by Maggie Pavlik, Upper School Director
Town Meeting is the one designated time in our busy schedule that the whole Upper School gathers. They take place every “F” day, and though there is a utilitarian purpose to sitting together, I believe that Town Meeting has evolved into something much more that is emblematic of that which we hold sacred at VMS—a time to reaffirm our values and our commitments to each other and to our community. This is the result of the hard work of our teachers and the students who plan and facilitate the time and infuse Town Meetings with the character of our community.
As a school with an incredibly gifted faculty, VMS has always prepared our students well for their academic journey ahead. Yet, we know that our students need more than academic tools. They need awareness, conversation, perspective, and a broad understanding of the many complexities of our world. I am pleased to say that week by week, “F” day by “F” day, we are giving them a little more insight into how to navigate the challenges of this big world. I’m grateful that my colleagues have been inspirational and demonstrated excellent leadership and courage in bringing these messages to our students. Here are just a few examples of what we’ve seen this year.
Reflections on Orientation Trips went well beyond recounting itineraries and sharing photos. Descriptions focused on the social-emotional and on both the high and low points of the excursion, and the lessons that these moments yielded. Most importantly, students showed an awareness and appreciation of how experiences like these build our community. Particularly memorable were the reflections of our eldest students, the seniors, as they shared their realizations that this was their “last trip,” perhaps as a cathartic request for support from their peers as they make the transition from this close community to the bigger world.
Similarly, students in our Personal Growth Mindfulness elective also presented a reflection on what they have gained through their time with UB.U representatives. They showed that they had indeed taken to heart the lessons about the positive effects of daily meditation and mindfulness and how it can build resilience and mental strength. Then, these students lead the whole upper school in a moment of meditation and spoke knowledgeably about paying attention to our emotional well being. One of the stated goals of this class was for students to become mindfulness advocates within our community and this was evidence of the genesis of this leadership.
In September, NBA player, Festus Ezeli spoke to the students about how he had never played basketball until he was fourteen years old. We learned about his incredible dedication, commitment, and grit and how he went from learning the basics of basketball to winning an NBA Championship. His message, while rooted in athletics, provided great inspiration to all students about living life to the fullest, taking risks, being vulnerable, and showing gratitude. True character.
Town Meeting also provides an opportunity to reflect national events, like remembering 9/11 and talking through how our country changed. More recently, after tragedy struck in Las Vegas, Shane Cole gave an impassioned and gripping speech about the shootings. This coming Thursday, veterans will visit with the Upper School and share their experience and wisdom about what it means to be a service member for our nation. Hearing firsthand about the sacrifices that others have made on our behalf can be both enlightening and emotional. And though sometimes these stories provoke tears, they will almost certainly instill a profound sense of gratitude.
During October, we heard about the unique and transformative experiences of our students who participated in Students Shoulder to Shoulder courses and the lessons in leadership gleaned from investments of blood, sweat, and tears. This was perfect preparation for VMS Alumnus Mike Johnston’s message, which he shared with our community as the keynote address during the SStS Global Solutions Forum. Johnston, through both words and deeds, unequivocally demonstrated to students that one person—and someone who shares much in common with them—can indeed make a difference.
In the coming months, we will continue with these intentional meetings. Students will view Angst, a movie that digs into the rising tide of anxiety amongst our teenage population. We will follow up with discussions about what we know and want to learn about about this mental health crisis. The timing is intentional, falling before we begin our semester exams. This winter, we will also learn about avalanche awareness, suicide prevention, and hear from a local medical professional about drug and alcohol use. We will also be open to the impromptu and unexpected opportunities and needs of our community, which often are the most meaningful.
As a parting thought, this past week, during the time that we normally meet for Town Meeting, 9th and 10th graders took PSATs and Pre-ACTS, so the 11th and 12th graders had the opportunity to meet in groups to discuss topics of their choosing. Conversations included everything from the opioid epidemic to sexual harassment; from leadership and gratitude to peer pressure and moral courage. In my group, students shared insightful comments about experiencing setbacks, and the struggles they encounter from within. One student commented, “we should live life as a student, always striving for the A, and knowing there will be failure along the way.” Indeed, our ‘children’ are developing into grounded adults who are well prepared for the challenges ahead. I believe that our Town Meetings have played an important part in putting this puzzle together.