laid askew, taking care of their business unfortunately from both ends, bears be damned. We all had food poisoning. Needless to say, any concerns about our own privacy gave way to the call of nature. The next few days were brutal, hauling our huge packs, helping out by carrying additional weight for someone who was sicker, not being able to slow down our pace to meet that food drop. It was incredibly difficult and the only way I got through it was by leaning on my group. We supported each other, we advocated for each other's needs, and we achieved more together than we could do alone. A true lesson in the value of community.

Now, I’m not saying to build community, you need to be in bear-infested tundra openly going to the bathroom together. But it does work.

Even before the pandemic, it became much easier to self-isolate—to hide behind screens, to text, to Instagram, to binge Netflix, and to never look up from your phone or leave your room. This can especially be a hindrance in a time of transition. Let’s face it: it’s scary moving from a community like Nueva, that many of you have known your whole lives, to starting something new. All I can tell you is what I’ve learned: community takes effort, a willingness to show up. And sometimes you have to try more than one thing before you figure it out. Find a group that challenges and inspires you in college and spend time with them. No one does big things by themselves.

This year also forced us to pause in community with each other in a new way. Because of COVID, anyone getting sick was a risk to everyone. We truly became “our brother’s keeper,” as our actions directly impacted the lives of those around us and even those who weren't. We were reminded that we all do better when we all do better. And we have to fight zero-sum thinking, that one person’s gain doesn’t have to be someone else’s loss. This year, we’ve witnessed those in our society who would obstruct people’s right to vote and deny people of color justice and opportunity, threats to democracy, rising xenophobia, and growing, massive economic inequalities. Taking action to preserve and protect community is just as important as building it.

So, Class of 2021, as you move from one community to building your next, show up, try new things, discover your people and your inspiration, and create meaningful action with others. I can’t wait to see what you all accomplish. Go find your spot under the stairs.

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