By Ms. Ivette Bohlen
As we recently acknowledged the passing of the one-year mark of when our schools on the Close closed due to the pandemic, the question school counselors are often asked is, “What toll is the pandemic having on the mental health of our children and teens?”
We may not know the answer for years to come. The cases of anxiety and depression continue to rise at alarming rates, and the “pandemic fatigue” and “COVID-19 wall” that children and teens are experiencing is real. According to CNN Health reporter Matt Villano, this is due in part to kids having a different sense of time in how we live our lives. Adults know that not much changes from year to year, but children and teens live their lives as a series of events. The last year meant no birthday parties, camps, recitals, holidays with grandparents, vacations, school milestones and traditions, etc. None of these things have happened normally in over a year.
We all have a reservoir of coping abilities to get us through losses and traumas. Thanks to years of experience building up resilience, adults have a larger reservoir for managing this grief than children and teens. The psychological concept “cognitive load” speaks to how much we can hold in our minds at any time. For children and teens the losses have piled up and the resulting grief has maxed-out their cognitive load, and the burgeoning coping reservoir has run dry, resulting in hitting the proverbial “COVID-19 wall.” In teens this can be characterized by lack of motivation, loss of interest in school and other activities that used to bring them joy, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
A few weeks ago the results of a national research study, “Kids Under Pressure,” by NBC News and Challenge Success, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, were released which reveal the impact of the pandemic on high school student well-being and academic engagement. Key findings include the following:
Students, especially females and students of color, continue to experience high levels of stress and pressure.
Students’ engagement with learning is especially low now.
Students’ relationships with adults and peers are strong, yet appear strained in recent times.
In relation to key finding #1, the study reports in Fall 2020, 32% of students report mental health as a major source of stress versus 26% pre-pandemic. This is even more concerning for females who cite mental health as a source of stress at more than twice the frequency of their male classmates. Additionally, the four major sources of stress cited by students are “grades, tests, and other assessments,” followed by “overall workload,” “lack of sleep,” and “time management.” The study also reports that these major sources of stress are consistent before and during the pandemic. It is important for NCS students to talk to their trusted adults when they are having trouble managing their academic load and feeling overwhelmed. This will be particularly important in the next week as we are nearing the end of the quarter.
We know the pandemic is taking its toll on the emotional health of children and teens. What can students do for themselves and each other as we continue to live in these conditions? First, and foremost, students can double down on self-care, engage in self-compassion, and try to recognize and manage feelings of grief. What can students do for each other? Show compassion and empathy for one another, connect with each other (in person if you are able), and acknowledge feelings of loss. Remember STEM:
SLEEP – clean up your sleep hygiene & get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep
TALK – process your emotions, talk about how you’re feeling, and name what is causing stress
EAT – eat 3 healthy square meals and 2 good snacks a day; stay hydrated
MOVE – movement & exercise, exercise for 30 minutes a day & get outdoors when you can
By Mr. Justin Bonner
Upon receiving the email asking me to write this article about coming to NCS during a pandemic, I could only think to myself:
Madeline seems to be assigning me homework. I thought it was supposed to work the other way around.
Is this a passive aggressive way of punishing me for calling her ‘Hopper’ in class? I haven’t returned her unit project yet. Hasn’t she realized that I probably can’t handle another assignment? Hmm, maybe a 300-500 word essay causing me existential dread should make me be more compassionate toward my students and reduce their workloads.
Amidst all of these thoughts, one reigned supreme: This is something I can deal with tomorrow. Afterall, I’ll see Madeline in class. Surely she’ll remind me. Of course, during class, I blew through zoom limits, and everyone had had enough of speaking to me. No reminders would come. Tomorrow turned into a few days later when I helpfully received another email (Thanks Nisa). A couple days after that I managed to finally reply, giving my guilt-fueled assent.
This is basically a microcosm of teaching during a pandemic, complete with anxiety, guilt, communication breakdowns, and countless emails.
On the face of it, everything was supposed to be easy. My wife and I were moving from Connecticut, but we grew up in DC and our families are here. I was switching from teaching college to high school, but much of the subject matter was the same. Even my class sizes were significantly reduced. What could possibly go wrong?
