Coming Full Circle by Sarah Williams Carlan ’92

The feelings of love and belonging are essential to the human experience. We need them as much as we need food, water, and shelter. For the past 20 years I have studied this human need, in text books, through research, and finally, with my clients and their families. The first time I felt love and belonging, outside of my family and close friends, was at Williston.

I came to the Williston Middle School after two years of feeling like a player without a playbook. For those two years I came to school feeling like everyone else knew the rules to the game and I was in the dark. I had difficulty making friends and could not seem to cram the spelling words and math facts into my head as fast as the teachers wanted me to. My sense of isolation grew like tumor in my chest, leaving me feeling empty and alone.

When my parents generously gave me the opportunity to apply to Williston, I was elated. I felt like I had been pardoned by the governor. I could finally get out of this place! I had no idea what I was stepping into.

The moment I walked though the door as a 7th grader, I was greeted with that sense of love and belonging I had deeply missed. I know now (after years of studying the subject for years) how important it was for me to feel that my authentic self was welcome. I wasn’t asked to fit into a mold or strive for an image. Being seen and heard (really heard) by the adults in my life was what allowed me to sink in and get to know myself. It was Mrs. King seeing and believing that I was good at math, that allowed me to believe I could be good at Math. It was Mr. Tuleja’s infectious enthusiasm about music that convince me to remember a few important facts in my music class. It was the times that my history teacher asked me what I thought about an event in history, and really listened to my response, that those gave me a chance to feel like I was cared for and I belonged.

This was my place! I was wanted and encouraged to thrive. During my six years, I worked on and eventually edited the yearbook, I was a Gold Key tour guide, a tri-varsity athlete and captain of the swimming and co-ed water polo teams. I tell you this not so that I can brag about my accomplishments, but to demonstrate how comfortable I felt to take risks and be vulnerable. I could only do that because I knew I had a safe place to land if I faltered or even failed. Williston was where I found my courage and my home.

I will never forget the shock and awe I felt on the night before graduation when I was awarded a book prize for “embodying the values and …..” I realized at that moment that all of those adults who I so respected had been watching. They had seen how hard I had worked and how much risk I had taken to be the best I could be.

Now fast forward 22 years! Yikes, I can’t believe it has been that long! My daughter is getting ready to apply to middle school. Being the good “hover gently in the background” parent I want to be, I tired hard not to infuse our discussions with too much nostalgia. I didn’t even really know if Williston was the same amazing place I remembered, or if I had just been imagining all those great experiences. So I stayed back and allowed her to have a relatively unfettered first impression.

We arrived at the admissions office to be greeted by old friends, who shared memories of both me and my brother. Then we were greeted at the Middle School my Ms. Fulcher with hugs and the most genuine enthusiasm. Nothing had been lost over the years for me. This was still my place where I was welcomed with open arms. It could have gone either way for my daughter Amelia. She could have seen the value of being in a place that wants to welcome you right from the start, or she could have rejected it all together because it was her “mom’s place”. I sat back and trusted that she would know what was best for her. At pickup on visit day, I was greeted with this statement, “I really didn’t think I was going to like it. I was only looking at it because you went here. But now I can’t imagine going anywhere else.”

That culture of getting to know people as individuals and valuing them was still alive here at Williston. In just a day Amelia had felt that sense of love and belonging that we all need so desperately. And she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Williston taught me to know myself—and stretch that self by taking risks. I know in my bones that it will teach my daughter, and some day my son, the same. So I have to ask myself, “What can I do to preserve what is here right now?” Just like I did when I was a student I need to look inside, find my strengths, and give from that place. I have the chance every day to support Williston by sharing my story, encouraging new students to apply, and when I can by donating money.

I get to keep the spirit of Williston alive in my daily life, so Williston to be the best it can be.

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