Inside the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel this morning, the ringing of the bell could barely be heard above the excited chatter of students and adults as they gathered to open Concord Academy’s 95th school year. A morning drizzle, welcome after this summer’s drought, did little to dampen spirits. Following a piano prelude from Katie Painter ’19, Head of School Rick Hardy heartily welcomed everyone assembled: trustees, distinguished former faculty, current faculty and staff, students, and especially the 110 newest members of the community — 102 new students and eight new faculty members. “You will help us to remember that schools at their core are about embracing the unknown,” he said, “about reaching toward, not turning away from, the future.”
As Hardy noted, 60 years ago on the opening day of school, the Chapel was in the process of being reassembled in its current location after a former existence as a Baptist meeting house in New Hampshire. The building continues to be the heart of CA, “a house of stories,” as a former colleague once put it. “Thus Concord Academy is a community of stories — each one essential, each one linking us with one another, each one helping to shape the collective narrative of the school,” Hardy said. His advice to students, including members of the class of 2017, who have already heard more than 200 chapel talks: “to listen very closely, to take in the stories that are shared here, knowing that you too will have an opportunity to answer the questions, ‘Who am I, and what is my story?’”
Kim Williams P’08, ’14, president of Concord Academy’s Board of Trustees, remarked on the particular excitement, energy, and sense of anticipation that attended the opening of this school year and the completion of the new CA Labs science building. “The opportunities for this inspiring structure are boundless in the hands of the imaginative, engaged faculty and students,” she said. Like Hardy, she urged students to embrace the unknown. “CA acknowledges that each student is an individual with unique talents to be fostered. Be prepared to challenge the way that you learn,” she said. “Explore your passions and discover new ones. Find what gives you fulfillment and be tenacious in your pursuit of that endeavor. Create your own path. Stretch yourselves. Challenge yourselves to take risks and try new things without prejudice.”
In her remarks, Mary Craig ’17, student head of school, also noted the transformation of the campus over the summer. “Walking onto campus, with the center of it completely redone, it feels like a totally different place,” she said, “but sitting here in the Chapel, I’m reminded that it is the exact same home I left in May.” Craig arrived sobered by a summer filled with acts of violence and public talk of exclusion, both in the U.S. and around the world, but she pinpointed their origins in “the desire to create divides” and remarked that given the school’s commitment to the ideals of common trust and diversity, “walls will only exist in our community if we create them ourselves.” Expressing her support of the student body, along with the advocacy roles of other members of the student council, she advised her fellow students, “Don’t feel the need to define yourself; rather, think about the ways in which you can grow and change each day.”
Faculty speaker Jenny Chandler, history teacher and dean of faculty, then reflected on personal experiences that had taught her enduring lessons about listening and relating to others. From a childhood call from a friend asking what gifts she’d received for Christmas — and realizing, after her mother’s prompting that she hadn’t asked the same in return — she learned that “often the question we are asked is the one the other person would like to answer.” Taking inspiration from Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, called “A Summer to Make Mistakes,” she asked the CA community to imagine reframing the school year as a year to make mistakes. “By releasing ourselves to that idea, we’d be a bit less guarded and worried,” she said. “And perhaps we’d realize too that what we see as mistakes are actually perceptions we have created or misunderstandings given a lack of clarity, a bias, ignorance, or the failure to ask a question.” We will all make mistakes, she mused, but we can do so in a place where risk-taking is encouraged. And while CA faculty have much practice in supporting students in taking academic risks, we all, Chandler suggested, could better practice patience and kindness “when others misspeak, misstep, disappoint, or confuse us.”
Admitting she had initially misheard the lyrics to a Hamilton song — as You will come of age without your nation rather than with our young nation — Chandler wondered whether any CA students are coming of age without feeling and experiencing the full support of the school. “I am far more conscious now of what I may have taken for granted in the past and where I can and should be more fully aware,” she said — from the act of listening for the correct pronunciation of a name, to asking about pronoun preference and consciously working to see beyond impressions formed by limited information or false assumptions. “Don’t be afraid,” she advised. “We all want to be known.
