Rector Kathy Giles reflects on beauty, joy and relevance as she opens the 168th academic session at SPS.
Good morning, and happy new year! Special welcome to our 14 new faculty members and 172 new students, new to this chapel and to Chapel as we know it. Outside the main chapel door reads a big brass plaque that states, “All are welcome.” Ironically, when the doors are open and our Chapel greeters are welcoming us, we don’t see the plaque, but it is there, and we mean it. All are welcome here, regardless of your having a faith heritage or not having a faith heritage. As we are an Episcopal school, this chapel — sacred, as it has been consecrated — offers the iconography of a Christian church, built as it was in the late 1890s. That iconography is rich in tradition and meaning, and these stained-glass windows create a different kind of light than regular windows, creating a different kind of space. For me, the defining characteristic of this space is that alone, we feel tiny, but together, we feel powerful and connected — especially when we sing. Beyond the building, “Chapel” for us represents the values of our community — that we are better together, that we value and respect each other’s voices and stories, and that yes, we lift our eyes upwards and feel, in the energy of coming together, the presence of the Love Divine who knows us all and still loves us all, calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves and reminding us that everyone is our neighbor. In this space, as we work on the big questions of life — Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live? And what should I do? — we set aside time to wonder, to think, to listen, and to learn. This is not the only space at St. Paul’s in which we reflect on whether, indeed, we are becoming good people; but it is a space created for that important purpose. It’s worth noting that yes, as we say in our Mission Statement, we are a community dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in character and scholarship, and character comes first, and your becoming a good person and your desire to be a good person are at the core of St. Paul’s School’s reason for being. It’s good to start the new year with an understanding of why we do what we do here, and with a growth mindset.
We gather here Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings to sit together, hopefully setting aside the cares of the upcoming day or the dynamics and drama with which we can be consumed, ready to listen and learn how to open ourselves to reflection, to new ideas, and to other peoples’ experience as they tell it to us. It’s a real relief, when you learn to open yourself to others and get outside your own thoughts. We are always a kind and respectful audience, and all of our speakers should be assured from this, day one, that you are among friends and that we are grateful for your sharing your experience and ideas for our consideration. Our daily Chapel will include an opening sentence, a hymn, and a reading prior to the “program” or speaker. We stand to offer prayers and happy birthday wishes (so please record you name as you would like of Sixth Form Officers to say it when it is your day to be celebrated!), and then — connected — we offer Chapel reports — news, upcoming events, other announcements that merit everyone’s time and good attention. After we’re done, it’s time to get on with the day — but you can always stay for a minute to listen to Mr. White’s beautiful music, and then be on your way.
So what’s our good news on the fall?
Chaplain Walter Thorne and Sarah Taylor have a new baby, Angus.
Chinese Teacher Paul Murray and Tienna Lin have a new baby, Linnea.
Associate Director of Admissions Britt Plante and Associate Director of College Advising Scott Harff got married over the summer.
New Associate Dean of Student Kyle Losardo and Julia Guimont got married last weekend!
We welcome back Dean of Student Support Kate Daniels from her Spring Term sabbatical and Science Teacher Scott Reynolds from his yearlong sabbatical.
We extend our good wishes to Humanities Teacher Max Gordon for his Fall Term sabbatical and Fine Arts Teacher Becky Soderberg, who is taking a yearlong sabbatical with her husband Nanda, who is taking a yearlong leave.
You probably also noticed on your way in that construction of our new Fleischner Family Admissions Center is getting started! That’s a great project that we will talk about in an upcoming Chapel in Memorial Hall. I suspect you noticed a lot of new furniture — please take good care of it! — as well as our newly merged Kitt 2-3, and you’ll continue to find some surprises over the course of the next few days and weeks as we work on making campus and the grounds comfortable and welcoming. As a community, let’s make sure we thank everyone who does that great work. When you greet a member of our Facilities Team or say thank you to a FLIK colleague in the dining hall, remember that a little thanks goes a long way and a brief “hello” can make someone’s day. Let’s be a great place not only to live and learn, but also to work.
