Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

Celebrating Reunion Weekend right in the middle of Commencement Weekend makes for a very busy time on campus. Friday’s schedule includes the afternoon Senior Tea and the evening Commencement Concert along with the 50th Reunion Class gathering in the afternoon and numerous alumni parties on Friday night. Sunday’s schedule includes a brunch for alumni in the morning and Class Day and Baccalaureate for the graduates in the afternoon and evening, respectively. During these days, I often feel like I am being pulled in several directions.

Saturday and Monday are more focused: Saturday on alumni events and Monday on Commencement. On both of these days, however, our current student body commingles with our alumni through acts of service, and vice versa. This interaction enriches the weekend for both groups, and it has become one of my favorite things about this busy time. 

On Saturday each year, we honor our Alumni Council and other benefactors at our Thaddeus Fairbanks Society Luncheon. This year, we gave attendees gifts of maple syrup made by some of our graduates as part of the Forestry program. At the same event, graduates Gwen Frechette, Matteo Dill, and Madison Suitor gave speeches, highlighting how their Academy experience changed their lives and how these benefactors’ contributions had made a difference. In addition, the String Ensemble played throughout the luncheon, and the dining hall was decorated with an array of student-made prints from our Intaglio Society.

Immediately after this event, we celebrated the renovation and restoration of Brantview, which was made possible in part by the generosity of many alumni, with a Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. The Brantview event was attended by some of our student electricians and woodworkers who worked on the project throughout the school year. Freshman artist Gracie Villareal created and presented a portrait of Phillip Fairbanks, who was born in Brantview and later became President of the Board of Trustees. Phillip Fairbanks’ son and current Trustee Bob Fairbanks was present at the event to witness the unveiling of his father’s portrait and express his appreciation to Gracie. 

Later Saturday evening, our girls’ track team proudly paraded into the Alumni Banquet to show off their Division I Championship trophy (the fourth one in a row, eight in a row if you count indoor titles!), and throughout the night, the alumni were served by our current students as waiters, who ended the night by leading the alumni in the alma mater, which has become a Banquet tradition.

On Monday, the tables turned, and members of our alumni body served our current students. Alumnus and former Trustee Greg Boardman ‘75 spoke eloquently to the graduating class about resilience and perseverance in the face of failure. Then dozens of graduates received awards funded by generous alumni (we gave out over 100 awards over the weekend!), and each graduate received their diploma from alumnus and Board President Jay Wright ‘87. There were also hundreds of alums in the crowd of 3000 gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class.

All weekend, I was surrounded by reminders of how deeply integrated the past members of our student body are with today’s Academy students. One of my favorite symbols of this connection between the past and the present is the relatively new tradition of the graduating class partnering with the 50th Reunion Class on their Class Gift. This year, they combined resources to fund the landscaping for Brantview, including the beautiful new elm trees that now line Brantview Drive. As I walked from the Senior Tea at the Headmaster’s House to Brantview to greet the 50th Reunion Class of 1968, I passed the elms and reflected on how, in 50 years, these graduates of the Class of 2018 will combine resources with the Class of 2068. I have no clue what they will fund, but I know that by joining together to leave this place better than they found it, they will carry on a tradition that continues to make the Academy a great place.

I have written before about Bonnie Raitt’s comment when she played in Fuller Hall, describing the space as “part living room, part church,” and I have often said that Last Chapel is perhaps the use of Fuller Hall that best fits her description. That was certainly true this year as the hall was filled with standing ovations and high emotions throughout Last Chapel.

As is the case every year, we said goodbye to some excellent young teachers who are leaving to pursue advanced degrees and to some dedicated veteran faculty and staff who are retiring (long-time faculty members Koleen Jones and Fran Cone) or moving on to other positions. Many of these departing faculty and staff received standing ovations as students and colleagues stood to pay tribute to their accomplishments and contributions here, including Facilities Director Dennis Smith, Social Studies teacher Dick Walden, and Capstone and Humanities department secretary Dorothy Baxter.

These tributes were followed by a number of awards given to juniors and seniors recognizing their successes in a number of fields, ranging from athletics to academics to campus life. The two Campus Life Award winners, Andrew Hegarty and Emma Forester, received standing ovations as they received recognition from Assistant Head for Campus Life Beth Choiniere.

The next portion of our traditional Last Chapel program involves the graduating class watching their Senior Memories video and then standing to sing their Class Song (this year it is “In My Life” by the Beatles). This year, after watching the video prepared by Senior Joel Uyanik, the entire class gave him a standing ovation.

Then, as is our tradition, the seniors marched out of Fuller and through a gauntlet of freshmen to come in the back of Fuller and join me on stage. Then the juniors moved up to take the seniors seats, the sophomores moved down from the balcony to take the junior seats, and the freshmen took their new seats in the Fuller balcony. All of this is exactly the way we have done things for the 34 years I have experienced it, and maybe longer.

However, as I told the crowd now gathered as one community, things were not normal this year. In fact, I had one more award to give: the Class of 2008 Impact Prize. This prize is awarded by the graduating class to a faculty member who has shown uncommon dedication to the class, especially as an advisor, and who has had an extraordinary positive impact on all cohorts within the class and the school. I normally give this out at Commencement, but as I said, things were not normal, for the person receiving the award this year had recently been diagnosed with a serious health condition and would not be able to attend Commencement.

As the seniors stood with me on stage, I read a tribute that said, in part,

Every morning he greets his advisees with a special handshake

Every month he treats us to a Random Act of Kindness in Chapel

When you ask him how he is, he has one response that has become his motto: “Lovin’ Life!”

