Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

The Sequoia is the tallest tree on earth, hitting heights approaching 300 feet.  At over 30 feet in diameter, these massive trees show the scars of forest fires and other natural disasters, withstanding them all while producing more oxygen than any other tree.

As readers of the Caledonian-Record know, and our school community heard in Chapel on Thursday, we have a Sequoia among us. Ours is named Sequoia Simonds and lives in Lunenburg, Vermont. Our Sequoia stands about six-feet tall, pretty tall given that he’s only a freshman, but Thursday standing behind the podium in Fuller Hall, he stood even taller as a hero. 

I don’t use the term “hero” lightly.  In my Senior English class, we begin each semester discussing what makes a person a hero, and we usually end up with some definition along the lines of “someone who uses their gifts and strengths to serve others and contribute to the greater good in extraordinary ways.”  If this definition identifies the key traits of a hero, then Sequoia Simonds is certainly a hero among us.

For those who do not know Sequoia’s story, he was at home with his mom’s fiancé Jimmy Clark when Clark doubled over. As Sequoia’s mom (who had stepped out for a bit) re-entered the room, Clark looked up, wide-eyed and tearful, and then collapsed to the floor, hitting his head on a desk as he fell.  Sequoia immediately dialed 911 as his mom hysterically tried to help her fiancé; then Sequoia pushed his mom away and began performing CPR, keeping it up until help arrived. Clark was rushed to the local hospital and then airlifted to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where he spent several days in a coma before his condition improved enough for his release.

Sequoia had recently learned CPR in his freshman health class, and he kept the Bee Gee’s song “Stayin’ Alive” in his head as he delivered the compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The emergency personnel eventually arrived and took over, but Sequoia had helped save a life by using the knowledge, strength, and skills he had to offer.

In his speech in Chapel, Sequoia did not dwell on his heroism or even his accomplishments. Instead, he told us to make sure that we let the important people in our lives know how much we love them, and he also said that when we get a chance to show them how much we love them, or get a chance to serve them—even save their lives—we should not let it go to our heads. We should be humbly thankful that we had the strength and skills to serve and that we have those people in our lives in the first place.

This remarkable young man is an inspiration in so many ways. He is indeed the embodiment of all of the traits associated with his name: firmly rooted in his family and friendships, drawing strength from his family and school environment, and standing strong through hard times. However, he has done things that no Sequoia tree has ever done. Despite being strong and tall, he has reached down, has drawn close to others, close enough to be the heartbeat for someone whose heart was failing and the breath for someone who could not breathe.

As I said after Sequoia was done speaking, he has inspired me to stand tall like a Sequoia—to aspire to be a hero like our Sequoia. I hope his story gives us all a renewed sense of purpose: to be firmly rooted with confidence in our strengths, drawing strength from our community, and to humbly bend to serve the needs of others.

In a recent blog, Jonathan Ely discussed the evolution of our definitions of and approaches to creativity in an age dominated by technology and the rise of artificial intelligence. Certainly, we now have computers that can create works of art, pieces of music, and new designs—all using processes that mimic the learning and creative processes in humans; there are even empathetic robots. I have wondered for a while about what is essentially human about art if machines can create it, and so I was interested in Ely’s question: “Is Creativity Finally Dead?”

Ely discussed the evolution of the role of creativity from a means of survival to the realm of eccentric outliers to its emerging role as a “core competency” for our age. In discussing the importance of creativity in the lives of common people, he distinguished between creating and other pseudo-creative acts like making and revising. Creating results in something totally new, sometimes revolutionary, and it can be risky and nerve-wracking.

This risky part of creativity often causes the average person to set up barriers that stunt their creative growth. These barriers include the mindset that creativity can only be a powerful force through the few innately talented individuals who are uniquely gifted to be channels of some creative muse. The fact is that creative thinking and creative skills can be taught; all of us have the potential to be creative. The second barrier is the relegation of creativity to only the artistic realm. While art offers well-established opportunities for creative work, so does every other field of human endeavor. In fact, creativity often involves crossing through, over, and around the artificial boundaries that separate those various fields.

Finally, Ely mentioned one barrier that I see as the largest obstacle to creativity in teens: fear and self-doubt. Researcher Patrick Carroll, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State, has studied this trait that has become increasingly common among teens—particularly in overachievers. According to researcher Linda Flanagan, there are a handful of remedies offered by Carroll and other psychologists:

1. Recognize that fear and self-doubt are normal responses to challenges, and the larger the challenge, the more self-doubt will be present. Doubt about your creative ability is simply a sign that creating things is often hard work.

2. Practice positive self-talk. When negative self-talk generated by fear and doubt arises, question that voice, and replace its emotional noise with more productive and rational thoughts.

3. Remember your past successes and how they made you feel. Whether they were creative acts or not, they show that you are capable of success and provide a sense of confidence.

4. Focus on the process rather than results. This advice has been echoed on campus lately by individuals ranging from football coach Rich Alercio to art teacher Kim Darling. All of these experts can attest to the fact that if you tend to the process, the results take care of themselves. More than any other tip, I find this one most helpful in my moments of self-doubt as it reinforces my belief in the power of hard work and learning rather than some magical power or talent. Find a medium that appeals to you and start to work with it.

