The entire community gathered together in person for Convocation on September 11, formally marking the beginning of our 172nd year as a school. “A new year in a boarding school is an incredible opportunity to recreate our community based on our history, our mission, and our Core Values,” Head of School Peter Becker said in his welcome address. “It is the same as when Mr. and Mrs. Gunn welcomed about 12 students into their home in 1850 to create a learning community – a learning ecosystem – out of the diverse group of people living and learning in close proximity to each other.”
This year’s school is comprised of 315 students from 20 states and 20 countries who speak an estimated 18 different languages. “We hail from every region of the United States and from around the world,” Becker said, listing the many differences that we share. “Some of us love physics, some of us love history. Some of us are afraid of math while others of us feel really at home with it. Some of us love sports, some of us don’t. Some of us are liberals and some of us are conservative. Some of us love to sing and some of us are frightened at the very notion. Some of us have grown up in this town and some of us are in the United States for the first time ever. Some of us only speak English; for others of us, English is the second or third language that we’ve learned."
“The world is an amazing place and we are all here together, diverse in so many ways, with so much to learn from each other. But being a diverse community is different than living well together as as diverse community,” Becker said. To live well together as a diverse community takes work. It takes mutual respect, patience care, and sacrifice. And if we choose to spend time only with people we already know we have things in common with, whether they play the same sport, are from the same place, share the same interests, or speak the same language, that would be a missed opportunity.
“We want you to practice courage, curiosity, humility and creativity every day. My request to you, individually and collectively, is to find a way to cross over from whatever is your safe place – the person or group of people with whom you are most comfortable – and establish a connection with someone different. It certainly means taking a risk and practicing courage, and it might mean choosing to become curious about why someone does what they do or believes what they do. Treat the other person the way you would hope that they would treat you. Let’s do that together this year and make this place and this year incredible."
The service continued with a presentation of the top scholars from the 2020-21 academic year by Emily Gum, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning. Gum awarded prizes to Bea Flynn ’24, Jenny Shen ’23 and Yoyo Zhang ’22, as the students who earned the highest grades consistently across all subjects for last year’s freshman, sophomore and junior classes, respectively. Yolanda Wang ’21 was the top scholar for the senior class and the school last year.
Seth Low, Associate Head of School, introduced this year’s Head Prefect, Eddie Rayhill ’22. Following the Head Prefect Address, Becker presented the faculty who will hold endowed faculty chairs for the next three years:
- The Tisch Family Chair for Excellence in Teaching was awarded to Steve Bailey P’09 of the Science Department faculty.
- The W. Hamilton Gibson Chair for the Humanities was awarded to Karoline Theobald P'09 '14 of the English Department faculty.
- The Noto Family Chair for Dedicated Service was awarded to Alisa Croft, Mathematics Department Chair.
Cassandra Ruscz, Director of Residential Life and a member of the World Languages faculty, was awarded the Class of 1955 Distinguished Teaching Award. A graduate of the Taft School and Tufts University, where she majored in psychology and Spanish and won back-to-back national championships in softball, Ruscz has been a member of the FGS faculty since 2017. In 2020, she completed her master’s in education degree from the University of Delaware while teaching full time, and she is now in her second year of learning remotely at the University of South Carolina, where she is earning a doctorate in educational practice and innovation. She has served as a dorm parent, head dorm parent, Head Coach for Varsity Softball, assistant coach of Girls Varsity Baseball, and teaches Spanish.
It is a tradition for the holder of the Class of 1955 Distinguished Teaching Award to deliver the Convocation Address. In her remarks, Ruscz reflected on how her entire life revolved around softball for 15 years, and how she has been supported for her entire life by her parents, Marty and Marianne, and her grandmother, Eva, who were all in attendance and who are, in her words, her “biggest fans.”
“Softball was my comfort zone. It was the world where I felt most safe and confident,” Ruscz said. “I was a good softball player and I was not afraid to let anyone know that fact. I always knew exactly what was going to happen at every moment: what the dirt felt like under my cleats, how I could slow a pitch down and see the red seams on the ball move and spin when I was in the batter’s box. I didn’t often leave that world of comfort that I had grown accustomed to, until my junior year of college.”
On a whim, Ruscz said she decided to go live in Spain. “I loved Spain. For the first two months, I wandered around aimlessly, smiling at random people, saying ‘Hola!’ in the most American accent I could conjure up. I was dumbfounded by how much I didn’t know – and I had taken high school Spanish up until that point. I just had to figure it out.”
One day, she and two friends took a day trip to Cuenca, a gorgeous city in Castile la Mancha, just outside of Madrid. “The city is absolutely breathtaking. It sits on a massive cliff and the buildings actually form part of the cliff, so if you were to look out your bedroom window, you would just see a cliff plunging down 500 feet.”
They happened to be there on the day of a festival and people were running through the streets, playing music, eating and drinking and enjoying life. As they made their way into the town square, built around a church, Ruscz noticed some barricades had been put in place. Someone set off a firework in the sky, and everyone started cheering, so Ruscz cheered, too. She noticed people were getting behind the barricades but didn’t think much of it.
“It was a beautiful day, the music was playing, and I was simply happy. Then, like something out of a movie, a swarm of people came sprinting from one of the side streets into the square. People were tripping over themselves, some people jumped onto the other side of the barricades, and me, being the quick thinker that I am, just stood there as a massive bull came barreling out from one of the side streets and stared me dead in my face. Come to find out, I had inadvertently entered myself right into the middle of a running of the bulls. And I am not a fast runner,” she quipped.
The bull looked at her for a second and started walking toward the swarm of people. Ruscz ran toward the church, where there was a ledge about seven feet off the ground. It was only large enough to hold a few people. “I thought at that moment that I was done for. I was certain that I was going to fall and be gored by this massive beast,” Ruscz recalled. But she managed to climb up and felt the arms of a Spanish abuela about half her size holding her broad shoulders. “She said, ‘We grab onto the person in front of us so that we all don’t fall.’ At first I had no idea what she said. Another swarm of people came running toward the ledge. On instinct, I braced myself against a woman who was coming toward me, and I accidentally pushed her. The Spanish abuela, who was still grabbing onto my shoulders, spun me around and said, ‘No. We grab onto the person in front of us so that we all don’t fall.’ I looked around and everyone in the crowd around me was grasping around the shoulders of the person in front of them to create a jigsaw puzzle of safety and security.”
Ruscz made it out of the running of the bulls unscathed, with some great pictures to show for it. But the experience taught her that life is unpredictable, and the world does not follow one playbook or set of rules. “One day a firework could get set off in the sky, and everything around us could tailspin into chaos,” she said, reflecting on the fact that the community had begun the day by pausing to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11.
“I am floored by the fact that yesterday was the first time in 545 days that we have sat together as one community, under one roof,” she said, and there were times during the pandemic, and even before that, when she has been afraid. “But I found comfort and security in people, sometimes complete strangers. I have to believe that we can all protect the person who is standing in front of us, or be someone else’s biggest fan, because then walking into the unknown gets a little less scary.”
To view more photos from Convocation 2021 and our Senior Coffee, please visit our SmugMug Gallery.