Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

This semester marks the 38th straight semester in which I have opened Chapel with a quote from Martin Luther:

The prosperity of a country depends not on the abundance of its revenues, nor on the strength of its fortifications, nor on the beauty of its public buildings; but it consists in the number of its cultivated citizens, its men [and women] of education, enlightenment, and character; here are to be found its true interest, its chief strength, its real power.

As with anything we do according to a regular schedule, especially 38 times, reflecting on this quote has the potential to run dry of inspiration. Even those students who have heard it four, five, six, seven, or eight times could easily tune out if the reflection is not somehow fresh or engaging. The effect is amplified for the faculty who have heard all 38 renditions. I keep coming back to this quote because I appreciate the power of ritual and tradition, especially in openings and closings, and because this quote highlights that schools thrive or don’t thrive because of the gifts and goodness of the people in their communities. Views of education that focus on outcomes or efficiencies fall short of the true purpose and power of school communities: to create prosperity for all through the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom and through the exercise of goodness and courage.

This semester, the last in which I will use Luther to open a semester in Fuller Hall, I took a slightly different tack. Typically, I ask those in the hall to stand if they have done things that have marked them as people of education (anything to enrich the mind), enlightenment (anything to enrich the spirit), or character (any selfless, courageous, or good act). Every year almost the whole hall is standing by the end, and most years everyone is standing, especially in the senior class—except for three years ago.

Our Director of Communications Steve Legge loves that opening scene of all students standing as a photo op, and the video of watching students stand to acknowledge good things they have done is impressive, but three years ago two young men sat down through the whole thing—in the front row— compromising the show of unity in diversity that we like to embrace at the start of a semester.

When I questioned these young men after Chapel about why they didn’t stand, one said he didn’t really think he had done anything worth standing for; the other one said he couldn’t think of anything specific, so he just sat. Their honest responses highlighted another aspect of Luther’s quote that is implied but not stated: education, enlightenment, and character are great gifts, but they only become strength and power when they are exercised. If we gain knowledge but never apply it, if we gain wisdom but never share it or live by it, if we have good values but never act on them or promote them or defend them, our community will not prosper.

This year, instead of focusing on each component of Luther’s quote, I asked each person in Fuller to realize that to some degree we all have education, enlightenment, and character. In talking with the two seniors three years ago, I realized that they both had learned things over the summer, had been inspired by something in nature or others, and had done selfless acts for family and friends. They just didn’t remember them on the spot or didn’t think them worth acknowledging by standing. As I told those two back then, I reminded the 800 gathered in Fuller that our first responsibility is to recognize the gifts, privileges, and opportunities we have to acquire knowledge, gain wisdom, and be good people. The next is to develop them, with the help of others, to as great an extent as possible throughout our whole lives. The final responsibility for us as citizens of a prosperous community is to use what we have been given and what we have developed in service of something larger and in accord with a personal mission.

To explain what I meant, I used an athletic metaphor that was featured on the sign in front of Colby Hall: “Be an Impact Player”. Lots of athletes will compete throughout a season, running plays, performing routines, completing courses, but only a subset will be able to say they were impact players—that they used their unique gifts and opportunities to help their team improve. These players don’t need to be stars, or even starters, or even play one second in a game, but they make an impact by who they are and what they bring to the team. I challenged the seniors, especially, in our last semester, to do all they can to make positive impacts on the community.

The other side of the sign in front of Colby said “Improve Continuously.” The distinction here between “continuously” and “continually” is important; whereas the latter connotes something that happens regularly the same way over time, the former connotes something uninterrupted. The latter would justify that I can improve when I feel like it, as long as I don’t go too long in between efforts; however, the former requires that I use even my down times, hardships, and failures as springboards toward getting better. This kind of perseverance is what drives the development of education, enlightenment, and character that lifts up communities.

As I closed, I reminded the seniors that there was a lot of knowledge to be acquired, a lot of wisdom to be gained, and a lot of good to be done. I reminded them that they still had much they could to do to leave this place better than they found it. They might never hear that quote from Martin Luther again, but I hope they will live it out over the next six months and beyond.

Since 1984, I have celebrated the beginning of break and the Christmas season by either listening to or reciting a passage from a letter from Fra Angelico. Bernier Mayo read it each of the 17 years of my teaching career here, and I have read it ever since as headmaster. I have always appreciated the message and have treasured the reflections it has inspired.

This year it has special meaning as I prepare to step down as headmaster, and so I offer it to you as a gift—an invitation to experience peace, joy, love, wisdom, power, meaning and purpose, but most of all peace. I have tried to use it on occasion as a meditative piece, inviting the audience to breathe, reflect, and savor the goodness of their lives and the moment. Sometimes that makes it too heavy, though the sentiments are genuine, and that has diminished the sense of peace. So this year, I offer it simply as a gift, as one of the many passages that have inspired me and that I can offer with genuine feeling to all connected to St. Johnsbury Academy.

I offer this gift in the wake of receiving so many gifts and cards and good wishes over the past weeks.  People here are so good and generous!  And I offer this gift in hopes that all will recognize that truth: that each member of our community is good—not because of what they do or what they have or even what they give—but because of who they are. Fra Angelico asks us to appreciate the heaven within, the radiance and courage that we hold inside, the living splendor that comes from just being alive. He asks us to recognize the gifts we have, the gifts we are, and the gifts of those around us.  He calls us to realize how good it is to be alive and how much each person’s life matters.

