Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

Thirty years ago this month, my wife Ann and I noticed our two-year-old daughter Clare seemed very tired, even falling asleep as she ate her breakfast. When we took her to see Dr. Ajamie, he immediately sent us for more tests, and we were told Clare had Monosomy-7, a rare form of leukemia. Over the next few months, she received a number of blood transfusions as we tried numerous treatments; doctors worked for a cure, and we prayed for a miracle. Tragically, Clare died that April, but I have never stopped being thankful for the people, many from this community, who donated blood and platelets for Clare. They helped her stay alive for those months, and I am so grateful that I had those extra days with her.

Chef Gerry Prevost tells a similar story about his wife Crystal. While giving birth to their first daughter Aimee, Crystal started to hemorrhage and needed several transfusions to stay alive. Thankfully, she survived the birth, as did Aimee, and she was able to give birth to Danielle a few years later. The Prevost family is richer, happier, and more beautiful because people chose to donate blood to total strangers.  Those of us who know and love the Prevosts owe those people a debt of gratitude.

I told these stories in Fuller Hall this week as we prepared for our next school blood drive.  We have a long history of donating blood here. In fact, among all of the championship banners that line the walls of Alumni Gym, one stands out—the banner for being the most productive high school in generating blood donations in the state of Vermont—a title we have held for decades.

I pointed out that lots of people do lots of things for loved ones in our school. We have a dynamic Relay for Life Team—the Hilltopper Cancer Stoppers—that raises ever-increasing amounts of money for cancer research and helps organize the local Relay for Life on our track each June. We have several people who have grown their hair out for Locks of Love or Wigs for Kids, providing hair so that those suffering the effects of cancer treatments can maintain their normal appearance. We wear Chef Strong t-shirts and bracelets to show support for Chef Prevost. All of these things are good, and we should do these kinds of things whenever we have the chance.

I then explained why donating blood is a particularly meaningful act and why I donated as often as I could until I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. First, in donating blood, you give a part of you, which to me is more powerful than donating money, and you give something from within you, which is more meaningful to me than giving something external. Also, in giving this gift from inside, you are giving someone a chance to live, something more important to me than appearances, and because your body generates blood faster than it does hair, you can give this gift more than once within one year. 

My final point was perhaps the most significant. Giving blood demands sacrifice. For some who have a real phobia of needles or blood, this sacrifice means overcoming deep and irrational fears. For some who don’t like the sensation of the needle or the chance of becoming light-headed, it demands a small but still significant act of putting others before your own comfort. I asked everyone eligible to give blood to do so, and I spoke especially to those struggling with fear or discomfort. I said that this kind of sacrifice—overcoming fears, taking risks, and choosing to help others instead of staying comfortable—is  what makes for strong friendships, families, and communities. I asked them to muster the courage and donate and by doing so build the moral muscles that will enable them to make even bigger sacrifices later in life. I also told them that, if they did so, they might be helping a community member when they are most in need.

I think it is significant that we are having this blood drive in the same week that we celebrate Veterans Day, when we honor those who put their lives on the line for our freedom and safety—and sometimes for the freedom and safety of people around the world. Although the sacrifice of giving blood pales in comparison to what is sacrificed by our veterans, we can all be heroes in a smaller but still impactful way through giving blood.

Sitting in my office early on Wednesday morning, I was surprised by the arrival of a young man dressed in a dapper blue blazer, matching shirt and tie, and neatly pressed dress pants. I immediately recognized Hirokazu Inoue and rose to greet him. Hiro had faithfully attended our Naples, Florida event while he lived in Florida, but now that he lives in Las Vegas, we see him less often. Therefore, it was a great joy to spend the rest of the morning catching up with him and talking about things going on at school. As a student here, Hiro was always extremely well-dressed, wearing a suit most days, and as described above, he has become an even snappier dresser. Also, while he was a student here, he was determined to be a pilot, and he has succeeded in exceeding that goal too. He is now involved in not only flying but also in helping his employer buy airplanes, which is why he was in our area. Having landed in Montreal, he crossed over into Vermont, drove to Burlington, and then took the 70-mile detour to spend a few hours at his alma mater before heading for Hartford, Connecticut, where the plane purchase would take place.

