Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

In a week that saw a morning meeting with the Agency of Education on Monday and late starts on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, I only got the chance to speak in Chapel once this week, and that was in South Church Hall to the Class of 2022 on Wednesday. That morning, I presented to our newest students about all of the opportunities that stood before them as they charted their course toward graduation. In reflecting on all of those opportunities, I was a bit overwhelmed myself; I can’t imagine what it must have been like trying to take in all of the exciting options being presented.

I started out explaining that the courses I was describing were largely just the newest electives being offered by the various departments. I told them that there were many that I was not presenting in the interest of time but that every department had opportunities to learn how to create, to design, to innovate, and to produce high-quality, professional-level products for real audiences or clients. I began with just listing some of the courses open to them in our Career and Technical Education department: introductory courses in natural resources management, woodworking, electricity, construction, business, culinary arts, automotive technology, and welding. I stressed to them that many of these courses and the ones I would talk about later are courses that adults choose to take later in life at a cost. I pointed out that they were being given a chance to experiment, to explore, and to find a passion during these teenage years. And then I launched into the rest of the presentation.

In English, I highlighted the courses in creative writing, media studies, public speaking, and college writing, all of which had real audiences beyond the classroom. In Science, I highlighted astronomy, which uses the Peacham Observatory to do real research and astrophotography, and the Field Semester, which uses the Dussault Environmental Center as its Field Campus during the first semester as a school within a school. The Field Semester program enables students to earn credits in natural resource management, technical communications, and environmental science as they spend their whole day off campus learning about and conducting real work in the field and learning about the ecological, social, and economic aspects of land management in northeastern Vermont. I paused here to highlight that students in this program not only create mountain bike trails, build solar fields, and grow vegetables for our Hilltopper Restaurant from the greenhouse, but this year they also worked with the local food network to harvest berries and turn them into a marketable product: Hilltop Harvest Wild Harvest Blackberry Syrup. Though this program is focused on juniors and seniors, I wanted the freshmen to know about this unique opportunity as they designed their future.

Further combining science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, I described our robotics program, our introduction to design course, and our game design course, all of which allow students to create and innovate in fields that are growing in the contemporary marketplace, creating and improving products that make our lives better. I also highlighted a new course which, like the Field Semester, will be a school-within-a-school experience. The SJA Makers program will allow students to investigate firsthand the design, communication, and cultural implications of cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality and 3D design. Also like the Field Semester, this program will allow students to immerse themselves in an intensive program, earning credits in physics, computer science, engineering, and media studies.

I then explained that we had established a new department in computer science and that students could enter that curriculum either through an introduction to computer science course or through a Java programming course, depending on their skill level and future goals. Moving to Social Studies, I highlighted a new elective in Vermont history as well as last year’s new electives in modern East Asia and economics and public policy. In languages, I highlighted that we offered experiences in both modern and classical languages, as well as both western and eastern cultures. In Health, I highlighted the new Health II course that helped upperclassmen develop further understanding of healthy relationships, mature decision-making, healthy nutrition and fitness, and prudent financial management.

Finally, I highlighted our extensive offerings in the arts. Beyond our new offerings in art history and our relatively new offerings of ballet and dance for athletes, I mentioned a few other programs that other schools do not offer: Intaglio printmaking, fashion design, and filmmaking, for example. However, my main point here was that each member of our art faculty—whether in 2D, 3D, visual or performing arts—is a professional artist in his or her own right, often winning awards, recognition, or honors around the country and even internationally. I returned to my exploration theme again, highlighting that many adults take art classes only later in life, having to pay for the opportunities being offered to our students at a time when they are able to experiment and try out new experiences.

At the end of my presentation, I could see a variety of emotions in the audience: excitement, nervousness, and an overwhelmed daze. In trying to empathize with what it must have been like to hear all of those choices laid out in 10 minutes, I came upon a word that is often overused to describe something that is really good: awesome. Without a doubt, the opportunities that we offer our students are awesome in that sense, but they are also awesome in a much more precise way. They inspire a combination of excitement and fear as students face the prospect of having so many excellent choices in a comprehensive curriculum. Thankfully, they have a network of guides—parents, counselors, advisors, and teachers—to help them chart their paths. And I am even more thankful for the faculty members and educational community that has helped make so many awesome opportunities available to our students.

One of the best parts of being a teacher is being inspired by your colleagues. This inspiration comes in many ways—watching them in action helping young people, hearing them talk about their day and their students with excitement and love, and sometimes receiving powerful articles from them that evoke significant truths about education. Such was the case when I received an article from health teacher Kelly Urie.