The easy (and, probably by now, expected) answer is “everything.” The real answer is a little more complicated. In some ways the transition has been smooth. The admin team went above and beyond the call of duty to speed up the summer paperwork, which allowed us to buy a home. My teaching colleagues have been warm, welcoming, and surprisingly protective when it comes to my time and workload. My students are bright, engaged, and curious. In the broader community, I am continually amazed by the mature and eloquent ways with which students express themselves during Cathedral services.
Of difficulties, of course, there have been many. Most of them were relatively mundane: transitioning to new IT systems, having OneNote randomly delete materials, trying to figure out what a D day was and why we couldn’t just call it Thursday… The biggest challenge, though, has been disconnect: Not being able to easily pop in to chat and/or commiserate with a colleague; not being able to know whether my jokes have landed because all of the remote students are muted and the in-person are dazed from having to wake up so early; not being able to tell who that masked person who clearly knows my name is…
In all of this, you might have noticed a pattern. The people have consistently been the best part of this experience (But if I never again had to respond to an email or distribute a page in OneNote, I wouldn’t complain).
By the NCS Head of School Ms. Susan C. Bosland
Being the Head of School during a pandemic is a unique experience for all Heads of School. Although crisis management arises across many possible scenarios in school settings, the sustained and uncertain nature of the pandemic is entirely unique. In addition, every school in the world has been and continues to be affected. So, although the sudden arrival of the virus was difficult, as schools, we have been able to problem-solve and support each other as we navigate the unknown landscape!
Four main areas emerge on my list of challenges when leading a school during the pandemic:
Susan C. Bosland
Head of School
National Cathedral School
By Ms. Rachel Jacobs
When I applied to college in the mid 1980’s, computers were barely a thing and certainly not found in most households, cell phones didn’t exist, and long-distance phone calls cost real money if they were made before 11pm. (Between 11pm and 8am, the price per minute was discounted.) The U.S. Postal Service dominated modes of communication between college and applicant, and guidebooks were the main way I learned about colleges. That might sound like a science fiction novel compared to how high school students learn about and apply to colleges today.
Like many high school juniors, I, too, took the PSAT in 11th grade and signed up for the College Board’s Student Search Service. Later that year, scads of college viewbooks (think glossy marketing brochure) arrived by mail at my house. Already knee-deep in college searching, I loved looking at these brochures and learning about the colleges, some of which I’d never heard of. (It’s not an accident that I’m in the career I’m in.) During the summer after 11th grade, I made a list of six colleges I wanted to apply to. Some of them I had visited in the spring of that year and others I toured in fall of 12th grade. Pulling out my guidebooks, I looked up the mailing address of each college, hand wrote postcards requesting an application packet, and dropped the post cards in a mailbox. Then, I waited for the mail. Eventually, fat envelopes arrived at my house, containing an application booklet. I recall some of the colleges included a thick course catalog, too.
Now it was fall of 12th grade and I had some work to do. Deciding I was not going to apply anywhere under an early decision deadline, even though I had a favorite college, I knew I had essays to write, six application forms to fill out, and papers to organize to bring to my high school guidance counselor and teachers, who would be responsible for mailing recommendation letters, forms, and transcripts to six separate institutions. I had to give them stamped, addressed envelopes and make sure they received everything with plenty of time to spare. We were all obligated to meet a January 1 deadline.
I remember many a weekend night (or was it just a few weekdays between Christmas and December 31?), sitting at my dad’s typewriter—yes, you read that correctly, and it’s a good thing I had taken a summer typing class and knew how to use Wite-Out—copying over the hand-written essay drafts I had worked on over the previous many weeks. Six colleges times six different main essay prompts plus additional essay questions the colleges might have asked. It was a lot of typing. However, the colleges accepted handwritten or typed essays, and after a certain point, I gave up on the typing and wrote at least one college’s essays in painstakingly neat handwriting.
Once the applications were mailed off in late December to the colleges with a check for the requisite application fee included, which ranged from $15-$25, I waited. Until April 15. My decisions didn’t all arrive on the same day, and I had received some decisions in the mail a few days before April 15, but the decision from my favorite college was expected on April 15. I remember it like it was yesterday. I hurried home from school on a beautiful sunny day to return to an empty house (parents at work, siblings away at college), collected the mail, saw the envelope, took it out back to sit in the sun and take a deep breath, and pulled out the letter to read I had been admitted. And then what? I don’t know! I can’t remember. I probably called my mom at her office and then told my dad. I’m sure they let me call my siblings at dinner and not wait until after 11pm or the weekend, when we usually talked to them.
