My subject today is beginnings.
One of the great things about being a student is that each September one has the opportunity to make a new start. To be sure, one builds on past experience and learning; nevertheless, the pens and pencils are new, the notebooks, the texts—and the expectations. It is the proverbial clean slate. This does not happen in the same way in the so-called “real world” of business, politics, and labor.
My first knowledge of the existence of Concord Academy occurred at the beginning of my freshman year at Smith College. As I arrived at my first lecture in European History, next to me sat another freshman, clad in a dark green blazer. In those days students from fancy prep schools all wore blazers displaying the prep-school crest on the pocket. But this blazer was different, for it sported on its sleeve, just above the cuff, a 3 ½ inch embroidered lizard. In the days that followed I learned that Lucia Lee Cabot had just graduated from a school called Concord Academy, and the lizard was a chameleon. Weird.
As the years continued, I graduated from college, traveled in Europe for a year, held a series of jobs in various publishing and publicity offices to earn enough money to travel again. One day, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Sylvia, this has got to stop—enough of writing about chocolate marshmallow pancakes and how to re-upholster a chair with granny’s old shawl. So, in 1955—seven years after I had graduated from Smith—I made a new beginning. As I completed my master’s degree at Harvard, I dreamed of saving the public school system. However, teaching jobs in the Boston area were scarce in those years, so when the vocational office at Smith, let me know about the opening in the English Department at Concord Academy, I decided it would be a good idea to see what a teacher interview might be like. Thus one day in February, dressed in my proper charcoal gray suit and silk blouse, I left my practice teaching job at Newton High School—a dark, brick, prison-like building where they locked the students’ coats in cages during the day so they wouldn’t leave school. I arrived at CA, amazed at the carved antique apple-wood chairs in the Hobson House living room, the tall grandfather’s clock in working order, and the painting over the mantle. THEN I met Mrs. Hall, and we hit it off immediately. I realized that CA was more than a snobby private school and decided to try it for a year, maybe two because it would look better on my record.
As I arrived at the beginning of school in the fall of 1956, fifty-one years ago, there, at the end of the lawn, stood the rough shell of the Chapel. The windows and doors were irregular dark gaping holes soon to be protected by flapping pieces of plastic to keep out the autumn rains. Piled over to the right was a heap of clapboards waiting to be painted by the four upper classes.
I have to confess as a newcomer to the school, the building of the Chapel made me nervous. Had I, a closet agnostic, gotten myself into a job full of holy prayers and a Sunday school approach to life? Fortunately not, but those first few days, even weeks, I was not sure.
Since my beginning days at CA, the school has changed enormously. Here is a quick list of examples:
- In 1956, CA was all girls—seventh- to twelfth-grade, about 220 students, 40 of them boarders who squeezed nicely into Mrs. Hall’s living room for Sunday night readings from “Wind in the Willows.”
- There were no photocopiers, no computers—just a hand-cranked ditto machine with purple ink.
- Almost all the parents and faculty voted Republican. (I was one of three closet Democrats.)
- At age sixteen, all students at CA qualified for smoking permission—smoking allowed in the so-called Purple Oyster or “Purp” in the basement of Mrs. Hall’s house on Main Street. Actually, after the woodcarving in the Chapel and the steeple, the next Molly Gregory project was the Smoking Pavilion or “Pav”, which lasted until at least the late 80’s. The Chapel and the “Pav”—both sacred spots.
- In 1956, all seniors took biology with Miss Morse and the climax of the course was the dissection of a cat, including a life-sized drawing of its innards.
- Everyone was required to sing in Nancy Loring’s Concord Academy chorus, whether you liked to sing or not. This took place in the Assembly Hall, the present library. Nancy Loring was an extraordinary person, a sizable lady. My favorite Nancy Loring story tells of the time she was leading up to a crescendo, and as her arms raised, the elastic on her underpants broke, but agiley she stepped aside as they dropped to her ankles, never missing a beat.
- Was there diversity? Of temperament and character, yes. But the year I arrived, there was only a handful of Jews and Catholics—no Asians, no Hispanics, no African-Americans.
Nevertheless, life at CA under Mrs. Hall was never boring. She reduced the pages of written rules to only five unbreakable ones. Each day began with the Lord’s Prayer, then a hymn sung as we faced the pyramid of the ten deadly virtues she had carved (the virtues you can still see in the library today). With Mrs. Hall anything could happen. If you did something bad as a student, you ended up sitting in the green chair—the chair in her office across from the desk. Whether you felt ashamed or rebellious, her punishments were often creative: sawing fireplace logs for lateness and minor crimes, a house party in June for those who had committed a major offense, including good talk, good fun, and even a trip to the beach to escape the heat. In those days there was no DC. All discipline came from the head of school.