I’ve been thinking about two ideas this summer that I’d like to offer for your consideration today — this day of nerves, excitement, and optimism.
The first is the invitation to be thoughtful about how you spend your attention. Think about your attention the way you think about your money when you are on a trip — important, valuable, not infinite, to be kept carefully and not spent carelessly or lost. Learning to come to Chapel ready to relax, listen, and reflect is a great way to center yourself and spend some attention outside of your own head. That phrase, getting out of your own head, turns out to be important, in terms of feeling steady and well and connected with others. Some of us find that prayer helps us. Returning Fourth Formers, you’ve had mindfulness training to help you do this, and Third Formers, that opportunity lies ahead for you. Our Mindfulness Club and course are open to everyone, and I invite you, early this year, to investigate prayer and to see how mindfulness can work for you. Being able to control our attention and get outside of our heads are demonstrably good for us.
I’m sure you are all aware of the mounting body of evidence that connects screen time and social media with declines in everyone’s mental health, and the special focus on teenagers doesn’t hide the fact that we all suffer when the world shrinks and closes in on us, blasting us with images and headlines designed to provoke and snag us. As we click and click and click, we submerge into self-centeredness. There’s a huge irony here — one would think that screens and social media would expand the world and help us feel more connected, not more isolated. But the opposite is turning out to be true — that when we invest our attention in a mind-numbing parade of images and soundbites and headlines, and when we know that behind it all are Big Tech’s motives are about manipulating our attention for their own gain, and when we get self-centered and focused only on how we feel in the moment, we can’t trust what we see or feel actually to be true. We compare ourselves negatively to what seem to be the better ways to be, and the “image is everything” perspective turns out to be super-destructive to our well-being and — very importantly this year — to our ability to build trust. When we don’t know what is true — or worse yet, when we actively participate in generating and feeding untruths — it becomes hard to feel like a person of integrity or to respect others in that way.
The Sixth Form Officers did well when they chose “trust” as our theme for the year. Trust requires us to be able to depend on each other — particularly, that we can be counted on to be honest and to speak the truth. Thus, the ways we build trust depend on our getting to know each other in person — that’s why we all live here (hence the “fully residential”) with our attention focused on learning (hence “St. Paul’s School”). We’ve searched the globe to bring smart, talented young people and teachers together into a community that knows that our diversity is a critical element of the best learning together and highly values what happens when people who are not like each other learn to like each other, listen to each other, and learn from each other. That’s why we are here. You didn’t come here just to obsess about looking good on Instagram or TikTok. You didn’t come here to exhaust yourself gaming late into the night. You didn’t come here to let artificial intelligence produce mediocre work with your name on it and thus compromise you and your learning. You didn’t come here to hide behind your screen, tune out via your earbuds, and retreat into your own head, in isolation, where it can be hard to figure why you matter. You could have stayed home if you wanted to do that. And you didn’t come here to be ignored by others who have retreated into their own heads or have decided, in being self-centered, that you are not interesting or valuable. That is not our community; in fact, the opposite is true. You matter. Around the discussion table, in the house meeting, on the team or cast or in the club, you contribute to the living and learning of others in ways that are unique to you. You make us better, and we wouldn’t be as good without you. When we invest our attention in the people around us, what we get back is multiplied and amplified. We can make each other better at everything.
Please look for a moment down the program at our School Prayer. You will see that for generations at St. Paul’s, we have aspired to be kind, thoughtful, empathetic, and compassionate — and let’s remember the prayer is universal, not limited to close friends, but applicable to everyone we meet. Meeting these mandates requires all of us to contribute, trusting that we will get back the same good that we give. We make each other better. So indeed, we will be asking everyone to garage our phones and keep the earbuds put away, certainly in our classrooms and across our public spaces. Spend your attention wisely. Yes, spend some of it on your music, your news feeds, your online communities, but save the most and the best for here, now. Knowing other people and letting them get to know you are the keys to feeling that you matter and that what you are doing is meaningful and important. You can’t be kind to others or compassionate if you are only focused on yourself and your screen. You can’t build trust if someone seems one way in person but acts differently online. Learning to focus on in-person, real life will be a huge step forward in achieving the goals you want to achieve, not to mention investing in your sleep and good health. Let’s make each other better and make St. Paul’s a happy, healthy community.
