The first day of the 2023–24 school year began at Concord Academy, as is customary, in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel. Flags representing the countries of all of CA’s students lined the footpath leading to its front door, and students, faculty, and staff passed through the column on their way to Convocation. Inside the Chapel—the heart of the school, where seniors address the community most mornings in personal chapel talks—sun spilled through the east windows to the decorous strains of Handel, then a contemporary song of Coldplay’s, performed by the Chameleon Chamber Players. The speaking portion of this year’s ceremony focused on a topic dear to CA: what it means to belong.

Opening CA’s 101st school year, Head of School Henry Fairfax asked the assembly to pause and reflect on the “opportunity to recalibrate, refresh, and renew” that this fall presents. “This time of the year is full of new possibilities and dreams,” he said. “As I scan the faces in the room, I see boundless hope and capacity.” What makes CA special, he continued, is much more than its campus: “The people at CA are the program, and each one of us is inspired by our mission.”

Jen Burleigh ’85, speaking for the first time as co-president of the Board of Trustees, extended a warm welcome to the CA community, and in particular to the 115 new students and 21 new members of the faculty and staff. She discussed the “bold vision” the Board is working toward—breaking ground on a new performing arts center and beginning a strategic planning process with her new co-president, Jennifer Pline P’13 ’15. She also spoke about what she called “the strength and beauty of this incredible community.” 

Burleigh recalled her own first day as a CA student, in 1981—also the first time Tom Wilcox, then the newly minted 33-year-old head of school, gave an address. Haltingly at first, Wilcox spoke about what it was like to stutter, how he had tried to fight it, and ultimately how he’d come to live with it. He grew more fluid as he talked, Burleigh recalled: “It was a great speech—funny, heartfelt, and genuine. But the thing that struck me then, and has stayed with me all these years, was his willingness to be vulnerable in a way I’d never seen an adult be, much less an adult in a position of authority.” This introduction proved true to her later observation: that “that kind of openness, and that kind of caring response, is the norm” at CA. She encouraged today’s CA campus community to seek opportunities to practice vulnerability and help shape Concord Academy. “Bring your whole self,” she advised.

Student Head of School Jessie Ma ’24 then spoke about the challenge of new experiences, reflecting on the intricacies of learning to navigate the MBTA public transportation system over the summer. The experience gave her confidence that “no matter the challenges that come ahead, I can adapt and learn something new,” she said. It’s the mindset she’s carrying with her into her student leadership role this year. “No journey is without unexpected turns; instead, we learn to navigate through obstacles, to embrace feeling uncomfortable with resilience, determination, and grace,” she said. She encouraged CA students to find opportunity amid change—to consider what culture they want to cultivate and how they, as individuals, can participate in building this community. “Thank you for your open minds, your passion, your empathy,” she concluded. “Here’s to an amazing year filled with growth, joy, and change!”

From left to right: The Chameleon Chamber Players, Student Head of School Jessie Ma ’24, and Chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department Carmen Welton.

The rest of the program was given over to Carmen Welton, chair of the Modern and Classical Languages Department, Spanish teacher, and this year’s Convocation speaker. She first greeted the community in “her mother’s tongue,” she said, “because, for me, Spanish is not only a language but also a comforting sense of belonging.” And belonging at CA is what she wished for each person in the audience.

In vivid descriptions, Welton shared how her own sense of belonging took root—when she was young, through the word play she enjoyed with her grandfather, as it now continues to do through her daily routines with family and colleagues on this campus.

Welton offered a Spanish word—la querencia, from the verb querer, to desire or to love—to describe a sense of deep belonging in a place. CA’s Chapel “evokes our collective querencia, invokes a rite of passage that cements your belonging,” Welton said.

“When we love, when we desire, it is beholden upon us to be caretakers of the object of our affection,” she continued. “The security a sense of belonging can endow also asks of us a stewardship, to honor the querencia.” Making this campus our home, Welton said, means including the land—and all of its ancestral and nonhuman inhabitants—in our sense of community.

On this occasion, she also considered the origins of the word “convocate” (to summon together) and its close association with the term “vocation,” or calling. While she finds belonging in her teaching vocation, Welton said, she also shared that it took a while to find her place at CA, and she spoke about the pain we experience when our sense of belonging is called into question. 

Querencia, “the establishment of belonging, in harmony with the environment and its inhabitants,” she determined, requires active work. “We cannot force a sense of belonging, but we can—and should—be attentive to the moments that might be signaling its presence.”

Bienvenides, Concord Academy!” she concluded. “Welcome, all!”

Read the full Convocation address by Carmen Welton

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