Over the last three days I participated in the Jonathan T. Glass Institute for New Heads, sponsored by the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). Led by the Rev. Dan Heischman, Executive Director of NAES, and Ann Mellow, Associate Director of NAES, we spent our time together discussing specific issues relevant to Episcopal School Heads of both parish schools and independent Episcopal Schools. The experience was extraordinarily valuable.
I was particularly interested to learn more about small parish schools. If I had any thought that the complexity of our work as Heads of Schools was proportional to simply the size of our individual school, I abandoned that thought sometime during our sessions on Thursday as I gained insight into school headship positions quite different than my own. Overall, I find myself becoming more aware that what is important is not what one knows in a leadership position, but far more relevant: 1) how one listens carefully enough to understand the people and the culture of the school and 2) how one over time breathes his or her personal knowledge and experience into the life of the school.
At the conference, I garnered more useful insight by hearing about schools not exactly like my own than I would have trying to find one to one correspondences with schools closer to the profile of St. George’s. As I think about the future of schools, St. George’s in particular, I find myself tripping up over and over again on the idea that we should be looking for what is not exactly like us in order to learn what school might need to look like going forward. In the case of the NAES New Heads Conference, that meant learning from schools operating in a context different than my own.
However, in the larger context of heading a school in this moment in history, I believe leadership will have to develop a far keener ear for listening to what is happening beyond our school and even our schools generally. Our questions need to become smarter and more expansive. For example:
- What is happening in our cities, businesses, churches, museums, and community centers that might inform the work ahead for our schools?
- What is happening in higher education that might serve as a barometer for what might be coming in independent secondary schools?
- What small liberal arts colleges have faced challenges that might lie in wait for our schools?
- What colleges have been handling a quickly evolving financial and admissions landscape well?
- How can our school become part of the good story of our community?
The most sustainable schools will be the ones able to align with the best ambition of the communities in which they sit. We will not be able to afford to navel gaze within our own very tiny community of schools in order to find the best way forward—we must be explicitly about something greater than ourselves. Thus the central existential question grows out of “How can we be sustainable?” and into “Why should we be sustainable?”
In thinking about my own start as head of a school within the Episcopal tradition, I find comfort in knowing that Episcopal schools are situated to look beyond our individual institutions as we strive to teach our students to see beyond themselves so that they might live lives of service, leadership, and meaning. This belief grows from a recognition of the focus in Episcopal schools on what NAES calls “the spiritual dimension of learning that values both faith and reason.” Such a focus should pull our eyes not simply to look up for help and comfort, but to look out into the world that calls for us to be the help and the comfort.
I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with the Senior Kindergarten classes at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN today. I was invited to come and talk about what my kindergarten class was like and also what my kindergarten teacher was like. This allowed me to tell them about Mrs. Alley who taught me at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA. Today’s visit reminded me that I had spoken about her before in a Cum Laude Induction Speech at Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio in 2009. The part of that speech that best resonates with me is: “I believe the most valuable things we pack when we make the move from one stage of life to another are the things that take up no extra space in the suitcase. They are also the things that we don’t have to remember to pack. They are the things that determine WHO we are, so Mrs. Alley became part of who I am and what I take with me from place to new place.”
I am reminded time and again of the powerful and lasting importance of great early childhood teachers, and St. George’s clearly has a very talented team working with these kids. Their devotion to their students at the beginning of the formal educational journey has remarkable impact on the adults these youngest among us will become. I am grateful for their work.
What follows is the text of that talk from 2009:
My mother recently sent me an article from the Richmond Times Dispatch. This is not an unusual sort of post from my mother even though over the last decade or so, the necessity of sending a hard copy has long gone away; less and less often do I find an article stuffed in an envelope with nothing more to announce the sender than a “Love, Mom” signed quickly in a familiar hand on a yellow post-it note. It would be easy simply to send me the link via email, but she feels compelled to send some information my way via snail mail, using criteria of selection known only to mothers.
The two and half inch by sixteen inch strip of newsprint didn’t provide any bulk for the legal sized envelope that must have been the closest at hand when she folded it inside. It was insubstantial, delicate…it would have been easy to miss among the piles of bills, flyers, and catalogues, but when my mother sends something the old-fashioned way, I know better than to look passed it.