The article, by Ty Gagne in a special to the Manchester (New Hampshire) Union Leader, recounted the story of Pam Bales, veteran hiker and member of an organization of rescuers in the White Mountains. On a sunny mid-October day, she had decided to go for a six-hour loop hike by herself. She knew the way well, had prepared meticulously, and had decided in advance that, if the weather shifted suddenly, as it often does in the White Mountains, she would simply turn around rather than try to complete the loop.

As she climbed higher into the mountains, the weather did indeed change, getting cloudy, snowy, cold, and the wind picked up, too, reducing visibility, so she turned around and headed back down. As she followed her footprints in the snow, she noticed another set of footprints made by someone who was obviously wearing sneakers and therefore probably unprepared for the weather that was quickly developing high in the mountains. As visibility continued to drop along with the temperatures, she noticed that the sneaker footprints veered off the trail; she knew that if the person wearing the sneakers got lost in this weather, he/she could die. So she left the trail herself and followed.

After hundreds of yards, she finally came upon a man wearing sneakers, a thin sweatshirt, and shorts. He was curled up in a ball against the rocks, and he wasn’t moving. He was obviously suffering badly from hypothermia, but as she got closer, she noticed he was still alive, so she jumped into action. She stripped off his wet clothes and dressed him in the extra set of dry clothes she had packed for herself. She took out hand and foot warming packets and placed them under his feet and in his armpits. She gave him the hot beverage she had brought and wrapped him in a bivouac sack she had packed. Throughout all of this, the man could not move to help her and did not speak, not even to say tell her his name. As she battled the whipping winds and the increasing snow and cold, she decided she would call him John.

As soon as he was warm enough to move, she knew they had to get off the mountain, so she encouraged him to move, and he did. Slowly they made their way through the snow, and she sang Elvis songs to keep John’s spirits up, but he tired easily and eventually laid down to give up. She once again encouraged him to get up and keep moving, talking to him and continuing to sing, and he followed her.

As the light faded, she turned on her only headlamp and, after moving a few steps, would turn her head back to illuminate the treacherous trail for him. Eventually, after six hours of climbing down the mountain together, they made it to her car. She started it up, placed his wet and frozen clothes on the heater, and after several minutes, John simply put his now-dry clothes on, got out of the car and drove off. Bales was left wondering what had just happened. A week later, she got her answer.

The president of her rescue group, Pemi Search and Rescue, received a donation and a letter that said, in part,

This is hard to do but [I] must try, part of my therapy. I want to remain anonymous, but I was called John. On Sunday Oct. 17 I went up my favorite trail, Jewell, to end my life. Weather was to be bad. Thought no one else would be there, I was dressed to go quickly. Next thing I knew this lady was talking to me, changing my clothes, talking to me, giving me food, talking to me, making me warmer, and she just kept talking and calling me John and I let her. Finally learned her name was Pam…Got me up and had me stay right behind her, still talking. I followed but I did think about running off, she couldn’t see me. But I wanted to only take my life, not anybody else and I think she would’ve tried to save me.

The entire time she treated me with care, compassion, authority, confidence and the impression that I mattered. With all that has been going wrong in my life, I didn’t matter to me, but I did to Pam. She probably thought I was the stupidest hiker dressed like I was, but I was never put down in any way—chewed out yes—in a kind way. Maybe I wasn’t meant to die yet, I still somehow mattered in life.

I became very embarrassed later on and never really thanked her properly….Please accept this small offer of appreciation for her effort to save me way beyond the limits of safety.

I am getting help with my mental needs, they will also help me find a job and I have temporary housing. I have a new direction thanks to wonderful people like yourselves….

As I reflected on this story, I was reminded of several traits that mark the best teachers:

1. They are experts at what they do and prepare assiduously for each day and each lesson.

2. They will veer off their path, even at great sacrifice, to help someone in need—even if that person doesn’t want it, even if it is someone they don’t know well.

3. They will give up their personal resources of time, energy, and even physical possessions to help a young person out of a dark, cold, or hard place and move forward again.

4. They never give up and will encourage, and sing, and chew out, and talk through the darkness until they end up—alongside their students—at the desired outcome.

5. They will shine the light of their knowledge—having gone before their students on the path of learning—on the often difficult path toward wisdom and knowledge.

6. They treat their students with “care, compassion, authority, confidence” and the impression that they matter. They never put their students down—ever—no matter what they do.

