Convocation: Head of School Address

Convocation: Head of School Address

Good morning. Convocation marks our official welcome to the 2023-2024 school year. It’s a wonderful occasion to bring us all together. Thanks to everyone who helped with today’s event, starting with the student and faculty performances and kind words from the board, our student body co-presidents, parents, and alumni. Special thanks to the Convocation Committee for its work in planning this celebration. I am thankful to our facilities team for its work in preparing the campus, to our faculty and staff who have taught our students, and to families and friends who have supported their education and our purpose.

We’ve had a busy summer. You will notice that we are enjoying a brand new Landreth Field, thanks to the hard work and generosity of so many. And of course, you’ve seen the new class of 2016 field and the Commons and the renovations to the Kline building for the ECC and the new door access technology and the handsome SCH banners and several other upgrades, many out of sight but still important. Beyond these engineered creations, it requires only a quick glance to see how beautiful our campus is. From the varieties of plantings to the towering trees in the Inn’s courtyard that invite the Wissahickon, we're greeted with a handsome display at every turn. But what makes it all come alive is you, the people–the students, staff, faculty, parents, alums, friends.

This summer I read several books, a few of which I’d like to talk about today. The first, Making Good Neighbors, chronicles the mid-to-late 20th-century fight of residents to maintain an intentionally diverse neighborhood in West Mount Airy despite persistent and swirling headwinds. So much of what I encountered in the book underscores our values—diversity, courage, thoughtfulness, resilience, and integrity. This book tied in nicely with another book, Belonging through a Culture of Dignity, which faculty and staff were invited to read. Its premise is quite simple: “When students feel a sense of belonging, they will achieve.”

A third read, The Power of Moments, takes on the mystery of moments: why we remember the ones we do, what makes the most amazing ones, how they sometimes change our lives, and how we can create them more often. I opened this book not much after my wife and I visited Asheville, NC. I had reached for it almost out of obligation: I wanted to make sense of the stunning natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the inspired feat that is America’s largest home, the Biltmore Estate.

As the new academic year commences and we recommit ourselves to a shared purpose, these books remain fresh on my mind. I am thinking about the power of neighborliness, belongingness, and moments.

I was 12 years old when we moved to our new neighborhood. It was a tidy few streets of well-maintained brick twins with an unmistakable hard-working, blue-collar aesthetic. The blacktop and sidewalks seemed full of kids in colorful gym shorts, wristbands, and headbands fashionable in the late 1970s and early 80s. Street football was my favorite most days. It was a time when parents let kids do their thing, waiting in the wings rather than standing on stage with us. We’d play outside until the light on the front porch blinked, “Time to come home."

My neighbors were a chunky mix of black folk and immigrants from Poland, Italy, and Ireland. Many of the immigrants seemed to be older women whose husbands’ lives had been lost to illness or geography. Back then, people felt the freedom and inclination to pop by each other’s houses unannounced. No play dates, no texts, no passcodes or permissions. Most people counted on networks of extended family, friends, and neighbors in ways less common nowadays.

When I wasn't racing and running with my rugrats, I was an entrepreneur trying to earn a few bucks. I’d knock on the doors of my neighbors to ask if they needed anything. Sometimes I’d be asked to cut the lawn or trim the hedges or run to the store for bread or milk. Sometimes I’d be invited in to just sit…and listen. Miss Catherine was my favorite among them.

She lived next door. Our houses weren’t but 25 feet apart, separated by a strip of grass we shared and a pair of concrete pathways, each to our fenced backyards separated by thick hedges. I’d pop over every so often to see how she was doing and if she needed anything. I’d tell her I was planning to cut my grass and could do hers if she’d like. She’d sometimes invite me in and ask me about school. I would tell her about my friends and teachers and that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. She never blinked an eye. Instead, she’d reach for my hand, hers feeling like tissue paper, squeeze it tightly, and tell me to be something amazing and work hard at it. She would be one of many who would deliver a few key messages: 1) believe there are no limits but the sky; 2) even on the darkest days, stand tall and find the sunlight; 3) remember where you came from but never lose sight of where you are going.

Why do I remember Miss Catherine? For the same reason, I will never forget last year’s convocation, when I stood before you for the very first time. My occasions with her, in the aggregate, created a defining moment that had an outsized impact. Not only did Miss Catherine provide a point of connection, she saw the best in me. She reoriented my understanding of myself as a kid navigating a world where that seemed to be both an ocean of opportunity and a gutter of thorns. Miss Catherine made a good neighbor: she saw my humanity and honored my dignity. I didn’t know it at the time, but in her I found community.

When I got married many years later, I had this notion that our neighbors would be like Miss Catherine. I had imagined they would knock on our door (or we’d knock on theirs) bearing gifts of carrot cake or fresh tomatoes and, after friendly chit-chat, leave with a stick of butter or a head of lettuce. The image in my mind was iconic, perhaps even refined. My wife and I were fortunate to have kind neighbors who would occasionally drive our kiddos to school if they missed the bus. But no Miss Catherine! The sobering truth is, we tend to live our lives without ever really knowing the strangers who live among us, our neighbors.

This year I hope we center neighborliness in our conversations about what it means to be a community committed to caring about one another. There is clear and convincing evidence that well-being, belongingness, and connection to a broader group enhance our learning. As a school, we have an enormous opportunity to build our skills as neighbors and citizens. For me, this means melding our school’s vision with a relentless pursuit of a nobler version of ourselves as individuals and as a school.

Even in the humdrum of each day, cultivating community is one of the helpful things you can do for SCH. Each of us has an active role in taking a disciplined and sustained approach to fostering community. The simplest place to start is to be a people explorer and connector who appreciates, validates, accepts, and treats everyone fairly.

In my now middle-life view, community is at once a mindset--the broad and deep set of attitudes one embodies--and a distinctive way of enacting that mindset at various altitudes. The book I mentioned earlier about Mount Airy, Making Good Neighbors, reminds us that community is an unambiguous good, both a currency and a pure and noble pursuit unto itself. Community is a place where you can be transformed, where we can develop the skills and disposition to chart a flourishing, successful, and satisfying life in the most fulsome meanings of those words.

Such a life comes into view, over time, in the learning, in the wondering, in the gathering, in the moments. And defining moments like today not only hearten us, but provide elevation, insight, pride, and connection. SCH is a place in which defining moments, big and small, happen all the time. Sometimes they’re in the classroom; sometimes they’re on the field, on the court, on the stage, or even in the woods. Often they’re planned; other times, not so much. They occur because SCH has a knack for making them happen through a community teeming with a positive culture and a joyful climate.

So, make the everyday count. Live the episodes of the year in real-time. Don’t DVR them and binge-watch them afterward! Challenge yourself to invest in the full experience of fellowship here. Be the neighbor who stops by to borrow some sugar and then stays for a while. For in this neighborliness, we may find an inspired version of community where we avail ourselves to ourselves in preparation for what comes next. Let’s keep SCH a place where “community” goes to live. Thank you.

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