Système D

Why the French love MacGyver, and why you should, too.

By Head of School Tim Richards


 

On March 12, as Covid-19 steadily marched across the globe, I gathered our school community in Hard Auditorium and told them it was time to leave. It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my ten years at Pomfret. You could have heard a pin drop in that crowded space. Even then, I knew the coronavirus was a serious threat to our campus operations. What I could not have known in that moment — as silence turned to whispers and whispers turned to tears — is that it would be six months before I would see another Pomfret student on campus.

And now here we are, back on campus, nearing the end of our first full week of on-campus learning. While about 80 of our students are currently doing distance learning, approximately 270 of our students are here, and with many notable exceptions, we feel like Pomfret again. Our Better Together reopening plan laid the foundation for the amazing work our faculty and staff have done over the past eight weeks to bring us to this moment, and it feels really good to be back!

 

 

I rarely have the opportunity to put my advanced degree (in French) to work as head of school. It’s just not that relevant to my role. But the other day, I was thinking about how we are making this convoluted scenario work, and something tripped in the dark recesses of the French part of my brain. 

The French love the old TV series MacGyver.

In case you never watched the show, MacGyver was the guy who could come up with a solution to virtually any challenge; he was the guy who could make a cell phone out of a piece of cardboard, a roll of duct tape, and some aluminum foil. He’s a guy who simply figured things out, usually under great duress, no matter what the circumstance.

The French love MacGyver in part because his way of life is so deeply ingrained in their culture. They have a widely known saying for how MacGyver solves problems. It’s called “Système D.” The “D” is an abbreviation of the verb “se débrouiller,” which means to get on with it, to figure it out, to cope, or to manage. Using Système D may be intentional or spontaneous.

 

"In case you never watched the show, MacGyver was the guy who could come up with a solution to virtually any challenge; he was the guy who could make a cell phone out of a piece of cardboard, a roll of duct tape, and some aluminum foil. He’s a guy who simply figured things out, usually under great duress, no matter what the circumstance." 

 

I think it’s safe to say that we are all borrowing liberally from MacGyver’s creative and innovative approach to handling complexities these days, though we are trying to be more intentional and somewhat less spontaneous than he was. At Pomfret, we have fully embraced Système D, and while there are kinks to be worked out (do you think the cardboard and aluminum foil cell phone worked perfectly?), we feel really good about our process and where we have landed. 

Our students are eager to be back. They really want to be here, and are willing — for the most part — to abide by our mask-wearing and social-distancing protocols. I had imagined that Pomfret without students together in Clark Chapel or Hard Auditorium would just not feel good. That the plexiglass dividers in the Main House would ruin meals. That the absence of hand shakes, high fives, and hugs would leave us something decidedly less than our best selves. But the reality has been something else altogether. During these most uncommon and divisive of times, we have recommitted ourselves to demonstrating love through living the School’s institutional values, particularly our core value of “community,” and the early returns are very positive. 

Getting here was hard. Staying here will be even harder. It will be heavy lifting for faculty and students alike, but as we continue to Système D the heck out of this situation, we will continue to “figure it out” — one hour, one day, one week, one term, at a time. We have not Macgyvered everything that is sure to come our way, but the simple fact that we have adopted a small piece of the French people’s resourcefulness, creativity, and innovation is a really good start.


 

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