Headmaster’s Weekly Message

Thoughts from Chapel, the Academy’s morning assembly in historic Fuller Hall

As a teacher of literature and composition for over 30 years, I have come to value the truth in stories and the character of story tellers. Over the past week, I have heard three stories that I think highlight important truths about our community and important character traits of people who make communities loving and safe.

The first two stories come from Capstone Day and were told by Dorothy Baxter, the administrative assistant who helps Hank Eaton, Morse Chair of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, organize Capstone Day. First, Dorothy related the story of a Capstone evaluator who left her purse in a venue early in the day. When she returned hours later, she found her purse where she had left it with all of its contents still inside and untouched. She told Dorothy that where she comes from this would not have been the case; the purse would have been ransacked or stolen altogether. She was amazed by level of integrity we have here.

The second also involves another Capstone evaluator who left something behind. In this case, the evaluator left her packet of score sheets in the Mayo Center Lounge, and Dorothy knew she was headed to the Hilltopper restaurant for her next presentation. She asked a student (whom she didn't know) if he would run the packet to the Hilltopper, which is located off campus, hundreds of yards away. He immediately jumped up and literally ran to the Hilltopper to deliver the packet. The evaluator was amazed that a student would volunteer to do that, and when he returned to the Mayo Center, Dorothy said that he was her hero. Wanting to give him credit, she asked him his name, but he simply walked away, saying, "Heroes never tell."

The third story comes from Van Culver, a proctor at the Maple Center dorm and the custodian for the first floor of Streeter Hall. He was in the hallway near the Dining Hall when a girl (he thinks her name is Aliyah) came out of the bathroom and apologized. "I'm sorry," she said, "but someone has smeared toothpaste all over a mirror and sink in there. I know you work so hard to keep our school clean and safe, and I'd like to clean it up for you." Instead of accepting her request for cleaning materials, Van cleaned the mess while Aliyah stood guard at the door. Van told the story not only because it was the first case of anything like vandalism all semester, but also because it showed how giving and helpful our students are even at this stressful time of year.

These three stories say something about our students and the relationships they have with the adults here. First, our students love to help, love to serve, and love to care for others. These acts of selfless service make them happy. Like the anonymous hero in Dorothy's story, they do not want any glory; the love of service, the satisfaction of knowing what they do matters, and the joy of others are enough for them. These stories also show that our students trust and care for the adults around them, even strangers, even staff who are not their teachers, even people they only know from a distance. We know here through experience something that a wealth of educational research has proven: close teen-adult relationships are the key to resilience, success, and community in a school. These stories display that we have this closeness here in spades.

These stories also say something about their tellers, too. Dorothy and Van do not hold positions of great authority here. Their jobs are support positions; they are not ever in the spotlight, and they never expect public recognition for what they do. They are happiest serving behind the scenes and will probably not be happy that I am mentioning them now. However, just as important as their service, is their love of young people and their optimism in the ability of teenagers to do good in the world even when they make mistakes. In telling her stories, Dorothy was visibly proud of these two young men and that they were part of our community. She sought me out after a long day intentionally to share their stories. Similarly, Van was so impressed by Aliyah that he sought me out early in the morning, knowing that the day before had been a hard one here, to let me know that though some students had committed a thoughtless act, other students were shining quietly in the background. He wanted that good news of thoughtfulness to triumph over the negativity generated by thoughtlessness.

As we head into exams-and-end-of-semester-preparing-for-holidays stress, these stories have lightened my mood and helped me focus on what is important here. Yes, teens commit thoughtless acts through immaturity and ignorance, and, yes, it is our responsibility to be vigilant and educate them about the consequences of their actions. They do, however, also commit thoughtful acts. Like the rest of us, individually and collectively, they are imperfect, but genuinely good. Likewise, being around people like Dorothy and Van lifts me up at this time of year. They went out of their way to share their good news. Instead of quietly keeping their stories to themselves, they shared them so the light of these young people could brighten my day. My hope is that as we head into our semester break, these stories help lift you too, and may we all, like Dorothy and Van, take some time to share our good news with those we love.

800 teenagers were focused on the diminutive figure on stage. Senior Elizabeth Rowell stood behind a microphone with only a music stand for a podium, delivering her Chapel Talk as part of her Public Speaking class. As she recounted the events that caused her "whole world to go dark"—finding out Chuck E. Cheese wasn't real ("Chuck E. Cheese didn't lie; he WAS the lie!")—the audience was attentive and supportive. They laughed at her jokes, they engaged with her story, and they appreciated her self-deprecating and enthusiastic delivery.

As I sat on stage watching this scene play out, I was impressed by Elizabeth's courage and confidence. I see her almost every morning, as she is the first student in Colby Hall each day, and she is always cheerful. I have looked forward to teaching her next semester. I knew she is smaller than the rest of her peers, but I never realized how big her heart is—or how articulate and funny she is. As she finished and delivered her main message ("I decided that I could still love all the things I loved before, even if they weren't real."), something special happened: one brave person stood up, then a couple more, and within seconds, the whole hall was filled with applause, as the student body rose to acknowledge Elizabeth's courage and skill.

