All-School Meeting Remarks: Opening of School, 2013 at Phillips Academy

I thought I would share on this blog a copy of what I said, more or less, to the assembled 1,129 students and to hundreds of faculty of Phillips Academy this morning to open our school year.  The All School Meeting, held in Cochran Chapel, started with a procession of 58 flags representing the countries from which our students hail, the spirited entrance of the Class of 2014, and the introduction of the faculty of the Academy.  After a brief welcome and acknowledgement of the 9/11 tragedy, and a moment of silence, the two, articulate student body co-presidents addressed the students, as did an extraordinarily poised student representing the international student body.  I then shared these thoughts with the students to start the year.

students carrying flags

The first ASM starts with a procession led by flag bearers carrying flags from the 33 countries represented within the student body.

Thank you, all, for this spirited all-school meeting – this Celebration of Community.  We are strong because of what makes us different from one another – our diversity – and also what we share – our values and our humanity.  We celebrate this joyful mix this morning.

At this time of year, I find myself looking forward to what the academic year will hold – thinking about my aspirations for the school year to come.  For the next few minutes, I hope that you will set aside your most immediate thoughts – like what’s for lunch, or the homework you have to do later, or who might have texted you in the moments before you turned off your device for ASM – and devote your mind to what you want to do, who you want to be, in the months to come.

We have the great privilege of being at Andover, together, for the 2013-2014 year.  We have, give or take, nine months together.  How do you want to spend your time?  How shall we spend this time together?  How shall we use this gift together?

I have three metaphors in mind.  Perhaps at least one of them will work for you.

The first is the metaphor of the starfish.  I chose today to wear a tie, given to me by a new member of this community, that has on it a starfish.  This tie is appropriate for today in multiple respects.  One respect is its colors: it has in it both the deep blue of Phillips Academy and the pale blue of Abbot Academy.  We are the merger of both these two great schools, 40 years ago.  It is incumbent upon us to learn and to recall this shared history, of girls and boys, of women and men, who have come before us to create this great school that thrives here today.

Back to the starfish itself.  The starfish is pretty – and that’s part of its appeal.  But it also has an unusual ability – the ability to regenerate itself.  This metaphor applies to school communities because, each year, some of the members of our community leave, and new members come to join us.  The starfish – and the community – end up looking a little bit different each year.  But the whole remains the same.  It our job to make this regeneration beautiful and harmonious with the whole – for leaders to step up in every walk of life at the Academy, whether the administration or the grounds crew, the Phillipian or the Philo, in each and every classroom, team, and artistic endeavor.  Many of last year’s leaders are in college or pursuing other dreams.  Now is our time at Andover.  Let’s make the most of it.

Second metaphor: a canvass.  Each of us has before us this gift of a year.  It’s a year of our life, a precious gift, and we have it to spend, here and now, at Andover – to me, among the highest privileges one can imagine.  Few people on the planet have such privilege.  We should not wallow in guilt but rather make the most of it.

As you think about your canvass for the year: what will you fill it with?  I hope your canvass will include creative things you thought you’d never do; some things you expected to do and have done extremely well; and also some blank space, for time you spent resting and caring for your self – yes, by that I mean sleep.  I hope your canvass also includes beautiful connections to other people, the joy of community that we share and that we celebrate today.

Part of what is exciting about life at Andover is that each of our canvasses connect to one another.  We are making our own year, but we make it together, connected to the lives and the aspirations of our friends and colleagues.  We are never, at Andover, alone; our actions are never without consequence for others.  Pursue your dreams, yes, but recall non sibi – recall our commitment of not for self – and recall what great power you have to help your fellow students through the hardest of days at Andover.  Think now, as you walk to your next class or to lunch, about what you want your canvass, for this year, to look like.  It’s in your hands.

Finally, the metaphor that most resonates for me each year at this time.  I cannot start a school year without thinking of the steps in Paresky, the steps that lead from the first floor to the second.

I think about these steps because I think a lot about what it means to be the 15th head of school at an Academy that has been one of the great institutions of teaching and learning in this country for 235 years.  Much of what I think about has to do with the balance between tradition and innovation – about what we want to keep, and what we need to change – and about the role that each of us play in that process over time.

My very favorite place on campus happens to be these two staircases, leading from the first floor to the second floor of Paresky.  There is something about progress upwards, toward the divine, or towards the future, that I like about them.  Perhaps it has to do with the food, which is far better than the dining hall food I’ve had at any school I’ve gone to or worked at.  But mostly it has to do with the steps themselves.

You’ve probably noticed these steps.  The steps have indentations in the marble – indentations made by generations of students, faculty and staff who have gone before us.  I love these indentations because they make me mindful of the fact that we are not alone in this journey.  We are not alone today and we are not alone over time.  This is an institution that has stood the test of time – and has thrived because it has grown and improved over time.  It has stood true to certain principles, but it has also changed as it needed to change.

Why I like the steps in Paresky so much is that I know that my steps – as head of school – matter.  They matter in that I, too, am making those indentations deeper than they were before.  If I put a foot in the deepest part, I am making that indentation just a bit deeper.  If I step where others have not stepped so often, perhaps closer to the middle of the stair, then I make a tiny mark where others have not so frequently walked.

