November 28, 2018
Inside the front entrance of Belmont Chapel, one can find a recently added holder for pew cards. These cards identify values we hold dear at St. Mark's that we trace directly to our identity as an Episcopal school:
- We value time for spiritual reflection and the intentional teaching of wisdom, compassion, and humility
- We value human reason used critically in the pursuit of knowledge
- We value life in common, believing it is strengthened by honest and respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement and difference.
These values can be found at work, either explicitly or implicitly, throughout our educational program. In addition, they underlie much of the lived experience of St. Mark's students, faculty, and staff.
Our Chapel program provides the touchstone for how our Episcopal identity manifests itself at St. Mark's. Twice a week we gather in Belmont Chapel, typically at the start of Tuesday and Friday. Once a month, an evening service replaces one of the morning services. These services feature words of religious or spiritual inspiration, a hymn, and time for silent prayer, meditation or reflection. The services also feature a talk, typically offered by a student or faculty member in the morning and by one of our Chaplains or a visiting Chaplain in the evening.
I can cite multiple examples of every one of the pew card's values being communicated during Chapel services over the past couple of years. What I appreciate most about our Chapel program is the sense of safety members of our community feel in the space. Our student speakers feel comfortable exhibiting vulnerability as they describe challenging moments they have experienced either at school or elsewhere in their life, and they reflect, in impressive depth, upon parts of their identity that they want the rest of our community to know.
The supportive response these students receive from their peers and the adults surely reinforces and strengthens the sense of "life in common" central to our Episcopal identity. I am convinced, as well, that an interrelationship exists between our vibrant Chapel program and the supportive atmosphere evident throughout our School.
I can also cite multiple examples of every one of the pew card's values being communicated in our religion curriculum. The religion courses also further the School's mission statement goal of inspiring academic and spiritual curiosity. Our required religion course, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam asks students to place themselves in the mindset of a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim. The readings, which include sacred texts from each religion, present the teaching of wisdom, compassion and humility that characterize each of these faith traditions. The readings and the writing assignments provide both the opportunity for spiritual reflection and the critical use of analytic skills in the pursuit of knowledge. For example, in the Judaism unit, students are required to explain the tenets of the faith imagining themselves to be a parent writing to a son or daughter.
The Religion Department's elective offerings also offer opportunity for spiritual reflection, for exposure to teachings of wisdom, compassion and humility, and for using reason, critically, in the pursuit of knowledge. The Eastern Religious Thought course includes Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist texts, while the Advanced Religion course assigns readings by authors as diverse as C.S. Lewis, Sigmund Freud, and Khaled Abou el-Fadl.
An overlap exists between values that we trace to our identity as an Episcopal school and values that are central to our Global Citizenship strategic initiative. I am convinced that this overlap enhances our students' receptivity to these values. Our pew card advocates understanding difference as a way of valuing "life in common." Our Global Citizenship literature asks our students to "develop an understanding of, and appreciation for, cultural differences so that these differences will not impede social, economic, and political cooperation."
The effort to help students understand the perspective of people different from themselves can be found in many parts of the St. Mark's curriculum. A project in the III Form required History and Social Science course, the Global Seminar, asks students to imagine themselves as part of a United Nations team allocating aid to an imaginary nation that contains features found in a number of developing nations. In small groups, students gain an understanding of how aid would be viewed in this nation, given the real-life track record of United Nations and NGO aid projects. This understanding, along with an understanding of what kind of aid is most impactful in the short and long term, informs the allocations each group decides upon. The project culminates with each group making the case about their aid allocations to a faculty panel. Having served on one of those panels, I was impressed by how respectfully the studentssought to understand the perspective of those living in the country that would receive the aid.
This academic exercise, along with many others, also helps our students explore their place in the larger world beyond our campus, one of our Mission Statement goals. The curricular work which advances this goal complements the many opportunities our students have to actually explore that larger world directly, gaining an understanding of how the world looks to someone different from oneself, whether in Worcester or in Chile.
An overlap also exists between values that we trace to our identity as an Episcopal school and values that are central to our Community and Equity program. Again, I am sure that this overlap increases our students' receptivity to these values. The Community and Equity faculty and student leaders organize events throughout the school year that promote both student pride in identity and appreciation of personal and cultural differences. These events occur during opening of school orientation days, over pizza on Friday nights, and during an annual winter Community and Equity Day. Exercises ask students and adults to share aspects of their own identity, in a safe manner, and also challenge members of the St. Mark's community to contemplate social justice topics particularly relevant in the larger world beyond our campus.
Efforts to advance the Episcopal principal of valuing life in common can be found in so many parts of our School's educational program. That emphasis is lived out in our Houses as our Househeads, other House Faculty, and Student Prefects seek, day-after-day, to build a supportive community. House activities and the continuing emphasis on developing supportive relationships create an atmosphere characterized by consideration and care for others. Athletic coaches and captains prioritize building a cooperative ethic on their teams, and our drama director builds that same ethic among the cast and crew of our plays. The efforts to operationalize valuing life in common also advance the Mission Statement goal of valuing cooperation over self-interest.
The Belmont Chapel pew card also recognizes that valuing life in common "is strengthened by honest and respectful dialogue across lines of disagreement." Here again an Episcopal principle overlaps with a Global Citizenship principle and a Community and Equity principle, thus reinforcing to everyone at St. Mark's that principle's importance. Head Chaplain Barbara Talcott, Director of Global Citizenship Laura Appell-Warren, Director of Community and Equity Affairs Loris Adams, and faculty and student leaders of our affinity groups collaborate productively to structure open conversations that surface and process disagreement in an honest and respectful manner. Occasions for this dialogue have included the 2016 Presidential election, the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution, the 2018 Parkland School shootings, the status of Tibet, and this fall's Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
While we take our Episcopal identity very seriously at St. Mark's, we also have fun with that identity. Early in the second half of this fall's varsity girls' soccer game against Middlesex, our players on the bench, while the team was down by a goal, loudly recited the School Prayer. Almost as soon as the Prayer ended, we scored to tie the game (part of a comeback that resulted in a hard-fought victory). At the time I was at a nearby field watching another contest. Upon arriving at the varsity girls' soccer game a few minutes after St. Mark's tied the score, the players on the bench, beaming with happiness, recounted in enthusiastic detail the moment of prayer and the goal that followed.