“Look Further” by Spence Whitman ’21 is a water color and colored pencil on 8 x 11 inch paper. It appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The Talon.
The following is the Opening of School Address to the Woodberry Community in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, August 26, 2018
This summer my family and I made the trek to New Zealand and Australia and on one unforgettable day we journeyed three hours into the waters of the Pacific onto the Great Barrier Reef for a magical afternoon of snorkeling in the company of dozens of species of fish and spectacular coral formations. Though I’ve never owned a boat or been on a cruise or even spent the night on a seafaring vessel, I’ve always been drawn to the water and the beauty and magnificence of the open seas.
And I’ve begun to believe that the start of any school year at Woodberry Forest is not unlike a great ship embarking upon yet another voyage across the oceans. Over the summer months the ship has been restored and renewed by our extraordinary staff whose work is often unseen but whose devotion to our school knows no bounds. Dorms have been cleaned and made ready for your arrival; Hanes Hall has been renovated into a magnificent dormitory for sixth formers; the post office and and student store are open for business. Each of us is on his or her own adventure, a journey or a quest into the vast unknown.
As we prepare to push off from the dock, we’re aware that some of the faces from previous journeys have changed. The class of 2018 has graduated, the class of 2019 is now leading the school, and we’ve welcomed 127 new boys on board. We mourn the death of twenty-year veteran Jim Robertson in the dining hall, just as we celebrate his life and give thanks for the gift he has been for us. Two long-term members of our faculty retired at the end of last year; several others left to take on opportunities beyond the school; new teachers and coaches have joined our community for the journey ahead. As we greet old friends and meet new ones, we’re a cauldron of swirling emotion: excited, anxious, scared, overwhelmed, and, in some cases, already missing the lazy days of summer. I love the start of a new school year: the anticipation is thick with possibility and the canvasis blank for each of us to leave our mark on the moment that we have, fleeting though it may be, to leave a legacy for the next voyage a year from now.
The anticipatory excitement I have about the school year is tempered by an awareness that uncertainty, disappointment, and difficulty are inevitable. We’ll travel together through the hottest days of August through the bleakest and darkest days of January and back again. You’ll have tests, quizzes, and papers that might feel overwhelming. Friday night study hall and Saturday morning classes may cause you to question why you’re here. Sixth formers may not be accepted into your first choice college. New boys will surely struggle through bouts of homesickness. Very few of you are likely to play on an undefeated team, and some of you may suffer through a very difficult loss or endure an injury that you never wanted and certainly didn’t deserve. The seas ahead will be rough and stormy, and you may on occasion wonder why you ever stepped on the ship.
Given the perilous uncertainties of the journey ahead, what sustains us? How do we know that we will prevail? Each of us will answer those questions differently, and for many it will be some combination of faith, family, and friends. Part of becoming a man is wrestling with the demons that exist in each of us so that we might come to know, as Lincoln famously offered in his first inaugural, “the better angels of our nature.” It’s important for each of you to know that even though you may on occasion feel lonely, you are never alone here. Every boy in the Tiger Nation has a team around him who wants each of you to make the most of the journey. But for us as a larger community, I want to focus this evening on the power of culture and the resonance and constancy of what we know as the Woodberry Way.
The most important and most distinctive gift for the journey ahead is the trust that has been freely extended to each and every one of us here at Woodberry by those who’ve come before. Mr J. Carter Walker, Woodberry’s first headmaster, was unwavering in this belief, making clear that the “Honor System rests upon the conviction that boys want to be honorable andwant to be trusted.” He went even further and stated, quite radically in my opinion, that “it is a fundamental right of every boy to demand that he be trusted and that his word be accepted at all times and by all persons.”
I want us to reflect briefly on the essence of trust and to consider how rare it is in the world beyond and therefore how even more extraordinary it is to us at Woodberry. The trust that we enjoy is an undeserved gift from every alumnus who cherishes his journey here as the most formative of his life. Trust is akin to a kind of secular covenant between us and the alumni and former faculty and previous headmasters on whose shoulders we stand today. When it is real and more than mere rhetoric, trust makes the school unique as we aspire to a kind of oneness that binds us all together.
I urge you to care for and nurture the gift of trust as one of the most most precious and priceless that you will likely ever receive. Now that you have received the gift of trust, you are responsible for exercising it thoughtfully and judiciously, understanding that it is the foundation of your character and the bond that ties you to your brothers and to us on the faculty. With trust in ourselves and each other, greatness is within our reach. Without it, we are doomed and our community will be cheapened. Trust is the engine that makes us far greater than the mere sum of our parts.
Trust is the essence of the brotherhood that connects each of you to one another in equality as a Woodberry boy. Earlier today I shared with the parents of our new boys that we on the faculty have renewed our annual pledge that every boy under our care will be known, challenged, and loved. Trust makes that goal attainable, and that goal becomes actionable when you have the courage to trust us enough to allow yourselves to be known, challenged and loved. Old boys know that we call on you to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. When you trust and are trusted, working hard, building your character, and taking care of each other become more natural and the school gets stronger and the brotherhood thickens for the journey ahead.
I thought a lot about trust when I read Beartown and assigned it as the headmaster’s book for summer reading. Throughout the book I was asking myself a question that I’ll pose to you: What kind of community do you want to live in? Like the residents of Beartown, we all know the comfort and belonging that we feel when we’re connected to friends and family we know and with whom we’re bonded. We know the thrill that comes from rivalry games and a tribal belief that it’s us against them and we’re David battling against Goliath. Many old boys and veteran faculty know the positive power of community expressed through the help we draw from one another when we’re down and the support we can give each other in a time of need.
But a healthy community can turn rotten at its core when it calcifies into an impenetrable inner ring that won’t allow for difference, that can’t have itself questioned, that demands loyalty over truth, that champions worldly success and material riches over character and integrity and that demeans the courage that Amat summoned in Beartown to act on the hard right over the easy wrong. Beartown captures the best and worst of who we are as individuals and as communities, and I call on all of us to be mindful what we’re doing this year to be a vibrant and open brotherhood of all and for all, shaped and forged by values like truth, integrity, grace, empathy, and curiosity.
To all 127 new boys who come from all over the nation and the world, as well as to our new faculty, a heartfelt welcome. A special word of welcome in St. Andrew’s chapel to our new chaplain, the Reverend Tyler Montgomery. I hope that each of you comes to know Woodberry as a second home, a community shaped by place and defined by values that are bigger than we’ll ever be, a culture that empowers us to trust one another, gifts us with the grace to be trusted, and provides foundational beliefs that call on us to be bigger and more noble together than we would have been on our own.
As we look to the horizon, we don’t know what the future holds, but we’re fortified for the work ahead by the 129 years at our back and the culture that we’ve inherited. We’re the beneficiaries of more than we could ever count or even completely understand. And we’re humbled by the fact that for the journey ahead we’ll have our chance, our moment, to leave a legacy and shape a message for those whose names we’ll never know but who will benefit from the oneness of our brotherhood in the coming years.
We have pushed off the dock and the open seas lay ahead. Our journey will be ours and ours alone. The values and ideals of Woodberry Forest, however, are constant and they are timeless. And the mission remains the same: embrace intellectual thoroughness, live into moral integrity, practice good sportsmanship, hold dear a reverence for things sacred, and, on the voyage, take down St. Christophers and beat Episcopal.