Opening Chapel Talk

Delivered by Head of School Tim Richards P ’15 on September 9, 2020.


 

Good evening students, faculty, and staff. For those of you whom I haven’t met yet, my name is Mr. Richards, and I’m beginning my tenth year as Head of School at Pomfret. I extend a warm welcome tonight to all members of the Pomfret School community — new and returning, in person, and distance learners. We are so happy to be back in session, beginning Pomfret’s 127th school year.

I’m coming to you — unmasked — from a nearly empty Clark Chapel. Not holding our traditional opening Sundial service and now delivering my opening talk from behind St. George in an almost empty space are clear and unpleasant reminders of the extraordinary circumstances we are facing as we launch into this new year and what I am sure will be an unusual adventure together. While the Chapel may be vacant, the campus is not, and that in and of itself is a huge win. I am hopeful that the simple promise of the new school year and the opportunity we have to come together — even in this strange fashion — raises your spirits as much as it does mine.

 

Tim begins his talk at 6 minutes, 20 seconds.


 

I spend a fair amount of time riding bikes. I became something of an avid cyclist about 15 years ago, essentially at the same time that my hamstrings told me that my running days were over. And so I fell into cycling, a sport that demands much of the legs, but something less of the hamstrings, at least compared to running. As I racked up the miles on increasingly long solo rides, I became stronger and faster. I even reached the point where I did some racing.  

I quickly moved from mostly solo training rides to doing group rides, learning to pedal with others in what is known as a “peloton” — and I do not mean the stationary bike that has become so popular. Derived from the French word for “platoon,” a “peloton” is a group of riders. And as I began doing more group rides, I noticed that I was going faster, and not just by a little, but significantly faster. When I rode with others, my average speed increased from about 20 MPH to about 23 or 24 MPH. As I learned more about cycling, I better understood the dynamics of peloton group speed. There is something in the physics of riding together that makes groups quicker. Quite simply, when cyclists ride together, they ride faster.

The title we gave to our reopening plan was not an afterthought. Better Together speaks to our belief that community is at the core of the Pomfret Experience. I’ll admit that it’s a tad ironic that I have chosen to focus on that topic as I speak to you from an almost unoccupied Chapel, but bear with me.

Single neurons in our brains don’t do much on their own, but if you string trillions of them together in a specific way, you get a thought. John, Paul, George and Ringo were all fine individual musicians, but when they came together as The Beatles, they changed music and modern culture. Peanut butter is tasty, and chocolate is delicious, but when you combine them in a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, you get a truly sublime candy bar.

These are all examples of Aristotle’s concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, and I think Pomfret School reflects this concept equally well. Last spring we endured a forced separation, and while good teaching and learning continued, and while we still gathered virtually in advisory and school meetings, and while we still had Senior Chapel Talks, our physical disconnection made doing our work — work that happens best face-to-face — really difficult. We were something less than our Pomfret best.

And now our parts are finally reassembled into a whole — well, at least almost a whole. I am sensitive to the fact that about 85 of you students are not together with us, at least for now. We miss you and know that you want to be here with us. It is my great hope that our own healthy practices and the medical advances that are coming will allow us to be fully reunited here on the Hilltop soon.

Because as we bring together people from different places, of different races, genders, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, and abilities, we have again become something infinitely better than we are as a set of individuals. We have once again become a community. And we need communities.

Our society is currently confronting several troubling issues. It’s virtually impossible to ignore the two major crises that have been unfolding before our eyes over the past several months. Covid-19 and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement dominate the daily headlines, and for good reason. Both of these issues have contributed to deep divisions in our country and in our world, and this divisiveness has left us reeling, our country hurting. 

The rise in racial violence and tension and the increase in COVID-19 cases — and the deaths that accompany both of these crises — are complex phenomena with a myriad of causes. But I believe that at least part of the explanation for these troubles lies in our inability to bring people with differing perspectives together to try to develop constructive solutions. That is what communities do.

I worry that achieving true community on a national level is pretty much a pipe dream. Too many people are so deeply locked into their beliefs that they are unwilling to engage in civil communal conversations. And absent a nationwide community that can come together to do the job, how do we fix the major problems we are facing?