David Aloian, as new head of Concord Academy in 1963, brought a new beginning. He was the first male head, and his passion was academic excellence. Not only did he continue the growth of the music and art departments, he introduced subjects such as calculus and physics to the curriculum. No more kitty diagrams. A whole new group of boarders from Washington DC and New York arrived at the school as a result. During his time, the Science Building and the P.A.C. were built. He appointed a group of department heads to meet to consider the future, and out of this came CA’s first computer, linked to the one at MIT, the start of a filmmaking course, and a program to attract African-American students to CA. He was the ultimate in pursuing the highest standards, and one of my favorite David Aloian stories concerns the night his house—now Lee House—caught fire. There, at 4:00 in the morning, were his wife and children standing in the street along with the boarders from Wheeler House all shivering in their pajamas. Then out came David Aloian clad in his impeccable headmaster’s suit, clean shirt, and silk tie, ready to assume his role for the day.
With Russell Mead as his succeeding head, there was yet a new beginning after the faculty and administration voted to make CA go co-educational. During the past three to four years various boys’ schools had been trying to woo CA—Groton, St. Paul’s, Middlesex. I’m afraid their propositions were motivated by greed to double the admissions pool, not equal opportunities for women. However, CA did not wish to be swallowed up by a boys’ school as Abbot had been swallowed by Andover, or Rosemary Hall by Choate. We were too independent for that. Instead, we chose to go it alone.
The 70s was a unique period in schools such as CA. Along with a new interest in coeducation, all the basic school structure seemed open to question. Nationally it was a time of protest, student sit-ins, freedom marches, and such. At CA, students were challenging everything: Why are classes required? Why do we have to study grammar? All of a sudden the curriculum was dominated by electives. The school was full of creative energy, but all of it divided, lacking coherent direction.
I don’t remember the exact year, but Headmaster Rus Mead during announcements in the P.A.C., (1) committed a nearly fatal error, and (2) introduced a phrase to describe an essential principle in support of the community of CA. First, the mistake—there had been a rash of minor offenses afoot: filching from cubbies, behavior bordering on hazing in the dormitories. Expressing his displeasure, Rus Mead announced that he would rather have amusing pranks afoot in the school than that sort of behavior. And so the pranks began: the next morning all the classroom chairs had been neatly arranged on the lawn at 8:00 a.m. Then one evening a house director’s bathtub was discovered filled to the brim with light blue jello, and some months later a cinderblock wall blocked the North from the Middle School. Fortunately the cement had not fully hardened. But Mr. Mead and the maintenance crew were not amused. Nevertheless, the same behavior criticized by the headmaster also inspired the phrase that came to be known as “The Common Trust,” first articulated by Rus Mead who declared that adhering to The Common Trust had become the sixth unbreakable rule of Concord Academy, and it was then and is now an important, enduring legacy.
Starting with Phil McKean and then especially with the arrival of Tom Wilcox, came a new beginning, and a new order evolving out of the chaos of the mid-70s. The curriculum was redesigned, including electives but also prerequisites The Dining Hall and Stu-Fac evolved out of what was the old gym, and the new gym opened in 1978. Tom Wilcox’s vision of a traditional quad was fulfilled with the building of the MAC. At this time arrived the expansion of the library, computers, photocopiers, and more important, a commitment to diversity. Under Tom Wilcox, the school finally became fully co-ed. The boarding/day student ratio also became stabilized at approximately fifty-fifty. A new order had been ushered in, giving Jake Dresden a solid base on which to build.
Yes, there have been many new beginnings at CA, but something about the spirit of this place has remained the same through all these years. And this is what draws me back to the school:
- I revel in the spirit of fun and spontaneity that makes this a special place.
- I treasure the sense of excitement about learning.
- I respect the honoring of the individual and how the debate between the good of the individual and the good of the community energizes the school.
Now as the year begins, what lies in your future? The possibilities are legion. Among our graduates we find a queen, at least one princess, and now the new president of Harvard. There is an unusually high number of successful published writers—not necessarily those who got As in English, but those who had something to say. And there are doctors, lawyers, artists, business people, and those who have served on school boards and town committees to improve the quality of life surrounding them.
So what would I want to know if I were starting the year at CA for the first time?
Number one: Expect the unexpected. You have no idea your first year how many unexpected moments exist in the dailiness of CA. And who knows when Thursday will be Monday until 3:00 p.m.? Number two: Take the courage to ask questions. Questions, rather than correct answers, are often the best route to knowledge. Number three: Remember that the only difference between a crisis and an adventure is the way you look at it. As I was reading Al Gore’s book, The Assault on Reason, I learned that the written Chinese word for “crisis” is made up of two characters: danger, then opportunity. I like that—out of danger comes opportunity.
Finally to begin the new year, I should like to read a short poem written in Sanskrit by a fifth-century Indian poet named Kalidasa. It goes as follows:
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life
In its brief course lie all the verities
and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope
Look well, therefore, to this day.
Happy beginning of school!