The following is the transcript of the Head of School's 2019 convocation speech:
Welcome to our convocation for the 2019-2020 school year at Vermont Academy. It is very exciting to be launching this year and to be looking at a new decade, beginning with 2020.
In seven years, our school will celebrate its 150-year anniversary. And what a strong history this small school has written. For almost 150 years we’ve nurtured confident, inspired, and ambitious learners who have become leaders. I want to start celebrating this upcoming anniversary now and every year you are here. And in seven years I want you to be excited about returning to this campus to claim your place in our history, and to let us celebrate all that you have become.
And trust me, we will have some fireworks then!
Today, the most important thing that we celebrate is the set of values that bind us to one another, that enrich our respectful relationships, and that teach all of us the meaning of citizenship. The Latin word, Civitas, has the same root as “city”, and the idea is that citizenship embraces, in our case, the village. To be a community, as you know from your history classes, you need the ties that bind, you need a social contract.
Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau debated about the innate goodness in human beings. Are we good because we check each other’s bad behavior? Or are we good in nature with its enriching influences on us? Or are we just innately good? they all agreed that living by a code of ethics and a set of moral laws was beneficial to the strengthening of relationships.
On the day you registered for your classes I spoke of opposing voices. Sometimes an opposing voice can be used to spotlight a problem, like when Greta Thunberg asked if the adults weren’t “mature” enough to speak of the climate crisis she sees us facing. Let me share some of a poem by Mary Oliver—a poet from New England known for her gentle descriptions of nature. In her poem “Of the Empire,” she uses an opposing voice to shine a spotlight on what her generation, and my generation, might be known for:
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.
All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
…they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
These are tough words to hear today. Are they true today? What would you think if I told you they were written over a decade ago?
Is this how you want your culture to be known?
It is not the culture of Vermont Academy. Our little “polis,” as the Greeks would say—or village—abides by the Core Beliefs that stand at the heart of our relationships with one another. Each belief builds a community that each one of us can be proud of. I will read them, and please think about each one and how you will embrace them as a whole as a credo or Creed:
Each member of the Vermont Academy community:
- Is important, has worth and dignity, and is viewed as an asset;
- Acts with the highest level of honesty and integrity;
- Will grow and develop, and is given every opportunity to do so here;
- Seeks and gives help when appropriate;
- Strives to achieve higher standards in the pursuit of personal excellence;
- Cultivates strengths and seeks to overcome challenges;
- Embraces personal and direct interaction to address issues and resolve differences;
- Considers the impact of their actions, on both the immediate and world community, for the benefit of present and future generations
We are thus caretakers of ourselves, and one another, and in doing so, we preserve the fabric of community, “the whole” body of who we are as one.
My youngest son spent many years rowing on his boarding school crew team and at the Naval Academy, and he still rows on a men’s team in New Orleans. If you have ever rowed in a crew boat before, and I have, you seek a community that occurs when you are no longer rowing as individuals, but you feel that “click” when the boat is in such unity that it takes off down the river as if one person were rowing, not 4 or 8. There is a spiritual feeling in that moment.
That is what I like to imagine we achieve here. This does not mean that we do not make mistakes, that you will always act consistent with our core beliefs, or that you will not be held accountable, but it means that when you wander off course we will catch you in a collective embrace. We will bring you back in a teaching moment and with discipline.
In all that you do this year, be a good citizen, look out for your health and wellbeing and those of your classmates and peers. Let us take care of one another, and find comfort in the trust that the Core Beliefs stand behind all that we do and believe.