Viva la Vida

September 24, 2018

Thursday’s Chapel ended with our String Ensemble playing their version of Cold Play’s hit “Viva la Vida”. I noted a couple remarkable things about this performance: the group played it flawlessly without their teacher, Jason Bergman, conducting in front (he stood behind them and let them learn how to stay together by watching each other), and they represented four countries among their 10 members: two of them were exchange students from Freiburg, Germany, who had joined the group for the first four weeks of the year. The performance was our final tribute to our guests from Freiburg, and it capped off a week of guests as two alumnae spoke in Chapel, sharing their experiences both at the Academy and afterwards. The overall message of the week was powerful: one of aspiration, encouragement, and community.


The week began with a Chapel talk by Rachel Wynn ’08 on Monday. Rachel began her talk by telling the story of how, in 2015, she got fired. However, as she said, she didn’t let failure define her. Instead, she explored several industries that sounded promising: hospitality, event planning, forensic pathology, and recruiting. After having traveled down each of these career paths, she found her expectations were much different than the realities of the job. She finally founded her own social media marketing company. This kind of entrepreneurial and creative spirit had driven Rachel since her Academy days; in fact, when she went to a relatively small liberal arts college and found that they did not offer a major in what she wanted, she created her own.


Rachel ended her talk by encouraging students to connect with alumni, to network, to take opportunities to find out what they like—even if it only ends up revealing what they don’t like— and to keep exploring until they find their passion. Rachel learned that her passion is helping others realize their entrepreneurial and business dreams, and now she runs two companies after having been fired just a few years ago.


Stella Peisker ’09 spoke on Wednesday and echoed many of the same themes. Stella came to the Academy as a boarding student from Cologne, Germany in the fall of 2007, and during her time here, she helped form our first Dorm Council and helped establish the Ropes Course behind Brantview. Stella spoke about how her relationships with the diverse array of people here changed her. She commented that our teachers were genuinely and consistently encouraging and that the school was filled with a community spirit like she had never experienced before, a spirit of mutual service and compassion. Initially as a rather provincial German teenager, she encountered different ways of thinking and behaving as she interacted with people from around the world, and several of these ways she found preferable to those of her own country.


After graduation, she continued this exploration of the world as she went to school and then started a career in business management. As she says, she learned forgiveness in France, work-life balance in the Netherlands, the importance of the social aspect of meals in Italy, and the peace that comes with letting things go and believing in karmic justice in Indonesia. She has committed herself to staying curious, to “being comfortable being uncomfortable”, and to constantly questioning her beliefs and behaviors.


She ended her speech with these words:


And I encourage you to do the same. Whenever you interact with someone who is different from you and you see a behavior, way of thinking, or a tradition you particularly like, absorb it and make it part of your own life. And the more different the people you are interacting with are, the more exciting it gets!  I discovered all of this by living in different countries and traveling the world. But you do not have to do that to get a similar experience. You have this amazing opportunity at the Academy to get to know teachers and students from other parts of the country or the world and learn from each other. You can speak to the kid from New Hampshire, who is probably already different from someone being raised in Vermont, or you can even interact with students from another country whom I promise you will be even more different from yourself.


It is the beauty of St. J. A. to bring the world together in this little town. What happens here changes the world. Seize that opportunity, celebrate this diversity, and watch how it will enrich your lives! It certainly enriched mine!


During our Freiburg Farewell Chapel on Thursday, the faculty leader of the group, Achim Fuessenich, expanded on Stella’s words:


She put into words what I feel too, and I’m sure my students as well: the student-teacher relationship here is different. There is so much encouragement, support, and appreciation. Some of my students have asked me if we can stay longer. Of course, we can’t, but it shows how much they like being here, and I am sure they will take away much more from the Academy than they had expected they would.


I believe an exchange program like this is among some of the best experiences we can give our students, the experience to plunge into a different culture, a different language, a different mindset and get a new perspective, a new, fresh look at our own culture, at the way we live our everyday lives, at the way we do things, the way we do school. This year I saw again how much fun teaching and learning can be, and I am still trying to figure out what the secret of the Academy is. One thing is for sure: it is about communication, appreciation, support, respect, high expectations, and character formation.


Achim is retiring after 33 years of teaching, and he saw this last visit as a fitting capstone to a career dedicated to helping young people understand others from around the world. He closed with this wish: “I wish for the Academy that it will continue to prosper and continue to change hearts and minds. It’s true: What starts here changes the world.”


The song title “Viva la Vida” comes from a painting by Frida Kahlo, who, though suffering from a number of physical problems, painted the words “Viva la Vida”— “Live Life” or “Long Live Life” —in the middle of one of her paintings. As I listened to the powerful and perfect, totally student-run performance of the string ensemble and witnessed their ability to be aware of and play harmoniously together, I realized that I was witnessing the kind of beautiful harmony that is possible between people. And as I reflected on the messages of the week, the messages of resilience and risk-taking, of curiosity and discovery, of the connections between teachers and students, I felt the same joy that blotted out the pain in Frida Kahlo’s life, and thought to myself, “Yes! Viva la Vida!”

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