5. Visualize your future self and success. Cultivate what Carroll calls the “vivid desired self” to supplant the fear of failure. Focus on your strengths and competencies, and build upon those as you create. Find what motivates you to create and focus on that.

I was reminded of how members of our faculty have fostered creativity as I listened to published author Frances Cannon, Class of ’09, who returned to campus to speak in Chapel. Having become an accomplished visual artist in several media and a talented creative writer while she was a student here, she has gone on to be a model of creativity as a food writer, poet, and story-teller, often intertwining her visual art with her written work. As she told of her journey from the Academy to UVM to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (which has resulted in several publications and three books, including her new one, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank), I thought how wonderful it is that, while still in high school, she was able develop into a self-proclaimed “artist of hybrid mediums”. Her mentors—artists and creators in their own rights—knew how to foster her latent creativity and the confidence to use it.

As was the case with Frances, our students are fortunate to learn in a school where creativity flourishes under mentors across various disciplines; from fine and performing arts, the sciences, and mathematics, to creative writing, culinary arts, and fine woodworking, our students create incredible things. Whether they are computer coders or environmental scientists or fashion designers, they are surrounded by creators and creative thinkers, and they learn from each other and their teachers every day. So in response to Ely’s question, creativity and all the ways in which it benefits humanity—our spirits, minds, and hearts—are alive and well at St. Johnsbury Academy.

 

When I was asked if there was space for Jisoo “Jamie” Lee to speak in Chapel, I immediately said yes. I remembered Jisoo, a member of the Class of 2011, as an active member of our student body; she had spoken at and performed at the Youth Town Meeting and done her Capstone presentation on drumming. She was not only an interesting, engaging, and intelligent young woman, but also one who had been very successful in living out her dreams during and after her time at the Academy.

After graduating from the Academy, Jisoo had gone to University of Washington where she had majored in Political Science with a concentration in political economy, minoring in Chinese and studying in China for a year. While there, she conducted a study of labor rights and legal mobilization at the European Court of Human Rights, which will be published on the Dataverse Network at Harvard, and interned at CityNet, the largest association of governments and NGOs committed to sustainable development in the Asia Pacific region. After graduating from University of Washington, she was accepted into the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, where she is working toward a Master’s degree in Development Economics and International Development. She was invited to come back to the Northeast Kingdom first by Sandra Mings-Lamar, who had been her teacher while at the Academy. She was then welcomed by her former dorm proctors Bonnie Jenks and Kendra (Paupst) Brazeau, who introduced her in Chapel last Thursday. As Sandra said, “I feel like these can be trying times for non-American students…and it is struggle enough just to do what they do every day. I thought having students speak who have been where they have been and have not only succeeded but have excelled would be a way to help them stay focused and hopeful.” I agree, and Jisoo did that and more.

In her speech, Jisoo talked about her desire in middle school to do more than simply study in high school, and how she therefore started looking for new opportunities. Having seen an American high school in a movie, where students were able to play sports, take various classes, and pursue personal interests instead of cramming studies into all hours of the day, she asked her father if she could study in the United States. To her delight, he supported her dreams and quickly said yes, arranging for her to leave for the Academy two weeks later.

Once in the United States, unable to speak very much English at all, Jisoo was at a loss and struggled with communicating and daily life. Things soon began to change, however, once she started at the Academy. She took advantage of all the opportunities available to her, pursuing the things she loved and living out her dreams. She spoke lovingly of the support she got from her friends and teachers and how she got along with her roommate. In the end, as witnessed by the post-secondary successes mentioned above, she excelled.

Jisoo opened her talk by asking us to think of our values, to call to mind those things about which we really care. For her, she said, these included things like friendship and diversity, equality and opportunity, integrity and being true to herself. She said her goal is to change the world for the better. She ended her speech by asking us to think of our values again, and she asked us to commit ourselves to living them out. She said that such commitment will lead not only to success but to making a positive difference in the world.

The evening of Jisoo’s speech, I had the opportunity to speak briefly to our parents who had gathered in Fuller Hall before following their children’s schedules as part of our first Day Parents’ Night of the semester. In that audience were parents who were coming for the first time and parents who hadn’t missed a single Parents’ Night in eight semesters. I was struck by the commitment of the parents of seniors who, having been to numerous events and Parents Nights, and having already gotten well-acquainted with our school and its people and systems, still came to meet the newest teachers of their children. Their commitment spoke to me of how much they value education and supporting their children, and I am sure that same message was not lost on our seniors. It was the same message that Jisoo’s father had delivered when he approved of her dream of studying in the United States: a belief in her ability, support for her goals, and confidence in her values to guide her to success.

In the end, I believe these are the key components to the message that every teenager needs to hear: we believe in you, we support you, and we are confident that if you hold to your values and follow your dreams, they will bring you success and happiness. By coming back to her alma mater and giving her Chapel talk, Jisoo delivered that message loudly and clearly, and my hope is not only that we also deliver that message loudly and clearly, but that those students in Fuller Hall that morning will take it to heart, and like Jisoo, go out and change the world for the better.

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

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