Convocation concluded with the CA Chorus leading the assembly in the school song, Concord, Concord. Then the students lead the community out of the Chapel and into the new school year.
Read faculty speaker Jenny Chandler’s full remarks below.
When I introduced myself to the CA faculty four years ago last June, I shared a story from my childhood. It was Christmas Day, perhaps 1970. My best friend and neighbor, Mercedes, called me. She asked what I’d gotten for Christmas. I cannot remember what I got that day, but I do remember what my mother said soon after I hung up the phone. My mother called up, “Who was that?” I yelled back, “Mercedes. She wanted to know what I got for Christmas.” My mother asked, “What did she get?” I paused, realizing that I did not know. My mother added, “She called you because she wanted to tell you what she got.” I called her back and Mercedes told me about her new banana bike. It was a great bike and I loved riding it. Mercedes and I reconnected by LinkedIn and then phone two years ago, after over forty years. We had last seen one another when I was 11 and she was 12. I told her the story about the Christmas call and how I had referenced it from time to time over the years. It has served as a lasting lesson from my mother — albeit with a bit of shaming — and I have used it as a reminder about extending ourselves to others and appreciating that often the question we are asked is one that the other person would like to answer. It can be as simple as “How was your summer?” And as complex as, “Are you doing okay?” “How was your summer?” “And how are you doing?”
Mercedes and I, now adults in our 50s, talked about that wonderful and memorable banana bike. After a bit, Mercedes added — perhaps addressing and protecting her 11-year old friend, the only image she held of me until we saw one another this summer — “I am sure I just called to ask you what you got.” And with that, the narrative had suddenly changed. Perhaps what I had thought for years was a selfish omission — the question “What did you get?” — was not and had never been at play. I was a bit disappointed. The lesson my mother had taught me that day has stayed with me for decades and has compelled me to ask many questions and I am grateful for the good sense to do that and the answers I have gotten in return.
Just last week, the author Curtis Sittenfeld wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “A Summer to Make Mistakes.” She opened with, “I worried constantly about making mistakes, which, it turned out, did not prevent them.” She then went on to recount her short stint as a journalist with The Charlotte Observer, begun soon after she had graduated from Vassar. Imagine reframing the school year with that goal — “a year to make mistakes.” And by releasing ourselves to that idea, we’d be a bit less guarded and worried. And perhaps we’d realize too that what we see as mistakes are actually perceptions we have created or misunderstandings given a lack of clarity, a bias, ignorance, or the failure to ask a question. We will make mistakes — all of us — and, yes, some mistakes have consequences. Thankfully, we are in a place where risk taking and the execution of ideas occur all of the time. We support, look for, and foster untested possibilities in the classroom, and while we are practiced in accepting and seeing value in the lessons learned from academic risks — excited and informed by unexpected outcomes — we are often less able to extend a similar patience, kindness, or measured response when others misspeak, misstep, disappoint, or confuse us.
The New York Times conceded to a serious mistake in early July when — after 36 years — it properly identified and bid farewell to Vernon Kroening, a victim of a 1980 shooting at a gay bar in New York’s West Village. Some have characterized it as one of the most thoughtful and heartfelt apologies ever written by this venerable institution. “Prejudice and institutional reticence,” wrote journalist David Dunlap, “held the New York Times back from giving faces to these victims and telling their stories at the time, as it did with those who were killed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June.” As much as the New York Times can now write to correct the wrong it committed by not properly identifying Mr. Kroening because of the circumstances of his death — what we now know to be a hate crime — and the assumptions made about him, it does not entirely erase the pain felt by his partner, friends, family, and the other parishioners at the Catholic church where he was the beloved music director. But the acknowledgment helps.
Last year, in an early chapel, we heard this statement for the first time: “We like to think that we are safe in the CA bubble, that because we exist in a socially conscious community, or at least one that attempts to be, we’re exempt from discrimination, but sometimes the bubble is just as destructive as the outside world.” When I first heard this, I felt pride. I was pleased that a student felt confident sharing these important, poignant, and deeply personal words. As I heard the words repeated, at chapels throughout the year, I began to feel some shame. Never fatigue or frustration, but shame. Students were wounded. And I had a hand in it, whether by extension or directly. It is something I have thought about a lot and I know that I am not alone in the desire to keep the conversation going in support of this work, and not to allow it to take on a status of that’s all over or best to leave it behind in 2015-16.
