Headmaster’s Weekly Message

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

On Thursday morning, librarian Nikki Krysak and English teacher Molly Shepley spoke in Chapel about an event they had worked to bring to campus: The Human Library. First proposed by Nikki, this initiative fit very well with the work Molly and Dean of International Students Florian Rexhepi had been doing to foster dialogue among the diverse members of our community. As Nikki explained it, "The Human Library is a living, breathing library where humans are the books and the stories are their lives. Readers are invited to browse the catalog and check out a human book for a 15-minute one-on-one conversation, during which they can learn and ask questions. The event builds community by providing an opportunity for the reader to challenge prejudices and learn about individuals who have had different life experiences from their own."

Nearly 100 people visited the Human Library Thursday afternoon to read the 18 human books, and within 30 minutes readers had to be put on a wait list. Both Readers and Books reflected throughout the event that the powerful and genuine conversations they were having would most likely never have happened under conventional circumstances. The Books were a microcosm of our diverse community, differing in gender, age, nationality, religion, and interests. Students from Japan and Korea met with a Book with a Jewish heritage and deepened their understanding of the Holocaust. A French teacher Cathy Miles-Grant had conversations with three Books. As she reported it,

Once I had made my selection they directed me to the spot in which my first "book" awaited me. And then the real treat began. I had three wonderful conversations:

  • the first with an individual whose father warned her not to let anyone know she was Jewish when she set off on a school trip to France;
  • the second with an individual whose love of hunting is infused with the joy of apprenticing alongside her father, and her concerns about the dismissive attitude of some towards the tradition of hunting and the culture within which it is embedded in Vermont;
  • the third with a NEK native who spoke about his experiences growing up gay and navigating the worlds of peers, school, family, work; for this conversation, we were joined by a student from China that I know well, who engaged thoughtfully with the "book" and reflected on attitudes towards gays and lesbians in her country.

Similar conversations were happening all around the library, and the place was abuzz. I was struck by the cross sections of the SJA community participating: students, teachers, local students, international students... As I was leaving I found myself sharing reflections with various others (students and faculty) who were similarly enthused and stretched by their various exchanges.

Others learned about their teachers' and/or classmates' stories of growing up or finding their passions, and the Books themselves were able to finally tell their stories in a way that people could understand. Some now want to tell their stories in Chapel. Many of the participants were late for dinner because they were engrossed in conversations and did not want to end their conversations; many went over the 15-minute time limit. The event clearly lived up to its marketing pitch—Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover: Challenging Prejudices and Stereotypes through Dialogue.

This sense of celebrating diversity and fostering understanding of each other was evident on Wednesday as well. Despite the snowstorm, dozens of students showed up to participate in a memorial for the victims of gun violence held in Fuller Hall and dozens more stood outside Colby Hall calling for actions to increase school safety. Hundreds of other students met in advisory groups, discussing the issues around gun violence and school safety and/or discussing other issues like college plans or course selections. The power of those 17 minutes was, in part, that each student made a choice as to how to use their voice, and during the days leading up to and following the event, all sides of the issues were explored and listened to. We made sure that above all we cared for each other as full, rich human beings throughout the dialogue.

In following up on the Student Walkout Day, I shared some excerpts from a letter from a retired teacher who encouraged students to walk up to those sitting alone, invite them into their network of friends, and even befriend them, creating relationships that could save lives. The letter read in part,

You are the answer. Your greeting, your smile, your gentle human touch is the only thing that can change the world of a desperate classmate who may be contemplating something as horrendous as a school shooting. Look past yourself and look past your phone and look into the eyes of a student who no one else sees. Meet the gaze of a fellow human being desperate to make contact with anyone, even just one person. You... Your new friendship can relieve the heartache of one person and in doing so, possibly prevent the unjustifiable heartache of hundreds of lives in the future. I know you. I trust you. You are the answer.

The letter also addressed teachers:

And teachers, my fellow guardians of our youth, I know you too. I know the desire of wanting to make a difference in a young person's life. I know the thrill of stepping in front of a classroom of students, but simultaneously intimidated by the trust bestowed upon you. I also know the crushing, sometimes unbearable responsibility that your shoulders are asked to carry. But that's why you got into teaching, because you have big shoulders. And a big heart. You're overworked (I would add underpaid, but you didn't get into teaching for the pay, so it needn't be said), underappreciated and exhausted. May I add one more item to that list? You're also a miracle waiting to happen in the life of your worst students... The next time (and there's always a next time) they are ready to wreak havoc in your classroom, I challenge you to pull them aside and ask them if they are ok, if there is something bothering them, and is there anything you can do to help. Your genuine concern for them may be just the miracle they are looking for. The miracle we're all looking for. I know you. I trust you. You are the answer.

