Offices & Resources

Our Spaces, Our Identities

Convocation Speech

September 7, 2018

I imagine everyone here tonight has decorated a space—a bedroom, a dorm room, an office—so that it reflects you. Those of you boarders moving into rooms in your houses here are going through that exercise now. Those of us who have offices and classrooms here at School go through that exercise often annually, continuing to add or subtract to what we and others will see. The choices we make about what to display are highly personal, and if the space we are decorating is frequently visited—like an office or a dorm room—the choices we make are often also influenced by messages we want to send to others about what is important to us—the parts of our identity, our passions, and our loves that we want others to see.

As I have decorated my office I have made—and continue to make—all sorts of choices about what I want to be reminded of frequently and about what parts of me I want others to see. My office for those of you who do not yet know, is located down the stairs from the Admission Parlor. You have passed by my office windows if you have walked along the brick porch facing Belmont Field when you go between Thieriot House and the Main Building's front entrance.

Because what is in my office is a reflection of who I am, I would like to devote my Convocation Talk to telling you about a few of the items that I have chosen to have in my office, as a way of helping you get to know me better and as a way of communicating what I value. As I am sure is the case with your space many of the items in my office come with a story.

I also hope this Convocation Talk will encourage you to drop by my office, whether you have known me for decades, as is the case with some faculty and staff colleagues, or whether you are getting to know me tonight for the very first time. There is much in my office that time prevents me from describing here and that I would be delighted to tell you about on another occasion in as much detail as you would like.

I hope, also, that you will view this Convocation Talk as a model for telling me the stories about some of the items in your space. Hearing these stories is great fun for me as a way of getting to know you better, again, whether we have known each other for a long time or a short time.

As with many of you, my space—my office—contains many pictures of family. Here is one taken about 15 years ago of me (yes, I know there is less gray in my beard) and of Dr. Warren, our son Ethan, now married with a daughter who is almost two, and our daughter Amanda, now married with a daughter about to be one. We are at our cabin in Western Maine, which is located where Maine, New Hampshire, and Quebec all come together, about five hours north of here. While you need to drive 11 miles in on a dirt road to get to our cabin, the trip is definitely worth the effort because the cabin looks over a beautiful lake that is frequented by loons, hawks, deer, the occasional moose, and black bear, and more. While at our cabin we love to canoe and kayak and hike and read, and I love to fish for trout and salmon.

This photograph was actually taken in the winter, and we have just completed a four-mile cross-country ski to get to our cabin because the road was only plowed part of the way. So, in addition to the smiles representing happiness at being at our cabin, they also represent a sense of accomplishment. I can tell you lots of stories about times at our cabin, including when Amanda came across a lynx while on a run, and she almost started climbing a tree before the lynx ambled back into the woods.

Some of you may have keepsakes in your room or office that remind you of special places you have been. I do too. This soapstone carving was given to me by Dr. Warren's parents at my St. Mark's Head of School installation in 2006. The sculpture, created by an Inuit carver from a Canadian Arctic village, reminds me of numerous summer camping trips in the Canadian North that Dr. Warren and I took, by ourselves, with Dr. Warren's parents and our children, and with other family members.


One particularly special trip ended up at Winter Lake in the Northwest Territories of Canada in 1985. "Why there?" you might ask! Winter Lake is important to our family because it is where my father-in-law joined a group of Dogrib Indians for a caribou hunt in 1957 when he and my mother-in-law were doing their first anthropological fieldwork. It also holds fascination for us because it is where the explorer Sir John Franklin spent a winter in the early 1820s (hence the lake's name) during a quixotic search for a water route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Well over 3,000 miles from our home in Massachusetts, we got to Winter Lake by driving across Canada, often putting up our tents to camp at the end of a long day, and arriving after a week of travel in the Northwest Territories' capital of Yellowknife. From Yellowknife a float plane flew us a couple of hundred miles further north and dropped us off, with our canoes and supplies, at one end of Winter Lake. We arranged with the pilot to pick us up a month later at the other end of the lake, trusting that we could successfully paddle to that destination by that date. We also trusted, of course, the pilot, since access to satellite phones was not common in 1985 and the nearest road or town was hundreds of miles away. I will readily admit to feeling some butterflies when the plane was just a bit late for the pick-up.

