Where We Stand

October 13, 2020

Message from the headmaster



Last Thursday morning, St. Johnsbury Academy woodworking teacher Matt Stark, Student Body President Sierra Shippee, and I waited at the foot of the stairs to Fuller Hall stage to start the Chapel livestream. It’s been oddly quiet and dark in that space these days, but the air still hums around the stage and in the surrounding shadows. Certainly, on this morning, Mr. Stark seemed excited. As we chatted, I noticed that the podium on the stage was different. It was new, very beautifully worked wood, stained several shades. I said as much.


“It’s for you,” Mr. Stark said.


Before I had a chance to sputter my thanks, Sierra climbed the stage to make the daily announcements, and I followed her a few minutes later — up to my new podium.


After my brief remarks (including announcing that we would be having a Headmaster’s Holiday next week) Mr. Stark came up to present the podium to me, officially, as a gift from his woodworking students, Mr. Lovett, and the community, and to describe how its design echoed an architectural element above the stage, which says “Semper Discens.” Always learning.


This moment has been resonating with meaning for me ever since. A podium is technically a place where one stands in order to speak or lead — metaphorically, at least, it offers firm footing to support ideas and messages that might need support to be conveyed effectively. This new podium, with its visual echo of the motto “Semper Discens,” can help us to think about the depth of our common endeavor, and the ways we must be able both to stand firm and to speak our minds, and also to be strong enough to hear differing opinions and seek to understand others. The podium is formal — it creates the space and implies the time to hear and speak to each other with respect. 


Being offered this podium feels to me like being invited to speak in full membership in the community — from behind its shelter, and with its amplification. It also feels like being given the responsibility to stand here and to articulate, in concert with those who have come before, what we stand for as an institution.


That is a timely feeling, and I am grateful for it, because right now we need clarity about what we stand for as a learning community. It is not an easy time to articulate the values of a school without seeming partisan, even when they are the enduring values that have been articulated consistently for a century and a half. But if ever there was a time to stand firm upon what we value, this is it.


We value our students’ character, and have promised to be patient about helping them develop it. It’s not a patient time — it’s a time when our public figures are talking over one another, rushing to declare and condemn instead of asking questions and seeking to understand. We want to provide powerful countervailing examples of civil discourse in our classrooms and everywhere on campus, and this involves making sure we are in a more Socratic mode — that we are asking each other questions and listening to the answers.


We value and strive to create a culture of inquiry, knowing that this requires mutual respect for the journey of becoming aware and informed. We have promised to help students to inquire and to construct reasonable arguments based on reliable knowledge and data.


And we value and want to protect the strength of our community, especially as our divisions threaten to become starker. There is perhaps no stronger force against cruelty, against ignorance — against ignoring one another’s truths, against hate and mistrust — no more powerful balance for the anonymous cancelling and dwelling in polarities — than a community that stands together and commits to looking out for one another. We don’t have to like each other all the time, and we won’t. We don’t always have to agree about everything, and we certainly won’t. But we can have a culture of civility and progress — we can make the effort to find where we agree; we can make the effort to be sure that every single member of this community feels that they belong — that everyone has a place to stand and speak.


Every time I walk onto the Fuller Hall stage and stand behind the new podium, I will remember with gratitude the moment the community presented it to me, and I will renew my resolve to be clear and brave about where we stand.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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