Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

School has not always been easy for Donna Lina. Her educational journey, plagued with learning challenges and physical limitations, often has been frustrating, and let’s face it, sometimes middle school kids can be unkind. However, as her teacher Karen Stark says, “She exudes joy”, and even when things have been hard or people have been unkind, Donna Lina has always approached people with great kindness.

I agree with Karen when she says that this experience of joy is what this time of year is all about: “the joy of rite of passage, the joy of spending time with friends and family, the joy of celebration, the joy of simply embracing individuality.” I also agree with David Brooks, who says that while happiness is a feeling of personal accomplishment, joy is a more selfless and transcendent emotion. By watching Donna Lina and her classmates on Prom Night, I was transported to new levels of joy.

It began with watching them all arrive in various vehicles—each of an emblem of pride for those inside, whether it was a jacked up VW bug, a 1919 Model T, a Corvette convertible, or a souped up pick up. Donna Lina arrived in a bright red convertible driven by Karen’s husband Matt, who is also an Academy teacher. In the back seat, dressed in her homemade princess-pink ball gown and wearing a sparkling tiara, Donna Lina squealed with delight as the car picked up speed. As she approached the entrance to the Mount Washington Hotel, she pointed and said, “There’s my castle!”

As she arrived, she gave the watching crowd of parents, families, teachers, and friends a regal wave, and then walked confidently into the ballroom. Earlier, she had been greeted by classmates at a local restaurant where they had gathered for their Prom Night dinner, and now she joined them on the dance floor where she danced freely, spinning and twirling to the music, with no fear and no self-consciousness. When the music slowed and it was time for a slow dance, her classmate David asked her if she would dance with him; she enthusiastically said yes, and the prom princess magic was complete.

Donna Lina fell asleep quickly on the ride home, exhausted from all the dancing and excitement, but that night she had done more to lift spirits than she would ever know. No matter who you are, you couldn’t help but smile and be lifted by the pureness of her joy. According to Karen, that’s a daily occurrence; she says, “On even the darkest of days, you can’t help but smile in her presence…. She is a beacon of hope…light…joy.”

In a year during which we continue to celebrate a host of best-in-school-history performances—when we marvel that we are among a constellation of stars that includes champions, top-ranking scholars, award-winning performers and artists, and gold medal winners—Donna Lina’s joy shines out to remind us what matters most. On Thursday night, she radiated the goodness within us all when we are at our best, and her classmates recognized it and surrounded her with their affection. That night she was the Belle of the Ball, and the rest of us basked in her joy.

During the last week of school, Donna Lina gave each of her teachers a potted plant with a note that read in part, “You have planted inspiration and opportunity in my mind and have helped me grow… Thank you. You have helped me blossom.” I was fortunate enough to get one of those beautiful plants, too, and every time I look at it, I remember how beautiful that Prom Night was. It struck me that I’m the one who should be thanking Donna Lina for planting seeds of inspiration and joy in my mind and heart rather than the other way around.

When Donna Lina walked into the Fieldhouse on Monday morning, she did so alongside Ayman, a young man whose family escaped Syria as refugees, who has also had a difficult educational journey. With the generous financial support of some alums and their families, Ayman has been able to board here and has developed a second home. He too radiates joy and gratitude each day and enjoys a close connection to Matt and Karen. What a better way for Donna Lina to end this stage of her journey than alongside someone, who like her, was beaming with pure joy for the gift of this community, the gift of real happiness, and the beginning of a beautiful life.

As a group, they represented an impressive array of excellence. Both in terms of goodness and accomplishment, the young people gathered on the lawn in front of Colby Hall were some of the best people I have ever met. They were leaders in Academy Theatre, athletics, music, and service organizations. They had proven their communication skills, problem solving abilities, and strong characters in their Capstones and beyond. They were gold medal winners, state champions, all-star musicians, and even a Gatorade Player of the Year. Most importantly, they cared deeply for others. But almost none of them had flown a kite before.