As I reflect upon Dr. Warren's and my many idyllic camping trips in the Canadian North and our idyllic time in the summer at our cabin in Western Maine, I realize that these experiences account for our shared passion for environmental sustainability. Indeed, that passion has informed my leadership in emphasizing sustainability here at St. Mark's, an emphasis that requires continued attention from all of us as part of being responsible citizens, both locally and globally.



In your rooms and offices, I know that some of you have images of favorite people, as do I. One of my favorite people is Abraham Lincoln, who has been a source of fascination to me ever since I was very little and read and reread a picture book with vivid images of Lincoln growing up in a log cabin. While I know that that this children's biography of Lincoln contains far more myth than fact, I was able to gather, from that very young age, Lincoln's deep compassion and extraordinary courage and wisdom. I certainly recognize Lincoln's shortcomings now, carefully omitted from the book. However, Lincoln's leadership has remained a source of fascination and inspiration during my time as a student, as a teacher, and now as a head of school.

This picture is especially meaningful to me too because of its own history. First of all, I only possess it because of extraordinary good fortune. When I first saw the picture, in an antique store in Santa Fe while visiting my mother and step-father a few years ago, I decided not to purchase it because the piece was a bit expensive. However, in the months and years after the visit, I got more and more frustrated with that decision because I came to realize how special the picture is. The picture is actually a card, the size of a playing card and printed on heavy stock. As the antique store owner told me, back in the mid-1800s relatively few citizens knew what public figures looked like. So, Lincoln's supporters distributed these cards to voters during the 1860 presidential campaign as part of their pitch. I was back in Santa Fe for another visit a few years later, and I made a bee-line to the antique store (fortunately still in business) and asked the owner if, by chance he still had the Lincoln card. He raised his eyebrow, shook his head, and said "wow; you have got to be kidding...when were you here?...really?" He then started patiently rummaging around in shoe boxes behind his desk. Eventually, at the bottom of a pile, he came upon this prize.

For some of you, the images you choose of favorite people for your spaces surely include mentors and role models. I have some of them in my office also—in fact lots. I will limit myself to telling you about two. First is my advisor when I was getting my doctorate in education, Patricia Albjerg Graham. A distinguished scholar of educational history, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education's beloved Dean at the time, Dr. Graham helped me find the right balance between writing a strong dissertation and also getting it done. A model of an outstanding teacher, Dr. Graham's support gave me the confidence to keep going when I just did not think I could. She also pointed out weaknesses in my argument that I could not see myself, challenging me to do my best work. Additionally, I had the good fortune to observe, up close, her outstanding educational leadership. The choices Dr. Graham made, and the skills she employed, made the Harvard Graduate School of Education one of the premier education schools in the country. I reflect upon what I learned from Dr. Graham all the time, and I feel doubly blessed to benefit from her periodic continued support and counsel.

A second role model is Dr. William Greenough Thayer, head of St. Mark's from 1894 to 1930. I have long found Dr. Thayer's approach to leading St. Mark's inspiring and the newspaper accounts of his funeral, which I have in a frame in my office, describe qualities that serve as inspirations for me. The articles tell us that speakers at the funeral noted how Dr. Thayer worked tirelessly to ensure that the St. Mark's education was right for its time, and that a focus on character exist throughout the School. The articles also emphasize that Dr. Thayer and Mrs. Thayer enjoyed a very fruitful collaboration at St. Mark's, drawing upon complementary skill sets and temperaments, something I try to model, as does Dr. Warren.

Some other items in my office represent aspects of my identity that are particular to my role as Head of School. Here is one example, a photograph with members of the Class of 1945. This photograph is meaningful to me in part because some of these graduates have offered words of encouragement at important moments during my headship. The photograph is also meaningful because the Class of 1945 has done so much to make St. Mark's as strong as it is today. We are only able to enjoy—and benefit from—this truly exceptional performance hall because of the generosity of the Class of 1945. The Class also funded the renovation of the Chapel Corridor, or English Wing, which provided an example, 23 years ago, of the difference a well-conceived well-executed renovation of Main Building space can make to teaching and learning. The high quality of this renovation has served as a model and inspiration for subsequent Main Building improvements, like the creation of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, and the creation of the STEM Center.

