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Convocation Marks Start of School Year

Convocation Marks Start of School Year

After a morning of steady rain, the sun came out just in time for Northfield Mount Hermon’s 2023 Convocation last Wednesday.

“You’re bringing your own sunshine,” Head of School Brian Hargrove said to the Class of 2024, who, according to custom, took their seats in the front rows of Memorial Chapel, with the juniors and the sophomores filling in the rows behind them and the 9th-graders taking their spots in the balcony.

While classes had actually begun two days earlier, Convocation marked the formal start of the school year, bringing together the NMH community to reflect on its aspirations for the coming year. (It was also, notably, the first “dress-up” occasion of the year, which, for some students, meant figuring out how to tie a necktie for the first time, with support from dorm faculty and older dorm mates.)

student Alex Tse speaking at the lectern in Memorial Chapel

In his address officially opening the academic year, Hargrove found apt connections to this year’s all-school summer reading assignment, The Odyssey. “This epic reminds us of the ups and downs one experiences in life, for we are rarely afforded a clear path or a straight line to our destination,” he said. “While our challenges may lack the grandiose, heroic nature of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, I think there’s value in considering our own paths to Northfield Mount Hermon and how we navigate our home here.”

In particular, Hargrove urged the gathered students, faculty, and staff members to consider, in the coming year, the perspectives and experiences of others in the community in meaningful ways. “How, collectively, do we take on the challenge of connecting with one another when we occupy a space and a time that encourages rapid judgments and pushes against meaningful engagement with one another?

“Here’s a thought,” he continued. “What if we accepted — really embraced — the idea that we are absolutely dependent on our fellow travelers? What if we valued that we are, in fact, the sum of the relationships and connections we make with one another? What if we took action on this ideal and actively sought to ‘belong’ one another — to find the connection that surely exists among all of us?”

That theme of connection continued in the Moment of Silence offered by Alex Tse ’24, who began her talk with an oft-asked question during the early days of a new school year: “Where do you call home?”

The answer, Tse noted, isn’t always as simple as one might expect. In her case, she said, the first obvious answer is Hong Kong, where she was born and raised. “But whether or not I call it home is a different story.” 

Despite some rough early days — “When I first came to NMH, I sat in my little shoebox of a room and cried. Surrounded by nothing but forests and strangers, more than 8,000 miles away from the only home I had ever known, I was scared out of my mind, like many of you once were, and some of you probably are right now.” — over time, the school has also become a home for Tse, and her friends have become a family of sorts. And now, she said, sometimes it’s on her visits back to Hong Kong that she feels a sense of disconnection, an awareness that both she and the city have changed during her time away.

student Tidiane Thiam speaking at the lectern in Memorial Chapel

“But just because I don’t call one specific place home doesn’t mean I don’t belong at all,” she said. “I have realized that where I do belong is within the communities I am a part of. Through sleepless nights baking cornbread with my dorm at 4 am, through heated family debates on the thermodynamics of the ‘perfect’ grilled cheese sandwich, and through playing ‘Just Dance’ with my friends and failing miserably, I realized that home isn’t simply a zip code, but wherever I share connections, stories, and experiences with others. And I will carry all of this with me long after we run into Shadow Lake after winning yet another Rope Pull, long after we’ve flipped our tassels, and long after those moments become a collection of fond memories we look back on and cherish.”

A second student speaker, Tidiane Thiam ’24, delivered the traditional Spade Oration, which refers to the ceremonial spade that each graduating NMH class uses to plant its class tree in the spring, then passes down to the rising senior class. 

The spade, Thiam noted, “symbolizes hard work and dedication.” And its passing, from the graduating class to juniors, symbolizes the important role NMH’s oldest students play in the larger community. “As the spade indicates, seniors and PGs are responsible for passing down and maintaining the values of those before us, hard work and dedication being primary examples. Serving as the role models and culture-setters for the year.”

But every class, Thiam noted, has a key role to play. “Ninth-graders, your primary role is to grow. Use the older students as an idea of what your time at NMH could look like. 

“Tenth-graders, you're in a bit of an in-between place. You got a little bit of knowledge but sometimes acting like you got more than you do,” he continued, to laughs for the audience. “Eleventh-graders, you are beginning to step into more leadership roles within the community. You are transitioning into those you looked up to in your younger years.”

Of course, Thiam said, every member of the NMH community can make an impact on the school — just as every member continues to grow. “Whatever you embark on this year and during your time at NMH, move forward with two things: passion and empathy,” he urged. “Whether it is academically, athletically, or artistically, follow your passions, and when you find your lane, treat the people you share it with with empathy. 

“At the end of the day, the passing of the spade is just the exchange of a fancy shovel. The values and shared experiences that get passed down from one grade to the next is where the true significance of the spade lies.”

Convocation also included the singing of the senior class hymn, “Simple Gifts,” and the school song, “Jerusalem''; a benediction from the Rev. Lee-Ellen Strawn, P’21, ’23, ’26, the school chaplain; and recognition of faculty members who hold chairs and fellowships.

This year, that included three newly awarded honors: the John ’56 and Carol Pflug Faculty Fellowship, given to Steven Bathory-Peeler, orchestra and concert band director (who also led the opening processional on his bagpipes); the Jane S. Sibley ’50 Faculty Fellowship, given to religious studies and philosophy teacher William R. Chuch; and the Margaret J. Sieck ’72 Endowed Teaching Chair in Environmental Studies, awarded to science teacher Mary H. Hefner.

composite photo of teachers receiving fellowship awards in Memorial Chapel

Photos: Top: Alex Tse '24. Middle: Tidiane Thiam '24. Bottom, from left: Teachers Steven Bathory-Peeler, William Chuch, and Mary Hefner, with Head of School Brian Hargrove and Bea Garcia, assistant head for academic programs and dean of faculty. Photos by Matthew Cavanaugh.

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