We Have This America
Message from the headmaster
This week we began to live-stream morning Chapel from Fuller Hall here at St. Johnsbury Academy. The hope is to restore that feeling of starting the day together as a community — so I shared a message, and Student Body President Sierra Shippee ‘21 read announcements of the day’s events, including our first soccer games, some birthdays, and a kind send-off from students to a departing staff member.
We’ve been proud of how responsible our students have been about doing what we’ve asked them to do to protect the community — wearing masks, hand washing, distancing, health screening, and all the rest — so I reminded them that we need to keep doing those things.
It was hard to decide what message to offer for this first Chapel — even though I have been sharing audio files in the mornings with messages since the start of school, this felt like an important inaugural opportunity. Like all such important opportunities, it quickly became paralyzing.
Should we seize a moment when we’re entering election season and talk about America? About my genuine obsession with it? Should I specifically reassure people in the larger community that I love America, the flag and the republic, indivisible, for which it stands, even though our current pandemic configuration is making it hard to pledge allegiance? Should I inflect that sentiment by acknowledging the deep inherent flaws in the American experiment, and recognizing the effects of these on our students and communities? Should we share some thoughts on the serious responsibility of educational institutions to remain politically unbiased while still teaching about politics and government? Should I express my gratitude for the exemplary civic engagement in the Northeast Kingdom, particularly in St. Johnsbury? Should we lay out a vision for engaging fairly as a community with charged issues of race and justice in the coming months?
Or should I, as a colleague suggested, just write a rhapsody to the leaves on these trees?
I do believe that America is as potent an ideal for society as any that has ever existed — it embodies the hope that we can actually choose how to govern ourselves, and then keep choosing that, so that it continues, in theory, to work. I love America so much that I am actually a bona fide “Americanist” — someone who studies and thinks and writes about America as an ancillary pursuit.
As an academic, I immersed myself in American literature, culture, and history, and looked at it with both a critical eye and full heart. I cherish the original notion of the city on a hill, an exemplar of considering the common good while still being individually responsible for our own destinies. Over the years, American studies have developed new boundaries — admitted more people, acknowledged more realities, and included more stories. History has become more complicated — the narratives we thought we understood have become less clear. But that is not bad: too much clarity can be incompatible with inclusion. We don’t want to see so clearly that we miss everything.
I have a good view of campus from my home, and on weekends I see our students walking across the green in front of the Mayo Center library. I see students from around the world—from Asia and Africa, South America and Europe, Mexico and the Middle East. I see American students of color, too, walking together from the dorms to dinner and back again. When I see them, I feel a fierce desire to protect them from what I know America also is—built on foundations that excluded them intentionally, that underlay a legacy of laws and systems that formed obstacles to their education, employment, fair treatment, and full citizenship. This, too, is America. All of us are part of both Americas whether we know it or not, whether we wish it or not. And there aren’t only two — there are countless Americas.
It’s part of our duty to students — who, no matter where they come from in the world, are all part of this Academy in America — to help them understand the history of this country in its full complexity and contradiction, especially in a year when our country is experiencing division that can feel insurmountable. In a little over a month, we will elect a president for our next four years — for our freshmen, this next chapter in our history will comprise their whole high school experience. Our job is to help students to avoid drawing easy conclusions or telling stories that are too simple — that are too clear. History will help us understand what is happening now, but perhaps not only the history we’ve already learned. We need more stories, more inclusions: more Americas.
And we need to say out loud that we are an American community that includes everyone equally, that makes space for civil discourse about charged subjects, and that declares itself unequivocally safe not only for Americans, or white Americans, or Christian Americans, but for people of all nations, all races, all genders, all beliefs. And as that community looking to be inclusive and self-aware, we’re fortunate to be in a place where political life and discourse is not abstract — it is enmeshed in our daily lives as residents of St. Johnsbury, Caledonia County, and the Northeast Kingdom. The big issues of the day here may not be exactly the same as those in the national news — but they are aligned, and connected, and real. There will be no apathy on election day here; here, we are in that America that keeps choosing itself again and again.
But I would have been remiss not to mention the trees. The same campus I see from my windows has become a stunningly beautiful place — and the countryside around us is so gorgeous that it feels impossible to respond adequately to it. We have these trees, this sudden color blooming across the mountains, falling in yellow drifts on walkways, blazing along the roadsides, making canopies that hum against the sky.
And so we have this shifting composition, blushing up and subsiding. We have beauty in this fragile state, balanced against its own demise. We have this America.
Dr. Sharon L. Howell