Even though I knew that this was where I wanted to attend college, I went to their Admitted Student Day, didn’t go to the ones for the other colleges where I was admitted, and declined the one wait list offer I received. My journey was over. Or had it just begun?
By Mr. Justin Maaia
We are all connected. To lose sight of this connection brings suffering, while to remain mindful of it brings joy. Mindfulness is the way we keep sight of our interconnectedness.
How are we all connected? First, everything in the known universe started out as just one thing. A singularity, as physicists call it. Then the Big Bang happened, starting us on the course of endless diversity that we have today. But this current fact of diversity cannot erase the original fact of our oneness. For one thing, there is the universe’s cosmic microwave background, or “relic radiation.” This is the electromagnetic radiation that still exists from the time of the big bang, stretching throughout all space and time.
Most people aren’t surveying the universe with a radio telescope, so how do we know this prior oneness is still a fact? Just take it away for a moment—as we did sometime around mid-March of 2020—and our interconnectedness becomes instantly apparent. We are relational beings, and every one of our actions has some bearing on everyone and everything else around us. That is why we have to be mindful.
What we call “mindfulness” can be found in every life-philosophy I have encountered. Buddhist sammā-sati, or “right mindfulness”, Christian “contemplative living,” and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita’s injunction to “Perform every act without concern for the results” are just three examples. Why does this practice emerge in every culture?
Compare the following scenarios:
Scenario #1: I stand hunched over the kitchen sink, doing the dishes with resentment because I have a vague idea it isn’t my night to do them. I rush my way through washing, breaking a dish along the way. Exhausted, I finish cleaning up by taking the trash out. As I rip the bag from its container, a giant gash appears and wet garbage floods the floor. Family members scurry to other corners of the house as they hear swear words coming from the kitchen. I re-bag the trash, take it outside, and return to the kitchen in a huff to mop the floor.
Scenario #2: I stand at the kitchen sink, gently washing each item. I am grateful for these beautiful dishes that play such a central role in my family’s nutritious, lively dinners. After I finish the last dish, I look down at the trash. As I gently lift the bag from its container, I notice a tear starting to form in the bag. I grab a new bag and double-bag it so that there is no mess. I skip down the hall to take out the trash, feeling accomplished and knowing that my work is done for the day.
As a cancer survivor, I live every day in relationship with death. This sounds dark, I know. But that awareness, that mindfulness, is what makes me aware and grateful for the gift of life every day. That is why I try and practice scenario #2. Sometimes I fail, but that is why we call it “practice.” We have a chance to practice every single moment of our day. Every morning when I turn on my computer and open my Zoom room, I greet my students with a smile. And you know what? They smile back. Despite the early hour, despite the pandemic, despite all they are dealing with, they smile back. And maybe those smiles aren’t entirely willful. Maybe some of those smiles are only the result of mirror-neurons firing, forcing my poor students to flex muscles they aren’t emotionally ready to flex yet that day. But it doesn’t matter: The flexing happens, the muscle memory links their body-minds with all of the genuine smiles and joy and laughter they have ever experienced, and the day gets better. That is interconnectedness. That is the power of mindfulness.
I just realized I am not being entirely truthful here. The Zoom scenario actually starts a bit earlier. I open my Zoom room, harried by thoughts of all that I need to remember for my class. Then my first student signs on, the same one every day at 8:15am, and she smiles at me. Despite the early hour, despite the pandemic, despite all that she has going on in her life, despite my lack of smile, she smiles at me. Now I am smiling. And now all the other students come online, forced by their mirror neurons to smile, to tap into their deep well of good feelings, to make each other’s mornings a little better with their dialogue and ideas and good cheer. That is the power of one person’s mindful smile to tap into our interconnectedness and transform the world.
The more we can remain mindful of the ever-present miracle of life, its endless diversity and its never-ending oneness, the more joy we will bring to ourselves and to each other.
By Ms. Tamara Riquelme
I have worked at NCS for sixteen years. For fourteen of those years, I was also a Close parent. Camila came to NCS in 2006, and Martín left STA in 2020. Since the beginning of this (strange) academic year, I have come to school by myself, I don’t have to wait for anybody in the afternoon, and there are no morning car fights. In many ways, my life is easier now that I don’t have children on the Close, but I also miss them terribly. Along with the car fights, we also had those long, important conversations, the silly ones, the ones that made us feel closer, and the ones that we forgot as soon as we got home. I miss seeing them in school and knowing that we shared a space, and I miss the feeling that we had probably walked through the same hallway that day. Having two kids on the Close was an extraordinary experience.