Now, I have been thinking about the end of a journey recently—the end of our seniors’ journey in high school. For schoolteachers, this type of thinking is a kind of refrain we return to each spring—we are in the business of watching people come and go, and the going is always edged with a bit of sadness at the farewell. Specifically, I have been thinking about what we hope seniors take with them from their Upper School experience, an experience that for them must feel both substantial and ill defined in this exiting and uncertain moment in their educational path. It is for this reason that the article, more accurately, the obituary, that my mother sent to me was more shocking for its timing than its content, for at the moment I was thinking about the end of a journey, this particular obituary reminded me of the beginning of my own educational journey.
Norma Alley had faced three bouts with cancer—the first in 1970 when I was a far too young student in her second year as a kindergarten teacher at St. Christopher’s School. Many years later she surrendered her left arm but no part of her will to a second round of cancer in the early 1990s. And this winter, while successfully battling a new round of lung cancer, she fell and the injuries led to her passing earlier this month.
For me, she was the person on the front end of my educational journey, and yet I remember little from my time in her classroom. I do remember her, however—prematurely gray, elegant, kind, patient. I remember knowing as well as I knew anything that she liked us, wanted to be around us, and missed us when she had to be away during her illness. I remember loving her the way small children love their teachers and the way my daughter Eleanor loves Mrs. McCrystal and Ms. Gilbride. I find that we remember with gratitude, which lasts longer than anecdotal memory, the rare adults who speak to us like human beings when we are very young. Mrs. Alley deserves that lasting gratitude and more.
I could detail for you the impressive tracks of her career—establishing the Junior Kindergarten program way back in 1986 far ahead of any other school in Richmond, being the second winner of the school’s Chair for Distinguished Teaching, and later having an award named in her honor become the school’s highest recognition for a master teacher. However, what matters most are not the trappings of her career, but rather the career itself—the countless interactions with children who needed her and the countless interactions with children in which she modeled the exact traits with which any faculty would be glad to send its graduates away to college:
- Mrs. Alley had time for the least of us. Always, without fail.
- She made the effort to find the good in others and was, as a result, successful in finding the good in others.
- She looked for ways to make the world, her small part of it, better, more humane and more kind.
If we sit still long enough to silence the static of our daily lives, I believe we would find that we need little else to recommend us to an uncertain future.
When I received word of Mrs. Alley’s passing, I felt a twinge of guilt because I hadn’t thought about her in what felt like an age. This moment was fleeting, however, as I quickly recognized that in many ways she had stayed with me all along. I believe the most valuable things we pack when we make the move from one stage of life to another are the things that take up no extra space in the suitcase. They are also the things that we don’t have to remember to pack. They are the things that determine WHO we are, so Mrs. Alley became part of who I am and what I take with me from place to new place. When I mentioned this thinking to Ms. Griffin, she offered me one of my favorite gifts to give and to receive—a poem—and so now I offer it to you.
The Summer-Camp Bus Pulls Away from the Curb
by Sharon Olds
WEDNESDAY, 25 JUNE 2003
Whatever he needs, he has or doesn’t
have by now.
Whatever the world is going to do to him
it has started to do. With a pencil and two
Hardy Boys and a peanut butter sandwich and
grapes he is on his way, there is nothing
more we can do for him. Whatever is
stored in his heart, he can use, now.
Whatever he has laid up in his mind
he can call on. What he does not have
he can lack. The bus gets smaller and smaller, as one
folds a flag at the end of a ceremony,
onto itself, and onto itself, until
only a heavy wedge remains.
Whatever his exuberant soul
can do for him, it is doing right now.
Whatever his arrogance can do
it is doing to him. Everything
that’s been done to him, he will now do.
Everything that’s been placed in him
will come out, now, the contents of a trunk
unpacked and lined up on a bunk in the underpine light.
The coverage of the 2016 Presidential campaign is getting me down. No matter your particular political views, the race to the bottom on all sides is exhausting, if not surprising. With this in mind, I have started to compile a list of questions I would like to ask candidates. Doubtlessly, some of the answers would be fascinating and informative. Some questions, I believe, would produce awkward pauses and vacuous responses from a few (or more than a few) candidates. What questions would you add to the list?
- What is your definition of the American Dream?
- What percentage of your income do you donate to causes other than political campaigns?
- What are you reading? What novel has had the greatest impact on you?
- When did you and how have you reached out to someone or to some group with viewpoints different than your own?
- As president, which would you value more the responsibility to represent the people who voted for you or the people of the United States?
- When have you gone against the majority in your own party?
- Give an example of when you have chosen the hard right over the easy wrong?
- What contribution do you most want to make during your presidency and what makes you think you can accomplish it?