I believe that it is smaller communities like Pomfret that must lead the way. We have a responsibility to foster the problem solving abilities the world needs, and problem solvers emerge when people put their collective wisdom together — in community. The troubles of our world cannot be solved by individuals. 

As author and activist Helen Keller once said,  “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”

Last winter, just before the unwelcome arrival of Covid-19 and the ensuing closure of our campus, Pomfret adopted three core institutional values: Community, Growth, and Integrity. Of these, the one that resonated most deeply with people was “Community.” Under this overarching value we included three supporting statements, that read as follows:

We care for ourselves, the people around us, and the community in which we live.
We come together to better address challenges and learn from each other.
We champion diversity and inclusion, seeking to understand and be understood.

No one could have known when we developed these words just how relevant they would become a few short months later.

At Pomfret, we ask  ourselves to care for others. To come together to address challenges. To learn from one another. To be more inclusive. To understand other people’s perspectives and experiences. We do this in our own community so that the good people of Pomfret — you students, in particular — can go out into the world and make a real difference on a larger scale, perhaps to help craft that more broad-based national community that is so lacking and so needed.

As we come together, let’s remember that if this year is to fulfill the promise it holds for us all on this night, we must stay together. The industrialist Henry Ford once said, "Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success." While he was almost certainly speaking about business efficiency, he might as well have been speaking about our school.

And so here’s my plea to us all this evening. Let’s not take this happy circumstance in which we find ourselves — together again, at last — for granted. Our continued presence on this campus is tenuous, and while I know we all want to stay here, if we can’t hold up our end of the social contract, if we can’t care for ourselves and others by wearing masks, washing our hands, and keeping physically separate from one another, we will once again have to go our separate ways and will lose the opportunity to accomplish together that which we cannot accomplish alone. I know this won’t be easy; I myself had to be reminded about the rules just two days ago.

In an exercise he did to close our faculty meetings last week, Mr. Fisher quoted from a letter former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy had written to his young children. In this letter, Murthy wishes his children a life full of love, saying that love shows up in kindness, generosity, and compassion, and that love heals and makes us whole. 

Our community’s commitment to one another and to doing all we can to cure the sickness in our world — both literal and figurative — is a manifestation of love. Making sacrifices like wearing masks and staying “One Mr. Richards Apart” (not my idea, by the way) to protect the health and safety of others is an expression of love. Love for this amazing place and this beautiful part of the world. Love for the people at this school: your friends, your teachers, your coaches, and your advisors. Love for our traditions, and love for the very idea of Pomfret.

Back in the early 2000s, before most of you students were born and before many of our faculty members had reached high school (or even middle school), our son Max turned me on to a singer-songwriter named Jack Johnson — many of you have heard of him. I became something of a fan, and bought his CDs when they came out. Yup, CDs. I had hundreds of ‘em. Still do, much to Mrs. Richards' chagrin.

In 2005, Johnson released a CD called In Between Dreams, and the first song on the album is entitled “Better Together.”

As we go into this year, a year full of so many questions and some degree of uncertainty in our minds and in our hearts, hear these poignant words from this song. I won’t sing them, because my voice is truly cringe-worthy. Still, they resonate powerfully with me at this moment:

Love is the answer, at least for most of the questions in my heart

Like why are we here? And where do we go?

And how come it's so hard?

It's not always easy and

Sometimes life can be deceiving

I'll tell you one thing, it's always better when we're together.

It sounds better when Jack Johnson is singing it, but I hope you get the point anyway.

This year, let’s keep love in our hearts by taking care of ourselves and each other. Let’s keep love in our hearts by coming together so we can do our part to address big challenges, like global health issues and social inequality and injustice. Let’s keep love in our hearts by embracing the value of diversity and inclusion and by taking every opportunity we can to understand others and have them understand us. 

Simply put, let’s commit to living Pomfret’s core value of Community. To borrow Vivek Murthy’s words, that demonstration of love may allow us to help heal this country and our world.

I trust that you all share with me a deep hope that we will beat the odds and that this year will exceed our expectations. I am confident that we can and will make that happen. As I said before, it will not be without frustration and challenge. But I can promise you one thing; like riding a bike in a peloton, we will be better because we’re together.

Please take care of each other, and let’s have a great year.
 


 

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