It was also extraordinary because Camila and Martín come from a very different background than most of their peers. As children of immigrants, they learned to divide their experiences into two camps: home and school. Home meant Spanish, expectations around family time, and maintaining certain traditions and customs, tedious as they might have been. School meant English, mispronounced names and other microaggressions, trying to fit in, and hiding some of themselves. This clash would have happened in any school they attended so, in a way, I am glad it happened here. Being a part of the Close culture together helped the three of us process it and find ways to adapt to it, mold ourselves to it, and also mold it around ourselves. Sometimes, through conversations heard in the hallways or in my classroom, I knew things my kids would never have shared with me. I knew what spaces would be more welcoming to them and I knew to encourage them in certain directions.
In many ways, and for obvious reasons, NCS was an easier place for me to navigate as a parent, and perhaps it was an easier place for Camila as well. That was not due to my “inside knowledge” of the institution, but to the remarkable adults who supported her journey through this community. They were wise and empathetic people who shared with me when appropriate, but who also kept things from me to protect her privacy and give her room to breathe and grow, and we are both grateful for it. STA was harder, for sure. I was a parent of color, struggling to forge connections with other parents. As a gay kid of color, Martín also had his share of struggles in a place that felt sometimes uninviting, and sometimes hostile. But with the help of key allies and accomplices, he also found a home in his school.
As a parent, I am eternally grateful to the adults and friends (and adult friends) that stood by my kids and with them through their years here. Those years were undoubtedly great. I just wish they had been less painful sometimes.
By Ms. Kate Sheeler
Back in the summer of 1988, a few months before I headed off to graduate school, I volunteered on my first dig. The site was Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast of Israel about 1.5hrs north of Tel Aviv. Having lived in Israel after college, I was familiar with the country and its language. Caesarea had served as the provincial capital of Roman Judaea for centuries. I had always been fascinated with the influence of the Romans on life in the provinces, especially in the area referred to as the Ancient Near East, i.e. the eastern Mediterranean. So, with a BA in Latin, a keen knowledge of Roman history, and no experience on an archaeological excavation, I set out for a six-week adventure that would forever change my life. Since that first experience, I have also worked at the site of Helike, along the bay of Corinth in Greece, recognized as the capital of the Achaean League and the source for the stories of legendary Atlantis, and Southern Messapia in southwestern Italy, and in the glorious city of Pompeii in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius.
Since 2008, I have been a senior staff member of the Hesi Regional Project, an excavation on Tel Summeily, a small Iron Age site about 9 kilometers west of Kibbutz Ruhama in the northern Negev desert of Israel. This little site situated on a coastal plain, along a major trade route between Gaza to Amman has become a jewel in the desert, yielding a wealth of information about its inhabitants and their role in the surrounding area.
Daily life on a dig is vigorous: we are up before dawn (the alarm goes off at 4:15am) to take advantage of the cool mornings, spend about 6 hours in the field, followed by lunch (and a nap), then it’s back into the field or time to focus on other activities: the washing and reading of pottery fragments, the identification, analysis and cataloguing of material culture (artifacts) and faunal remains (animal bones), and working with our surveyor to complete daily top plans of each area of excavation. We use a camera affixed to a lofty 17ft pole. We also use a drone that takes aerial photographs throughout the day while we work on the ground. Once compiled, these images create a 3D model of the site (photogrammetry).
It is hard, tedious work under the hot sun and I enjoy every minute of it, especially the constant problem solving. Aerial photographs of the terrain, physical survey of the landscape, and ground penetrating radar give us a good idea what lies below the surface, but we have got to dig to discover what is actually there. Before you know it, “the field” is home and you look forward to the heat, along with the herds of goats and sheep, stray donkeys, wild boar, camels, herding dogs, spiders, scorpions, tarantulas, lizards, and snakes; not to mention the vast array of birds.
Dr. Jarad Schofer
“You want some good advice? If y’all were the kind of folks that took good advice, you wouldn’t be here right now.” This is how the race director, Gary Cantrell, begins most of his races. Then he lights a cigarette to indicate that the race has begun. This race, the Vol State 500K, was no different. The Vol State is a 314 mile race across Tennessee in the suffocating July heat, and somehow I found myself lined up at the start in July 2020.