They were assembled—or rather running around—on Colby lawn as the result of a presentation by Neva Bostic in my senior Literature and Composition class. Neva, a star athlete on several state championship teams, had encouraged her high-achieving classmates to take a break from worrying about exams, prom, and graduation to focus on the present. In groups of two, students followed Neva’s directions to create small kites out of straws, plastic bags, and string. Having enjoyed this activity and created kites that they thought would fly, they asked if they could go outside and try them.

A video taken by English teacher Nicole Begin, who had heard the commotion outside, captured the subsequent scene: teenagers nearing graduation and adulthood dashing across the lawn, laughing and shouting, celebrating whenever a kite took flight. I was reminded of the symbolism of kites in books like The Kite Runner, where flying a kite is a defining act of childhood. However, that day, I was reminded of much more as well.

Earlier in the class, Shawn Guckin, another champion in both athletics and SkillsUSA, had presented about his experience of building a kite with his elementary-school-age brother Daniel. Shawn reminded us of the symbolism of the kite in the play we had just read—Master Harold…and the boys—in which flying a kite was used both as a way for a middle-aged black man to mentor and uplift a hurting white boy and as a way to inspire us to transcend racism. On their kite, Shawn and Daniel wrote the names of people who have helped and mentored them during this difficult year during which their family has struggled with significant health issues. Shawn explained that, while he had first thought of flying the kite with Daniel like Sam and Hally do in the play, he had decided to hang it on his wall to remember the people who had helped him and his family and as a reminder to be grateful for the love that surrounds us. He asked each of us to draw a kite and list the names of those people in our lives who support us in hard times and who remind us that we are loved.

The whole idea of flying kites also reminded me of alumna Leila de Bruyne, our 2015 Commencement Speaker, who after college founded Flying Kites, a not-for-profit organization that has established a school and safe haven for the victims of poverty in Kenya, especially children. I never asked Leila how she decided on the name “Flying Kites”, and I couldn’t find any explanation on line, but in watching these seniors experience a childlike joy and in hearing Shawn’s story of love and support, I think I have a good idea. Flying Kites is transforming primary education in rural Kenya by providing children with skilled and engaging teachers who believe in every child’s capacity for inquiry, critical thinking, and competence. At the same time, they are providing families with clean water, sanitation services, and health and nutrition services that allow children to thrive. I am sure that the people of Flying Kites also celebrate the childlike joy of their students and the mentor’s joy of watching a child thrive despite hardship.

As we come closer to graduation and saying farewell to the Class of 2019, I keep coming back to Neva’s activity. We made kites out of ordinary things in our lives; nothing fancy and actually looking a little sad, these kites looked like hopeless and hapless efforts as the pairs took them out on the lawn. However, as they caught the wind and danced—and even flew—it felt miraculous and wonderful. The ones that flew the highest were the ones that were given the most string, whose fliers gave them the greatest freedom to catch the wind and stay aloft.

This last observation reminded me of something I feel every June, and I am sure that my colleagues and dozens, if not hundreds, of Academy parents are feeling the same thing. We have used all of our gifts and resources to give the best we could to our students and children. We have done the best we could to get them ready for this time of their lives, when they are ready to launch into the wider world. However, we do not just set them free like a balloon to float wherever the wind takes it. No, we still stay connected, holding a string that will allow us to give a tug this way or that, to prevent them from hitting rooftops or becoming entangled in tree branches, to run or pull them closer when the wind dies down or threatens to send them crashing to the ground. The best part, though, that fills us with the most joy, is when we let the string all the way out, allowing them to fly as high as they can, enjoying the widest view and dancing in the wind.

Watching those students on Colby lawn that morning, I was supremely confident that each of them would fly high, and I was equally confident that—having learned how to build a kite, learned what it means, and learned how to fly it—they will help others discover the joy of flying kites. How could we ask for more?

While hundreds of students played games on the greens and sat outside to enjoy the momentary sunshine and sign yearbooks, a group of artists were busy inside the Morse Center for the Arts sharing their gifts with groups of students from area middle schools. This annual event, which coincides with the Academy’s Spring Day, is the Jeanette Genius McKean Day—JGM Day for short—and it has become the source of inspiration for young artists for nearly two decades.