- Imagine you can add or delete one amendment to the constitution: what would you delete or add?
- To whom do you go for good counsel?
- What is the most important lesson you have learned about yourself in the last five years?
- Imagine you can construct your cabinet from only historical figures–who do you put in the cabinet? Who is Secretary of State? Defense Secretary? Etc.
Several years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Preparing our Students to be Community Leaders: An Initial Brainstorming.” After attending TEDxMemphis this weekend, I remembered the piece because I was reminded again and again during the TED talks of the vital importance of developing an interest in civic engagement and community leadership in our students. My thinking crystallizes in this thought: if we want our students to become civically engaged, community leaders as adults, our schools must be civically engaged. We must demonstrate as institutions the skills and priorities we want our students to learn within our curriculum and extra curriculum.
Here in part is what I wrote in December 2011:
“If we want to prepare students to be community leaders with qualities such as humility, decisiveness, passion, vision, and empathy, what should schools do to place their work developing those skills in greater relief? If successful leaders need skills such as the ability to take an unpopular stand, mobilize support for a shared goal, and remain undeterred by setbacks, what do schools need to do to develop those abilities in students?
- Help students learn about the larger community in which they live.
- Balance opportunities for students to serve, study, learn and contribute in their own communities with similar opportunities in environments that are different than their own.
- Engage students in learning that connects them to real-world issues.
- Identify areas in the curriculum where connections to real-world issues already exist implicitly and make those connections more explicit.
- Put students in the position to apply their intellectual abilities to discover issues facing their local community (or the world community).
- Put students in the position of finding and proposing solutions to those issues.
- Give students demanding and ongoing experiences working in groups facing complex tasks.
- Hold students accountable for their ability to express a cohesive, articulate, and knowledgeable viewpoint to a group of people.
I just had lunch with a colleague from another school, and our conversation circled this topic and how we might be able to push our respective schools toward better and better work in this area. The last National Association of Independent Schools Conference focused on public purpose in private education, and I have struggled ever since with how to envision what a big step forward might look like. That said, I believe we need to be bold in this area—our students need to know the central issues facing the communities in which they live (beyond the narrow confines of their own particular zip code), and they need to learn the skills that will allow them to exert their voices in the conversations about those issues.”
After TEDxMemphis I find myself renewed in my commitment to this vital area of work in schools, and I am particularly inspired as I take my first steps in a new community–the St. George’s Independent School Community–which has such a relevant role to play in this work in a city that needs all good hands on deck.
It is going to be an exciting time to be a part of this school and a member of the Memphis community.
(The text here is edited in minor ways from the speech I gave last Thursday to the Germantown Chamber of Commerce.)
Thank you for the invitation to be here today. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group because a good school and a successful Chamber have important characteristics in common. A good chamber of commerce and a school worth its salt are forever looking to the future and not simply wishing for it to be better but working to make it better. Additionally, a chamber, like a great school, is forever looking to make connections, to tie things together, to bring together disparate visions of what is next for a community under one wide umbrella. Our shared work, the work of a school and the work of a chamber of commerce is to help imagine, design, and build the world to come. Both a chamber and a school are invested in their communities—their futures are comingled with the future of the communities they serve. The tag line of this Chamber—“Community, Partnership, and Growth”—is one that our school aspires to. St. George’s Independent School’s tag-line also hits powerful notes for me: “active learning/agile teaching to build disciplined minds, adventurous spirits and brave hearts.”
St. George’s, now a vibrant day school of well-over 1100 students on three campuses, has its axis, and original campus here in Germantown on Poplar Road. Its history begins here, and it continues after almost sixty-years to have a deep taproot on the Germantown campus. I was on the Germantown Campus Monday for our Opening Day. Teachers, Administrators, and a Jazz trio greeted parents and students back before gathering in the Chapel for our Opening Convocation where we not only sang and prayed together, but we also heard two fifth graders give their fifth grade speeches—a rite of passage for all of the oldest students there. They were remarkable speeches made more impressive because this young man and woman standing behind the podium were speaking on the first day of school to a full congregation. They were funny and confident; they were prepared and poised. They expressed gratitude; they were optimistic. It became easy, while listening to them speak, to imagine them becoming the sorts of adults we want serving and leading in their community someday. When they finished, the applause was warm and celebratory.