The takeaway from this week of snow-day schedules and diverse dialogue is that, indeed, we are each the answer to stopping violence and making our communities safe. By building relationships, by valuing our shared human dignity, by using our voices to tell our stories and express our views, by listening with our hearts as well as our ears to fully understand issues and points of view, we can find answers to the problems that continue to plague us. Until we do that, from the highest levels of government to the front lines of education, we won't make much progress.







On the way out of Patrick Gymnasium on Sunday afternoon, several community members stopped me and said, "It's a great day to be a Hilltopper!" Indeed, our girls' varsity basketball team had just made us all proud that afternoon by soundly beating perennial powerhouse Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) 48-33 in a much-hyped championship game that was never in doubt. This championship marked another historic accomplishment in a year already marked by historic accomplishments.

Just a week ago, our boys' alpine ski team won the first state championship in school history in that sport. Coming after the football team's dramatic championship one-point win last fall, the boys' indoor track team's also dramatic narrow championship repeat win, and the girls' track team's historically dominant repeat win, this ski championship set a new record for the most championships in one sports season, and it tied the school record for most championships in one school year. The girls' basketball championship broke that record. This year's sports teams have already amassed five Division 1 state championships, four of them coming this winter, and our boys' team plays in the semi-finals this week. So far, our athletes have also amassed 15 individual state titles, and this year's senior class has been part of 12 championship teams... and we are not even to spring yet!

The girls' championship team had all of the marks that make for great collective achievements. First, they set clear and aspirational goals. From the time they got on the bus last year after losing a heartbreaking three-point game against CVU, they set their sights on three things—beating CVU, being the best team in the state, and winning the state championship. As Sophomore captain Josie Choinere said, "CVU is a trigger for us. We just had so much motivation to beat them.... We've all worked so hard as a team, and I was just thinking about my team and my coach and how we wanted to get this one game back all season. This is what we've worked for and we finally accomplished it today."

The second element leading to their success was expressed by junior captain Sadie Stetson: "Everyone did great things. Everyone played together. It was one of our best games of the season." This sense of teamwork, of each player playing a role and playing it well, of the team achieving excellence as a group has marked this team throughout the season. Some days, one person stepped up, some days another, but everyone knew what she had to do and pushed through struggles and pain to do it. The season wasn't perfect, but the teamwork and resilience shown by these girls led them all to do great things together.

The last element leading to their success was their commitment to individual excellence. Neva Bostic summed up my feelings about the championship game the best when she said to reporter Michael Beniash, "Josie Choiniere. Holy cow!" Josie scored 23 points in the game, the highest in a finals game since 2007 and the third highest ever in a championship game played at Patrick Gymnasium. She was not only on fire from deep range all day, but in charge of the whole court, handling the ball, directing teammates, stealing passes, and getting rebounds. This kind of performance only happens when an athlete commits to year-round training, seeing their identity as an athlete as something that continues even in the off-season. All of the girls on the team are multi-sport athletes, and they take their off-season training seriously. Each wants to be the best athlete she can be.

It would be a great school year if we were only celebrating athletic accomplishments. Every sport in the fall and winter has been in the top group of their respective league, many of them making it to the quarterfinals of their tournaments. But beyond that, our theater program, our art program, and our academic programs have all won awards. Just this past weekend, a whole host of artists received their gold keys for their work in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and our Science Olympians brought home 25 medals, including 10 first places (an Academy team placed in the top three in every event!). The success of all of these students come from the same aspirational goal-setting, persistent cooperation, and intentional practice that characterized the girls' basketball championship team, and I am equally proud of them all.

Yes, indeed, it is a great time to be a Hilltopper!








Since last Thursday, I have been crisscrossing Florida on our annual Alumni Tour, during which we will see over 200 alumni at six events in five different cities over six days. As part of my remarks at these events, I always begin with a bit I call “This Week in Chapel”, which allows me to highlight the daily life of our school in all of its diversity and dynamic energy. Throughout this tour, alumni have expressed great pride as they hear what our students are up to. As our students head out of Winter Carnival and into Winter Break, I thought I might share this overview with you in order to try to tie together the multiple threads that make up our daily Chapel experiences.

On Monday, I had the good fortune to fill in for Freshman Dean Chris Dussault and run Freshman Chapel in South Church. Sequoia Simonds gave his speech to his classmates, having already spoken in Fuller Hall to the upperclassmen. As I heard his speech again, I was struck by just how humble Sequoia is and how much he downplays his heroism. He stressed once again that we should tell those we love how much we love them and that when we use the strengths and skills we have been given, we should be grateful, not proud. That day we also celebrated the continued success of our indoor track athletes, as several of them made the podium at the New England meet, placing in the top three in the region.