And so I offer this gift with genuine gratitude, at peace with the trust that comes from faith and the joy that comes from love. I want you to know how much each of you matters to me; as Fra Angelico says, “My love for you goes deep…with profound esteem now and forever.” I wish all of us a wonderful holiday season and a new year filled with peace. 

A Passage from Fra Angelico

I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.

There is nothing I can give you which you have not already, but there
is much, very much, which though I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today.

Take heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this precious
little instant.

Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our
reach is joy. There is radiance and courage in the darkness could we
but see; and to see, we have only to look.

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their
coverings, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the
covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of
love, and wisdom, and power. Welcome it, greet it, and you touch the
angel's hand that brings it.

Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, a duty, believe me, that angel's
hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing
Presence.

Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal
diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its
covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage, then, to claim it, that is all! But courage you have, and the
knowledge that we are pilgrims wending through unknown country our way
home.

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you,
not quite as the world sends greeting, but with profound esteem now
and forever.

The day breaks and the shadows flee away.

 

Every year around December 13, the Academy's birthday, I am reminded of the core values and aims of the Academy, as well as its deep roots in the local community. Years before founding the Academy, the Fairbanks family was considering "establishing an Academical Institution" where "youth of both sexes would receive a thorough and systematic mental training, united with correct moral and religious culture"; this vision began to outline the Academy's comprehensive and values-based curriculum as well as its enduring interest in diversity. It is also important that, though the family had this vision, they only proceeded "after consulting with several inhabitants of the place, who expressed their cordial approbation of the plan".

In celebrating our birthday each year, I read a particular passage from Rich Beck's book A Proud Tradition, A Bright Future: A Sesquicentennial History of St. Johnsbury Academy. The passage is part of a letter from Joseph Fairbanks to his brother-in-law Dr. Samuel Taylor, who was principal at Phillips Andover Academy. In it, Joseph asks if James Colby would be a suitable principal for a new school that he and his brothers were thinking of founding. To help Taylor decide if Colby would be right for the school, Joseph describes the school that he and his brothers envisioned:

First, we wish such a course of instruction adopted as will aim not so much to the acquisition of knowledge as to the improvement of the mind. We wish to lay the foundation for a systematic education, and fit the individual for subsequent self-cultivation. We wish an efficient moral and religious influence to be constantly exerted, and that the teacher should feel it his duty to cultivate the heart as well as the intellect.

Valuing thinking versus simply knowing, life-long learning versus simply schooling, and nurturing the development of good character and spirit alongside an active and inquiring mind: all of these values have been at the heart of the Academy for all 177 years of its impressive history.

Several of these aspects of the Academy's core identity came to the fore this week. Each year, I am struck by the number of seniors who continue their Capstone projects even after their official work and presentations are over. Many delve even deeper into their projects during the second semester as they solve problems and create tangible outcomes, extending their education beyond simply the research they did to develop their ideas. These students, as well as juniors who are working toward their Area of Inquiry papers, have been emailing me for suggestions and ideas about how to make their research more than idle knowledge.

Similarly, I received word this week that Jack Luna '19 continued working on his Capstone during his first semester at the University of Vermont and won the university's Science Fair. Jack's project (which he calls Lunavision) involves programming an ordinary laptop to locate a person's pupil and allow that person to move the cursor by simply moving his/her eyes. This invention allows people suffering from all sorts of debilitating diseases to use the laptop and other devices to not only create text but also to create art through draw-paint programs. Jack has continued to cultivate his love of learning, desire to help others, and ability to code—all fostered here—and as a result has become one of the top young inventors at UVM.

Our Chapel programs (though no longer religious) still cultivate the heart as well as the intellect and continue to "exert an efficient moral and religious influence". This week I had the privilege to hear Kat Mayhew and Gavin Ghafoori declaim poems to the school community, performing "To Have without Holding" and "Respiration", respectively. Each performed with poise and presence, standing in front of just a mic stand and microphone—no podium to hold on to or shield them—without notes—delivering the poem as if it was his or hers, with passion and feeling. Even more in line with Academy moral and spiritual values, the poems they chose spoke of love, empathy, resilience, and sacrifice. I also had an opportunity to give a shout out to senior Colby Switser, who over the weekend had used his life-saving skills, learned in his freshman Health class, to literally save his father's life. I find it significant that when I pulled Colby aside after Chapel to congratulate him privately, he told me that he had been accepted to service academies—once again living out Academy values of service and leadership.

As I told those in Fuller Hall in Chapel, I am sure that Joseph Fairbanks would be proud of the students who now attend the school that he and his family established 177 years ago. I told them that I knew that I spoke for their teachers, advisors, coaches, proctors, and mentors when I say I am extraordinarily proud of the difference they make in the world, both individually and collectively.

My wish for these young people is that they not only know that we are proud of them, but that they take pride in who they are and what they bring to the world. Having been at the Academy for over one fifth of its birthdays, I have seen enough to say that each generation of Academy students has had and will continue to embody strong character, thoughtful inquiry, and loving community. I celebrate this 177th birthday knowing that both parts of Rich Beck's book's title remain true—the Academy has a tradition of living up to its values of which it can be proud, and it has a bright future ahead as it continues to do so.

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