Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

They came from three continents and four countries and yet they had a similar message: it’s time to wake up, time for a new day, time to make a change. Four young women—from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and Ming Yan, China; from Tokyo, Japan, and Cologne, Germany—stood in front of their teachers, advisors, and peers and spoke out with confidence, poise, and clarity. They had competed for the opportunity to speak in Chapel, and when the time came to deliver their speeches to hundreds of people, they showed why they deserved that honor.

Jericho Rutledge, Yuebin (Belinda) Guo, Komachi Nomizu, and Emilie Ziegler had each delivered their speeches as part of a night of public speaking during which the students in Janet Warner-Ashley’s Public Speaking class competed in their own reality show. Each winner, chosen by audience vote, got to deliver her speech either in Fuller Hall or South Church. I was able to watch Jericho, Belinda, and Komachi live; I watched Emilie via a recording. Though I missed several other speakers, I felt it was especially important for me to witness these four young women speaking up about how to change the world.

I saw Jericho first. She spoke with power about the need to confront and change the rape culture that perpetuates victim blaming and the objectification of women by what they wear or what they look like. She spoke up against comments and jokes that objectify women and against the attitude that rape victims “were asking for it.” She ended with a quote from Malala Yousafzai—a 21-year-old Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate—and challenged her audience to be a force for changing our culture, a force for eliminating the rape culture for good.

Then I saw Emilie’s talk, which was delivered in Fuller Hall. She spoke about refugees and about her experience of welcoming displaced people in her native Germany. She gave statistics—at current rates, one person is displaced every two seconds; the chances of a displaced person being a terrorist is 1 in 3.6 billion—and shared personal stories of her warm encounters with refugees. She encouraged her peers to take action rather than leaving the care of refugees to governments—to volunteer, to vote, to donate. In closing, she called her audience to solidarity with people forced from their homes, saying, “One day, it might be you, and on that day, you will appreciate all the kindness you can get.”

Next, I saw Belinda in South Church. She spoke of cities in China and the poor air quality that caused people to wear masks when they walked outside, to develop respiratory diseases (especially in the poor and elderly), and to miss out on the beauty of the night sky. She called for her audience to do more than just “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, and to call on corporations and leaders to develop systemic changes that would improve air quality around the world.

Finally, I saw Komachi speak about sexual harassment. She spoke about how, amazingly, there was not even a word for sexual harassment in the Japanese language until the late 1980’s. She spoke about how difficult it was for women to escape harassment and discrimination, but she also spoke about how women have begun to change the culture by speaking up. And she encouraged her audience in Fuller Hall to do the same—to speak up when they witnessed or experienced harassment.

These four young women gave me hope that our motto of “what happens here changes the world” is more than just words. Their passion and conviction convinced me that they were doing more than just delivering a speech, that their efforts to change the world and to motivate others to join them were just beginning. As I listened, I was reminded of Malala’s quote: “I raise up my voice—not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” Whether victims of rape and sexual harassment too afraid to speak up, refugees victimized by violence or discrimination, or victims of global warming and pollution, those without voices for whom these four women spoke had inspiring advocates speaking for them here. As Malala also said, “If people were silent, nothing would change.” As we start a new year, these young women from around the world are excellent reminders that, if we speak what is in our hearts, we can use our voices to be part of this positive change, and even change the world.

I told the students assembled in Fuller Hall on Thursday morning that they were experiencing what will be called an historic era at the Academy. We have celebrated dozens of "firsts in school history" that have coincided with the 175th celebration of our founding. That morning in Chapel, we honored the members of our Math team who had placed first among all New England boarding schools in the prestigious and rigorous Math Madness competition. The mathletes were joined by athletes on four winter sports teams who were defending Division I State Champions: Girls' Basketball and Indoor Track, Boys' Indoor Track, and Alpine Skiing. Not only is this the first time in history that we have been defending champs in skiing, but it is the first time four teams have won championships in the same season (and six championships over the past three seasons). On those teams sat individual Division I Champions, as well, and two fall 2018 athletes had attained individual honors that week, which was what prompted my remarks.

