By Dr. Sam Schaffer, Head of Upper School
This was a year about restoration. Restoring traditions, restoring community. The introduction to the St. Albans Faculty and Staff Handbook leads with a quotation from William Butler Yeats to the effect that truth and beauty are born “in custom and in ceremony.” That sentiment became in many ways our unofficial theme for the 2021-2022 school year. We would find the way to our own truth and beauty by returning fully to the customs and ceremonies that take place in our Little Sanctuary and in the refectory, in our classrooms and on our fields, in all the spaces in between. During the “Covid year” of 2020-2021, Dr. Labaree, Mr. Robinson, Ms. Woods, and everyone else worked tirelessly to maintain as much community as possible by keeping us connected with each other and with the school. Cohorts, DTENs, and even classes in the gym helped bridge those gaps. But as we know, St. Albans is, at heart, a place of interaction, a place where community comes from being together physically, as well as intellectually and emotionally. And so this year, the goal was to re-establish those customs and ceremonies and to use them to renew our community. Upon reflection, I daresay we succeeded.
The touchstone of those customs and ceremonies is chapel, and returning to the intimacy of the Little Sanctuary provided an incomparable grounding for the Upper School boys. Senior Warden George Clessuras ’22 set the tone at one of the first chapels of the year. “Retrace your steps,” he said his mom always tells him when he misplaces his keys or his backpack (or his car). Retrace your steps, he told us, to rediscover all the things we had learned through the years at St. Albans. And then take those memories to build new and even better ones, to build a new and even better school year. It was an apt instruction. Other poignant student chapel talks followed on topics such as the importance of gratitude, or reaching out to one’s classmates for help, or even senior William Barbee ’22 having a conversation with freshman William Barbee. We took forays into the amphitheater for the Blessing of the Animals, into the Senior Circle for the beloved Christmas Hymn Sing, and even into Trapier Theater when the omicron variant hit. Even the one disappointment—we were unable to sing collectively until the very last month of school—proved an unexpected blessing, as we instead witnessed remarkable musical performances from our own community members: from Eddie Cavallin ’22 and John Rhee’s ’23 thrilling rendition of Bach’s “Concerto for Oboe and Violin,” to Mr. Hansen’s piano-playing and Mr. Carroll’s guitar adaptation of “Men of the Future Stand,” to Bruce Wright ’23 and Tendai Ball ’22 performing their own compositions, to Mr. Powers’s beautiful baritone, to the Madrigals chanting psalms. The return to the Little Sanctuary provided a spiritual ballast for the year, the chance to pause together and catch our collective breaths as the light spread through the stained-glass windows of our sacred space.
Nowhere, perhaps, was the re-establishment of community more obvious and joyous than in the refectory. Boys like to eat, and St. Albans boys like to eat with each other. Thanks to the hard work of many people, the refectory returned as the heart of the Upper School day, the place where we gathered, ate, talked, and rebuilt those in-person bonds that make the school what it is. The first time that Head Prefect Rustin Khosravi ’22 rang the bell, a great cheer erupted from the tables, and that enthusiasm maintained throughout the year. From the traditional Thanksgiving wishbone pull (Rustin won, and free dress ensued) to a serenading mariachi band (thanks to the Texas connections of Anthony Robles ’23) to weekly “Turtleneck Tuesday” announcements, the refectory spanned from the mundane to the sublime. We cheered on our comrades’ athletic achievements, heard about the next Salsa and Entrepreneurship Club meeting or Government Club debate, and gustily devoured General Tso’s chicken. One mid-year culinary highlight was the return of our beloved custom of refectory breakfast, unveiled by a surprise “Breakfast Reveal
” video put together by Headmaster Robinson that brought an ear-splitting ovation in Trapier Theater
. Fruit Loops, waffles, eggs, syrup, and bacon once again graced the tables, as boys and faculty alike started their mornings together and rebuilt our community in the refectory.
