Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

Every year, we begin the graduation season with two traditions: the reading of senior plans and the celebration of Senior Breakfast. This year, both of these long-standing traditions had special significance.

First, the graduates of the Class of 2017 had perhaps the most impressive list of college plans in recent memory. They are going to some of the best schools in a variety of fields: culinary arts, fashion design, engineering, auto mechanics, environmental studies, pre-medicine, pre-law, nursing, aeronautics, business, fine arts, electricity, and even seamanship. They are going to some of the top-ranked schools in the world: Ivy League, "Little Ivies", and highly selective liberal arts colleges.

As I read these plans, I was impressed by how diverse these schools are, how diverse the areas of study are, and how good a fit these schools are for our graduates. The members of the Class of 2017 seem to have found something they love to learn and have found a place that will support them as they pursue further studies in that area after the Academy.

One other fact has struck me about these senior plans—their global scope. Our graduates are heading to schools on four continents—North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. They will be studying in eleven countries—the US, Canada, Japan, Spain, Australia, Mexico, Finland, South Korea, Wales, England, and Scotland—and 28 states ranging from Connecticut to California and Minnesota to Mississippi.

In addition to the 190 or so that are immediately entering college or university studies, eighteen others are taking a gap year before entering college—working in retail and industry, doing volunteer work or travel study, or even working as interns at St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju, which is due to open this coming fall. Thirteen others have already landed jobs and will be entering the workforce, and two are going into military service.

All of these facts point to one powerful truth: diversity matters. When young people have a chance to meet, live and learn with, and befriend people from around the world, going to school in far-off places is no longer a scary or foreign idea. In fact, the experience of diversity awakens curiosity and opens up possibilities so that students' horizons become broader and they can see new opportunities. My goal in reading these plans every year is that those sitting in the junior and sophomore sections might see in the example of the seniors what it means to dream big and pursue passions and interests wherever they lead, whether they decide to attend a school across the world or work in a nearby town.

The second tradition—Senior Breakfast—is a chance for advisor groups to eat together and celebrate their journey together. Guided by an advisor, these groups of 8-15 students have learned how to bridge differences, enjoy each other's company, and solve problems together. The breakfast involves watching a video with photos from past years, hearing from a Trustee (this year alumnus Jamie Murphy '90), from the Class Dean (this year Conni Morris), and from me. The day ends with remarks from Alumni and Development Director Tammi Cady, who welcomes them into the alumni family and then plays a game of trivia with them, asking questions about their advisors' pasts and showing senior photos from their advisors' yearbooks. The day is always fun, the trivia questions usually surprising, and the photos often embarrassing.

In my remarks to each senior class at this breakfast, I try to point out what makes them unique among other graduating classes. This year, my remarks focused on traits of particular significance. In many ways, this class resembled others—having won many state championships, garnered regional and national awards, and presented top-quality Capstones; however, this class has shown a unique character.

They have shown resilience, both personally and collectively, bouncing back from disappointments large and small. In recent weeks, they have handled disappointments around their graduation, their prom, and Spring Day with a "let's make the best of it" attitude. They have had thoughtful and honest conversations as adults, and they have remembered to be grateful and gracious as they prepared to leave. Most of all, they have been open to giving and receiving forgiveness, seeking reconciliation where relationships might be frayed.

In the end, I feel excited to think that these young people will be spread throughout the world, taking with them these virtues and all the skills and knowledge they have gained here. I am equally excited to think forward five years, when they will return for their first Reunion Weekend, when I will get to hear all of the inspiring things they have accomplished. I realize we still have two weeks to go before we can fully celebrate their graduation, but there is a lot to celebrate about the Class of 2017 already!

I didn't even get a chance to introduce her speech and already the entire hall, 800-plus people strong, had erupted in a prolonged and enthusiastic round of applause. I was taken aback, choked up, and deeply moved by this show of affection from a whole school—students, faulty, and staff alike—toward one young woman. After composing myself and getting the applause to subside so she could speak, I turned the podium over to Michele Leblanc so she could give her final speech as Student Government President.

As she spoke, to be honest, I didn't listen to all of what she had to say; it wasn't directed to me after all, but to the student body she loved. I sat and watched and reminisced, remembering her freshman year when she came in declaring, "I'm not my sisters!" (both Cami and Laurence had been very successful in many areas of the school) and then promptly becoming a school leader just as they had. I remembered how she had struggled to find her authentic voice as a leader, how she had found it and then become captain of two varsity athletic teams for two years in a row. As I watched her, poised despite stumbles, articulate and upbeat despite obviously feeling the emotion of the moment, I thought back to last summer when she set out her agenda for the year.

