By Fredric Chandler, Head of Lower School
I began the year promoting four themes for our faculty and Lower School boys, currents I returned to again and again throughout the year in different ways. Inspired, in part, by conversations last summer with alumni, colleagues, and Mr. Wilson, I looked for ways for us to push against cultural threads anathema to the Mission of our school. In different manifestations throughout the 2017-2018 year, through these themes we sought to guide the boys and each other toward a greater good, collectively advancing with the God-given sparks of life inside us to bring forth greater light for the community.
I asked us to slow down, seeking patience and reflection and gratitude for the moments we have. Frustrated or elated, we need to recognize the blessings of our time together.
I challenged us to reach out, offering a hand or asking for a hand. Human contact—and the desire to connect—can enable us to get past challenges and help us to help others with their own.
I prodded the boys and each of us to seek our best selves, examining our own actions and taking responsibility for them. Is each of us proud of who he or she is and how each comports him or herself during our days?
I reminded them to reckon with Mr. Wilson’s opening-of-school question about what type of city—or school—we wish to build here, urging our community to set high expectations for the type of family we wish to be. It’s up to us each day to decide who we aspire to be.
Four themes I proffered, and while simply understood, they aren’t easily adopted nor practiced. Human beings being what they are, and adolescent boys being who they are, find competing choices readily available. Nonetheless, we set the bar high, and reached daily to find our capacity. The main vector we followed to keep focused on the four themes was centered upon relationships. In small and large ways, we found success in building relationships—so key relationships are in working with boys and in building trust and happiness in communities—this year, which allowed us to rise better toward realizing our themes.
Our Study Buddy program that connects Form II students with C Formers was reinvigorated this year. For one example of creating bonds between our oldest boys and youngest ones, the C Form and Form II teachers coordinated a Field Day preparation regimen, training sessions to prepare the younger boys for not just proper technique for the events involved in our May celebration, but also to reduce their anxiety and pressure around the competition and to bolster camaraderie. Honors math students in Form II were part of a rotation of math tutors that regularly visited the after-school Program in Forms C, B, and A to help boys with math struggles. C Form and Form II also were connected in their efforts with a Bingo event on our Diversity Day for senior citizens who came to visit us in the Refectory.
In structural ways, too, we initiated similar emphases. We strove to address relationships in the sometimes-thorny area of student discipline. We revamped our disciplinary process to increase Form Master and advisor involvement in early stages of addressing breaches of comportment and honor. Having adults closest to the boys engage with them and their families were attempts to foment greater traction with boys who headed down tricky pathways. Even among faculty, we applied attention to relationships in our own meetings. A series of faculty-directed book groups were highlights this year as the adults gathered together in small groups, broke bread, and discussed ideas of all sorts. Finally, a major academic thrust of our professional development beyond the completion of the school-wide curriculum review was a look at the notion of rigor in the Lower School. Avoiding the tangle of the topic of homework, we looked instead at lesson planning and assessment as facets of school life that directly impact boys’ long–term experiences here. We examined ways in which boys are best and most fully challenged at school and how to assess them in their learning in the most lasting manner.
Our four themes—slow down; reach out; be your best self; define the type of city we wish to build—and our focus on strengthening relationships to help us address those themes found reflective voice powerfully in our Chapels this year. I highlight several examples from a wonderful slate of talks:
Mr. Brown, A Form math teacher, spoke about food and meal preparation as a means to create joy, conversation, and community. Ms. Castellanos Evans, Dean of Student Affairs and Spanish teacher, talked about the potency of family and how vital families—both ones born into and ones affiliated with like schools—are to our healthy identity. Dr. Viola, Academic Dean, asked us to run toward pain—not to avoid it. Struggle and discomfort can teach us much. Mrs. Continetti, A Form history teacher, reminded us that God never loses faith in us; God never leaves us alone. Mr. Martone, a Lower and Upper School French teacher, talked about resisting the lure of revenge. Mr. Wilson, in his final Chapel with us, questioned our purpose in life, challenging the notion that happiness is the greatest goal; rather, he suggested, we should aim for lives of purposefulness and joy.
Our Form II boys also spoke from the pulpit in unique and edifying ways. Nicholas Pittman pushed us to investigate the responsibilities (not just the privileges) of brotherhood. Joseph Laroski investigated the parable of the Prodigal Son. Scott Holland pointed out the dangers of bending God to our own purposes. William Barbee poignantly recalled the struggles of being a new Form I student the year previous. Finally, Fletcher Shaw honored the memory of his Aunt, who sadly passed away far too young. The instances I cite above from the palette of boys’ talks and our faculty meditations cultivated thinking, provoked discussion, created healthy vulnerabilities, and fomented community. We came to know each other more deeply. As such, relationships burgeoned here, too, and bonds meandered from the Little Sanctuary, into the Refectory and hallways, and beyond.
Two of my Chapel talks last year attempted to reflect the same spirit as well as to face some larger cultural moments. One I list here from November involved an experience from the summer with my own bias and prejudice. I recounted a tale whereby I interacted with an African American man while out for walk and made unfair assumptions rooted, I think, in deeply placed bias. While I assumed I was simply being street smart in dismissing a stranger on a sidewalk, it wasn’t me being my best self. I trusted the community to use my example as a means to recognize similar pre-judgements we make frequently and without thinking. The other I offered in December I will highlight regarded the issue of harassment by men toward women. In the Little Sanctuary I discussed the lack of agency women have not just historically faced, but also the lack of power they still confront today. Avoiding the direct headlines from the winter months, my Chapel talk provided multi-session discussions in Forms I and II advisories and a follow-up town meeting address from me. The lower forms had discussions, too, which focused in age-appropriate ways on complementary topics.
This year, of course, featured daily struggles, frustrations, achievements, and joyfulness in practical, readily identifiable iterations. To name a few, I point to outstanding performances on the stage in Robin Hood and the Singing Nun, Around the World in Eight Plays, and outstanding musicianship in vocal and orchestral demonstrations on and off the Close; a committee of Form II boys’ participation in a diversity conference at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes’s school; C Formers making sandwiches throughout the year for Martha’s Table; B Form’s visit to the Walters Art Museum; William T. Fauntroy’s, a Tuskegee Airman, address at Assembly; Author Jason Reynold’s rap-based assembly; seminal victories by our math team and cross country team; a long-sought Blue Team win at Field Day, Form I’s trip to Baltimore to see Fort McHenry and the American Visionary Art Museum ; and the wonderfully engaged A Form book groups. All of this happened in and around demanding academic days for the boys. Our Bulldogs are busy, and they respond exceptionally with their intellect and spirit. I’m proud of them and the teachers who guide them.
Yet I’ve used my prose here mostly to convey the work we do to build our community and to give the boys a strong sense of how to create and sustain a healthy brotherhood, a cohort that isn’t satisfied with being tribal, but instead a brotherhood that gains strength from the way it points outward and brings others into the fold. It is hard work these days. Society and its technological and material advances push our young men around. We must push back. Our themes offered here and at the school broadly are timeless. Healthy relationship building grows better young men, and we should always look beyond ourselves and daily matters--even as they are important. St. Albans is at its best, I believe, when we take boys out of themselves. Our faculty loves the boys, and how they engage, support, and challenge them amazes me. What new ways can we find to further this work in the coming year? The school’s foundation provides such gravity and simplicity truly to cultivate our boys in the best ways. It is our task—joyful, never evenly executed—to seek fresh forays into tilling the souls and minds of the boys.