Vermont Academy Convocation Address, September 2017

Dr. Jennifer L. Zaccara
Good evening. Here we are at last. This is our school, our students, faculty, administrators, staff. This room is not that old, but it will have a rich history over time.

There is something like sacred space in any meeting house, and this is a meeting house. The origins of the meeting house idea in England and in New England were religious, and they had to do with a style of gathering for worship—a kind of open, representative style. As time has gone on, the idea of a meeting house has shifted and lost its religious nature only to gain an identity about community, equality, the importance of public discourse, the celebration of the individual, the team, and a common purpose.

Community meeting has always been important at Vermont Academy, and it is something that connects us all—where we invite the voices and personalities that make our abundant community to express their views and share their talents, humor, successes and failures. What I want to ask now is that we consider this space as a space on which to ground our future. This specific space, perhaps above all others, in Horowitz in our meeting house, otherwise known as our auditorium, is a place I want everyone to see as a place of old-fashioned gathering, New England-style.

There are times that we will focus inward on our own community, and others in which we will invite our neighbors and our citizens in the state of Vermont to come here to debate and share ideas. Perhaps we will also have ideas festivals as they do in Aspen, and branch out to take on big questions. For if we do not learn soon the art of compromise, then the very underpinnings of this social fabric, this democracy, this great idea of America will begin to change, and something crucial will be lost. So here in our meeting house, in our public space, we can begin to understand while continuing to hold different views.

In the introduction to the student handbook, I offered up the idea that our school is like a polis, an ideal of community and government, bound by a set of rules designed to help us to live and thrive together. Your role in the success of this enterprise is crucial. In order to live the idea of being student-centered and make it daily practice, we can continue doing all of the things that make Vermont Academy great, but we also need to add a few new ones related to greater equity and then also to having students play a larger role in the topics and matters at hand.

I would like us to consider having students in some of the administrative meetings, in department meetings, and even in board meetings. Not just reporting out about student affairs, but bringing ideas to the table, and experiencing leadership. What I have in mind here is that department heads will invite students to one meeting they have every trimester, that student leaders will be in one administrative team meeting every trimester, that students will be given board meeting time for every board meeting. So students, start thinking about what you want to say.

If we do this, sure, you will ask about privileges and freedoms and things you might want, but you will also begin to think about our great enterprise here, the polis, and even this meeting house. What can this look like? What will you bring to the table? Do you want us to take time away from our studies to discuss the events in Charlottesville, the realities of life in Houston and its environs in the storm aftermath, how we work and serve in our community and state or the world, what you would like to see for courses of study or apprenticeships or other academic opportunities. What ideas will you bring to the table? I can’t wait to hear.

I am going to make the head’s office in Leavitt House my place of work on Fridays, and the door to the side porch will be open. Knock and enter. Settle down near the fireplace and tell me your thoughts—adults and students—all are welcome in the morning from 8:30 to noon. In the afternoon, I will work there as well on bigger picture, strategic plans so that I do not lose them in the day to day needs of our community. On most Saturdays, I will be in my office in Fuller as well until noon. That door is also always open to you. I moved my office to the old Business Office so that I could see students, so that I was easily accessible and to remove what might have been an intimidating walk from the hallway through the living room to the old head of school’s office.

This is a new era, and I want no one to be intimidated or anxious entering my office. While you will find it easy to speak to me, you will also find that I have high standards, that I am upholding and raising up the reputation of this school, that I am committed to the rules that bind our community together in agreement about what it means to be well, to be a person of character, to learn to discipline your mind and body so that your spirit can be free. This is a complex idea but I believe a true one: the more we discipline our minds and bodies, the greater spiritual freedom we will access. If you are not disciplined, you will feel caught, and spiritually empty, and you might see the world in futile terms. We can all teach you a better life here!

The wellness of our community is front and center for me, and I am personally going to start modeling the kind of self-care that I know will bring about a better quality of life than the one I cherished yesterday or the day before. So you will find me open and honest and transparent and interested and a good listener, but you will also find me dedicated to the foundation on which our community rests—its rules, its agreements, its expectations of character. Every Vermont Academy student and teacher, every staff member and administrator should hold his or her head high because we have created something great here, and there will be more to come.

Yesterday, I stepped off campus and took two students to the Vermont Country Store and for a walk around Bellow Falls. In the bookstore there in town, I found a book with an intriguing title: The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World. I am always a little skeptical but ready to jump into a new conversation or idea. Could this be true? Is it scientific fact that trees communicate?

Why do I mention this now, and to you? I want to close with an image from this book that I think relates deeply to the idea of community, to the meeting house concept, to the vast forest that surrounds our precious school, nestled on a knoll in Saxtons River. Here is an excerpt from this interesting book:

“[I]t makes sense to ask whether tree roots are simply wandering around aimlessly underground and connecting up when they happen to bump into roots of their own kind. Once connected, they have no choice but to exchange nutrients. They create what looks like a social network, but what they are experiencing is nothing more than a purely accidental give and take….But Nature is more complicated than that. According to Massimo Maffei from the University of Turin, plants—and that includes trees—are perfectly capable of distinguishing their own roots from the roots of other species and even from the roots of related individuals. But why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water and generates a great deal of humidity… Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth [sustaining]. Every tree is a member of this community… Trees communicate by scent but also by sound. Scientists have started listening to trees, and “it didn’t take them long to discover that their measuring apparatus was registering roots crackling quietly at a frequency of 220 hertz. Crackling roots? That doesn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, even dead wood cracks when it’s burned in a stove. But the noises discovered in the laboratory caused the researchers to sit up and pay attention. For the roots of seedlings not directly involved in the experiment reacted. Whenever the seedlings’ roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz they oriented their tips in that direction. That means the grasses were registering this frequency, so it makes sense to say they ‘hear.’ Plants communicating by means of sound waves? That makes me curious to know more, because people also communicate using sound waves. …if you hear a light crackling the next time you take a walk in the forest, perhaps it won’t be just the wind….and you can know that our environment is speaking, and that it is modeling an interconnectedness of individual trees in community with one another, supporting and encouraging and thriving together. There is a whole system of interconnectedness on the surface and underneath a forest.”

It is true for us as well, and differentiation makes for the survival and health of the whole. Let this be true of the friendships you make, of the support you give, of the way you take care to listen to one another.

Welcome to Vermont Academy’s 2017-2018 year, and to a new era, deeply rooted in the past and strategically aimed to a future that will MAP the path for what a school can be in a new age. You too are the designers, and I celebrate your participation in this great society we have and treasure.

Thank you.