An Undignified Future
By Robert Busching '20
On Wednesday night, the 22nd of January, a significant portion of the St. Albans and NCS senior class gathered in the Grace Chapel for a short program. Named Speak About It, this show hoped, “Using a combination of humorous yet provocative skits, interactive dialogue, and powerful monologues, [to empower] students by providing real-life examples and practical tools surrounding consent, sexual assault, and bystander intervention.”1 As the night wore on, though, I found that the skits were less provocative than crass, and more strange than powerful. Before I continue, though, I must affirm that the purpose of the program was and is a noble one, and my objections to the night’s entertainment aggress upon the presentation and setting, rather than the purpose and goals, of the night.
The program began with five young actors, dressed in unspectacular garments, taking the stage to the sound of The Lonely Island. The presentation started as a silly and awkward one, but the night went on. As the presentation continued eventually to a close, I found myself repeatedly surprised by the level to which the actors went in their descriptions and reenactments. The initial slap in the face occurred when, as part of a scripted monologue, one actress casually referred to “giving [her] boyfriend a handjob in the seventh grade.” I was wholly surprised by her openness about such a topic—not because of her words, but rather because of this situation in which she said them. She was speaking in this way from the pulpit the school had provided her. As the program continued, other such moments followed: Another actress discussed in excessive detail her sexual interactions; two of the performers ducked behind a black sight-barrier, then proceeded to remove some of their overgarments before moaning and employing language that gave an aural perception of sexual play. I do not believe their performance was outside of the realm of “acceptable” entertainment—almost all media now vomited upon us includes such humor and situations. The part of Speak About It that I found so completely shocking was the total irreverence for any sort of decency and, more than that, the fact that St. Albans all but compelled its seniors to attend this bawdy spectacle. If in class I were to make any quote of the aforementioned lines from the show, I would undoubtedly receive a swift reprimand. Therein I see a strong contradiction between the policy and action of the school. Ever since I applied to St. Albans, I have seen the school as a place that holds traditional dignity and values central to its mission and education. Perhaps that is why this program surprised me so much.
Another objection of mine, though more brief, stems from the venue of the show. Grace Chapel, I understand, is a far cry from the reverent rafters of the Little Sanctuary, which is almost exclusively dedicated to chapel services. I understand that the Grace Chapel is more of a gathering space than it is a parallel to the Little Sanctuary. Nevertheless, to profane the sacred house as on that night seems unbecoming.
Earlier this year, St. Albans sat for a fall Assembly with the slam poet Taylor Mali. His stories and poetry were at times quite crass and at some points even came across as directly offensive. A certain story describing the phallic fascinations of juvenile boys when discussing Roman history, and another requiring that Mali shout “bitch” as a major punchline both approached the unacceptable. As a result of substantial pushback from faculty and from certain students, Headmaster Robison formally addressed the issue with a direct speech to the students and a subsequent reflection documented in The Saint Albans News. In both of these, he emphasized a need for intellectual maturity that was either absent in Mali’s works, or buried so deep as to preclude intellectual growth in his audience.
This is what I fail to understand: if the school must apologize formally for the words of a visitor who took a rude and coarse turn with his poetry, then can we all turn a blind eye to such irreverence for traditional respect and dignity in Speak About It, simply because it advocates such an important cause?
One of the best parts of St. Albans is our traditions. We eat lunch together, go to chapel together; we go to our classes together and we step out on the turf together. Underlying all of our traditions, though, is our reverence, our dignity, the honor we have for tradition and decency. We may not all maintain this decency round the clock, but it at the very least is the foundation for our education, and a large part of what makes St. Albans special. The students are expected to act a certain way, and the faculty holds them to it equally. When the school endorses an event like Speak About It, a small part of our decency dies. Perhaps it is a price we are willing to pay for the valuable information Speak About It provided about consent and sexual assault prevention. But when we no longer care about the traditional respect and dignity that has been such an integral part of our school, a crack appears in the pillar that holds our school up above today’s profane culture.