I know that my steps do matter, as your head of school.  But, as an educator and as a matter of physics, I also know that my steps do not really matter any more than your steps.  Perhaps I weigh a bit more than some of you, so my indentation is a bit deeper, or my footfall heavier than yours is, as you sprint more quickly from the first to the second floor.  But none of us can change this place very quickly with our footsteps.  None of us can change those steps, all that much, on our own.  And we will be followed – there will be a sixteenth head of school.  There will be a class of 2045, perhaps with some of your children in it, or my grandchildren.

I had the great pleasure last year and into this summer of meeting many of the school’s roughly 25,000 alumni.  I’ve met very recent grads and members of classes that have already had their 50th reunions.  I’ve met graduates who did not like their time here much and some who have given much of their time and their treasure to support this school.

One meeting, that I’ll remember for a long time, was with the Mr. and Mrs. Paresky, in their home.  They invited me in for lemonade on a warm summer’s morning.  I asked them why they loved the school so much, and why they had given us the generous gift of the new Paresky Commons.  I loved what the Pareskys said that day: it had to do with how much the school had given to David Paresky as a student, and to their own daughter Pamela, in particular, when she followed him to the school.

But it also was about the way that Mr. Paresky thinks about obligation: the idea that he had been given much by the school, at an early age; that he had gone out and done well – and many good works, in the true non sibi spirit – in his life; and that he believed that he needed to be a steward of Andover, that he had an obligation to give back.  We get more from Andover than we give, he told me, and he wanted to be sure that the students at Andover today know about both the wonderful opportunity that you have while you are here – seize it! – and also about the extent to which great institutions like Andover don’t just happen.  They become great because generation after generation, students have been mindful of their own footsteps here and then have given back, when they’ve moved on from life on campus, out of a sense of love for the place and also obligation.

And that’s the key point about the footsteps.  We are part of a legacy.  I am the fifteenth head of school, acutely aware of the fourteen who have come before me and those who will come after me.  We each have a role to play in the story, the history, of Andover.  We can do much to change the school, but we cannot alter it completely – much as our footsteps going up the steps in Paresky cannot completely remake the marble.  We must be mindful of what we do here and the effect of our choices, now and into the future.

And as we do so, we should have fun – good, wholesome fun, of course.  We will work hard, but we should play a lot too, and enjoy this community that we are so lucky to be a part of.

Before we go, I’d like to do a few quick things.  I’ve been so happy to hear the joyful voices of all of you students lighting up this campus since the Blue Keys started to cheer on the corner as new students arrived.

First: Juniors, Lowers, Uppers: the seniors came in with a lot of spirit this morning.  I want all the juniors, lowers, and uppers, to make some noise in appreciation of those students who are going before you.  Let’s hear it for the seniors!

Seniors, you get another shot.  Let’s hear it for the juniors, lowers, and uppers, who are following in your enormous footsteps!  Make some noise!

And last, after this last cheer, the All School Meeting is adjourned.  I want you to do one last cheer – hold on! – and then walk out of this chapel into brilliant sunshine, ideally with a big smile on your faces, and perhaps a little attention, in the back of your minds, to your footfalls, today and for the nine months to come, as you go.

All students, you are going to do this last cheer.  You are surrounded, in this community, by some of the finest adults I have ever had the privilege of meeting.  This is a mindful, inspired, caring community of teachers who are devoting their professional lives – and in many respects, their personal lives, too, as they live in the dorms with you and eat together and play together – to your education.  For our last cheer of the day, Andover students, and as our last act as we leave the chapel: Let’s hear it for the teachers!

3 thoughts on “All-School Meeting Remarks: Opening of School, 2013 at Phillips Academy

  1. Dear Mr. Palfrey,

    I am so glad that you are head of school, as my granddaughter, Adele Bernhard, enters her senior year. Your remarks at the opening of school were inspiring. I agree that the continuity is of great value, and Adele’s father, Jason, received the same spirit of academic excellence and non sibi. As a mother and grandmother, I thank you.

    All best, Martha Updike

    • Thank you, Mrs. Updike, for this lovely comment. We are delighted to count Adele among our students! Thank you for sharing her with us.

      All best,
      John Palfrey

  2. Dear Mr. Palfrey,

    Dear Mr. Palfrey,

    My husband Adam and I had the difficult, amazing, and heart wrenching honor of leaving our son Trevor Lazar at PAA on Friday at 5:30pm. No one can prepare you for that feeling however we were able to do it knowing that he is in such capable hands. Please know that you should be proud to be associated with people like Peter Dignard, Kevin Graber, Bill Leahy, Jim Ventre, Frank Tipton, Scott Hoenig and Steve Silversides. They ALL went out of their way from the moment they met Trevor to make him feel comfortable and know that Andover would be his home away from home for the next 4 years! Thsi has truly helped to ease the pain of missing him a WHOLE 5 days into the journey, :).

    There was never a doubt in Trevor’s mind from the moment he stepped onto the Andover campus in October 2012 that it was the place for him. He loved the campus, the teachers, the possibilities and the positive energy that seems to radiate from everyone and everything associated with the school, yourself included.

    His Dad and I are excited to see him grow, change and develop over the next four years into the kind, smart and loving young man he is meant to be. Thank you to PAA, your incredible faculty and you for making this possible.

    All our best,

    Nicole and Adam Lazar

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