First, Pablo Gonzalez-Rotger became the first athlete in Academy history to be named an All-American in soccer. Pablo had helped lead our boys' soccer team to our first Division I state final last year and then, after the team lost a tremendous amount of talent to graduation, he helped, as team captain, to lead his team back to the title game again this year—another first. Then, on Thursday, Jake Cady became the first football player in Academy history to be named Vermont Gatorade Player of the Year. Jake set school records in passing, scoring, and total offense this year, and he helped lead our team to an undefeated Division I championship last year, another first in school history, and then, also as Captain, led the team to a semifinal game again this year.

However, as I reflected on these two young men and the school community they represent, I realized that as historic as these accomplishments are, they are not what impress me the most about them, and I hope that the glory of these accomplishments does not eclipse the more important things about these young men and our community.

What I will remember most about Pablo is his passion for the game and his non-stop motor. I have often commented that if I were to play against him, I would find his constant buzzing around the field very annoying and his fearlessness and perseverance very frustrating. One of the events I will always associate with Pablo happened last fall during the football team's semifinal game against CVU. The team was down at halftime and not playing up to its potential when Pablo and his soccer teammates arrived in the stands after having just lost a heartbreaker in the state finals in Burlington that morning. Rather than sink into self-pity or sullenness, Pablo began to lead the crowd in his signature cheer—one that has become a student favorite—an African chant that he learned on a previous team. The whole crowd rose and started jumping up and down in a call-and-response frenzy that had the stands shaking. The football team fed off the energy and scored several unanswered points to win the game. Without the energy that Pablo brought that afternoon, having just suffered one of the hardest losses of his life, our team might not have made it to the championship, never mind win it.

What I will remember most about Jake is his quiet service to others. He's not flashy or out in front; he simply helps others. Whether it be an elderly family friend or the Sullycat fundraisers who work to defeat cancer, Jake does what needs to be done behind the scenes. One of the many things I will remember from his spectacular senior season actually happened behind the scenes as well. After a disappointing loss by one point in the middle of the season, Jake knew that the team needed to be more cohesive and more excited about playing the game. He talked to several of his teammates, encouraging them to step up, and he talked to his coaches about how they could re-energize the team for another title run. The next game, even when they fell behind early, the team showed new resilience and enthusiasm and began an impressive series of quarters in which opponents did not score and a run of games that extended into the playoffs in which the opponents only scored once.

Pablo and Jake join senior Sadie Stetson, who has won Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year the last two years, as current Academy athletes who have received national awards. This trio of awards also marks a first in Academy history. However, just as with Pablo and Jake, Sadie has demonstrated something more impressive than her numbers or accomplishments with a basketball. Once when I was touring some guests through the Academy and came to the gym, Sadie was going through a shooting drill all by herself, showing an uncommon desire to excel rather than rest on her laurels. She was playing music over the speaker system, and when she saw I was talking to our guests, she stopped her workout, ran over to the controls, and turned the music down so I didn't have to speak over it. One of the guests said, "That's impressive to see a star athlete being so considerate!" and I agreed. Most recently, at a scrimmage during the past week, I saw something even more impressive as Sadie asked a referee to reverse an out-of-bounds call and give the ball back to the opposing team because it had really gone off her foot. Knowing how competitive Sadie is, she must have struggled between being honest and gaining an advantage over her opponent. In the end, she asked the ref to change the call so that he got it right. I am not sure I would have done that; in fact, throughout my entire basketball-playing career, I know I never did.

In the end, though I do hope the current student body appreciates just how historic these years have been, I hope they take away more memories than victories and awards. I hope they appreciate the role that each one of them has played in our school's history. I think it is an unfortunate human trait that we write history by recounting big achievements—like firsts—and great individuals—like champions. The fact is that, as important as these are in marking our time, they are not what direct and build communities. We all guide and build our communities when we show passion and selfless enthusiasm like Pablo, when we serve humbly and risk hard conversations like Jake, or when we act considerately and with integrity like Sadie. These young people are standouts in their sports, and they have brought glory to us and pride to their families, but more importantly, they are part of a broader community that is living out its shared mission and making history in the process. Because of them and the hundreds like them in our community, I am able to believe the theme with which we began this year: what happens here changes the world.

I have spoken several times about the biorhythms of school years: the exciting and hopeful new beginnings of each semester, the stressful and nostalgic endings of each semester, and the predictable doldrums of the middle. I want to call attention to another aspect of how we experience our years that transcends school and has significant impacts on our future.

