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."