Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

I admit it. I'm jealous. I never thought I would be jealous about a piece of furniture, but I am.

When I saw the podium that we have since shipped to South Korea as a gift to commemorate the opening of St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju, I was struck with a serious case of podium envy. Made by Academy woodworking teacher Matt Stark and his students, the podium is a replica of the Fuller Hall podium, only made out of American cherry. It's absolutely beautiful—the kind of furniture piece you want to run your hands over: polished, smooth, warm. Too beautiful to just look at, it invites you to touch it.

The podium also has several artistic touches that are a testament to Matt's creativity and careful design, characteristics that made him a prominent furniture maker in Hollywood for clients like Arnold Schwarzenegger. First, the podium has three black bars on each side, representing the three solid bars on the flag of the Republic of South Korea. These bars symbolize heaven, east, and fatherhood. On the front, Matt used three broken bars, also a symbol on the Korean flag, symbolizing earth, west, and motherhood. His message is clear: our partnership with St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju is a transformative event, joining heaven and earth, east and west, male and female in a common venture.

The wood Matt chose for these bars is also significant. They are made of Nigerian mahogany, to represent the international nature of both schools, and they are stained a shade of black meant to imitate the color of the volcanic rock for which Jeju Island is so famous. In addition, he found a piece of Vermont poplar, which had both green and white hues, and turned that into a circular seal, upon which appears the St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju seal (depicting the Colby Bell Tower), created in our Maker Space with the help of Science Department Chair Dr. Elia Desjardins. Again, Matt was able to capture some the essential elements of our school in these choices: international diversity, Vermont roots, and comprehensive programming that combines the arts and technology. All of these will be elements of SJA Jeju as they enroll a diverse student population, become intimately connected to their local community, and promote a comprehensive curriculum, including their own Maker Space.

Finally, on both sides of the podium, Matt carved the three planks of our mission (again with Dr. Desjardins' help in the Maker Space) into the beautiful pieces of mahogany: Character, Community, and Inquiry. These three words, which embody the three promises we make to our students and their families, are perhaps my favorite part of the podium and the part that ties our school to SJA Jeju most closely. Both schools promise to do all they can to help young people become the best people they can be and live lives of integrity, compassion, respect, and responsibility; become the best learners they can be and find something they love to learn; and become part of something bigger than themselves as they strive to leave the world better than they found it. Joined in living out these promises, our schools are connected in a profound and powerful way.

So I want one of these for Fuller Hall. Matt knew I would; in fact, he said when he presented the podium for me to view for the first time, "You're probably gonna want one of these, huh?" Yup. And more than that, I want to celebrate the work Matt does every day and especially this beautiful testament to his talent and our school's new international partnership. Matt might have made more money as the furniture maker to the stars, but he is making a much greater impact as the furniture maker to the world. I am sure his work will inspire generations of SJA and SJA Jeju students to create meaningful beauty of their own.

When I am unable to attend, others take the stage to lead Chapel. That was the case last Wednesday, when Assistant Head for Campus Life, Beth Choiniere, shared a story about herself and a message of resilience. Beth's message that day rang true with many students and faculty, and they told her throughout the day how inspiring they had found it.

Beth began by explaining her New Year's resolution to challenge herself as much as she could to do things she doesn't normally do. So far, this resolution had resulted in her flying (over water) to Hawaii, taking an online class, filling out her son's college financial aid forms, running a half-marathon, and last but not least challenging—taking a digital photography class with our Media Integration Specialist Steve Legge.

After sitting in class, confused about apertures and shutter speeds and ISO, she went home, took out the camera her father had bought for her years ago, completed her first assignment and sent it in, and according to her "from my lens—no pun intended—it was an epic fail." First of all, I don't believe that pun was unintended, and as a punophile, I appreciated the touch. But more importantly, Beth followed this admission of failure with the following:

But I came back to class the next time. And he has set us out on a new assignment for next week. And you know what I found myself doing? Bringing my camera with me everywhere I go—just yesterday the moonlight on the way home from the girls soccer game called me to the side of the road on Route 2 trying to capture what I thought was a beautiful ridgeline—now the beauty of digital photography is that when your photo stinks—you can just press delete and try again—so that's what I did. Reset, refocus, and try again.

Beth then asked, "How do you define success?" and went on to share,

The number of people who have shared that they aren't at their best right now is pretty telling to me that we are in the phase of the semester where maybe exhaustion has set in...or resilience is down. When I watch the news all I see are images of destruction and horrific stories of struggles of the human condition. So when we are bombarded by those images and the trials and tribulations of our own lives—'cause let's face it—everyone has "stuff"—how might you look up? Or lean in? How might you—in the face of a difficult situation—look to what is good or how it might promote change?