Another “ceremony” that brought us together and enriched our lives was the return of our assembly period in Trapier Theater. The year began with the custom of our senior prefects offering their thoughts to the assembled Upper School, and their words set the tone for the year: Encouraging younger boys to ask for help and older boys to give that help in a “way that honors each other”; describing the arrival at St. Albans each morning like rain washing over you and taking away your outside cares; encouraging classmates to embrace the STA experience in the manner of Wordsworth’s “Happy Warrior”; and describing the importance of slowing down and acting with honor. Over the course of the year, other student-led assemblies—the Black Affinity Group talking about being Black at St. Albans; the Middle Eastern Affinity Group describing Holi and leading us in a chalk-throwing adventure after school; the Latinx Affinity Group talking about their diversity of selves; the Asian, Asian American & Pacific Islander Affinity Group leading us in a Lunar New Year celebration—showed us the richness of diversity in our community. And a series of alumni returned to St. Albans to reflect on their time on the Close: Yale professor emeritus Frank Snowden ’64 spoke on the pandemic and on his experience as the first African-American graduate of the school as part of our MLK Day of Reflection; musician and producer Jordan Clark ’10 reflected on the importance of taking risks at the chance of connection; Rev. Peter Thompson ’08 discussed what it was like to come out as gay at St. Albans; Buddy Bardenwerper ’08 talked about his recent novel and his experiences serving our country in the Coast Guard; and Charles Snowden ’17 described his first year in the NFL and what it takes to be a leader on the field and off. These remarkable alums reminded St. Albans boys of who they are and what they can be.
The threads tying everything together, of course, were the classrooms. There is no replacement for in-person learning, and it was such a pleasure to walk the halls this year, strolling by Mr. Dickson’s room and seeing groups of freshmen up at the whiteboards solving geometry problems, or seeing students in Mr. Ehrenhaft’s ’83 class writing on the Harkness table, or hearing Ms. Dunn exclaiming about the beauty of integrals, or seeing Dr. Shurmer’s colored chalkboards, or witnessing advanced bio students brooding about Brood X in Dr. O’Brien’s lab, or even seeing NCS girls back in Dr. Licato’s ALT class. The boys were challenged this year, to be sure they had to memorize more, learn more, go faster and deeper than they did last year. And while it took a bit to shake off the rust, they responded. The juniors turned in their U.S. History research papers, the freshmen learned how to use study hall, the sophomores made it through Pride and Prejudice, the seniors dropped their eggs and fired their catapults. The seniors also became the first students to fulfill the new history sequence, enrolling in electives from First Peoples to the World at War. And fifteen seniors also pioneered the new honors history course, writing thirty-page research papers on topics ranging from liberation theology in El Salvador, to Pope Pius VII and Napoleon’s struggle for ecclesiastical power, to the “freak show” in American culture, to the persecution of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe, to the origins of nineteenth-century sanitary reform. The best of these papers were published in the inaugural edition of Ventoux: The STA Journal of History. Learning returned fully to our classrooms this year, truth and beauty were discovered, and it was a joy to witness.
The Chorale room and Trapier Theater, the Little Sanctuary and the Cathedral, the art studio and gallery, also rang out with the voices and instruments and eye-popping artwork of our boys. Our thespians returned to the stage with full-throated voices and stirring renditions of Sondheim’s Company in the fall and of a WWI era-themed Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in the spring. It was truly gratifying for our seniors especially, who had done their best to maintain our program’s rich dramatic traditions through online and Zoom performances last year. The energy on the stage this year was palpable and joyous and electric. A series of hilarious and poignant One Acts directed by students, including our talented seniors Matthew Merril ’22 and William Barbee ’22, capped off the spring. The Chorale and Madrigals singers, as well as the NCS-STA orchestra, brought choral music back to the Washington National Cathedral with the return of our beloved Lessons and Carols in December. They also hosted other area schools for the Small Vocal Music Festival in the fall and the Independent School Choral Festival in the spring, two remarkable outpourings of song, as well as putting on splendid performances during Flower Mart. The fall Parents’ Association Visual Arts Fellows Exhibition and the spring Student Art Show delighted us with sculptures of fish, photographs of coastal Maine, STA cornhole boards covered in old copies of the St. Albans News, surrealist sketches, and on and on. Erick Buendia ’22 capped a remarkable artistic career by winning two silver keys at the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards competition, and school curator and art teacher David Sturtevant ’92 found ways to display student and faculty art that enliven our hallways and enriched our sense of each other. The arts, performing and visual, are alive at STA!
