Beginning our 171st Year With a Focus on Citizenship and our Founder

The Frederick Gunn School inaugurated its 171st academic year on September 13, 2020, with a Convocation service that incorporated tradition and technology to reach students, faculty and families who attended in person and remotely. The event followed an extended week of welcoming students and families back to school, and took place on the evening before the first full day of classes.

“Every year is new and unique, but I don’t need to tell you that this one will truly be unlike any before it, both because of COVID and because of the continuity and change represented by the fact that we have existed for most of our 170 years by one name, and now we are living into the reality of what it means to be The Frederick Gunn School,” Head of School Peter Becker said, speaking from the Tisch Family Auditorium in the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center

“We chose this name for our school not simply because Mr. Gunn started the school but, rather, because we believe that the best future version of his school – our school – is one that hews to his values, principles and model,” Becker said. He went on to suggest that in the coming year, we individually and collectively can follow Mr. Gunn’s example by living both as integrated humans and as engaged citizens, by contributing to and taking from the community that is our school.

“Mr. Gunn believed that, as humans, we have amazing potential for depth and beauty and curiosity and learning and strength. We are strong, we are resilient, we can withstand and heal from incredible challenges, difficult experiences, and tragedies. He knew that we are at our strongest when we lean on the people around us, on our community, whether that is family, friends, teachers, or, today, coaches, a counselor, an advisor, or some other adult you trust,” he said.

With regard to understanding ourselves as citizens, Becker said it is about being able to elect our leaders at the national level, which is something we will do this year in the United States, but it is also something that we can start locally, immediately, which is what Mr. Gunn encouraged his students to do when he started his school.

“Being a force for good in the world starts here and it starts now in this place and wherever we are. Our world – our place to practice and learn what it means to be a citizen – is right here. It is in our dorms, our classrooms, our cohorts and advising groups, our day student village, the ensemble or team we are part of, and in our families. These are the places where we learn daily, through trial and error what Mr. Gunn meant by being a citizen. It’s only through this practice that we have any shot at being able to do it effectively on a bigger level. Just as we don’t learn an instrument or a new sport or physics by starting out as experts, we learn what it means to be a citizen from the ground up; it is a habit,” he said, pointing out that one of the fundamental tenets of citizenship is considering how as individuals we can contribute to the good of the whole community. 

“What can I bring?” he said. “What can I do to leave the school better off at the end of the year than it is right now?”

The school’s longtime former archivist Paula Gibson Krimsky, who passed away on August 30, founded the Gunn Scholar program and was “the person most responsible for the fact that we have so much information about Frederick Gunn,” Becker said. Through her persistence and presence, she was someone who left the school better than she found it, and did so with great joy, Becker said, adding, “We can all aspire to do the same.” The community paused to remember Krimsky during a moment of silence at School Meeting earlier in the week and the Convocation service opened with music selected in her memory, “Our Father,” composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, from a performance by the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir.

This year, awards that would have been presented to underclassmen during our traditional Prize Night ceremony in the spring were also announced at Convocation (see accompanying list). Emily Gum, Assistant Head of School for Teaching & Learning, announced the top scholars for the 2019-20 academic year. They were: Yolanda Wang ’21 for the junior class; Chris Wang ’22 for the sophomore class; and Julia Cortese ’23 for the freshman class.

Associate Head of School Seth Low introduced Josh Novick ’20 as the new Head Prefect, and Becker announced the newest faculty to hold endowed faculty chairs. The Wallace H. Rowe III Chair in Critical Expression will be held by Tim Poole of the English Department faculty. The Anne and Henry Zarrow Chair in Math and Sciences will be held by Austin Arkin of the Math Department faculty. 

Natalie Dyer, who is known to all as “Lili,” and who has been a faculty member since 2014, was honored with The Class of ’55 Distinguished Teacher Award. This annual award brings with it a requirement that the recipient share some of his or her wisdom in the form of the Convocation address.

A native of New York City, Dyer was raised in Washington, Connecticut. A graduate of St. George’s, she holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Middlebury College as well as a master’s degree from NYU, and taught in New York City public schools for 10 years prior to returning to Washington in 2001. She and her husband, Nick Benson, Ph.D., of the English Department faculty, have two children, Hezzy and Kathryn. In her remarks, Dyer, who teaches French and English as a Second Language, spoke about the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs, of having a voice, of being resilient in challenging times, and of hope, sharing examples from her own life and why she became a teacher.

Initially, her goal was to become a diplomat. “I wanted to travel and most of all, I wanted to solve problems – problems between people, between nations. But, after a short summer internship as an office clerk at the United Nations in New York City, I realized that I needed to go back to school and really get better at French,” she said. “I wanted to get really good at something and share it with others.”

The past six months of quarantine, away from friends and the school community has been challenging, said Dyer, who quoted from Albert Camus’ novel, “La Peste,” and the poem, “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, which Nelson Mandela recited daily during the 25 years he was imprisoned for his  anti-Apartheid beliefs. She also reflected on her experience last spring, when technical difficulties prevented her from being able to see the faces of her students when she was teaching them remotely. “I could, however, connect by audio. There was a moment when I could hear your voices from Japan, China, Europe, and different parts of the United States. It was incredible. Just connecting by sound to so many different voices during such a difficult time. Your voices kept me going and inspired me.”

The voices of her students gave her hope. Dyer was further inspired by the last words of the late civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis, whose final essay was published posthumously in The New York Times in July: “Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”

“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

“You are an incredible generation,” Dyer concluded. “Go out into this world and use your voices, as Frederick Gunn would have encouraged you to do. Even though they may be temporarily covered by a face mask, you can still be heard.”

Watch the video of Convocation here. Photo credit: Philip Dutton ’81 P’23