Bouncing Back

March 20, 2024

This March we’re considering resilience here at St. Johnsbury Academy, and I want to share two things that have helped us think about it so far: Basketball, and Spring.


The first is an extraordinary basketball game our girls’ team played in Burlington a few weeks ago. This was the contest for the Vermont State championship, in which our team earned the right to participate by having an incredible winning season full of hard work, perseverance, and cooperation. Over our winter break the team competed without the kind of cheering crowds that we like to supply–so it was wonderful to be able to supply a fan bus with a full-throated cheering section that night.


The final score might have suggested that we did not win–and it’s true that despite playing with ferocity in a game where the teams were neck and neck throughout, we did not win the State Championship.


But to say we didn’t win is not quite the whole story. I could not be more proud of how St. Johnsbury Academy showed up to that game–how our student fans were respectful and positive, how families came out in force, and how despite frustration our team, their coaches, and our school community notched the win by putting on a show of sportsmanship that we could all be proud of.


Let’s consider the fact that to show sportsmanship requires strength and confidence. It requires very actively, in the moment, in emotional and difficult moments, containing and controlling some of our natural feelings so that we don’t express them in ways that are unworthy of us. Sportsmanship requires respect for others, for the game, and for ourselves. It requires bouncing back from disappointment and being able to put that disappointment in perspective.


The word “resilient” derives from the Latin “jump back” or “rebound” –the root is “salire,” meaning literally to “leap.” I like this in our basketball context because there’s bouncing and rebounding–but in any endeavor we need to recover and adjust when we miss the mark or run up against obstacles. When we’re resilient we refuse to stay down.


One of the most important things I hope all students learn while they’re here is that we will always have moments when we are down. I wish I could tell them that at some point we have everything figured out and life becomes a triumphant series of forward and upward leaps. But they need to know that this is not what happens. Not to anyone.


Something else can happen, though, no matter what the setback is–losing a game that was hard-fought, not getting a part in a play, getting a bad grade on a test, or any number of small misfortunes we encounter whenever we attempt anything. What can happen in a community that believes in bouncing back, and honors that capacity as one of our most valuable, is that we can understand those setbacks for what they are–opportunities for a wider range of experience and understanding. They are opportunities to come together and find strength in one another. Researchers have found that having a team or community you feel part of is one of the best predictors of resilience in any population–and especially for people who have struggled.


So while our lives are not going to be only a triumphant series of forward and upward leaps, they will contain those leaps. We saw so many of them from our strong team, those forward and upward leaps. For some students just being at the game and cheering–deciding to show up in that way–was a leap and required courage. Surely our team of fans provided part of the lift.


Even with the joys of basketball, it has been a long winter–and it’s no coincidence that we call our bouncing back from it “Springtime.”


This year in particular there is value in recognizing the common heart of the spring holidays of some of the world’s most observed religions. For instance, the Muslim tradition of Ramadan to Eid Al Fitr; the Jewish Nisan to Passover; and the Christian observance of Lent and then Easter. All take place in March and April, and begin with a version of fasting or depriving oneself of enjoyment alongside empathetic prayer for those who are hungry or suffering from want. All end in festive holidays that involve eating symbolic foods and giving thanks, celebrating abundance and emergence–rebirth, even–from a period of struggle.


The spring holidays also ritualize the end of winter—a time of privation or going without—and mark a time to empathize with the struggle of all of humanity, particularly those who are in need. Spring is a symbolic moment to talk about resilience and return—the return of life to the earth, flowers, plants, crops that we need to survive, and the return of hope that comes with that return of abundance.


In Christianity, that return takes the form of a resurrection; in Islam and Judaism the celebration is about the collective overcoming of hardship and persecution. Given all that is happening across the world, let’s notice how poignant it is that all three are about the profound gratitude we feel when spring returns again after months of seeming like it might not. In other words, no matter which religion you might practice, and even if you do not practice one, this is a time to recognize the miracle we all experience every year.


A resilient community notices that these celebrations make us more connected than separate, despite the ways the world can sometimes separate us. So let’s take the opportunity to locate those connections and commonalities that help us bounce back, those dips and leaps we take together, and celebrate them.