The fields and courts and rinks and pools of St. Albans were also alive, as we witnessed not only the return of the “custom” of full sports seasons but also one of the most successful St. Albans athletic years in recent memory. Championships abounded, individual and team performances thrilled, and hard work and camaraderie reminded us of the value of athletics and our athletics requirement. The fall season saw the football team complete its most successful season in a decade, with a thrilling homecoming victory over Bullis and the first two IAC wins in five years. Quarterback Chase Williams ’22 and defender Luke Harmon ’22 were honorable mention All-Met, while Luke also earned IAC Defensive Player of the Year honors. The cross-country team won a remarkable fourteenth straight IAC championship, with all six of the varsity runners earning All-IAC honors (league and D.C. champion and Gatorade Runner of the Year Pierre Attiogbe ’23, Sebi Hume ’25, Venya Kuzichev ’23, William Strong ’25 Jack Thomas ’23, and Aidan Urbina ’22), and the team finished a program-best second at the D.C. state championships. The soccer team brought home an IAC banner with an undefeated regular season capped by a come-from-behind victory at Landon in the final game, a feat only surpassed with a thrilling 2-0 victory over favored St. John’s in the DCSAA state championship game (All-IAC performers included James Boyle ’22, Niall Fergus ’23, Wayne Frederick ’22, Rustin Khosravi ’22, and Leo Siegel ’23, with Rustin and Wayne being named first-team All-Met).
The winter and spring seasons were no less successful, remarkably. The basketball and climbing teams competed every match and did us honor with their grit and talent. The wrestling team, even though out-numbered in almost every match, battled hard to the end, producing an IAC champion in Aidan Linnartz ’23 and a D.C. state champion in Henry Bedell ’23. The water of the Lawrence Pool churned again with a successful swimming season: Strong IAC and Metros team performances were capped by a stunning STA victory in the first ever D.C. state championship meet, as Zach Cantrell ’23 was named outstanding swimmer of the meet (freshman Charlie Greenwood ’25 took home all-IAC honors). And the hockey team completed its best season ever, winning both the regular season and IAC tournament titles, the latter capped by a truly stunning shootout victory over Landon at our home rink of Fort Dupont. Senior Miles Gunty ’22 earned first-team All-Met honors, with Peter Kaplan ’23, Benjamin Skowronek ’23, and Zachary Skowronek ’24 earning honorable mention All-Met, as well. In the spring, the lacrosse team defeated Landon at home with a stirring come-from-behind 9-8 overtime victory (only the third victory over Landon in the past three decades) and won the D.C. state title with a victory over Sidwell Friends. The crew team completed a successful season and made great advances at the Stotesbury and Nationals regattas, while the baseball team turned in a strong 16-15 season, full of comeback victories (All-IAC honors to Owen Basso ’23, Jeff Davis ’22, Elliott Eaton ’23, and Alex Giambi ’22). The track and field team finished second in the IAC, with numerous top-three finishes led by 3200m champion Sebi Hume ’25, pole vault champion Cole Sather ’25, and the 4x800 team of Hume, Urbina, Rhee, and Strong. Paced by all-IAC performers Grant Lester ’23, Oliver Wang ’24, and Jack Holland ’22, the golf team finished second in the IAC championships and won the inaugural D.C. state tournament, where Lester also took home tournament champion honors. And the tennis team completed a remarkable spring with undefeated IAC regular season and tournament titles, as well as a D.C. state championship victory over Sidwell, with brothers Cameron Zia ’24 and Cyrus Zia ’25 teaming up to win the doubles and Cyrus taking home singles honors. It’s a lot, I know, but what a year!