I am sure that over Thanksgiving Break most students (and faculty members) fielded questions from family and friends about the school year so far: “how’s school going?”; “how are you doing in school?”; “how are you liking school this year?” There are many possible ways to answer these questions; the main ideas of the responses would vary, as would the highlighted events and each story’s ending. As we enter the last three weeks of this semester, we have a chance to revise these stories and/or extend them, writing a new chapter as we start a new sports season, present Capstones, or finish up major projects. This opportunity to create a new chapter in our stories is powerful.

In a recent article, author and journalist Emily Esfahani Smith, a positive psychologist who got her master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania, has highlighted the view of anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, who said that we are always in the act of creation, composing the stories of our lives. Smith also highlighted the work of Northwestern University Psychology professor Dan McAdams, who has coined a term “narrative identity” to describe our human ability and tendency to create our personal myths. These stories are divided into chapters (selected scenes we see as significant), guided by our deepest values and beliefs (the core covenants that have directed our actions and reactions), and held together by a central theme.

McAdams has discovered in his research two main types of personal narratives: stories of redemption and narratives of contamination. In the first type, the story moves from bad to good. They are stories of growth (sometimes through failure), communion and empathy, and agency. These story-tellers see themselves as being in control of the direction of their lives, progressing despite obstacles, loved by others along the way, and ultimately on the way to achieving good in the world. The second type of story—that of contamination—moves from good to bad, telling stories of stagnation or regression, isolation, and victimization. These story-tellers see themselves as spiraling out of control, unloved and alone, and trapped or blocked from doing good in the world. McAdams has found that those who tell their life stories in this second mode are more likely to be anxious, depressed, or scattered; whereas, those who see hope in their stories are more likely to be driven to contribute to society and to the good of future generations. The good news, according to Smith, McAdams, and others, is that even small edits to the way we tell our stories can have dramatic effects on our approach to our lives and our future.

Our family’s experience over Thanksgiving week illustrates these differing perspectives on the same story. Over that week, all of our children, their spouses and children, and our son’s girlfriend were with us in our home. As our children get older and their families grow, these gatherings are rarer, but from Wednesday to Friday, all 15 of us were together. During those three days, we visited three different emergency rooms: on Wednesday, our daughter in-law was treated for pneumonia and one grandson was treated for a badly sprained (luckily not broken) wrist; then on Friday, one of our granddaughters broke her leg jumping off a wall into the snow.

I could easily tell this story as a story of a holiday ruined with trauma, trying to get sympathy or highlight a kind of Lovett curse (and trying to find the scapegoat to remove it!). However, upon reflection, and in believing in the power of healing and love, I have told this story as one where family members stepped up to take care of each other and each other’s children, where people sacrificed willingly and readily for others, where parents stepped up to take on extra burdens for their kids and siblings. And the caring has continued, of course, even after everyone left and went their separate ways. The facts of the week remain the same—lots of pain and chaos and tears, lots of love and sacrifice and togetherness—but how I tell the story makes a major difference in how I see our family, our future, and life in general. I have found that to be the case each time I tell this story; the positive narrative helps others to see the future as hopeful, too.

This week some student-athletes were cut from teams or put in a non-starring role for the first time in their lives. On Friday, while dozens and dozens of 140-plus seniors presented their Capstones with great success, others encountered technical difficulties, stage fright, or aggressive questioners that left them feeling down. Even many of those who succeeded had struggled earlier during research, writing, or rehearsing. Each of these young people have a chance to tell their stories: “I worked really hard and had a great project, but I bombed the presentation (or my computer froze, or an audience member was unkind) and now it’s a failure; people probably think I’m stupid. I don’t want to go to school on Monday” or “I bombed my presentation, but I learned a lot about something I care about, and I know my friends, family, and teachers were really supportive of me.” The choice of how to craft these stories lies within the power of each individual. Facts are facts, and things go well, or they don’t, but the attitude and focus we take and the efforts we will take to move forward are under our control. If we approach our lives as stories of hope, focusing on growth, learning, communion and connections, and our ability to take action to improve, we will not only be more optimistic people, but as McAdams says, more likely to contribute to our communities and to the goodness of our shared future.

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