My second, shorter, point is connected to the first. Every day, let’s look for beauty, relevance, and joy. These are founding principles of the School — that the beauty around us and within us, in and through the Love Divine, inspires the best kind of learning: whole person, holistic learning. It was true in 1856, and it is true in 2023. There’s beauty to be had all the time here on these grounds — the beauty of nature, the beauty of people, and the beauty of what we create together. We can choose to let it uplift us, and we should make that choice. Check for Hank, our resident great blue heron, when you walk over the bridge between the Quad and Friedman. Look up at night on the way back to check in, particularly if you come from a place in which you don’t get to see the stars and planets as we do here on our grounds. Take 10 seconds a day to look for something of beauty and adopt an expansive definition. Avocado toast at breakfast, the sound of the Turkey River through your window, the early ice on Library Pond come November (we hope!), or a bright smile from anyone, any day, all qualify as beauty. Look for it.
Relevance. Spend just a moment during the day connecting what you are doing with what is important to you. Does precalc homework matter beyond the grade? Only if you want to be able to think well about scientific or environmental or engineering issues, or if you want to be able to design buildings or study medicine or debate knowledgeably about public health policy. Does your humanities paper matter beyond the grade? Only if you want to be able to be a journalist or a researcher or a novelist, or if you want to be able to persuade people of your point of view with logic and eloquence in any forum or venue. The fact that every student here has the opportunity to do a capstone project in Fifth Form Humanities, on a question that each student develops, is an amazing opportunity to connect the knowledge and skills you’ve learned with an idea or issue that is of interest and important to you. Look for the relevance and be patient with the learning steps. In your LinC classes and Fifth and Sixth Form Seminars, ask yourself how the discussion affects the choices you make toward the quality of person you want to be. We are interested in developing what our brains can do, what our minds can know, and how we invest our hearts, because that’s how we create meaning. Your teachers and advisers and coaches and directors will help you find relevance. Hard things feel easier and more worthwhile when they connect with meaning for us.
Finally, joy. Not joy as in just pleasure or happiness, but joy as that sense of fulfillment, the emotion that incorporates satisfaction and relevance and beauty. I’m thinking of the joy that comes with a beautiful goal in any sport, the joy that comes with a true connection with a new or old friend, the joy that comes from an “aha!” moment when it comes together in understanding, or because someone has just done something amazing, or because we are hopeful and excited about an idea or a project or a relationship. Joy happens when we are loud, proud, and positive; it also happens backstage, offstage, in quiet times and often, when we least expect it. We’ll see joy in our “Red Outs” at night games, at the Ballet Company’s performance of “The Nutcracker,” at the spring musical, during concerts and performances and birthday celebrations in our houses. We’ll see joy in our new faculty and staff babies this year, at races and matches and games and meets, and during Monday night Friends Program dinners and on service trips. Joy can manifest itself in excitement and cheering or in the quiet sense of fulfillment that comes from a personal best, a team achievement, or the choice to be a good human by doing something kind for someone else, even if they don’t see it yet. Joy is a choice we make, something we can give and receive easily when we are connected with others. When we can choose stress or choose joy, let’s choose joy. It makes everything better, and it makes us want more.
This year will be full of invitations and opportunities. May we greet them humbly, seeking grace and strength; may we greet them with courage and good spirit, and energy and optimism; may we find fun and joy in friendship and in good times together in this beautiful place; and may we grow in hope, in wisdom, and in the Love Divine that lights our paths forward and ahead.