Hiro is the epitome of the kind of alumnus we see all the time. He had formed such close relationships here—with Bonnie Jenks, with Chip Mesics, with Jack Cummings—that he wanted to come by and see them. I experienced the same thing during the boys’ semifinal soccer game when Les Drent stopped by to talk to me and introduce his son. Les is just one of several former Brantview boys who have come by campus in the past few months. Both Hiro and Les reminded me how important it is to make time for relationships, especially for face-to-face time together. Alums like them help me remember that, when we have such wonderful people in our lives, including those we live and work with every day, we should make time to visit with them and spend time together.

Hiro came to Chapel that day and was embraced by many of the faculty and staff who knew him when he was here. He was present when I celebrated the boys’ soccer team for their semifinal win, becoming the first boys’ soccer team in school history to go to back-to-back Division 1 finals. In congratulating them, I quoted former Academy parent Gary Pappalardo, who messaged us that morning saying that the boys had helped us “be the gold standard for success.” We have received congratulatory messages like that a lot recently, but Gary’s struck me as particularly meaningful. Maybe it was because I was so touched by Hiro’s visit and Les coming by the game, but what I saw in Gary’s message was someone making the time to celebrate young people’s success. We know from experience how praising genuine achievement leads to higher aspirations and even greater achievement, and Gary’s comment allowed me to tell the boys how much we believed that they would take the title. Gary does not have a son on the team or a student at the Academy, but he made the time to lift up a group of young men who have made us all proud. His words reminded me to look for other opportunities to give genuine praise for jobs well done, to make the time to celebrate others even if it is through a brief note or email.

Also in Chapel on Wednesday, Glenn Ehrean promoted a talk to be given that Friday night by Mohamad Hafez. As Director of the Colwell Center for Global Understanding, Glenn had welcomed Mohamad before when he came to the Academy to speak about Syrian refugees and his art. Mohamad is a Syrian-born architect with a very impressive portfolio; however, we have come to know him through his work supporting the Syrian refugee community and his artwork depicting their plight. His earlier work, which was featured in a show at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, highlighted the huge shift from pre-war Syria to present-day Syria, mourning the loss of the peaceful, cosmopolitan culture that was evident in Damascus. His new installation, ”Unpacked: Refugee Baggage”, uses suitcases and bags from those who fled the Nazis and fills them with artistic models that depict the inner turmoil and trauma that refugees carry with them. (If you get a chance, watch his TED Talk on this topic.) After Glenn emphasized the relevance of this topic and encouraged those not going to the semifinal football game to attend the talk, I mentioned one other aspect of Mohamad’s story that I felt was important. Despite his successful career, Mohamad and his wife Dania have made time to help the needy in their midst. They have become bulwarks for the Syrian refugee community and have helped many to get jobs, basic necessities, and education. Mohamad has also made time for his art, using it to express and promote a view of what it is like to be a refugee—hoping to stem the rise of misunderstandings, prejudice, and division and encouraging others to make time to stand up, speak up, and help others like he and Dania have done.

Finally, I ended Chapel by reminding all of those present about one other thing anyone eligible should make the time to do, and that is to vote in the mid-term election on Tuesday. Making the time to understand the issues and participate in the democratic process is a privilege we can’t afford to overlook.

As Wednesday ended, I reflected on how inspiring the morning was. I was reminded to make time for relationships and to spend time with the people who mean so much to me; I was also reminded to make time to celebrate the good things in others, to praise them for the good things they do, and to celebrate their successes with words of encouragement. And finally, I was inspired to make time to make a difference in the lives of those who need an advocate, who need support, or who need guidance. Considering how busy our lives are, we all need inspiring mornings like Wednesday to remind us to make time. I am certain that, if we do, it will make a significant difference in our lives and the lives of others.