Getting to know people and making them feel special is his special gift. Maybe it comes from his career in food service and hospitality, but he is always going out of his way to greet others and make them feel welcome. From his days as class dean and leader of HALO to his weekly serving of the Community Lunch in South Church, he always makes the effort to let people know he is happy to see them.

His Random Acts of Kindness are just one of the ways he sweetens our community through service. Besides the previously mentioned Community Lunches, he also helped spearhead the annual Thanksgiving trip to Covenant House in New York City and has volunteered his chef services for several fundraisers. During class events such as Spirit Week and Winter Carnival, as well as during Academy Theatre seasons, he is ever present and always positive as he serves others.

And that leads me to what I believe is his greatest virtue—in fact, it was the first thing that the senior class officers mentioned when nominating him—his positivity and enthusiasm for life. His spirited announcing at home basketball games is iconic, as he calls out the names of our players and visiting players alike, and his announcing of a made three-pointer is loud, long, and lively. He greets people with high-fives as he walks down the hall, and he genuinely celebrates all the good things in his life. Some of the most romantic moments in Chapel have been when he has sung to his wife Crystal on stage for their anniversary.

I ordinarily give out this prize at Commencement, but unfortunately, he won’t be able to be there this year.... Knowing him, he is probably just as glad to receive this award here, in front of all of you, his students, advisees, colleagues, and friends—in this place where he has staged so many shows, given out so many goodies, and sung to his bride.

So please join me in sending out some healing vibes, some heartfelt appreciation, and some positive energy to the man who has given so much. May he never stop lovin’ life—Chef Gerry Prevost.

As Gerry came up on stage (rather, jumped up on stage!), the hall erupted in a long and sustained standing ovation, full of emotion and appreciation. With faculty and staff wearing Chef Strong t-shirts and everyone wearing tie-dyed support bracelets that said “Chef Strong: Lovin’ Life, Brothah!,” we ended Last Chapel singing the alma mater. The words “our strong band can ne’er be broken” never rang truer.

This week we saw the passing of the baton from one group of school leaders to another. In handing the job of Student Government President over to junior Grace Phelps, departing President Andrew Hegarty addressed Chapel for the last time. To sum up his reflections on the year, he quoted a passage from a letter Jean-Paul Sartre wrote to Simon de Beauvoir:

Look back, look forth, look close, there may be more prosperous times, more intelligent times, more spiritual times, more magical times, and more happy times, but this one small moment in the history of the universe is ours.

Then he continued,

I won’t deny it. At times this year, we all have struggled. At times we felt like quitting. In those times especially, we came together. In those times we supported each other. In those times we defined this year.

Our moment in the history of the universe is defined as a time of unity amongst all students. There will surely be more prosperous times, more intelligent times, more spiritual, magical, and more happy times, but you couldn’t convince me that there is a better time to be a student here.

Throughout the week, I continued to think about how, under Andrew’s leadership, this student body pulled together to mourn, to celebrate, to civilly discuss contentious issues, and to genuinely enjoy the diverse array of talents, perspectives, and backgrounds present to them daily in Chapel and beyond. This was further highlighted by the students in my senior English class as they made their final presentations of the year.

As part of a larger final assessment, I ask my students to create an individual response to the one-act play Master Harold…and the boys by Athol Fugard and then create a presentation that is consciously designed for the 15 people in the class to experience at this particular time in order to achieve a particular purpose. The messages not only corroborated Andrew’s reflections on the year, but also provided one more proof of the remarkable spirit—the diverse brilliance—of this graduating class.

Here is a quick summary of the messages:

On life lessons:

  • While we strive and are trained to be leaders, it is important to learn how to follow, too.
  • We all would be well-served to understand the world of finance, especially the rise of cryptocurrency, as (like it or not) with money comes independence and power.
  • Despite any adversity we face, we can find a gift in the hardship and turn bad times to good.
  • Arguably the most important lessons we learn come not from books or formal lessons, but instead from relationships outside of the classroom and experiences in extracurricular activities.
  • There are places throughout the world set aside for people to gather, to experience nature, to escape the busyness of the world, and to relax; we should seek them out and visit them regularly.

On race and diversity:

  • We will all experience or witness injustice and discrimination outside of this community; we need to decide if we will turn away, sit passively by and watch, or stand up and take action to eliminate it.
  • A year ago, the students and faculty at Evergreen State became embroiled in an angry protest over racism; we need to decide if we will make our voice heard as our society debates divisive issues.
  • We are more privileged than the vast majority of the world’s children; we need to recognize that privilege and use it for good.

On unity:

  • We can be brought together by music and should seek opportunities to tap into this power.
  • No matter the size of the split within a family—caused by envy or anger—there is always hope of reconciliation.
  • Be the first to ask for forgiveness when there has been a fight, especially when the fight is with a parent, for humble recognition of faults brings healing.
  • Be grateful for all your parents have given you, recognize the sacrifices they have made, and tell them how much you appreciate all they have done.

And finally, on leaving:

  • The more positive memories you have, the more you have enjoyed your time here, the sadder you will be in leaving, and that sadness is a good thing.

This last one, offered by Kazuma Kato, a student from Japan, was especially touching as he recounted his three-year experience of becoming more and more invested in this community. I shared his sadness as I looked around the room and realized that I would not teach this group again. Every teacher feels this sadness at the end of a school year, and those of us who have come to know and love the members of this class will feel it powerfully over the next week as they leave us.

In his farewell, Andrew added this one last comment to his classmates: “…I would like to thank you for four years of brilliant moments in the history of the universe, and I hope that you go on to experience brilliant moments yourselves.” As a school community, we share Andrew’s thanks for great memories and wishes for brilliant futures as we bid a fond farewell to the Class of 2018.

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