When I look at this photograph, I am also reminded of the importance of ongoing generosity to St. Mark's from graduates, parents, and friends of the School. St. Mark's can only provide an outstanding education because of that generosity since annual giving supports 10 percent of our operating budget and since capital gifts create an endowment that provides another 20 percent of our operating budget. The significance of this generosity is highlighted every February on Tuition Freedom Day. That day, about two-thirds of the way through the academic year, represents, symbolically, the completion of the time when the money to run the School comes from tuition and the start of the time when the money to run the School comes from the generosity of donors. We are also only able to continue to upgrade our facilities because of generosity, like the generosity that made possible our fabulous new athletic performance and wellness center, the Coolidge Center.

You will surely agree that I cannot talk about my office without mentioning the Raccoon Coat, probably over 100 years old. This gaudy coat, stylish in its own way, was given to Groton and St. Mark's a couple of decades ago by a descendent of Groton's founder, and the Coat goes to the School that wins the majority of the fall St. Mark's-Groton athletic contests. I am proud to report that the Coat has resided in my office for six of the last seven years.

The Coat, whether it resides at St. Mark's or Groton in a given year, symbolizes much more than simply athletic results. Most importantly, the Coat symbolizes a set of shared values we can all be proud of. Both St. Mark's and Groton care deeply about sportsmanship (recognizing that members of both schools occasionally fall short of the highest standard), and both schools care deeply about providing an education that keeps academics, athletics, the arts and service in a healthy balance. We are honored, and very fortunate, to have such a healthy rivalry and are the better school for it.

Also in my office are reminders of the primary focus of my leadership: you students. After all, my highest priority is ensuring that each of you has the best possible experience at our School. One visual reminder of that priority is the scroll, containing the name of each new student, that Ms. Behnke hands to me every year during the Head's Chapel. The scroll, which hangs on the inside of my office door, reminds me of the importance of an outstanding culture of support existing at St. Mark's to help new students find their footing—support from peers, from older students, and from a variety of adults. I take very seriously my responsibility to do everything in my power to ensure that this web of support is operating as it should.

Photographs of Monitor groups remind me of the central role student leadership plays in the St. Mark's culture. The Monitors, of course, are our most visible student leaders, and I treasure the relationship we develop every year. Monitor work is hard and tricky, encompassing a lot more than leading Groton Night and running School Meetings. Much Monitor work on behalf of a positive caring tone takes place behind the scenes, in one-on-one interactions, in putting out fires, and in many many meetings. I especially appreciate the way the Monitors clue me in to problems that might be arising, and brainstorm with me, Dean Vachris and their Advisor, Dr. Warren, about how, they, we, or others can address those problems.

Student leadership, I recognize, encompasses much more than the Monitors, as we discuss frequently. Other formal leadership opportunities exist at St. Mark's providing many of you with the opportunity to make a special contribution to a group—sometimes a small group and sometimes a large group. Most important of all, though, in my judgment, is the leadership opportunity every St. Mark's student has to make our school feel safe, supportive, affirming and respectful. This kind of leadership—available to each one of you—involves daily choices which I hope everyone here will embrace. I am thinking in particular of individual moments when you can make the choice to take an active interest in somebody else, seeking to understand their perspective and seeking to be positive and affirming, especially at moments when this approach might be difficult. I am also thinking of moments when you see—or come upon—something that you know is not right. I hope you will make the choice, at that moment, to act in some appropriate way and not simply ignore the situation or turn the other way.

As I said, there is a lot more in my office I could talk about, so I hope you will come by both to see what I have described, and also to see what else is there. If I happen to be away from my desk, my assistant, Ms. Papazian is another friendly face and source of support.

I hope what I have described provides an entrée for faculty and students to talk about what you have chosen to display in your office, classroom, or dorm room. We all know that the choices we make about what to display, whether it is in the bedroom in your home only seen by a few, or in an office like mine seen by many, convey important messages about how we see ourselves, what is important to each of us as we think about who we are. Being open to sharing these parts of yourselves makes us a richer community.

Head of School

508.786.6104
email

[Full Profile]

John Warren '74