The fact that it coincides with Spring Day is somewhat of a happy accident. Spring Day, established as a tradition in the mid-90’s by then Student Government President Kate Daloz, is an annual celebration of community and friendship on the day after Senior Breakfast and before the start of Exam Week. On that day, the Lamp (the Academy yearbook) is distributed, and Student Government and faculty members design and run various events and activities all over campus—except in the Morse Center for the Arts. In that space, we have taken advantage of the freer daily schedule to invite area seventh graders to get a taste of a wide array of artistic opportunities.

By providing experiences in both the performing and visual arts, our arts faculty and student volunteers have carried on the legacy of Jeanette Genius McKean, the artist and philanthropist for whom the day was named and whose grandfather Charles Hosmer Morse is the namesake of the Morse Center. Mrs. McKean was known widely for the beauty of her artwork and for her commitment to perpetuate excellence in the arts through education and sponsorship. She believed in the goodness of life, was known to have “an infinite capacity to write the most beautiful thank you notes,” and generously shared her time, treasure, and talents to celebrate the arts.

Over the past few days, I have been moved by the generosity of the artists among us, including those who touched the lives of young artists on JGM Day. The day before, as a way to announce the yearbook dedication, seniors Sam Bulpin and Maggie Roach sang a song they dedicated to Chef Gerry Prevost: “God Only Knows What I’d Be without You.” As if the lyrics and the moment were not poignant enough, Sam and Maggie’s performance was heartfelt and moving. The gift of live performance sparked the beginning of a great day.

Sam and Maggie are part of another gift our artists have given us this week, as Academy Theatre performed Amelie: The Musical. This performance was especially significant because it was the first student-directed spring musical in school history (another historic first for the Class of 2019!). Seniors Rebecca Robertson and Maggie Roach co-directed the performance, senior Kaci Cochran directed the music, senior Fiona Sweeney directed the choreography, and senior Matt Bader directed the technical crew. Seniors Sam Bulpin, Jimmy Rust, and Lizzie Gilmartin helped lead a stand out cast in a touching performance of a very difficult show.

Lizzie’s character Amelie provides a symbol of what we experienced this week. Amelie, after some early difficulties, finds joy in making people’s lives better. Many of the people she befriends and/or helps are artists who have been beaten down by life. However, through her generosity and imagination, she makes their lives more beautiful. In the end (spoiler alert), she finds affirmation and love herself and begins a new and beautiful relationship with—you guessed it—an artist. In the spirit of Spring Day, in the spirit of Jeanette Genius McKean, in the spirit of the numerous talented artists among us who shared their gifts powerfully and freely, this image of a young woman who found joy in giving and love in sharing is good reminder as we end another successful year and head off into summer.

The lyrics of the last song in Amelie, I think, are especially appropriate at this time of year. As Amelie sits in the photo booth with her new love Nino, they sing,

Where do we go from here?
Now that we are sitting side by side
After all there's more to life than we can see
Will there be troubles?

I don't know.

Will there be sweet things?

I hope so.

Will there be time to keep on dreaming once this dream is over?
What happens when the booth goes bright?
What happens when you're out of view?
What happens when you can't hold on
or when I can't hold on to you?
What happens when tomorrow comes and there's nothing that we can do?

Questions like these are asked this time of year by seniors, friends, teachers, and maybe especially parents. One possible answer, one that I hope we all experience in these last weeks before graduation—as friends and family—is the one Nino and Amelie provide:

Just pull the curtain tight
And adjust the seat
Lean into the light and hold me.

From JGM Day, to Maggie and Sam’s yearbook dedication to Gerry Prevost, to Amelie, I think we have all felt the impact of the arts in our community particularly strongly this week. I hope we never forget the power of the arts to move, inspire, and uplift us, and I hope we continue to appreciate, celebrate, and support the arts in our communities, leaning into their light and admiring the gifts and generosity of those who share them with us.

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