7. They enable their students to start over after mistakes—no matter how big—and find new directions toward successful and healthy lives.

8. They never ask for thanks and often don’t get it until much later, if ever.

As I told the people gathered in Fuller Hall on Monday, we all know people who show up to school without hope or a sense that they matter; we all know people who are trapped in dark, cold, hard places in their lives. The story of Pam Bales shows us the ways we can help them, and the best teachers do this. They are Pam Bales in the lives of those struggling with serious illnesses, anxiety or depression, family upheavals, financial hardships, or any one of the myriad stressors that afflict our students and their families. I am grateful to Kelly for sharing Pam Bales’ story, for reminding me of the most inspiring aspects of the talented and good teachers around me, and for inspiring me to make those traits more and more a part of who I am in the lives of our students.

I have been disturbed by several events over the past weeks. The government shut down showed that our elected representatives don’t seem to be able to work together, leaving hundreds of thousands of government employees without any income. The stories from the Walk for Life, Indigenous People’s March, and Women’s March highlighted how divided our country has become, even within these movements. One story in particular has come to represent, for me, many of the things that are wrong with the current state of our nation.

You probably have seen the video or the photo: a student from Covington Catholic High School standing in front of a Native American elder with a hard-to-read expression (a smirk? a conciliatory smile?) on his face and a “Make America Great Again” hat on his head while his schoolmates gathered around. The original story was one of confrontation and racial harassment, painting the young man as blocking the way of the elder as his friends chanted “Build that wall!” However, a later version of the story showed the group from Covington being taunted and confronted by another group from the Black Hebrew Israelites, the elder stepping in between to try to defuse the situation, and the Covington group chanting school cheers.

However we view this situation, I am afraid that our reactions will be colored by our political views, our cultural identity, and our values. Perhaps that’s just the way it is: complete objectivity in these cases being extremely hard, if not impossible. The filtered and cropped versions of the story don’t help; in fact, this kind of reporting of events is just as dangerous as “fake news.” They might be even more dangerous because they have basis in real events, and we can all claim some degree of factual evidence to support our views.

In light of these events and the conflicts and tensions they have raised, I felt I should change my Martin Luther King Day message from my typical celebration of Dr. King’s legacy. I typically speak from his Christmas Eve sermon from 1967 in which he encourages “peace on earth and good will toward all people.” In this sermon, he points out our interdependence and calls us to agape love: understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill toward all. While much of this message still applies to the events mentioned above and would go a long way toward improving our national life, I chose another earlier sermon of his from which to speak this year.

Ten years before his Christmas Eve sermon, Dr. King delivered a sermon entitled “Love Your Enemies.” In this sermon, he answers three questions: How do we love our enemies? What kind of love are we called to have toward our enemies? Why should we love our enemies? First off, he says that we need to start by analyzing ourselves, asking if we have done anything that justifies our enemies’ opposition to us or hatred towards us. If we find we have offended them and they are justified in their treatment of us, we need to repent of that wrong and set things right between us.

Having done that, and still having real enemies who oppose and/or hate us, Dr. King says we need to commit ourselves to a certain kind of love—what the ancient Greeks called agape love. He contrasts that love with two other forms of love: eros (the love that attracts us to people because of some goodness or beauty we see in them) and philia (the love that attracts us to people because they are like us and like us in return). Loving with agape love is not mere attraction or liking. As Dr. King defines it, it is “understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all.” It is wanting the absolute best for each person—regardless of whether they are an enemy or not, opposing you or not, taunting you or not.

Dr. King finishes this sermon by explaining why this love of our enemies is so important. First, he says that this love is the only hope to break the cycle of hatred and violence. He tells the story of driving down a road and having an oncoming car keep its high beams on, blinding him. The immediate instinct is to turn on your high beams too, causing the other driver to be blinded like you are. Rather than help the situation, this vengeful act simply creates two blind people. He went on to say that hatred distorts our personalities, causing neuroses, and that living in agape love leads to a healthier psyche. His third reason to love our enemies with agape love is that it redeems them. Like many spiritual writers and holy people have taught, loving our enemies often forces them to confront the irrational hatred they are feeling.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King sums up this point powerfully:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

A main reason why we have school on Martin Luther King Day is to celebrate the legacy of the man honored by this holiday. My hope is that the people in Fuller Hall on that day, with whom I shared these ideas from Dr. King, will rise to his challenge of agape love and help put an end to the destructive divisive animosity that is currently afflicting our country.

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