Dear St. Albans Alumni:
In a 2009 commencement speech, beloved English teacher and Associate Headmaster Dr. Paul Piazza reminded the graduates gathered in the Cathedral that St. Albans is not just a cluster of buildings, a campus of stone and mortar, but a community of people and a collection of stories. “St. Albans is more than merely stones, splendid as they are,” said Piazza. “Were all of these Gothic towers to vanish in an instant, there would still be St. Albans. You are — we are — the school ... We have fashioned a construct of stories and memories ... These stories compose the living stones of St. Albans, the building blocks.”
I have thought often of Dr. Piazza’s words in the past month, as the imperatives of social distancing have separated us from our sacred spaces and physical manifestations of our community: from the intimacy of the Little Sanctuary, the beauty of the Refectory, and the joyfulness in our hallways. Our students and faculty did not know when they departed for spring break in mid-March how profoundly the world would change in two weeks. In a community that cherishes ritual and relationships, we are now operating a virtual campus and a new distance-learning plan
, with COVID-19 forcing us to reimagine what it means to teach, learn, and remain connected in a world of compelled separation. At this beautiful time of year, when the Close is always at its most vibrant, our campus remains closed through May 15, perhaps longer depending on the health situation.
Now more than ever I am now grateful for the living stones, the living stories, that are the true soul — the true sacred space — of St. Albans.
Computer Science Department Chair and Math Teacher Michael Hansen compared the first week of online learning to his first as a teacher in 1998: “Teaching using distance learning tools is almost like starting over from scratch. Everything is different and unfamiliar: the rhythm of the class, the way of interacting with the students and checking for understanding, the as-yet uncracked problem of how to grade and assess, everything.”
And yet, our teachers press on. Mr. Hansen reminds himself: “After I had the first few days under my belt in 1998, everything settled into a pattern, and the entire rest of the year went by in a flash. Same for the next 20.75 years, faster and faster each year.” In week one, Science Department Chair Tom Carroll’s AP biology students conducted a virtual dissection. Lower School drama classes switched from plays to monologues. According to Theater Department Chair Mark Bishop, theater classes adopted a brand new, timely piece called Stranded: Views From Quarantine
, a collection of monologues written from the perspective of passengers and crew members on a quarantined cruise ship. “The Lower School boys are doing their best to be present and pay attention (which is challenging when we are together in person!), and we are having fun with them,” says Mr. Bishop.
Stories and memories are bringing us together, as Dr. Piazza suggested, helping our faculty support our boys each day, giving them strength and resilience to endure, opening our hearts to moments of grace at this difficult time.
Chapel, our most sacred space of stories and remembrance, has proven to be more important than ever in the life of the school, even though we are unable to gather together in person. The Upper and Lower School chaplains have been hosting Zoom chapels, with readings by boys, homilies by students and teachers, singalongs to the school hymn, slideshows from the year past, and our faces — 250+ in the Lower School, 350+ in the Upper School — in grids across our screens. At the end of chapel, teachers and boys wave, smile, and say hello, before they go in peace.
The boys — present and joyful even in such a difficult time — have been wonderful, reminding so many of us why we chose to work in this extraordinary school community.
As Form IV student George Clessuras shared with us last week in a recorded Upper School chapel talk: “While the flow of life as usual has been disrupted, we must grow a greater appreciation for the very facets of everyday life that we are challenged to avoid: small businesses, professional sports, concerts, freedom to go downtown, our athletic competitions, the ability to convene as a school community. Ultimately, when coronavirus subsides, and life as usual prevails, we must enjoy these things as gifts, not as givens, like never before.”
As George reminds us, the events of the past month have transformed our perspective in powerful ways. As we find the “givens” of our everyday life suddenly taken away from us, we can now see them more deeply and more poignantly for the gifts they truly are.
I have been thinking about our extended school family during these challenging times, hoping you and your families are safe and healthy. Thank you for being part of the St. Albans stories and memories that are helping sustain our teachers, our boys, and our entire community today. Our chaplains are praying for you. Please let us know if there are ways we can support you and your family.