2018–19 Convocation Remarks: Faculty Speaker Sarah Yeh, Dean of Faculty - Concord Academy

On September 4, Dean of Faculty Sarah Yeh delivered the following Convocation remarks in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel. Read about the full Convocation program here.

Ten years ago, like many of you today, I was sitting here in the Chapel for my first CA Convocation. I had recently relocated from New York, and that morning I had just rushed over from dropping off my 2-year-old for the first time at her new nursery school. I was sitting in the balcony, determined to look calm, cool, and collected amongst my new colleagues. But despite the tumult of nerves and emotions, I felt a sense of peace as I sat in this building, and not because it was called The Chapel. While many things about CA felt new, there was something familiar and comforting about this building.

I grew up in different places, but my mother’s childhood was here. She would often bring us to visit Concord, and she enjoyed smiling nostalgically and saying, “you know, the grass is greener and the sky is bluer in Concord.” She took us to historical re-enactments at the North Bridge, to which I attribute some of my early love of history. [Tip number one for new folks: take a walk or a run over the North Bridge in the autumn as the leaves are changing, or on a crisp April morning as the mist rises from the river — it is magical, and the past will speak to you.] We would go on a canoe ride to Egg Rock, the old Musketaquid trading spot where the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers meet to form the Concord River just to the east of CA. [Tip number 2: CA has canoes! Before the weather turns cold, find some friends and a willing chaperone, and take to the canoes!]

But above all, whenever we visited Concord she would take us on a walk around the Concord Academy campus, where she spent her seventh- through ninth-grade years (CA had the lower grades in the 1950s and ’60s). She particularly liked to tell us the story of the Chapel, how then headmistress Mrs. Hall, with some of her CA colleagues, visited an old Baptist meetinghouse in New Hampshire, purchased it (with $1,500 of Mrs. Hall’s own money), and themselves took it apart board by board, shipped it to Concord, and then reassembled it (with the help of students!) piece by piece in the garden behind the school; how the students carved the passage from Corinthians for the front of the chapel, with each girl taking on a particular letter so that all the A’s would look the same and all the B’s, and so forth. She described how Mrs. Hall defied the “finishing-school” era and inspired young women to take charge of their lives and futures. My eye-rolling tween self didn’t always understand my mother’s attachment to and admiration for this place, and yet I could tell it was keenly felt. She would describe her favorite teacher of all time, Sylvia Mendenhall (remember that name — I’ll be coming back to it), and would tell me “Concord Academy was the best educational experience of my life.”

That had stuck with me over the years, and so when my husband and I decided to move to Massachusetts and I saw a history opening at Concord Academy, I decided I needed to check out this mythical institution for myself and applied for the job. And thus, I landed, in the balcony, missing my daughter, wondering if I’d made the right choice, calming my nerves by breathing in deeply and taking in the history of the old beams surrounding me. The convocation speaker that day was Bill Bailey, revered history teacher emeritus, and while I won’t recreate his remarks here, he spoke about his memories of the school’s and the students’ commitment to tolerance and social justice — breaking down barriers to educational access, founding one of the first GSA’s in the country, protesting apartheid, and standing behind a student who became pregnant, encouraging her to remain a CA student, give her senior chapel, and graduate with her class. I knew then I had come to the right place.

Later, I made my way to the faculty-staff room, probably to check my mail or photocopy something. There I encountered a small woman with a shock of white hair and smiling eyes. “Hello!” she greeted me. “Are you new? I’m Sylvia Mendenhall.” You can imagine my surprise and delight at discovering that my mother’s favorite teacher was still here after all those years, tutoring at CA well into her 80s, long after her so-called retirement. But that is CA for you, and that was Sylvia.

Sylvia watched this school evolve over 60 years in her role as English teacher, administrator, and tutor, and we had many wonderful chats about teaching. I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk to her about administrating! We especially enjoyed talking about the history of CA when I was teaching a course on the archives. Sylvia was deeply proud of CA as an institution, but she refused to look at the school through rose-colored glasses. She was happy to tell you when CA had gotten it right and when CA had gotten it wrong, where CA had been a trailblazer, and where CA should have moved faster. But even where she saw warts, Sylvia loved CA — she loved its mission, its community, and its people. Sylvia did not expect perfection from this place. She knew we are all a work in progress, from administrators to faculty and staff, to students, down to the campus child having a tantrum in the Stu-Fac (yes, new students, I’m sorry to say, you will likely see that before long). In that sense she taught me too, all those years later. In looking at the carving to my right, Sylvia, I think, would encourage us in our time at CA to remember the journey, and to be patient and to be kind with one another as we all work to become our best selves.

When she passed away two years ago, Sylvia Mendenhall left her Chelmsford, Mass., home to Concord Academy because she believed so much in this place. That selfless gift helped make possible some of the amazing renovations to CA Houses that you’ve been seeing upon your arrival to campus, and her generosity is helping support the vibrant, diverse community she believed was central to CA’s future. There are wonderful plans in the works to honor Sylvia later this fall for her long dedication and commitment to Concord Academy, though knowing Sylvia, I’m sure she would say it was just all in a good day’s work.

You will find your own Sylvias in your time here — of that I am sure. I see them every day, and it’s the reason I’m humbled to work as the dean of faculty. I’ve had no shortage of mentors here myself, from the senior faculty members who always checked in on me at lunch, inspired me, and made me laugh, to the colleagues who seem to know just the right moment to write a note or offer words of support, to the colleague who helped me through a difficult decision when she said, “Honestly, I think it’s pretty clear to me that you know what you want to do.” She didn’t tell me what that was, but when I stopped to think about her words, I realized she was right. Know that the faculty and staff of CA are here for you, eager to help you learn and to grow, and to help you up if you stumble. We will listen, and we will learn. And so will the friends around you.

I have spent many mornings up in that balcony, marveling at this space and the community that inhabits it, the voices that fill it, the trust speakers put in us as they deliver their chapels, and the trust we who listen put in them in turn to take us on their journey. I love to sit and think about what these walls and beams have seen — in 1800s New Hampshire, and in the 60-some years that they’ve been in this place — moments of profound joy, moments of deep sorrow, acts of bravery, and endless peals of laughter. We are all now part of the chorus, and there is no place else I would rather begin another school year.

Sylvia closed her Convocation address with advice for the CA community, and since I don’t think I could put it better, I’m going to share hers with you:

“Number one: Expect the unexpected. You have no idea your first year how many unexpected moments exist in the dailiness of CA.

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.”

I wish you all a healthy, Sylvia-style crisis during your time at CA — know that the people within these walls stand ready to help you on the adventure. Happy September!