Ultrarunning is the hobby (?) of running more than a marathon distance, which can be anything from 50K (31 miles) on up. Gary Cantrell is infamous in the ultrarunning community. He is the director of The Barkley Marathons, a notoriously tough 100+ mile race through the mountains in Tennessee that has seen only 15 finishers in 35 years. I highly recommend the documentary The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. Cantrell also invented the “Backyard Ultra,” where each runner must complete a 4.17-mile loop every hour on the hour until only one person is left standing. Why 4.17? Because that works out to 100 miles in 24 hours, a popular goal of many ultrarunners.
I have run several ultramarathons, including a 100-miler in 23:52, and I was on the Vol State waiting list in 2019. I never got off the list though, so to prepare for the following year’s race I took a bus to Pittsburgh and returned on foot. That 262-mile journey took me seven days, but the lessons I learned about myself and about journey-running were invaluable. For example, running in the heat of the day with an umbrella is an amazing way to stay cool and avoid sunburn. It may also cause drivers to refer to you as “Mary Poppins.”
The 2020 Vol State began, as it does every year, by crossing the Mississippi River by boat from Missouri to Kentucky. At 7:45 am the heat index was already 100+, so I just walked. The runners were tightly packed early on while covering the nine miles through Kentucky, and we were already getting the obligatory questions. “Where are you going?” “Are you running for charity?”
Fifteen miles into the race I already had six blisters, which certainly validated the phrase “blistering heat.” After 34 miles I stopped in a motel for five hours. I didn’t sleep much but beating the heat is one key to surviving Vol State. Most people who quit do so in the first two days due to blisters, chafing, or dehydration. By the end of day one I had gone 54 miles.
When doing Vol State the runner must completely rely on themselves for food, water, shelter, etc… This is known as being uncrewed, or as Gary Cantrell likes to call it: “screwed.” Sometimes there are long stretches without food or water, which is where the ultimate savior of all saviors comes into play: the road angel. A road angel is someone who sees a runner and then offers them food or a drink. Some local folks even put out well-stocked coolers along the course. When the heat index is 118, this is a welcome sight for sure.
After day one, my pace slowed considerably, but I still managed to cover 71 miles on days two and three combined. I also partnered up with another runner, Lynn, which made the miles a bit easier. We even dodged a major thunderstorm, arriving at a hotel five minutes before the sky opened up.
One famous quote about ultrarunning is “You know you’re running an ultra when you can read about the winner in tomorrow’s paper and you’re still doing the race.” Something similar was true for Vol State because by halfway through day four I was at mile 150 when Francesca Muccini crossed the finish line. Yes, she ran the entire 314 miles in three days and ten hours. And I wasn’t even halfway finished.
By day five Lynn and I had gotten into a groove. Walk a few miles, sit in some shade, check on your feet, stop to eat. Wash, rinse, and repeat. We even slept under a bridge at one point. There were no trolls to speak of. We made it to the “Bench of Despair” at mile 183. This landmark is a red bench outside of a gas station that the Vol State runners like to autograph. The bench earned its name because most runners who get that far do finish the race, and yet they realize they still have so much farther to go.
On day six Lynn and I were heading into the town of Lewisburg TN when I got really hungry. Due to Covid all of the nearby restaurants were only offering drive-thru food. In the spirit of Larry David, I got in line at a Dairy Queen and asked if they would let me order food without a car. Luckily, unlike on that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, they were fine with it!
In true Gary Cantrell fashion, the final part of the race consisted of two thousand-foot climbs, which were brutally difficult after covering 270 miles. At one point I pulled over to rest and both of my feet were throbbing so hard that it felt like they each had their own heart. I did manage to finish in 8:07:21:12, and by doing so I became one of only 347 people to ever finish the race in its 15 year history. Cantrell likes to say “You live a lifetime in those 7-10 days,” and I can see why!
After finishing the Vol State, what could one possibly do for an encore? Well… I am currently on sabbatical and on March 14th I will begin walking across the country from California to Virginia to raise money for cancer research. That’s like doing nine Vol States in a row, so I hope there will be some road angels along the way.