More than anything else, Michele wanted her legacy to be the development of "one team". Over the summer, some fall sports teams had started to bicker, snipe, and unravel the friendships and camaraderie that usually mark our athletic program. Michele wanted to take that on—no small task—and laid out a plan to do so. Starting with a student leadership workshop on being one team, and moving on to student government meetings with speeches about diversity and acceptance, Michele worked hard to make us part of the same great team. And as the reaction of her peers to her speech made clear, she was very successful in this endeavor.

Beyond that, even in her everyday actions, Michele is an example of servant-leadership, compassion, and empathy, working tirelessly on behalf of those who struggle or feel alone. Her Capstone on how to better welcome refugee students to our school will no doubt perpetuate those efforts for years to come. Sitting in Fuller Hall and watching the student body respond with genuine affection for her, I realized how fortunate we are to have people like Michele in our community, and how important it is that we work to always be one team.

As Michele finished her speech, the room rose as one, tears flowed, people shouted and cheered, and once again I held back tears as I thanked Michele for all she has done for our school and community. In my eyes, she has given us one of the greatest gifts we can receive—whether high school students, families, or community members—that of belonging to something greater than ourselves, one team joined together by respect, compassion, and love.

Well done, Michele!

Friday night, St. Johnsbury Academy alumna Hannah Rowe '10 was inducted into the Vermont Principal's Association Hall of Fame, having been nominated by former SJA Athletic Director Tom Conte. Hannah joined 13 other distinguished contributors to Vermont athletics: long-time referees and administrators, championship coaches, and other championship athletes. The night was long, as many of the speakers had many stories to tell and people to thank, but it was worth the wait to hear Hannah speak.

She began by thanking Coach Jack Driscoll who told her, when she wasn't getting as much playing time as she wanted, "Just be ready when your name is called." Hannah took that advice into every area of endeavor: her academics, her music, her athletics, her relationships. The results speak for themselves: Hannah has won multiple New England regional honors, received four Gatorade Athlete of the Year awards, and been a three-sport champion in cross country, basketball, and track. She is also a stand-out jazz musician and singer, graduated from Dartmouth College, is just finishing her Masters degree, and is heading to Palo Alto to work with people recovering from strokes and with autism. She has always been and always will be ready when her name is called.

As my wife and I drove home from the event, I thought about Hannah's multi-dimensional excellence and about a comment her dad, Academy music director Alan Rowe, made before the event started. He said that, while he appreciates my exhortations for young people to "find their passion", he has found that it is more likely that people won't find that "one passion" to which they will dedicate their lives. Instead, most of us have several things we like, we are relatively good at, and which we want to pursue. If we pursue them with grit and energy, we find pleasure and meaning in what we do. That was certainly the case with Hannah, and I suspect that Alan is right.

On Thursday, the day before the Hall of Fame event, I had given my annual encouragement to the seniors to make the most of the time they had left in their high school careers (at the time it was 47,520 minutes, counting weekends). I encouraged them to take the advice of the song "Seasons of Love" from the musical Rent and measure their time by how much they love—how much they love their past with all of its memories and growth, how much they love their present with its friendships and new-found talents, and how much they love their future with its dreams and plans to change the world. It was in this last area that I made my plea to find their passion. And so now, given Alan's thoughtful insight, I'd like to amend that advice.

As our seniors set out to face the word and make it better, my hope is that they will continue to explore and be curious, to dive into areas of interest and pursue them with resilience and resolve, to take advantage of the most promising of the opportunities life offers. I hope that, whether these opportunities are many or come in the pursuit of one main passion, that our graduates will be well-equipped to take hold of them and pursue them with energy and joy.

I always close my exhortation to the seniors with three requests, recognizing that leaving high school is but one of many times they will leave something or someplace in their lives. I ask that

1. They leave gracefully, not creating collisions or regressing, but moving forward aware of one another;

2. They leave graciously, mending relationships and treating each other as valued guests;

3. They leave gratefully, having experienced many good things with good people and with no regrets.

This year, I would add a fourth: that they leave with a firm grasp on who they are, what they like, what they are good at, what opportunities lie ahead, and what to do when their name is called.

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

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