It’s worth noting in the area of athletics the return of the BEEF Club, our student cheering section. Whether dressing up for a Hawaiian-themed crowd at a football game or bringing back the “Sea of Red” at a basketball game or donning ski gear for a hockey game, the Big Eaters Enjoying Festivities brought loud, proud Bulldog spirit to all the athletic events. They sang the school hymn together after losses and stormed the field after victories, and as they worked to channel their energy in positive directions, they supported their comrades on the field. Not only did they show out at home games, but the BEEF Club often outnumbered opposing fans at away games. The spirit was truly amazing.
And finally, the spaces in between were filled by the important emotional and social programs that support our boys’ mental and social health, from affinity groups to clubs to form-wide gatherings. Our affinity groups entered a second year of great success, providing spaces where boys could be themselves, discuss important topics, and feel even more a part of St. Albans. Their weekly meetings produced powerful conversations, and they often shared important elements of their own cultures in our assemblies. Students and our Community Life team put on a remarkable Diversity Forum in April, with the important theme of “Embracing Community: Unity in Diversity”
and a wide-ranging assortment of workshops run by alums, faculty, and guests on topics ranging from art to journalism to disability to military service, highlighted by Prof. Mark Niles ’82 keynote on the origins and meaning of Critical Race Theory. Throughout the year, clubs brought the boys together in intellectual and cultural pursuit, from long-standing organizations such as the Gender-Sexuality Alliance, It’s Academic, and the Cultural Awareness Organization to relatively newer groups such as the BARK athletic podcast, the Knitting Club, the History Club (which received a $2,500 award from the Department of Defense!), the Music Appreciation Club, and many others. In February, we saw the Model United Nations team take the school’s first overnight trip in over a year and a half with a great showing at the MUN competition in Philadelphia. The Robotics Team (aka “the RoboDogs”) completed an outstanding season with a trip to Dallas for the VEX Robotics National Championships. And we even celebrated the publication of senior Matthew Merril’s ’22 Teen Baking Bootcamp
with a book signing and food truck at Senior Circle. Beyond the simple—yet powerful—joys of being together in our special places, there was no lack of enriching experiences for the boys this year.
That’s not to say that it was all easy. Covid continued to shape what we could and couldn’t do. It was a challenge sometimes to return to full academic pitch. And we sometimes had to re-learn how to behave within these customs and ceremonies. But the boys and teachers adjusted and responded. When omicron surged, we moved back to the tent for lunch. When the tent collapsed, we found another. When lunch announcements outdoors got too cold, too disparate, and too distant, we moved them to Trapier. When we couldn’t sing indoors, we sang outdoors. When we couldn’t watch games in person, we streamed them. When we slipped in our behavior, we regrouped, learned from our mistakes, and got better. We wore masks and double masks and went mask optional. We tested weekly and sometimes bi-weekly. Yet through it all, through another roller coaster of a year, we showed resilience. And while it wasn’t perfect, and exhaustion and frustration emerged at times, the “center” not only held but the boys and the school thrived. Our teachers did what they do best, teach and guide and mentor. And our boys did what they do best: They cheered and supported, they built and learned, they grew.
And so, while the introduction to the Faculty and Staff Handbook begins with Yeats’s quotation about truth and beauty being found “in custom and in ceremony”—and that notion guided so much of this year—it ends with the reminder that what is most important to a school is its people. They are the “soul of the school.” And that, of course, is what this year was most about. Families, boys, and faculty all came together to make this year work. We are all thankful for the spirit of our community, for the people who make up its “soul,” and for the opportunity to be part of St. Albans.