That moment will stand out as one of those goose-bump moments that happen periodically in Chapel, and many people sent me emails gushing about our student body, about Elizabeth, about her teacher Janet Warner-Ashley, and about our close-knit school community. As one person wrote, it was a perfect way to go into Thanksgiving Break. I totally agree. This speech and this standing ovation not only capped off a remarkable fall, they highlighted one of the things I am most thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Our fall has been an outstanding—even historic:

  • In athletics, every team made the quarterfinals, two made the finals, one won a championship, and several recorded the best performances in school history, including our first-ever girls' volleyball team and our Division I runner-up boys' soccer team.
  • The football team was especially remarkable with its undefeated season, the first 11-win season in 175 years, which came down to a one-point victory with a dramatic last-second stand to win the championship.
  • The soccer seasons were capped off with both our boys' and girls' coaches—Steve Levesque and Jeff Burroughs, respectively—receiving Coach of the Year honors.
  • In academics, students have won awards in robotics, culinary arts, and math, and our math team has advanced to the Elite Eight in the Math Madness national competition.
  • The fall musical, "The Addams Family" was one of the best ever, featuring professional-quality voices and acting.
  • We not only celebrated our 175th birthday, but we also celebrated the grand opening of St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju on Jeju Island in South Korea.

Most important of all, we have witnessed and participated in a tremendous display of school spirit. Just like the audience in Fuller Hall rose to applaud and congratulate Elizabeth for her courage and skill, the community of faculty, staff, and students has shown uncommon strength and compassion as we held each other during hard times, cheered each other on during competitions, worked together in acts of service and community building, and sang the Alma Mater every chance we got. Whether in the cozy confines of Fuller Hall or in the freezing stands at the championship games, our community has turned out en masse to support our teams, our cast and crew, and individuals like Elizabeth.

After Elizabeth's speech, Bruce James from WSTJ presented the football captains and Coach Rich Alercio with the World War II Trophy, which goes to the school that won the LI-SJA football game. In presenting the trophy, he recounted a number of individuals who were given an opportunity and made something excellent out of it. I think the same thing can be said for Elizabeth and the people in her audience Friday morning. They were given an opportunity—they could be attentive or distracted, courageous or timid, unresponsive or supportive—and they chose to excel as individuals and as a community.

Elizabeth might have had her world shattered when she realized that Chuck E. Cheese wasn't real, but Friday she got a taste of how being part of a loving community can pull our world back together. That is something for which we can all be truly thankful.

As I write this, our cross-country teams are headed to Maine for the New England Championships, our football team is preparing for the Division I State Championship, and our Academy Theater cast and crew are preparing for their performance of The Addams Family. In the midst of all of this excitement and excellence, I want to pay tribute to a group of young men who filled our fall with excitement and excellence all their own: our boys' soccer team.

More than any team I can remember, this team treated each other like brothers. There was no division—no barriers caused by nationality or race, dorm or day student status, new player or veteran. They genuinely liked and supported each other, even when things were down—especially when things were down—and when they yelled "Family!" each time they broke their team huddle, I really believed it because it was true.

This team competed every second of every game. They played hard, and they played together. Part of the strong emotions I felt at the end of their championship game, which could have gone either way minus a call here or a bounce there, was the recognition that I would not be able to watch this team again. The end of the game meant the end of this team. However, I am comforted by the knowledge that, given the strength of their relationships, it was not the end of the brotherhood.

As impressive as this togetherness was, I was more impressed by how they grew during the season. Their teamwork was more cohesive, their passing crisper, their communication more constant. Their skills got better and better under the tutelage of Coach Steve Levesque, and their dominance down the stretch was a testament to their hard work. They grew not only as players and as a team; they grew as young men and leaders too.

Perhaps one of the best parts of their legacy came at the very end—even after they had received the runner-up trophy for Vermont Division I soccer. Having traveled back from Burlington, obviously emotional and down after the loss, they showed up en masse to the semifinal football game, where their fellow athletes were behind 9-7 at halftime. Behind the spirited chants led by Pablo Gonzalez Rotger, the team lifted the spirits of the crowd and the football players. Football Coach Rich Alercio credits that boost as the spark that ignited the football team's 30-0 second half performance.

These young men on the soccer team are the epitome of what is at the heart of our community: they have learned the joy and significance of being part of something bigger than themselves. They are brothers for sure. Close knit and supportive no matter what, they sacrificed themselves in struggles and success. But they are more than brothers, too; they are Hilltoppers. They rose above their own disappointment and found meaning in supporting others.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize others in our community who have been examples of these same values of teamwork, loyalty, and sacrifice—our veterans. They have modeled what it means to put others before self and have laid it all on the line to protect our freedom and values, and many have paid the ultimate sacrifice or watched comrades do so. Likewise, we have alumni around the world serving in the armed forces on active duty. These men and women are part of a tradition that has marked our school for generations, and our boys' soccer team took a step toward living out that tradition this fall. Thanks to them and all of our veterans and active service alumni for reminding us what it means to be a Hilltopper.

Chapel is held each morning at Fuller Hall—a long-standing tradition at the Academy.

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