Year in Review

Letter from the Headmaster Emeritus

– Vance Wilson, Headmaster

Some have said that in questions and discomfort philosophy begins. This is the kind of aphoristic wisdom I preach to the boys as their headmaster.
Here’s a short goodbye story.

Imagine my surprise on a late May afternoon when two young students, Preston Benner ’25 and Peter Clapp ’25, out of nowhere mysteriously appear in my office. “Apparating” is the word from Harry Potter. Where did they come from? Shouldn’t they be at sports? I am to follow them to the amphitheater, they say, straight-faced. Right-o, I think, this is not normal.
Nothing about this past spring has been normal. People whisper to each other, imagining I don’t see their knowing smiles. Or are they pretending that they don’t know I see them? Always loyal lieutenants suddenly feel unaccountably suspect. Nothing goes amiss, but shouldn’t they … I mean … what?

Following the two young messengers to the amphitheater, I see smirks on the faces of people I have always thought my friends and then hear a quiet rumble of an unseen crowd. I think to ask if we remembered to schedule the amphitheater for whatever is afoot before I walk down into the certain knowledge that far too often this spring I’m the last person to understand.

The afternoon sunlight rushes over the Cathedral and down through the Olmsted Woods. The light glitters on people’s laughing faces. Students and faculty sit and stand in rows as far up as Pilgrim Road and along the edge of the woods and even close to the stage. People applaud. They’re applauding for me. On the stage wait the division heads and the senior prefect, Christian Potter ’18; co-conspirators David Baad ’83 and Molly Meinhardt seem particularly pleased with themselves. On the stage waits a massive papier mâché wishbone. But everyone points toward the front of the stage. There is the veritable nightmare, rows and rows of Vance Wilson bobbleheads.

Some have said that in questions and discomfort philosophy begins. This is the kind of aphoristic wisdom I preach to the boys as their headmaster. As for me, and about me, I prefer not.

Eventually, I try to gather myself, philosophically, and say embarrassed thank you’s. I stare at the bobble heads, speechless. Fortunately, Christian Potter saves me and challenges me to a final wishbone pull with the gigantic papier mâché sculpture and—what ho!—for the first time I win. But as I pull, pleased with my victory, even vindictive, the knob pops open and hundreds of blue-and-white index cards scatter over the stage. On each card a boy has written a note. The notes are written to me. Unbelievable.

Let me say that again. When and where have all these boys had the time or space in the day to write a note to the headmaster?

If you find your hands sifting through a bin of index cards, as if somehow you’re to draw for a lottery pick, your eyes see the cards with drawings first, at least my eyes did. On the back of this C Former’s note he draws me, the Headmaster, round face with tight mouth, a filled-out stick figure of sorts, standing in front of the refectory wall with the classes of 94, 95, 96, and 97 behind me. I like that, even though the classes behind where I usually stand to speak are in the 80s. All of us emphasize those names on the wall. We see them. Those who come before, you, and those who follow.

“Thank you for being a great headmaster. I hope your retirement goes well,” he writes. He also adds, “And I loved the milk and cookies in your office.”

Another young artist draws me. In this portrait I have long arms and a soul patch, a tuft of hair below my lower lip. Perhaps the young artist imagines himself with such pointed hair some day; he would not be the first artist who projected his own soul patch onto the world he portrayed. But he has me wearing a familiar solid red tie, the go-to safe choice for public occasions. And as if I am not confused enough, he writes, “If you did not do what you did this school would not be running properly.”
There is another theme. If you, reader, are a parent, how much of what you say do you think your children can remember? If you, reader, give speeches—let’s say homilies—how much of what you preach does your flock remember?

So I found these notes—perhaps the truth is I searched them out until I found them: “The 2017 Prize Day speech inspired me and I reference it frequently. I’ll always remember your chapel talk about the words ‘portmanteau’ and ‘affluenza.’” Another writes: “I’ve especially enjoyed your beginning-of-the-year talks in the Cathedral.” And then another: “From your homilies to your prayers, you’ve always brought wisdom with your words—thank you for everything you have done for this community.”

I’m starting to feel pretty good, let me tell you. Perhaps you’re skeptical. Perhaps you imagine I suffer from confirmation bias. Not true. Then again, if I don’t like the note, I can just throw it out.
What I search for next is the sermon I always give to the faculty: you’re a role model, whether or not you know it. And so with some notes I’m delighted again. “Through you I learned how to carry myself, what is right, and how to be a St. Albans man.” And this: “Your strong ability to connect to all members of the community in all situations, whether announcing an accomplishment or reading to a class of C Formers never ceases to amaze me.” And the final one I’ll crow about: “Honestly as a baseball captain I have aspired to be a leader such as yourself. Your presence is irreplaceable and we love you.”

But really, how much of a boy’s day has to do with leadership, homilies, and role modeling? There’s unforgettable milk and cookies in my office, and there’s lunch! And that’s where their attention is sharpest: “During lunch announcements your subtle humor and witty jokes … brighten up our days.” And this, to conclude: “My favorite thing about sitting at your table was being informed about free dress days before anyone else!”

And let us all celebrate and believe a note a graduating senior wrote. “I wish to see St. Albans even better in the future than it is now.”

Located in Washington D.C.,  St. Albans School is a private, all boys day and boarding school. For more than a century, St. Albans has offered a distinctive educational experience for young men in grades 4 through 12. While our students reach exceptional academic goals and exhibit first-rate athletic and artistic achievements, as an Episcopal school we place equal emphasis upon moral and spiritual education.