I hate running. Ever since my childhood, I have not been very good at it, and it has been hard work to run anything other than a sprint. I love playing basketball, or any other game actually, but I hate to run. So when I choose to go for a run, now that my knees don’t allow me to play basketball at full speed, I need extra encouragement to get out there for any length of time. To help me through, I put in my ear buds and lose myself in the music. I can then enter a self-imposed state of isolation and let my mind wander. It helps the run go by more quickly, and it even helps me come up with solutions to problems, but it also has its drawbacks.

I was reminded of these drawbacks when I heard about a student who, with ear buds in and music cranking, did not hear our crossing guard Katie Valdez yell at him to stop at the crosswalk. If you have ever heard Katie control the crosswalk with her verbal commands, you know that he had to be deep in his own world in order to miss her high-volume, “Hold up!”. His self-imposed oblivion almost put him in a dangerous spot. This situation highlighted the fact that our technology not only helps us create our own aural environments (and now with virtual reality, our own visual ones, too), but by closing us off from our natural and communal environments, put us in danger in more ways than one.

I spoke about this danger in Fuller Hall this past week, and I was tempted to do so through a satire, exposing the folly of closing ourselves off from the world and making us oblivious to our surroundings, especially when we are surrounded by amazing people and are only together for roughly seven hours a day. But then I decided not to turn to satire because I didn’t want the message to get missed amidst the humor. That oblivious young man almost got seriously hurt, and I had a broader message to deliver—one based on my own realization of what our aural isolation, even when chosen for good reasons, causes us to sacrifice in our daily lives.

This message is at the center of the story of one particular day’s run.  As I set out to run on the bike path, I found I had left my earbuds behind, and I resigned myself to having to walk instead of run (there was no way I was running without my music!). As I walked, I noticed the various sounds coming from the transfer station, from the highway, and from the side streets along the path, but then I became aware of the smaller and more beautiful sounds of the birds. There were so many of them, and I had never heard them on my previous runs! As I walked, I tried to focus on each new one, and as I walked further down the path and away from town, I heard even more. Lost in the bird song, I found myself having walked farther than I planned, and so I turned back, only to discover another voice all together.

As I neared town, I encountered a family with a young child skipping down the path. As she skipped, she sang—just nonsense words and in a tune of her own making, but beautiful nonetheless. It occurred to me that had I been running, particularly with my ear buds in, I would have missed this song and the joy it brought me. I also realized there was a small voice inside me that told me that this kind of music is all around me if I listen. I would have missed that, too, had I been plugged in.

With these two events in mind, I asked those gathered in Fuller to refrain from using ear buds for the time we are together. Carleton researcher Tom Everett has studied the use of headphones and ear buds, and while he reports that they have been useful tools in protecting us from oppressively noisy environments, he also reports that they have isolated us from one another. Likewise, Amy Clements-Cortes of the University of Toronto sees this technology as damaging our ability to communicate with each other and even decreasing the natural curiosity that draws children to interact. Carleton reporter Kate Hawkins has reported that teens know this too. One student she interviewed said, “Wearing them in any kind of social situation is kind of stand-offish. It’s saying that my music is more important than whatever you have to say.”

At a time when people in our society seem to have a hard time listening to each other, when we take the natural environment around us for granted, when we are tempted to enter our own echo chambers, we should at least reclaim some of the time we spend together and put the ear buds away. As I told the people gathered for Chapel in Fuller, I want our school days to be that kind of time together. I believe that one of the best parts of an Academy education is to experience people and ideas from around the world. We did not necessarily plan to be here together in this place at this time for however many days or years, but here we are—with the world right here to listen to and to learn from. Let’s not any of us waste this opportunity to treasure the beautiful voices around us.

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