By Fredric Chandler, Head of Lower School
So, what’s in a handshake?
Over and over this year, the significance of the morning, pre-school handshake ritual percolated in conversations with all sorts of people. The faculty and alumni expected the tradition to continue, and each teacher and alumnus saw it as a marker, I think, of the normal and important continuation of Mr. True’s legacy through the powerful, contemporary example set by my immediate predecessor and mentor, Mr. Herman. Parents relished their sons having in me, the school writ small, the institution welcoming their Bulldogs to the school day. Mr. Wilson, in his only mandate to me (given to me when he invited me back to the Close) recognized the potent gesture and said simply, “You will shake each boy’s hand in the mornings, Mr. Chandler.” The boys, the other constituency and the one whom my handshakes most directly affect, seemed at once happy, bemused, confused, somnambulistic, excited, and lethargic by the daily routine. Which is just perfect. The lads generally don’t understand much in real time, as it were.
Yet, after the boys glad-hand me and enter the blue doors, something wonderful happens: life, with adolescent boys going about the obvious business of school and the mysterious and latent process of growing up. To help the boys navigate both tasks, I proffered three goals for the work of the Lower School this year, a vision that would lead us: We aim to grow boys in healthy ways, create and maintain a deep sense of community, and foment joy and gratitude in our daily lives. What follows here is a brief, non-exhaustive portrait of what we’ve accomplished and what challenges us.
The C Form tackled the great stairwell right away, following the lead of our Form II prefects on Registration Day. Within a few days, our youngest Bulldogs were feeling comfortable and seemed like they had been here for years. When the boys weren’t tackling geography projects, studying vocabulary, or working through math problems, they were busy in other ways. They became living wax museum statues, honoring important historical figures. Their presentations in the Martin Gym were fantastic. The boys, too, with the help of Ms. Goodyear, Mrs. Elliott, and Mr. Brockway, designed and presented a lovely chapel to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at a service in the Cathedral.
Kayaking and rafting on the Potomac made up the culminating experience for the B Form. Stalwart participants in B Form sports all year, the boys dialed it in for the mostly dry adventure led by Mr. Velosky and Mr. Boswell. Such esprit de corps was fomented daily by Ms. Haas, Mr. Houston, and Mr. Wilkerson in the classrooms and by Ms. Blanford in Spanish, Mrs. Moore in music, and Mrs. Tharp in art. Poetry Cafes, all weaponry Greek and Roman, and field trips to the Walters Museum and Newseum challenged the boys to see a larger historical arc and synthesize learning.
Form A enjoyed a year of good books, among them in particular was Wonder, a scintillating and moving story of an adolescent boy finding comfort in his own skin. Such literature work in Mr. Levner’s class was complemented by the study of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Mrs. Continetti’s room. There the boys marketed significant inventions Shark Tank-style, learning much about keystone technologies and entrepreneurship. Mr. Brown, in addition to being the Form A math instructor, has a degree in art history, and such acumen was put to use in helping the group organize a trip to the National Gallery of Art. The trip provided a great venue for the boys to demonstrate their knowledge of the Renaissance. Afterwards the form returned to the decidedly non-Renaissance environs of Cactus Cantina for lunch, a historic event in its own right! Of course, a highlight of the year for A Form remains donning the blue-and-white for interscholastic sports.
Form I scholarship included deep dives into American history, reading and writing, foreign language study, math, and science inquiry; such currents challenged and stretched the boys and happily so. Landmark to the form was the advisory experience, which collected various forms of assemblies and walkabouts. The boys heard from the Motley Fool, they toured the dorm and other little known places around the Close, they heard poignant talks from their teachers, they traveled to Mount Vernon, and they celebrated the Form Onesies, a new, funny, and irreverent but deeply satisfying year-end awards show.
Our oldest boys, those in Form II, showed great growth this year. History and English allowed the boys to delve into 20th-century American history, and works like Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Macbeth collectively put into relief the election mania, which was substantial currency this year with the boys. Great success, too, was achieved by our math team, and the boys were great leaders on our sports teams and in their theater and music ensembles.
For all that remains foundational to St. Albans, and there’s a good bit of it, we did venture a bit this year. Science Fair has morphed into a week-long, varying-by-form pageant. This modification of the tried-and-true fair has breathed life into the boys as they investigate science in different ways. Likewise, the addition of the Form II Prize Day Chapel, a ceremony whereby I honor each boy in Form II, has made the traditional send-off a more intimate affair as it is now seated in the lovely confines of the Little Sanctuary.
Likewise an important piece of new programming for families was established this year. Initiated and created by Dr. Viola, with assistance from Ms. Castellanos Evans and the Reverend Humphrey, the Lower School offered two events which focused on social media use and our boys. Guiding us were questions: What is normal smart phone use for our boys? What are common pitfalls of such use? How do families establish parameters for smart phone behavior? What are typical boundaries enforced by parents? What conversations are ripe for boys and their parents around social media?
Often this year I was asked, “Mr. Chandler, what’s the biggest difference in the nine years you were away from the school.” The answer is simple. Before I left there were no smart phones; now these devices are nearly ubiquitous among boys starting in A Form. The screens have changed our culture, and they certainly have changed our boys. The boys have gained knowledge and facts and all sorts of detritus, but often our boys aren’t equipped to handle such content within a nuanced context. Our boys don’t have the requisite maturity and wisdom to process such data, and as such, smart phones have deeply affected our boys as students and our boys as members of a community. Tone, mindfulness, and healthy relationships hang in the balance when unencumbered content speeds into our boys’ minds seemingly without pause. Such is the challenge for us all.
Yet what is a constant is the nature of the St. Albans boy. Who is he? Our most edified and edifying Bulldogs are inquisitive, interested in the realm of ideas, eager to get involved and engage, they exhibit and welcome quirkiness, and they have a good dose of tribalism. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they deeply guard a love of each other and of St. Albans. That is a potent mix, one we must continue to cultivate.
At midday, of course, we all enjoy a happy repast in the Cafritz Refectory. This year I deviated from the script with my offering of the post-meal Thanksgiving, providing impromptu prayers and expressions of gratitude. Often I would point the boys and faculty to consider their days as a collection of moments, discrete slices of time that flee from us. I would regularly ask: What do we do with those separate instances of time we are given? To what use? Do we honor those moments? Those queries are important to any well-lived life, and just as I began each morning with a quiet gesture of kindness and community in the guise of a handshake, so also do I wish to bring to the boys’ afternoons a sense of gratitude and remind them of the opportunity and responsibility that this great school offers and demands. Our days our lucky ones; prize them we must.