On Tuesday, back in Fuller, I began Chapel by asking the cast and crew of each one of our student-directed one-act plays to stand and be recognized. The plays ranged from the Sherlock Holmes slap-stick Baskerville to the awkward dating romantic comedy Check Please to the social commentary on robots and humanity Property Rights. All of them were well-directed and well-acted, the results of long hours of rehearsal during these winter months. The most powerful, however, was The Most Massive Woman Wins. The play was a frank and brutal look at the devastating ways that our culture affects women’s body images. The four actresses passionately discussed how they had been shamed, rejected, and judged by others based on their bodies. At the end of the show, as the four young women stood before the audience—totally vulnerable—I was deeply moved. One audience member emailed me after the show to say that in her decades of watching Academy Theatre, this show was perhaps the most powerful. I agreed and said so in Fuller Hall.

Tuesday also provided a chance for two young men from Rwanda—Marcus Nganji and Patrick Nkubito—to speak about their home country. Their presentation was part of our effort to expand global perspective, pay attention to Black History Month, and develop greater understanding of each other within our community. Marcus and Patrick highlighted many of the beautiful parts of their country and culture. They mentioned the horrible genocide that ravaged Rwanda, but didn’t allow that to define their country.

On Wednesday, we were treated to a performance by three members of the Kingdom All-Stars alumni: Ally Morrison, Maddy Vaal, and Jack Luna. As Maddy and Jack expertly played the keyboard and bass guitar, respectively, Ally sang a beautiful rendition of “Walkin’ in Memphis”. The entire audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation when they were done. Wednesday was also the beginning of Winter Carnival, as friends dressed up together for Twin Day. Costumes ranged from wearing similar t-shirts and jeans to wearing the same full-body hooded blue onesie pajamas. The Social Studies Department Chair David Eckhardt even tried to twin with the Headmaster’s white shirt, black pants, and green tie.

I was on the road to Florida when Assistant Head for Campus Life Beth Choiniere led Chapel on Thursday. Beth had a tough job that morning. She had to announce our monthly lockdown drill that was to take place later that morning, and she had to keep the energy up for Winter Carnival by celebrating Theme Day. By all accounts, she did an outstanding job. She first played the song “One Voice” and commented on how, when she first heard it sung by the Hilltones years ago, she was struck by the power of one voice and she wanted students to reflect on “the courage it takes to stand up and use the voice that you have—especially now.” Beth was, of course, talking about the student response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. As I read the text of her remarks, sitting not far from the site of that tragedy, I was moved. Beth said, looking out over an audience that included her own two children and their friends,

…when I look at what has gone on in this country, when my heart breaks for the students and teachers and families affected by the school shooting in Florida, to know that parents sent their kids to schools expecting them to be OK…, I am reminded that when fear takes over, it is difficult to trust. Human nature leads us to lash out or to cower in fear.

Right now, especially in schools, people’s emotions are heightened. It’s natural to feel that way. It’s human, it’s raw, it’s real… But there are things that we can do. We have a plan in place, we need to practice that plan so we know what to do, and we all need to be vigilant. If we see something, or know something, we need to say something.

Beth’s message ended with a statement of encouragement and support for all students to find and use their voices to inspire change.

That afternoon, as Freshmen gathered in Monopoly costumes, Sophomores as Game of Life characters, Juniors as pieces from Candy Land, and Seniors as characters from Clue, Fuller Hall was again alive with energy at Winter Carnival Chapel. As emcees Florian Rexhepi and John Lovett entertained the crowd with their rap “Bad Like Thaddeus” and moved through the Class Skits, the tension of the morning dissipated.

At the end of Chapel, the royal court was announced: King Matteo Dill, Queen Katherine Cowan, Prince Emediong Akpan, Princess Mackenzie Beck, Duke Kristian Baird, and Duchess Emma Carlson. They are from three different countries (US, Bermuda, and Nigeria), two states (Vermont and New Hampshire), and six different hometowns, and yet they all were elected by their schoolmates to represent the school spirit embodied in Winter Carnival. A competition between classes, Winter Carnival is marked by good- natured fun from floor hockey to board games, and participation is as important as winning. These six young people represent that spirit well; mostly athletes, they know how to compete, but more importantly, on that day they joined with classmates and schoolmates to celebrate school unity—the kind of unity Beth had referenced that morning.

As I ended my “This Week in Chapel” at the event in Naples, Trustee Paul Simpson got up to say how proud he was of the Academy, of all that our students have accomplished, and most of all of the spirit of unity that has coalesced this year amidst some very difficult days. And as I look back at the week and all that transpired just in the time we spent in Chapel, I too am proud, and even more so, I am grateful we got to spend these moments with each other and that the alumni got to share them vicariously through our visits. For me, that ties it all together.

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