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.