By Benjamin Labaree, Head of Upper School
Any attempt to capture the essence of the past year in the life of the Upper School is bound to be inadequate given the remarkable energy of our students, faculty, and staff. As you know, the day starts early—one sign of that is the record number of boys who now eat breakfast in the Refectory—and ends late. As I look back on the past year, however, here are some of the things that strike me as most significant.
As noted in other communications from the school, many of the most meaningful moments in the life of the Upper School came during our twice-weekly chapel services. Senior Warden Ben Burgess ‘19 opened the year with a particularly moving homily in which he remembered some of the most daunting challenges he faced as a newcomer to St. Albans in Form C and how—over time—he negotiated those through prayer and with help from peers and teachers. He then challenged us: “I ask you to be counter-cultural. Challenge the idea that you are the most important person all the time, and focus on helping others. ... Ask yourself: what do you want to do with this day, this month, this school year to improve not just yourself but all of us and this school community?”
Ben’s chapel talk anticipated a theme we embraced in a series of assembly programs that encouraged us to think outside ourselves and well beyond the Cathedral Close around issues of diversity, inclusion, and justice. In late January, Holocaust survivor Emanuel “Manny” Mandel spoke about his childhood memories of growing up in Budapest in the 1930s and his internment at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in 1944. During Black History Month, Morgan State University Professor Dale Green spoke about his ancestor Samuel Green who was a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland until he bought his freedom in the 1850s, then managed to purchase the freedom of his wife, became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and was jailed for violation of a Maryland law that prohibited possession of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unknown to Professor Green until quite recently, his sixth-generation great-grandfather was later instrumental in the founding of a college for African-American seminarians that later became Morgan State University. Then in late Feburary, GDS graduate and Harvard student Schuyler Bailar spoke about his experience as the first openly transgender NCAA Division I swimmer.
On a related front, we devoted particular attention to generating discussions about the responsibilities of young men in helping to build and maintain respectful, healthy, and safe relationships with women. Past parent and former general counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee Demetra Lambros returned in the fall to speak to Upper School students on these topics, with particular attention to ensuring that the boys came away with clear definitions of consent and sexual assault. After she spoke, boys met in small groups to discuss what they had heard and to share ideas about how St. Albans students can, as Ms. Lambros put it, “become part of the solution rather than just avoiding the problems.” Energized in part by that call, a St. Albans senior together with a NCS classmate founded our first Alliance for Sexual Assault Prevention. Other programs for Form V and VI students later in the year were even more in-depth. Juniors participated again in a One Love Foundation program sponsored by NCS and St. Albans that highlighted the warning signs of relationship abuse and suggested strategies for bystander intervention. On the same evening, seniors from both schools took part in a workshop hosted by a University of Chicago dean who led students through a complicated sexual assault case study and then engaged them in a discussion about date rape, consent, and personal decision-making.
Looking ahead, we will continue this work with special attention to doing even more health and wellness and character education work with boys through the advising program and in a revitalized social service program. In the middle of the year, Headmaster Robinson announced the creation of a new Community Life Leadership Team headed by the recently ordained Rev. Rachelle Sam who is returning to St. Albans after a year at seminary to become our first dean of community life. C Form teacher Kristin Elliott will be our first director of diversity, inclusion, and equity, and St. Albans graduate and longtime teacher-coach Jim Ehrenhaft ’83 will devote particular attention to the advising program. English Department Chair Donna Denizé, Skip Grant Program Director OJ Johnson ’97, and others will join them in a multi-year project designed to realize objectives contained in some of the curriculum review initiatives.
Meanwhile, Upper School students remained energetically engaged in the full range of academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits that occupies so much of their time and reveals so many of their talents. Two seniors were awarded coveted Morehead-Cain scholarships at the University of Chapel Hill. One boy was among just 161 high school students from around the nation to be named a Presidential Scholar. The growing robotics team competed in both the U.S. Open Robotics Competition in Iowa in early April and the Vex World Competition in Louisville a few weeks later. Our chess team again won the District of Columbia championship, and we fielded delegations in several Model United Nations competitions and the Euro Challenge program. Varsity teams won IAC championships in cross-country, soccer, and tennis. For the second time in two years, our Gender and Sexuality Alliance club organized and hosted a summit that included seventy-five faculty and students from eight area independent schools. Four Upper School students won honors from the National Society of Arts and Letters for their commitment to and excellence in the performing arts, and a senior was named a winner in the annual Parkmont Poetry Festival for his poem entitled “Waiting for Matthew Shepard’s Funeral Service at the Washington National Cathedral to Begin.” The last assembly of the year featured fifteen Form VI boys who spoke to us about their second semester Independent Study Projects conducted in one-on-one setting with faculty on topics ranging from the poetry of Pablo Neruda to plant pathogenesis. And all of that is, of course, only a small sampling.
When we gather again in early September to start the new school year, several outcomes of the recent curriculum review will be evident with more to come. The biggest change will be the launch of our full-year Form IV required Modern World History course. The first semester of the new course will feature attention to the key intellectual, political, economic, and social developments of Europe from the onset of the Renaissance through the 19th century. In the spring semester, students will examine the roots of World War I and use that conflict and its enduring consequences to explore the twentieth-century world, paying particular attention to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. In an initiative that began this past year, the Form III geometry course will feature expanded attention to coding, and the sophomore level Algebra II course will again include a new quarter of work in statistics.
Near the end of the school year, senior member of the Vestry Noah Kang ’19 gave his final chapel homily. Just as Ben’s opening talk helped to frame the beginning of the year, Noah’s served as yet another reminder of the strength of our community and the enduring power of our mission. His parting words included: “Just as grateful as I am to the Little Sanctuary for bringing me closer to God, I may be even more thankful for the people within it right now. The teachers here want to see us succeed, but they acknowledge that failure may come first. This honesty is what allows them to truly help us become more successful people. The relationships which we build with our teachers and fellow students at St. Albans are the parts of our time here which we should cling to as we go forth into the world.”
Small wonder, then, that those of us who did not graduate in June are already looking forward to the beginning of another school year in September.
Head of Upper School