Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

Last July the Eltaib family moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to St. Johnsbury, having heard of the educational opportunities at the Academy and the welcoming community here. Their son Ahmed would be a freshman in the fall, and he enrolled in Operation Creation to gain familiarity with the school and with some of his new classmates. As Sudanese refugees (Ahmed’s father Aamir is from Darfur), the family relied on the goodness of several local families to help them get established and oriented in their new community, pointing them to the opportunities St. Johnsbury offered. As Ahmed searched for his place and for a passion to pursue, he relied on the advice of mentors and sought out new opportunities as well. In doing so, he found a new interest—chess. And now he is part of a state championship team, as our Chess team repeated as Vermont State Scholastic Chess Champions last week.

This team, through the coaching and encouragement of Chess Club moderator Ty Hartshorn, is just the tip of an excellent extracurricular activity that provides students like Ahmed a boost in their academic success. Educational psychologist Stuart Marguiles and elementary school teacher James Liptrap conducted separate but similar studies in the late 1990’s that showed students who played chess performed significantly better in reading and math than those who did not play chess. They are just two of many who recognize the educational benefits of the game. As Wendy Fischer wrote on the Johns Hopkins School of Education website, “It’s not about Kings, Queens, and Rooks, but rather, quadrants and coordinates, thinking strategically and foreseeing consequences. It’s about lines and angles, weighing options and making decisions.”

Coach Hartshorn agrees and sees even more benefits:

It is relevant to learning in the 21st century because it forces a continuity of thought and punishes impulsive thinking. My favorite mantras in chess are "Think hard, think twice", "If you find a good move, find a better one", and "Don't just do something, sit there". As competitive as chess is, my hope is that it teaches empathy. The most important question to reflect upon is “why did my opponent do that?”. If you don't answer this question first, quite often your own attack and plans are stymied. Add a clock in, and now efficiency of thought is required.

This last piece about empathy is especially important in a club as diverse as ours. The club is an evenly mixed group of day students and dorm students, domestic students and international students, and students from all classes. The championship team—made up of Ahmed (grade 9 from Sudan, now living in St. Johnsbury), Zachary Anti (grade 10 from Waterford), (Sergio Sastre-Salgado (grade 11 from Spain), Joseph Vineyard (grade 11 from Danville), and Yunuo “Henry” Xie (grade 11 from China)—is a good representation of the club’s diversity. Learning how to seek understanding and appreciate different perspectives in a multicultural environment is essential, and chess helps students build those critical skills.

The club is often the first opportunity students have to play chess in their lives, and for some like Ahmed, the first extracurricular activity they have ever joined. For some it becomes a passion. Sergio Sastre-Salgado read three chess books this year, completed hundreds of chess problems both from the books and online, and has hired a grandmaster for additional lessons. The more he learns, the more amazed he is with the complexity of the game and his ability to see it with a higher thought process. He hopes to be individual state champion next year. Henry Xie also has had a transformative year. Knowing Chinese Chess, he joined the club with an excellent ability to calculate and a strong end game. He played the highest-rated player in the state in the first round of the tournament and almost pulled off the upset. The team’s highest scorer was Joseph Vineyard who placed fifth in the state (the highest finish in school history!), leading the team to a one-point victory.

In a year chock full of championships, we could easily overlook this back-to-back championship performance. Chess is quiet and happens without much hoopla. The development of professional chess may build its popularity, and it is already gaining fans around the world. That is a good thing, for as our Chess Club has shown, not only does it build stronger minds, but stronger hearts and communities too.

For decades, and especially since we opened the Charles Hosmer Morse Center for the Arts in 2001, we have celebrated Fashion Design as visual art alongside drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, ceramics, and digital design. The works of fashion designed over those years—whether children's outfits, accessories, adult fashion, or bridal ensembles—have been living expressions of the imagination, spirit, and energy of young people. This year the designers took their inspirations from the animal kingdom, and their annual fashion show, Modern Menagerie, put their creations on display as 18 teens and seven children performed beautifully as fashion models in Fuller Hall.

One aspect of fashion that makes it unlike other visual arts is that it needs another person to make it come alive. As evidenced during the fashion show, the artwork only comes alive and expresses the spirit of the designer when worn and displayed by a model. The grace and style of the model's movements expands the visual art into the realm of performance art, and those of us who watched the precocious children and graceful young adults witnessed the power of that art form as models glided and strutted, spun and twirled across the stage. They even blew kisses and threw bouquets, engaging the audience in multiple ways while highlighting the beauty and imagination behind the fashion designs they wore.

As the title of the show suggested, the designs were diverse, ranging from butterflies to bucks to brides, but the diversity of the creations were only part of the beauty. The 25 models were also diverse. They ranged from pre-K to Grade 12, and they came from three continents and five countries: China, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, and the US. The artists were also diverse coming from four countries: China, Japan, Thailand, and the US. Each artist chose the model to wear each design, and in one case, the designer and both of her models were each from different countries. One of the things I love about our school is the ease with which young people learn to navigate a diverse community and create bonds across boundaries such as nationality, language, or culture. The show required that these models cooperated with the designer both in the fitting and in the display, and the end result proved once again that the world is more beautiful when we can work together in our diversity.