I chose to leave a school I continue to believe in deeply because I found the distinctive mission of St. George’s wonderfully compelling, and I was attracted to this school in large part because its ambition is uniquely tied to the best ambition of its city and surrounding area. At my core, I believe that a key, perhaps THE key, to the sustainability of our schools is the extent to which we are aligned with the best ambition of the communities in which we exist. In short, we have a responsibility to be focused on something greater than ourselves, and in living out this responsibility we also ensure our own relevance and legacy. Much of my career as a teacher and an administrator represents this belief, particularly the last two schools where I have worked—Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Both institutions strive to be good neighbors—institutions that strive to act in a way that parallels the highest expectations we have for our students. At Hawken, this meant creating an urban campus designed to be a center for experiential and service learning. At Westminster, it meant educating young people about the principles and practice of philanthropy, while promoting the value of service learning throughout the school’s curriculum.
While the work of these two schools is remarkable and I am proud to have been a leader within each, St. George’s offers a uniquely powerful vision for what the future of partnership can look like. Founded in 1959, St. George’s is both an old and a new school, and its model represents a powerful manifestation of its Episcopal roots and its vision for the contribution the school can make to each community where it has a campus—Germantown, Memphis, and Collierville—and beyond. The school’s three campuses: the original campus here in Germantown, another lower school in Memphis, and a middle/upper school just over the line from Germantown in Collierville are bound together by a shared mission and philosophy. The Germantown arm of the school is old—it served elementary students in grades PK-6 for nearly forty years before the other two campuses existed. St. George’s is also new—in the mid-1990s the school launched a capital campaign to expand to the middle/high school grades by building on donated land in Collierville.
Here is where the story gets really interesting: as fundraising began for the Collierville Campus, a group of anonymous donors approached the school about funding a second elementary campus in the city of Memphis to serve families who valued education but didn’t have the means to afford or access a high quality independent school education. The anonymous donor group gave an initial $6 million gift, and the development of a positive partnership with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church allowed the school to open the Memphis campus in 2001. Importantly, this year marks an exciting and historic moment for the school because this year our Senior Class, the Class of 2016, includes the first group of students who started on the Memphis Campus. Their graduation reminds us that this school is just now coming fully into its skin.
Each campus represents a necessary strand of our DNA with the Germantown Campus representing the original strand. Long before I arrived at the beginning of July this year, the school created concise language for the value of the model: “We believe the St. George’s model gives all students meaningful experiences in diversity, enriches the learning experience for all students, and prepares students to be successful adults. We also believe that this model sows the seeds for a better Memphis.”
Underpinning all this is the belief that our students will be better equipped to navigate a complex world if they learn to navigate complexity now. Our belief is that standing shoulder to shoulder with others with a wide range of backgrounds helps young people grow into become adults better prepared to engage an increasingly dynamic and quickly changing world. Learning to live into this complexity helps young people develop the requisite skills. I am certain that the world needs the people St. George’s strives to graduate.
We know that St. George’s fits into a much larger tapestry of educational opportunities in Germantown. Two examples of institutions doing vitally important work are Bodine School and The Madonna Learning Center. With its 43rd anniversary approaching next month, Bodine School provides an invaluable service to students with dyslexia and reading differences. The Madonna Learning Center, with its recently completed new facility, meets the needs, both educational and social, of young and adult students with special needs. And there are, of course, more…from the Bowie Reading and Learning Center to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and from the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf to the Municipal School District, which on its own serves over 5400 students, Germantown has a wide-range of educational options.
I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate our desire to be a good partner and neighbor. Our Campuses are constantly in use by camps, churches, and athletic teams. I am looking forward to our widely known annual Arts Alliance Show in particular. Always a community favorite, it will be happening at the Collierville Campus from November 5th through the 7th, and it will showcase a wide range of the best artists in the Memphis area. I hope you will join us.
A colleague of mine recently described a cartoon she had seen that may have some relevance to the issues a school and a chamber of commerce try to overcome. In the cartoon there is a small boat on the water and four people in it. Two of the people are on the low end of the boat, bailing as fast as they can because the gunnel is slipping below the waterline. The two other folks on the boat are on the high side, and dry. One of those two looks at the other and says, “thank goodness that is not us.” Of course, they fail to recognize we are all in the boat together. We are connected, and thus we owe it to our students to teach them to make meaning from that connection, to value it and to deepen it, for in doing so they can become the generation best suited to face the opportunities and challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
Thank you so much for this chance to join you today. It my hope that we can use today as a catalyst for becoming even more connected and even better neighbors. I also hope you take the chance to learn more about our school.