By Mr. Jim Ehrenhaft
In February 2017, during a semester-long sabbatical, I traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to stay for eight days at the Upaya Zen Center, a Zen Buddhist retreat facility. The center was set in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains—an idyllic setting for engaging in Zen practice focused on sitting meditation or zazen and mindful physical labor or samu. Though I am not a practicing Zen Buddhist, I had studied and taught about the tradition for years, so I was eager to experience Zen practice in person and to have the opportunity to be in a community of committed Zen Buddhists, if only for a short while.
Upon arrival, I quickly discovered that I was the only “lay” or non-practicing guest, but that status was in no way a deterrent to my participation for the upcoming week. I was expected to be at all meditation and work sessions and to be engaged fully in every activity. While I was intimidated by the three 1-2 hour daily meditation sessions especially, I was excited for the challenge, which began that next morning. I knew from my own experience that the process was not so much about suppressing thoughts but instead about recognizing them and letting them pass—manageable enough in the comfort of my home for 10 minutes or so on a most-everyday basis, which I had been doing to that point.
Once that time threshold was expanded at Upaya, the bulk of each session entailed trying to combat my inevitably wandering thoughts while focusing on my breathing. And yet, but the end of the week, the effort had become not so alien, and I had come at least a bit closer to feeling a sense of serenity rather than anxiety.
Throughout the week, the days encompassed a rigorous rhythm: up at 6:00 am, to the zendo (meditation hall) for meditation, a short breakfast followed by samu, which for me meant assisting a resident named Mary Ray with cleaning the center’s bathrooms and kitchens. Though the work was meant to be mostly silent, at times Mary Ray and I would chat, and conversations like these—mostly at meals following the first 15 minutes which were silent—became one of my trip’s highlights, as I was able to gain insight from Zen Buddhists into the nature and meaning of their practice and how it fit into their lives and livelihoods.
Mary Ray, who was in her sixties, had developed a strong interest in Japanese culture from the time she was a child, since her parents shared that interest and had plenty of books in that broad field as she was growing up. One of her formative experiences as a Zen Buddhist—which didn’t come until 4 years ago—was spending several weeks at a Zen retreat center in Plum Village, France. She decided that she wanted to pursue a Zen path more rigorously, and when she returned to the US she realized that Upaya was just down the road from her house, so she began practicing regularly here at that point.
Mary Ray these days was trying to balance running an art studio with part time work as a doctor working with illegal immigrant children. With no health insurance, the families would have nowhere else to turn for medical help, so she would not be leaving Upaya or Santa Fe anytime soon. The Zen experience, for almost everyone I met, coincided directly with serving others—the awareness engendered through rigorous practice fueled compassion that led inevitably to trying to alleviate suffering in others.
That same outlook was evident in others I spoke with: one who worked with the Lakota Sioux and LGBTQ youth in addressing social injustice; another who has been to a Zen retreat in Auschwitz numerous times, located there precisely for the purpose of remembering the injustices committed during the Holocaust; and another who works with incarcerated individuals in maximum security to help them manage the suffering that marks their sense of isolation. At the heart of these efforts were a common ethical purpose and motivation that underlie how Zen Buddhists perceive their relationships with the world, with others, and with themselves. What Zen aspires to do is to allow one to see others as they are so that the causes of suffering can be mitigated and life can be enhanced.
One evening, one of my roommates and I were talking in a common area, and the talk meandered from strategies for meditating to which NHL teams were stuck in mediocrity. In the midst of that conversation, a huge spider emerged from under the couch he was sitting on, and he immediately took off his shoe and crushed it. Then he looked up at me and said, “That wasn’t very Zen of me, was it?” His tone was wry but simultaneously earnest. No one I met at Upaya saw themselves as saintly; rather, in as much as I could in any way generalize, what I would say is that the practicing Zen Buddhists I met saw themselves clearly, and their constant efforts to cultivate that clarity of vision became a galvanizing force for helping others open up to their own truths in order to address the heart of what causes suffering in themselves and in the world.
Simply to be part of such a community—even for such a short time—opened a window into human nature for me that I hope will never close.
By Mr. Will Brown
To different populations at St. Albans, I am known variously as Mr. Brown, Coach Brown, or to my colleagues, Will. Some of you may simply remember me as the guy who wore the hideous red Christmas suit the day before winter break. Others may not recognize me at all. Regardless of which aforementioned label you know me by, I am one of the school's vaunted yet mysterious Penn Fellows. There is likely—and with good reason—some confusion about what a Penn Fellow is and what one does. At present, there are three of us; Mr. Money and Fellow Ruano are the other two. If you have trouble identifying us, simply look for three unidentified fellows (pun intended) who could ostensibly be members of the senior class (alright, in the name of speaking from the "I" perspective, I'm mainly talking about myself here).
