Some Lessons in Joy

December 15, 2021

Message from the headmaster



Last week walking back through the snow from our student holiday concert, the first formal concert we’ve had at St. Johnsbury Academy in close to two years, I was humming with joy. It was one of those quiet, sparkling evenings when it feels quite magical to be where we are. Even when we’re tired. Which we are.


School this year has involved being something close to tireless, no matter what realm of school life you inhabit. But, of course, none of us is tireless. The winter solstice, when we are allowed to stand still for a moment before moving into the new year, is particularly welcome this year.


But the lesson of the concert is about things to come. Our students sang a capella and in Broadway style; they played horns and strings and even played pieces of music they wrote themselves. They put their hearts and souls into all of it, and it struck me more than usual that it’s very brave to do that. The delight we feel in contact and presence and spontaneity is easy to forget about when it’s not there, but live music and performance reminds us of it powerfully—it is a mutual adventure, and it involves courage. When we got to the jazz band and that universal language between instruments, trading fours, I felt like the luckiest person on earth to be able to be in the audience for these brilliant students who have waited so long for music to return.


The adventure that we want education to be has been harder for all students during the pandemic, and hardest for those whose attachment to teachers and peers has been most tenuous. So much of teachers’ work has been just helping students to understand what it means to have the best relationship to one another and to the school community—and even to understand what that community is and why they should respect it. In these times we are thinking constantly about how best to restore these ties and make sure students feel they belong, and are known and valued, so they can be fully present.


Coming together around those moments when students show courage is one way we can keep building a community—which is always a work in progress, never complete. Our community is the sum of our common experiences and relationships—and it thrives when those things we share inform what we do ourselves. The only way that can happen is when we can be not just on the stage but in the audience—sharing those experiences of listening, watching, and appreciating. Many of our athletes have had access to these shared moments, mostly outdoors, thank goodness. But our academic stars and performing artists have missed their stages and their audiences.


On the final day of the semester, last Friday, we had an actual, though small, audience in Fuller Hall for morning chapel. This audience—and the folks watching by live stream—were treated to another performance that left us humming with joy; students singing ABBA songs and dancing with careful abandon, being fully present and brave together. Like all live things, happening in real time, it was a mutual adventure, full of delight. Watching and listening to these young people, lighting up this dark time, it was hard not to feel there are brighter days ahead for us all.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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