(The author with the Senior Prefects from St. George’s Independent School August 17, 2015)
(Below is my welcome back to school Chapel Talk from St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, Tennessee on August 17, 2015. The school has over over 1100 students JK-12 on three campuses. I delivered the talk that follows to students, families, faculty, and staff on the Collierville Campus, which serves students in grades 6 – 12. The remarks I gave varied a bit from this text in relatively minor ways though my welcome was a bit longer than what appears here.)
Welcome—welcome in particular to the Class of 2016…
When I was about six, my family switched churches from a tiny Episcopal Church far out in the west-end of Richmond, Virginia to a much larger urban Episcopal Church, St. James’s, which was much further in town. To my second grade eyes, this new church seemed huge…not just huge but the hugest—perhaps the biggest room I had ever been in except for the Richmond Coliseum where I had seen the Harlem Globetrotters play. My guess is that to a number of our sixth graders this campus might seem a little overwhelming too compared to the campuses where you all went to fifth grade.
Anyway back to St. James’s and the biggest room I had ever been in…in the chancel of this church written in the large gold letters was the motto of the Church, words from the 22nd verse of the first chapter of the book of James—saying… “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.”
“Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” For me, the words that surround it in the Book of James are confusing, but that line, that line is clear. When we think about the meaning of those words—“Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only”, they might be better described as frighteningly clear. Because they call us not just to listen but to take action. They call us to choose the hard right over the easy wrong, they call us to care for strangers, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Not easy stuff. Not easy stuff in a school and not easy stuff in the world you will find after school.
It is, however, the stuff that can make a school great, and it is up to you. It is up to you to make the school, to invent it for this year into a place of doers and hearers. Your passivity is unhelpful, your action is required, your commitment is necessary. If this is a new beginning for all of us, then what are we, and what are you, going to make of it?
I believe that becoming educated is a righteous act. It is the lifelong task of taking the gifts you have been given and making them meaningful, making them have an impact. Making the world a better place for your presence in it is not simply something to try to do in your spare time, it is a sacred responsibility. It is the space in your life to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” This work is important—the world needs you.
I will mention several ways we might get started on this work as a school.
- First, know that we have jobs to do. For example, a job of those who have been here before is to help those of us who are new—people like sixth graders and first year heads of school. By your actions it is possible to make the campus a bit smaller less overwhelming for others. You can do this with ample doses of kindness and patience.
- Support each other. Show up for each other. We are stronger when we are connected, when we go to the game, when we deliver a well-deserved standing “O” at the play. For those of you on teams know that you win games on the field, court, or pool, but you win fans in the ways you treat others in the hallway and in the classrooms and beyond. Deserve the support you seek.
- Show gratitude: Over the summer there has been a lot of doing going on by a lot of doers, and it has all been for you. Teachers prepare for classes, and they say their own quiet farewells to summer vacation, the facilities staff has been hard at work the entire summer making this place a beautiful place of learning. Men worked in outrageous heat all summer to make sure we have places to park. They deserve our thanks and appreciation. Please show your thanks and gratitude through your words, yes, but more importantly through your actions—take care of this place and honor your opportunity to be here.
This can be an amazing year, and I think it will be, but we all have some doing, and, yes, some hearing to do in order to make it that way. Thank you and…Happy new school year.
For as long as I can remember Communion has fascinated me. I think it all goes back to when I was about three and a half years old.
When I was very young, we were members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church way out River Road in Richmond, Virginia. Though it has become a large church in the many intervening years, at the time it was still recognizable as an old mission church—a small 1870s white church-house with deep stained wooden pews. My memories of St. Mary’s are hazy—we left to join St. James’s when I was six—though several impressions are carved deep within me. Those memories include my grandfather’s booming and endearingly off-key hymn-singing voice and bright Spring-time morning light, framed by the windows, illuminating sparks of dust.
One Sunday I walked up to the front with my parents for communion. As a small child, I should have stood when I reached the railing, but I kneeled and found myself looking through the balustrade at the gray pants legs of the gray-haired minister, Holt Sauder. I was embarrassed and confused to hear the congregation laughing—they found this entertaining. I did not. Reverend Souder did not laugh, but instead he kneeled and gave me the bread and the wine under the rail. His face was somehow both serious and kind—he met me where I was. I think this is a perfect example of Grace and of the meaning of communion.