Before explaining the function of the elusive Penn Fellow, it is worth dispelling a number of misconceptions. Alas, we are not actually in college at the University of Pennsylvania; rather, we are pursuing a graduate degree at Penn on a distance-learning basis. Nor are we proctors, though we do monitor classes and study halls with some regularity. Lastly, I don't teach math; how this fallacy emerged I will genuinely never understand. When I observed a Calculus class in October, one of my Modern World students asked inquisitively, "Mr. Brown, you teach math too?" "No," I replied, "there are limits to my understanding." (I'd like to suppose I compensate for my numerical weaknesses with a ready supply of dad jokes.)
Mistaken beliefs aside, you still might be wondering what a Penn Fellow actually does. Essentially, the University of Pennsylvania offers a master's program in education for aspiring young educators, colloquially known as ISTR (for you finance bros, the acronym stands for "Independent School Teaching Residency," not Investar Holding Corporation). To complement the traditional, theoretical component of the degree, ISTR Penn Fellows pursue two-year teaching residencies at designated independent schools in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. St. Albans joined the consortium in 2019, with Mr. Money becoming the school's first Penn Fellow.
At St. Albans, my responsibilities include teaching one section of sophomore Modern World History, observing three of Mr. Campbell's history classes, co-advising with Mr. Dickson, and coaching soccer. Additionally, I participate in faculty meetings, History Department summits, and professional development days. My reduced teaching load allows me to observe classes in a myriad of disciplines as well as learn about other aspects of the school, from admissions to administration. On evenings and weekends, I join my fellow Fellows for remote classes at Penn. Much of the work we do is asynchronous: digesting a steady stream of educational scholarship, preparing lesson plans from our classes to submit for a grade, and writing papers on topics ranging from effective learning environments to privilege in independent schools. Four times per year, Fellows, host school program coordinators (Dr. Schaffer is ours), and Penn professors assemble on Penn's campus or at host schools (this year, over Zoom) for intensive bouts of teaching and learning.
Although I have not yet met my Penn colleagues in person, I feel incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a multitude of welcoming and talented students, faculty members, and staff at St. Albans. From the moment I stepped foot on the Close for a full-day interview in December of 2019, I instantly appreciated the reverence so many in the St. Albans community have for the school. Amidst that day's busy schedule, I experienced a chapel service in the Little Sanctuary and soaked up students' energy in the refectory as they heckled and cheered the lunch announcements of their peers. Prior to leaving campus that afternoon, I lingered in the shadow of the National Cathedral and gazed out over the sprawling D.C. metropolis. I knew this was a place I wanted to be. As my train clickety-clacked home to Richmond that evening, I wrote thank you notes until my hand cramped, pausing frequently to recall the wonderful camaraderie and brotherhood on display earlier that day.
The past year has assuredly been a test of resilience for us all. After missing out on the final three months of my college career, I started my first year of teaching, remotely, in August. In a sense, I "found my feet" on two separate occasions: once when teaching my first lesson in mid-September, and again when, in late October, I physically stood before a classroom of students for the first time upon our return to hybrid mode. If the pandemic has taught me one lesson, it is to cherish, constantly and genuinely, the little things in life. From Coach Greene's morning greetings, to a slick sequence of triangulated passing on the soccer field, to the good-natured cries of celebration and outrage that inevitably emerge after a game of Mr. Campbell's trivia, I treasure these smaller moments.
Undoubtedly, I feel immense sympathy for students, especially our seniors, who are not enjoying athletic competitions, theatrical performances, and school dances as hoped and imagined. Nevertheless, as we surge towards spring, I encourage everyone to internalize the final stanza of my favorite poem, "Invictus." As William Ernest Henley wrote, "It matters not how strait the gate / How charged with punishments the scroll / I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul." At the moment, it feels like much of life remains outside of our control. It is how we respond, though, that dictates our present and our future. We remain the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls. The St. Albans community has already proved its remarkable elasticity time and again, and as I look forward to the remainder of the year, I am confident that we will make the best of the tremendous gifts and people surrounding us. As Winston Churchill, the subject of much of my own historical scholarship, once opined, "I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use being anything else."