A Place for Everyone
Message from the headmaster
In December faculty member Allie Reed and several of our students attended the NAIS Student Diversity Leadership Conference. As we returned to school for the new semester last week, a brave group of students, some of whom attended the conference and some of whom were inspired by those who did, spoke in Chapel to the whole community about the truly inclusive place they hope St. Johnsbury Academy can be for all students.
Seniors Ashley Fox, Madison Wilson, Mekayla Bailey, and Emma Suker and juniors Rory Higgs, Aiden Kimball, and NaDae Ingham shared their understanding–based on their own diverse experiences—that the grounding of all learning and success is knowing that you belong: that you are seen and heard and valued. “Mak[e] sure everyone feels like there is a place for them,” Emma Suker advised.
They asked us very clearly for what they need—that is, genuine relationships with their teachers and each other. “We know we belong,” said Bermudian student Nadae Ingham, “we need you to help us feel as though we do.” Madison Wilson encouraged us to “try and picture a St. Johnsbury Academy where feelings of inclusivity and belonging, but also of constant learning and bettering, are accessible every single day.” Mekayla Bailey urged her peers to try hard to “leave [each] conversation with more knowledge than you came in with.”
It was a powerful way to come back together, hearing our student leaders express their desire for openness and civility. We want that kind of openness and civility for them, and for ourselves, too. We want to be a community that seeks first to understand.
We talk a lot about how important relationships are, especially during this isolating time. As Student Body President Ashley Fox said: “We miss our relationships.” We do. And those relationships are so much more easily built by presence, by being together in the same space sharing time, making each other laugh, going through the world connected by seeing the same horizons and feeling the same cold air.
When we say relationships are important, this is what we mean, and it is why it’s so important that we are on campus together again. When we want our relationships back, it’s because we want that powerful feeling of sharing the world that you can’t get any other way than meeting and being with others. Each genuine encounter you have with another person—when you bring your whole present self to it—creates something new in the world. The way you meet people and treat people matters. The words you say to them matter. You create something new, and that new thing you make can be warm, loving, and optimistic—that energy you generate can be sustaining and bright. This is a time in their lives when students get to choose who they want to be—how they want to encounter other people–what kind of energy they want to generate.
We’re living with a pandemic that is hurting us, with conflicts that worry and even alarm us, with stresses that are large and exhausting and sometimes just petty. We are imperfect and annoy each other with our imperfections. At some point or another, each of us is impatient and angry. It would be bizarre otherwise—it’s human nature. As Aidan Kimball said, “We are all going to make mistakes…but we need to…allow ourselves grace to improve from those mistakes.” This is what we agree to endure when we agree to be a community like the one we wish for here at SJA.
The reward is that we have the chance to build each other up, to teach each other, and to help each other understand the world. That is why we’re here. That is what balances the hurt and worry and stress and lets us learn together. We get to decide what we want to bring to each day’s business, as if we’d never done it before.
So what if a whole community of people decides to bring love? To put into the world more than anything else simply love? Maybe not every day, but most days? What if we bring patience, and forgiveness, and kindness, and empathy? What if we assume the best of those we meet? What if we remember the power of the words we use? What if we hope to leave every conversation with more information, more knowledge, than we had when it began?
What power could that have to form young people, in that crucial time when they get to choose who they want to be? What power could that have to form us all? Since of course, no matter where we are in our lives, we are forever choosing who we want to be. “[W]e can all make a difference in our community, and help make it a place where nobody feels alone,” said Rory Higgs.
I am so grateful to these students for making the space in this New Year for us to think about how completely it is in our power to decide who we are. And I’m grateful every day for our dedicated St. Johnsbury Academy faculty and staff who have so much love for their students, and who have committed to keeping school open so successfully even while we have yet another surge and variant of COVID to contend with. We have so much to do together this year, and it is good to be reminded to bring whatever joy, optimism and humility we can to that work. I hope we will listen to our students and will be mindful of how we treat people. I hope we will remember how much that choice matters.
Dr. Sharon L. Howell