This cooperation was also evident in other ways, some of them behind the scenes, that highlighted the spirit that is fostered in the Morse Center and throughout campus. While sometimes the arts are seen as individualistic works, the fashion show is a collaborative effort. This year's show kicked off with Carter Brochu '19 smoothly playing the role of emcee and introducing pianist/singer Sam Bulpin '19 and singer Maggie Roach '19 who performed a beautiful duet to the Beatles' "Let It Be". A large screen to the side of the stage displayed a video, created by Filmmaking teacher Alex Shea, showing the artists at work, and that was followed by a slide of the show's poster which was designed by Digital Design student Zach Fucci '19. As the models came on stage, they were accompanied by music provided by Santiago "Santi" Zamudio-Galindo '21, and the management of the theater tech and stage directions were handled by Jane Clerkin '19, Matt Bader '19, Lily Kraus '21, Emma Sestito '20, Sophie Guss '20, and Miranda Degreenia '21 from our A/V and Theater programs.

The final and perhaps most important collaboration happened literally behind the scenes as Dyan Wallace returned from retirement to help her former student, Fashion Design teacher Emma Charrow '14, in her first Fashion Show. This relationship of master artist and apprentice which prepared Emma to take over the program Dyan began two decades ago is at the heart of our art programs. Each teacher is a master artist in his or her own right, and they have chosen to take on the mentoring of younger artists so that they too can feel what it is like to produce inspiring and powerful works of art to share with the world. As evidenced on Fuller stage last week, Dyan and Emma and their colleagues in the art department have done an outstanding job in helping young people share their imaginations and creative spirits in beautiful ways. To all who helped create the marvelous multi-modal menagerie of art that we witnessed on Thursday, bravo and thank you!

Chef Gerry Prevost, as the Guest Speaker of this year’s National Honor Society (NHS) Induction, was the last speaker of the afternoon, and he gave a powerful and poignant speech that emphasized the same theme that had woven together the student speeches before him. Katie Girouard, Grace Larocque, Anna Piro, and Zoe Montague each spoke about the mission of the organization: to serve others by pursuing leadership, scholarship, character, and, of course, service. In his occasionally emotional remarks, Chef recounted his high school years and the life lessons that his parents and mentors taught him. He summed them up in the motto “live to give.”

He explained that, though he himself was not inducted into NHS (in fact, he never even made honor roll), he went on to be a success in his chosen career and his life—living with “no regrets”—because he followed a few key pieces of advice:

1.     Build relationships.

2.     Be kind.

3.     Help those who need it.

4.     Find a passion and be passionate about using it to make a difference.

5.     Be aware of the effects of your actions.

6.     Be part of something bigger than yourself.

He closed by referring back to the message alumnus Marc Isabelle had delivered in Chapel two days earlier: “do good whenever you can because each good deed starts a ripple effect that will have impacts and influences far beyond what you can see.” Chef congratulated the new inductees on their accomplishments and encouraged them to “keep the ripples going.”

Gerry’s and Marc’s words echoed a recent editorial by New York Times columnist David Brooks, “A Nation of Weavers.” In the article, Brooks laments the current state of social isolation and fragmentation, citing evidence that these societal banes are increasing and are increasingly causing depression and suicide, injustice and anger, loneliness, and a sense of worthlessness. He recounts his decision to do something to counteract this trend. In short, he began Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute—an effort to mend and strengthen our social fabric by prioritizing relationships over selfish pursuits. As he developed this project, Brooks discovered a whole host of people who are actively working toward this same prosocial goal, and he identified some common traits they share: a concern for the whole person, a desire to act in concert with others (don’t do for others or to others; do with others), and ability to love beyond boundaries, listen patiently, see deeply, and make someone feel known.

Brooks, like Gerry and Marc, emphasized the power of strong and healthy relationships as the key to changing the world for the better. This week in Fuller Hall, we saw several examples of these relationships formed across boundaries. Throughout the week, we were joined by our guests from Kaijo Gakuen in Tokyo, Japan, as 30 young men stayed with local families and attended classes with their “host brothers and sisters.” On Wednesday, before Chapel began, these young men and their teachers joined with our faculty and students spontaneously singing along to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (a song they had learned to sing as part of their English class as 7th graders—a happy coincidence!). Later that morning, Social Studies teacher Lucas Weiss and English teacher James Bentley gave an outstanding spirited musical performance collaborating with three student musicians—Joey Yan, Marc Lamontagne, and Myles Thornton-Sherman. Finally, on Thursday, Gaku Nagata, the English teacher from Kaijo, gave a powerful and eloquent farewell speech that showed how much he understood and valued our community, and he was followed by Kaijo student Tsuyohi Enta, who expressed the connection that Kaijo students had formed with their host families.

Brooks ended his article by stating that cultural change happens when a small group, often on the margins of society, finds a better way to live and other people copy them. This week showed us that such groups of people live among us, and we would do well to emulate them. Lots of forces in contemporary society can rip us apart, but we can choose to be part of a nation of weavers and create ripple effects that can change the very fabric of our society. In this way, we really can change the world.

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