Trust is our Strength

October 6, 2020

Message from the headmaster



This past weekend, St. Johnsbury Academy’s Board of Trustees held their annual October meeting. The Board is a group of about twenty people—mostly alumni, a few past parents — who feel that the Academy has been transformative for them in some way. These twenty very different people have reached a point in their lives and careers where they recognize that they would like to give back to the school, and to be part of tending the place from which they launched their own lives so it can continue to help launch other young people’s lives. They have re-engaged with the school, and they have committed to thinking together about what the school’s mission means for today’s students. The Board has only one employee: The Headmaster.


While the Trustees don’t own the Academy, they hold it in trust: which is to say that they are responsible for its enduring quality and strength. They take this trust very seriously, and pay careful attention to what we’re up to. They read the newsletters, check the website, and usually come together several times a year to hear comprehensive reports from the Headmaster and the administrative team about the state of the school. This year, of course, most Trustees were not able to be here in person, but instead attended by Zoom.


For a body whose charge is to make sure that SJA endures — takes its past traditions proudly into the bright future, as it were — they were remarkably unperturbed by the fact that so much about this year is so very different from what they have known. I was thankful to read this calm as a signal that there is indeed trust between us — and that there is tremendous faith in our faculty and staff on the part of our stewards. Indeed, the Board made a formal resolution on Saturday to thank the people who work here at the Academy, to show that they feel their faith is being well rewarded in a time when the ways in which we rely on each other are in vivid relief.


I’ve been thinking about trust, not only because the word “trustee” has been resonating for me this week, but also because the concept of “trust” has been resounding through our public discourse with more and more urgency. What does trust really mean? What are the costs of distrust? Our terms for big ideas such as trust tend to become sort of emptied-out with constant use — think also of “freedom” and “equality” and “decency” — so that instead of activating a thought process they swallow up thought entirely.


I find that uncovering the root of a word can revive our understanding of the concept it refers to, because most likely that root is in the physical world. We can think more precisely when we know what part of the physical world our abstract concepts come from, and have a way to think about them concretely. 


Our word “trust” means the “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” While there’s an unmistakable relation, the word is not actually rooted, as always seemed logical to me, in the word “truth” which instead stems from the Old Norse word: trowthe, or “faithfulness” and “constancy.” This is where our word “betrothed” comes from.


“Trust” actually originates in another Old Norse word: traustr — which means quite simply “strength.” So when you’re a “Trustee,” you’re someone whose strength and reliability we believe in enough to put a precious thing in your hands to keep safe. But the word is reciprocal, too: we are strong not only when we are trusted, but when we ourselves trust. When you decide to trust, you show strength and courage.


It isn’t easy in a moment such as the one we’re living through, but I’m grateful to the Trustees of St. Johnsbury Academy for reminding us that it is a source of strength to be willing to place our trust in one another. It might be our greatest power.


Dr. Sharon L. Howell



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