By Ben Labaree, Head of Upper School
It is of course risky to identify a single moment as the highlight of an entire academic year. That is particularly true of life at St. Albans, where the remarkable can sometimes seem routine. Yet I think there may have been just such a moment this past February on Valentine’s Day, when Hamse Abi, our 2016-2017 ASSIST student, was the featured assembly speaker.
Founded in 1969, the ASSIST program places international students for a year of study in a wide variety of leading private schools. St. Albans has been participating in the ASSIST program since 2006, and we have had boys from China, Spain, and Vietnam among other nations. Hamse’s story (which you can read much more about in the spring 2017 edition of The Bulletin) is a moving testament to courage and willpower as he single-handedly gained entrance to Somaliland’s Abaarso School of Science and Technology, where he coordinated the school’s tutoring program and maintained its wind turbine. Hamse gave a riveting talk about his life in Somaliland and the enormous challenges facing young Somalis in search of quality education. The Class of 2017 later gave him a standing ovation at Prize Day when Headmaster Wilson announced that Hamse was the winner of the Parents’ Association Citizenship Award. Over the course the year, it was astonishing to see how the presence of one boy could affect the lives of so many others.
A particularly volatile presidential election campaign served as the backdrop for a captivating—and hugely popular—Headmaster’s Lecture Series featuring prominent pollsters who spoke to the boys about their craft and the dynamics before, during, and after the 2016 election. Peter Hart came to school in late October and regaled the boys with his humor and authoritative tour of current political trends. Like most other pollsters, he was highly confident in predicting a Clinton victory. Donald Trump’s unexpected victory made the subsequent appearances by pollsters Whit Ayers, Amy Leveton, Mark Mellman, and Ed Goeas equally fascinating as they offered opinions about why most in their trade had called it wrong.
In the classrooms, on the fields, and on the stage, the first semester featured the annual array of impressive performances. One of my favorite moments of the fall is the October reception for the Parents’ Association Summer Visual Arts Fellowship recipients, who unveil their work and offer remarks. Eight boys spoke about projects ranging from painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to drone cinematography. The Independent School Choral Festival and the Upper School fall concert—both held in the Cathedral—were once again splendid events. Trapier was home to the joint NCS-St. Albans production of Love and Information. St. Albans athletes brought home IAC titles in cross-country and soccer in the second year of our magnificent new playing fields. Toward the end of the semester, the founder of the D.C.-based Dreamers Program, Steve Bumbaugh, screened portions of his moving film “Southeast 67” and then took questions from the boys about his tireless efforts to provide Washington, D.C., high school students a path toward graduation and access to a college education.
There were also any number of less public, but equally noteworthy moments in various pockets of school life. One featured a return visit by an alumnus and art history scholar who visited Dr. Shurmer’s Asian History Seminar to discuss the history of Chinese and Japanese modern art. The ever-popular Metallurgy Day allowed boys to forge nails, press cider, and ponder some of the challenges of colonial life. Guest artist Freya Grand spoke to studio art students about her works that capture the drama of places like the coast of Ireland and Hawaiian volcanoes. One day, as I walked by Dr. Schofer’s fall Number Theory class, I heard and then saw excitement as the boys competed with each other to predict the contents of a digraph chart showing which two letters most commonly appear next to each other in the English language. It is little wonder, then, that the boys go home at night full of stories about the richness of the day.
Highlights of the second semester included the first IAC hockey banner in school history and a rousing production of the Tony Award-winning 42nd Street in Trapier Theater. The varsity basketball team finished its third consecutive winning season, won the Rock Holiday Classic in Florida, and prevailed over Episcopal on senior night. The varsity swim team compiled an impressive 11-1 dual meet record, finished second in the IACs, and fifth out of twenty teams at the Washington Metropolitan Prep School Swim Dive League championships. It was a fitting conclusion to Coach Rob Green’s remarkable career. Meanwhile, our wrestlers had a fine season under retiring head coach Doug Boswell. Between the two of them, Coach Green and Coach Boswell contributed sixty years of coaching and impeccable good citizenship to St. Albans.
In mid-April, St. Albans hosted a Gender and Sexuality Awareness Summit. The annual event has been hosted by several area independent schools, and when it became clear that this year’s event needed a venue, a group of students seized the moment and worked closely with Upper School Psychologist Dr. Carrie Friend to host the event on Phi Beta Kappa day. In our continuing work with NCS to bring boys and girls together to discuss difficult issues surrounding relationship safety and substance use, we jointly sponsored an evening for juniors based on the One Love Foundation program and a repeat of the Consent Forum for seniors.
April and May were full of other examples of student accomplishment as well. The venerable Mr. Ted Eagles ’54 worked with a group of Form III and Form IV boys who advanced to the semi-final stage of the Euro Challenge in New York City thanks to their in-depth work and presentation on Italy and Living Under a Single Monetary Policy. On the stage, the Dreams in Motion Dance Gala and student directed one-act plays, one of which featured a rousing version of Monty Python’s “The Four Yorkshiremen” skit, were a big success. The Student Art Show filled the lower levels of Marriott Hall with drawings, paintings, and sculpture. At the end of May, seventeen seniors who had been engaged in one-on-one Independent Study Projects in the second semester spoke to Upper School faculty and students during an assembly slot. We heard about their work on topics ranging from new developments in platelet therapy in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries to behavioral economics.
Our spring teams competed hard and well, finishing second in the IAC track-and-field championships, and second in the IAC tennis finals. The baseball team had a dramatic end to the season, which included the first-ever best-of-three IAC championship series against Prep. After splitting the first two games, St. Albans prevailed in the third to bring home another banner. Under first-year coach Rory Hyland, the varsity lacrosse team competed well in the IAC, which features some of the top teams in the country, and ended the season with a lot of positive “buzz” about 2017-18 and beyond. Finally, STA crew’s first boat won bronze at the Stotesbury Regatta and nationals, and then had a remarkable showing at Henley, where they beat a top American team before falling to a boat that went on to make it into the final race.
The biggest news of the year, however, was Mr. Wilson’s announcement that he will step down as the seventh headmaster of St. Albans at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Mr. Wilson will be sorely missed by the boys, the faculty, the staff, and parents. At the same time, we are tremendously fortunate to have a Head of School Search Committee chaired by Julie Miller, Chris Gladstone ’75, and Robert Musslewhite, who went to great lengths to solicit input from the entire school community in their work to select Jason Robinson as our new leader. He will be embraced by a school community that is thriving on all fronts.