Even in a pandemic, important rituals bring us together

Oct 30 2020

Even in a pandemic, important rituals bring us together

“The only way we’ll know where we’re going is to look at the past and to remember who we were through ceremonies and rituals”
— Laura Esquivel

If a picture tells a thousand words, this photograph speaks volumes. In it, a row of sweaty senior Keystone soccer players in uniform pose while taking a knee after their final home game; standing proudly behind them and celebrating their years of play are their parents and coaches. Senior Night is a long-running ritual here at Keystone and this picture will take its place among other years. The only difference is that everyone is wearing a mask, the defining mark of 2020.

The next night, upper school students, teachers, and administrators gathered to celebrate another Keystone ritual, the celebration of creative talents during Stone Soul. Instead of convening on campus, this one took place over Zoom. Ably organized by seniors by Ella and Hashim, this autumn’s Stone Soul featured music, poetry, and prose readings by students in ninth through twelfth grade. Beyond the amazing talents demonstrated by the students were the wonderfully supportive comments in the chat. Remarks like “Issa, how do you do that??,” and “Kate, that was amazing!” testified to the way that Keystone students encourage their peers to take risks, try new things, and go out on a limb. As a result, our high school students demonstrate their incredible courage and their willingness to be vulnerable. This year’s Stone Soul resembled other years’ shows, but like last spring, we gathered online rather than in the theater or dining hall.

At a time when everything just feels out of kilter, rituals of all kinds take on an even greater importance. In an article in “Psychology Today,” Washington University professor Rebecca J. Lester discusses the crucial role of rituals in our society and how we can modify or create new rites during this pandemic. Although Americans generally don’t think of themselves as practicing many rituals, she explains, we do far more than we realize. “Priding ourselves on our modern, science-driven, first-world status, most Americans associate “ritual” with other more “exotic” cultures like the Balinese or the Hausa,” she writes. “But Americans are, in fact, profoundly ritualistic. First-day-of-school photos posted to Facebook, proms, graduations, bachelorette parties, honeymoons, retirement parties, memorial concerts, and even sporting events—all of these are ritual events or practices that mark transitions and create or celebrate social ties.”

These rituals are different now. We cannot congregate in large groups for fear of creating super-spreader events. Families have to either delay or cancel christenings, First Communions, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, quinceañeras, graduation parties, celebrating Ameen to commemorate when a child finishes reciting the Quran for the first time, and perhaps most sadly, funerals. These events enable us to halt our daily activities, recognize the uniqueness of the moment, gain a sense of closure as we transition from one stage of life to another, and move to a new level of existence. Without these rituals, our lives become a monotonous blur undefined by space or time. As Lester writes, “One of the most important features of rituals is that they do not only mark time; they create time. By defining beginnings and ends to developmental or social phases, rituals structure our social worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change.”

Rituals give our lives meaning, even if they come weekly. In Abrahamic religions, rituals come in many forms, including the Sabbath, a day set aside for rest and worship. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains the importance of the sabbath ritual from a temporal perspective in his book, “The Sabbath.” He explains how we elevate one day a week by giving it our most precious but perhaps our most easily squandered resource, our time. “Thus the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space. The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space,” Heschel writes. “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

We create rituals to demarcate the changing and ephemeral nature of life. Last week, we acknowledged that our twelfth graders will never play another regular season home game for Keystone; at Stone Soul, we recognized the artistic side of our students, and in particular, we welcomed our newest high schoolers to this next phase in their educational journey.

Rituals also force us to stop and remember what’s important when our lives can feel like a series of tasks and “to-do” lists. The parents and fellow students who cheered for and recognized the seniors paid tribute to the students’ years of hard work and dedication; even more so, they reaffirmed our collective commitment to supporting one another in the classroom, in the hallways, and on the fields and courts of play. Similarly, perhaps the most beautiful element of Stone Soul is the way our Cobras exhort each other when they perform, whether in person or in the Zoom chat. In the process, their encouragement enables adolescents to try new things without the fear of ridicule at a time in their lives when peer pressure can be so destructive.

Rituals not only affirm community, they also help create and renew it. This Friday, we will celebrate a favorite Keystone ritual, Halloween. As with everything else this year, Halloween will be different. In the Little School, students will dress in costume and participate in Halloween crafts, festivities and individual class parades, with lots of photos and videos for students on campus and in distance learning. Lower school grade levels will parade around the quad rather than in the gym, and we will do it one grade level at a time rather than all together. We will livestream the parade so family members can attend, even if not in person. We will have costumes, games, some silliness, and the campus will be decorated even more than in the past.

Students in MS will have stations to choose from during their Halloween celebration. Activities include bingo, PE games, Minecraft, movie, and a performance from Encore. The Leadership class has organized the 7th and 8th grade Halloween celebration and will be running all of the stations. The leadership team has also created treat bags for all MS students to pass out to Lower School students.

The spirit of Halloween is alive and well in the Upper School but it is shifting to Zoom this year. Grades 9-12 have recorded skits, posted pictures of their spooky cakes, sent in snapshots for the costume contest, and submitted slides of their pumpkin carving prowess. After 9th and 11th graders on campus cheer on the Lower School costume parade, all US students will join in Zoom for 7th and 8th period to share in this virtual celebration while 9th and 11th on campus will have communal viewing experiences of the fun.

The activities of this year’s Halloween will be different, but the spirit of this annual event is the same. Both on campus and online, we will come together to celebrate with joy, as we add new elements to this vital Keystone ritual.

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