Communion always includes the idea of a coming together. Most formally and seemingly most relevant to a chapel service like this one, it can refer to the Rite of Communion where bread and wine are consecrated and shared. A communion is also, however, a coming together in what might appear to be a more secular sense—a reunion between friends, a shared meal welcoming someone new to town. It is my contention, and certainly my belief as relevant to the work a faculty does in a school within the Episcopal Tradition, that no such communion is purely secular. A few examples might illustrate my point:
During my 25th college reunion a couple of years ago, I found myself renewing my admiration for many of my classmates. I noted how many of them were living lives of engagement and contribution, how many were selfless leaders in their communities. I noted how many were the friends you want to have in the moments of triumph and of defeat that inevitably mark the calendars of our lives. I also noted how the connection we have maintained over the years has a sustaining purpose. Staying in touch, staying connected can seem somewhat trite, but it is indeed anything but trite. Our connection to others, our communion with them makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for academic or professional achievement. Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. Our coming back together after so many years was an expression of our indestructible linkage. It was its own kind of powerful communion.
This last Saturday night, my wife Katie and I were invited to the home of a St. George’s family. There were several other couples there as well, and they seemed to know each other well. They were already neighbors. They shared a familiar and easy sense of humor. Now an event like this could have made the new couple—the new head of school and his wife—feel like a curiosity, a topic to be investigated. However, instead it was a moment for us to feel welcomed, remade from stranger to neighbor. They were generous in their sharing, and as a result we didn’t just chat and eat together—we broke bread together. They too reached through the balustrade to us.
There is a story I tell too often about advice I received from a colleague on the eve of my first day teaching. I was just barely 23, I looked like a strangely tall 12 year old, and I was appropriately nervous about the challenge ahead. I was going to be teaching primarily seventh grade English, and I had a full slate of other coaching and extracurricular responsibilities as well. To me this colleague was the omniscient veteran though he was probably only really 25 or 26. This is what he told me—at least it is close: “Listen man, you are going to be great at this because this is all you really need to know…no one likes seventh graders. Their parents don’t like them. Their friends don’t like them. They do not like themselves. If you are the guy, if you are that person who likes them, who let’s them know everyday that you like them and that you happily choose to be with them, they will rise to all the challenges you set for them.” That moment is interesting to me because he was reaching through the balustrade to me—I needed all the help I could get, AND he was sharing the essence of what is necessary for a teacher to reach through the balustrade to students. It sounded like a secret, like a strategy for effective teaching but it was really about much more—it was about communion, and it was about grace. He was telling me to welcome my students, to accept them as they were. I believe he was asking me to love them. And by the way, though I am imperfect in remembering it when I should, his advice is relevant to all people, not just seventh graders.
In the summer of 2014, my wife, Katie, daughter, Eleanor, and I travelled to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for Katie to complete research on a remarkable place called, the Sacro Monte Di Orta—or the Sacred Mountain of Orta, a Renaissance era pilgrimage site where twenty chapels are dedicated to St. Francis. My wife, Katie, along with a couple of colleagues, is writing a book about this beautiful place set atop a small peninsula on Lake Orta, which sits at the mouth of the Ossola Valley not far from Switzerland. My job was to provide photographs for the book, so I spent many days shooting inside these captivating, dimly lit sacred spaces. Over our time there I realized that I was being given a rare glimpse into another time and place.
Created over the course of almost two centuries, each chapel features a different scene from St. Francis’s life. While the walls are rich with remarkable frescoes, the scenes in the foreground draw the most attention as each is made up of life-size and often unbelievably realistic terracotta figures acting out the most dramatic moments of Francis’s biography. In order to get the photographs required for the project, I spent a great deal of time crawling, edging and tip-toeing under, beside and between these figures, many of which are well-over 400 years old, and I began to wonder about the people who must have been the models for this array of figures. For the most part, they were not idealized figures. They were the real community of man—some on crutches, others had goiters, some wealthy and beautiful, some clearly destitute, others apparently corrupt and even conniving. They are an intentionally imperfect mix, and so are we, and so is any congregation headed to any communion. St. Francis, as depicted in the chapels, was trying to live a life imitatio cristi, in imitation of Christ, and through his example he called for others to do the same. The Francis of the Sacro Monte di Orta Chapels is one who is reaching through the balustrade as well.
The gifts of communion referenced as “The gifts of God for the people of God” are not just the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, but they are also the invitation to come to the table and the grace to welcome us to it.
So my wish this year is that we think of our interactions with children, our students, as acts of communion, and that we keep in mind that our most important work involves reaching through the balustrade to love and to accept all those remarkable, not yet fully made young people who have come up the aisle or down the hall to our classrooms.