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Singing in the School Year

Williston is a “singing school,” as Ben Demerath, our music director always tells us.  And surely, our boys and girls singing groups, the Caterwaulers and the Widdigers, produce memorable moments each year.  But even Mr. Demerath was surprised by what happened at Sunday’s first Upper School assembly.

Gathering in Stephens Chapel following orientation activities, the classes of 2013 through 2016, were arrayed in their class colors. As part of Associate Head of School Jeff Ketcham’s annual talk about the year to come, the words to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” were displayed on screen and the song was played over the sound system. All of a sudden, the entire assembled student body started spontaneously singing along to the anthem.

I have seen more opening days of school than I care to admit to, and the combination of activities that Williston students enjoy in the days leading up to first classes reveals the dedication of all who work here.  Not many schools, I suspect, have teachers who are willing to spend two (sleepless?) nights in cabins with ninth graders the weekend before classes; and the time and care with which the deans and dorm parents transition students into Williston regarding community expectations—with an emphasis on integrity—speaks loudly about the relevance of our mission.

So here we go with our 172nd school opening, and I look forward to every moment of the good to come.

Place to Place: Camp Belknap and Williston

Hanging in the main room at YMCA Camp Belknap on Lake Winnepausake are all sorts of banners, from colleges, universities, and boarding and private schools.  Williston’s banner has a spot in the pantheon in New Hampshire, hung many years ago by an unknown hand, I gather. The banner reveals a long connection between the two places—a connection that continues to this day.

Photo courtesy of Roger Maroni ’77

Roger Maroni ’77, who maintains an affiliation with Belknap, passed this photo along.  I had a chance to see the banner for myself when picking up our son Robby, who enjoyed a week of camp at Belknap. As a a sixth grade student, Robby got to experience the kind of connections that our students make in their own formative years to Williston.

As we gather together as a faculty to prepare for the school’s 172nd year, I think of the human connections that endure well beyond the passage of a single season.  This coming year will be filled with all sorts of accomplishments, disappointments, acts of selflessness, and acts of kindness. Above all, students and faculty alike will form connections to Williston. This is a transformative place—one which confers meaning and influence well beyond the Homestead’s gates.

The Hills, Far Afield

Black Rhino spotted by Hill family in South Africa

It was great to come home to Williston following a vacation that took the Hills far afield to visit family in both the UK and South Africa. As is so often the case after such an experience, one cannot help but return with fresh perspectives.

I recalled the diverse beauty of South Africa from a previous visit, and so that viewpoint was not new or changed from the impression I gleaned over 20 years ago.  But what seemed different to me was the human landscape, epitomized by the recent celebration for Nelson Mandela’s birthday, or the colossal World Cup stadium that marks one view into Cape Town and carries its memories of “Bafana Bafana.”

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Diploma Redux

Something out of the ordinary happened at the School’s 171st Commencement.

Actually, I would say that the entire Commencement was particularly memorable—given that a deluge outside drove us into the Athletic Center for only the third time in dozens of years. The address by Joanna Lau P’13 was captivating for the personal journey of courage and determination that it revealed in the story of the speaker’s mother.

But something else happened that was a bit odd.  After the diplomas were conferred, I was asked if we could re-present the diploma to one of our young men. His parents had arrived too late to see the live version.

Being Williston—and not to be hung up on unbending ceremony—we improvised. We had the young man return his diploma and then take the walk across the stage, handshakes and all, so that his parents could enjoy the moment.

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We the People: A Morning with Ms. Williams’ Civics Class

In a classroom version of the highly successful State Constitutional debate competition known as “We The People”, the 8th grade students in Ms. Williams’ civic class demonstrated their prowess to a panel of judges. Luckily for me, I was one of them.

“We the People” has been promoted by Mr. Peter Gunn for over a decade with Williston Northampton’s AP US History students. Earlier this year, Andrew Syfu’s 8th grade class also tackled the debates—with great success.

The 8th graders read prepared responses to challenging constitutional questions (for instance, “do you believe there are times when freedom of expression should be limited?”). Groups of three students presented to a three-judge panel.

As judges, we were able to ask follow-up questions. The students parried and responded with thoughtful examples, clear counterpoints, and an occasional, “Could you please repeat the question?”

So what did I take away from this?  If the ability to prepare a cogent and specific written argument matters, if the skill of listening carefully matters, if collaborating with peers to achieve a common goal matters, then the 8th grade civic’s exercise was a complete success.

At one point, Mrs. Sawyer remarked on how one young person’s nuanced reply “sounded like a lawyer” and reminded us all how nimble teenage minds really can be.

Oh, and the audience of middle school students were also attentive, respectful, and engaged. All in all, it was quite a morning treat in Whitaker-Bement.