I made a silly mistake this summer, repeatedly, in a thread I created stemming from the student words I just shared. Thanks to Spotify, I have happily listened to the sound track to Hamilton hundreds of times. I will never see Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo live as Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler, but that does not keep me from loving the music and appreciating the story. In their lullaby duet to their children Theodosia and Philip, Burr and Hamilton share these words: “You will come of age with our young nation.” Until I looked up the lyrics a few weeks ago, I heard this line as “you will come of age without your nation.” That confused me a bit, but it also fit in nicely with my thoughts about how this nation is failing many and how some children are coming of age without their nation. Certainly not the nation that Burr and Hamilton imaged for their children in Miranda’s lyrics:
You will come of age with our young nation
We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you
If we lay a strong enough foundation
We’ll pass it on to you, and we’ll give the world to you
As I threaded together the misheard lyrics with the repeated phrase shared at senior chapels, while simultaneously considering the range of student experiences at CA, a question surfaced. Are any of our students coming of age without feeling and experiencing the full support of their school? I could talk at length about how–to varying degrees–this is true of any school experience. Adolescence is complex and it would not serve anyone well to have an uncomplicated, all-needs-met, bubble-encased, idyllic four years of high school. But I am far more conscious now of what I may have taken for granted in the past and where I can and should be more fully aware. And I know this is true for the other adults here. Taking liberties with Eliza Schuyler’s perspective as she sings an equally moving song, That Would be Enough, “I don’t pretend to know the challenges you’re facing… But I’m not afraid.” We are not afraid.
When she spoke about the topic of bias with the faculty last year, Dr. Paula Chu reminded us that the simple act of taking time to get to know someone is fundamental to breaking down barriers, dispelling misunderstandings, and reframing assumptions. As is true for every new year, we have an opportunity to get to know one another — whether you are new to the school or returning from a summer or term away. The act of listening for the correct pronunciation of a name, to asking about pronoun preference, and consciously working to see beyond impressions garnered by limited information and false assumptions are such simple and important gestures. Particularly as we begin a new year. And don’t be afraid. We all want to be known. I was thinking about asking everyone at this point to turn to someone next to you to introduce yourselves, but I will spare you that awkwardness and share the same idea via one last story.
While visiting my Dad — 93 years old yesterday — a few weeks ago, I paused at the entrance to his new home, an assisted living facility, to greet Mrs. Hanson. A larger-than-life figure from my childhood who has begun to suffer from the memory loss and cognitive changes we know as Alzheimer’s — the disease that caused my own mother to disappear over the course of ten years until her passing in 2008. “Hello, Dorothea,” I said leaning into that familiar and wise face. “It’s Jenny.” “Oh, yes, hello Jenny,” she responded, “I know it’s you.” I shared my name with Dorothea not because of her diminished state, but because I am conditioned to extend this courtesy to anyone who knew me as child. I am a twin. An identical twin. And I like to make it easier for folks who often and rightfully confused Pat with Jenny, and Jenny with Pat. And may still, all these decades later. This habit has become a routine for me, whether I am meeting someone for the first time or the third, whether they know me as a twin or not. I don’t always remember people’s names, even when I have met them before, and I assume this is true for others. And whether or not you believe in the CA bubble, knowing one another and caring enough to get to know someone, even if just by name, is fundamental to living and learning in this community. As those of you who are new to this community will soon learn, seniors end their chapels with the sign-off, my name is …. I love that tradition. Listen for it.
As you head out in just a bit, to greet friends and meet with your advisor before moving on to your first class, let me take a shot at leaving this tune, these words in your head … again, Eliza Schuyler:
Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now
Look around, look around …
Welcome to academic year 2016-17! Here’s to a great year for each and all of us!