She then turned to a story about long-time UCLA men's basketball coach John Wooden for her definition of success. She said,

Coach Wooden defines success as "a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming." Note that he did not define success as an outcome (a win or a loss), but as peace of mind. The key to that peace of mind? Effort. Effort can be difficult to measure, but we know it when we see it. We see it in the classroom every day, we see it on our sports teams, and in our artistic performances. We see it in the little things that people do for one another—like share a hug, open a door for someone, provide some feedback.

I've talked a lot over the years about attitude and effort as being those two aspects in life that we can control. I'm not sure I'll ever be a world traveler, or a leader in the online course world, I certainly know that I won't break any records running the half marathon, nor do I think that I will ever be really good at taking digital photos—but I know this—I can find peace of mind in my attitude and effort.

And she closed with this reminder: "When things go wrong, remember to dust yourself off, pick yourself up— and get better not bitter." And she added this encouragement from Ellen Degeneres, from a post sent to me from my daughter Rose in a text that I had shared with Beth earlier that morning: "Care. Love. Be outraged. Be devastated. Just don't give up. The world needs good humans today."

In the wake of natural disasters and the tragedy in Las Vegas, in the wake of tragedies in our own communities, in the midst of the mid-semester malaise that Beth mentioned, I found her words inspiring. The next day, I followed up with an invitation for all of Fuller Hall to sing "Lean on Me" as we waited for the Class of 2021 to sing the Alma Mater one more time (they passed, by the way!). This combination of leaning into the challenges and leaning on each other for support has been the secret to Academy success for decades, and we are fortunate to have people like Beth to remind us through word and example about how it is done.

A little over four years ago, I read an article by Stacy Horn in Time magazine in which she reported on the research being done on the mental health benefits of singing—singing in groups in particular. According to Horn, "What researchers are beginning to discover is that singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits." Some studies suggest that singing releases hormones that bring us pleasure or relieve stress. Others suggest that, as Horn puts it, "The pleasure that comes from singing together is our evolutionary reward for coming together cooperatively, instead of hiding alone, every cave-dweller for him or herself." The studies show that the benefits of singing don't depend on how well you sing, and the more regularly you sing, the more benefits you reap.

All of this is good news for me, given my singing ability and my love of singing, but it is not really news to me at all. I have experienced these benefits throughout my life, and I have experienced them in particular when I needed them the most during these hard recent weeks. I have been most keenly aware of them as I have sung one of my favorite songs—the Alma Mater—surrounded by amazing people. I have spoken many times about how much I love that song, how the words about connections, community, and courageous and constant striving for improvement resonate within my life. However, I have never needed or wanted to sing that song with others any more than I did this week.

The first time we sang the song together was the day after we had all suffered a tremendously painful blow as we heard about the terribly tragic death of one of our students. After having walked through town to raise awareness of the problem of hunger in our area, we gathered in the gym for what had earlier in the week been planned as a Pep Chapel. However, in the wake of such a tragedy, a pep rally seemed incongruous and inappropriate. Instead, we sang. First the faculty and staff came together in front of the gathered student body and sang the first verse ("Our strong band can ne'er be broken/Formed at St. J. A"). Then the student body, already on their feet, stood together and sang the second verse ("High above the busy humming/Of the bustling town"). Finally we all sang—together, over one thousand voices strong—the third verse: "Face the world and make it better/We have just begun!/Carry forth the shield of courage/Face the rising sun". I have heard from dozens of people how much singing together that day lifted their spirits and soothed their pain—even if just for a moment.

I experienced the same effects this past Tuesday when we welcomed the Class of 2021 for their first attempt at singing the Alma Mater well enough to meet Academy standards. While waiting for the Freshmen to arrive, I invited all Academy alumni to join me on stage, and we sang the first verse. We were amazing. Then I asked the Sophomores, who had passed muster on their first attempt last year as Freshmen, to sing the second verse. They were very good, too. Then the juniors sang the third verse—also pretty well. We then waited to see what the newest class at the Academy could do.

Unfortunately, partly due to some problems with the accompanying music, the Freshmen didn't sing with the same cohesion, confidence, or volume as the other groups, and thus they failed to meet the standards set by the Seniors. The Class of 2018 showed the newcomers how to sing the Alma Mater—loud, proud, together—as they belted out a beautiful rendition of the first verse. Just being in Fuller Hall and listening to all those voices singing together boosted my spirits, and from my perch on stage, I could see lots of smiling faces among those singing. If I needed proof that those studies were valid, it was right in front of me.

And it was inside me too. If singing together lowers stress, relieves anxiety, and elevates endorphins, singing the Alma Mater does so to an even greater extent. My son tells me that there are only two songs that his three young children want to hear at bedtime—the National Anthem and the Alma Mater. That sounds like a great way to end a day to me.

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

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