2020 Opening Assembly

Exeter begins its 240th year

On Sept. 10, 2020, Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08 broadcast his Opening Assembly address to a virtual audience from the steps of Phillips Hall, with a few socially-distanced students in attendance on the quad. Watch his speech or read the full text below. 

Good morning, Exeter.

Today, we mark the start of the Academy’s 240th year. We do so in a manner quite different from how we traditionally open the school. I am speaking in front of Phillips Hall, where we teach English and Modern Languages, and before me are a dozen students who have been elected by their peers to serve in various leadership positions. Ordinarily, we would gather in Assembly Hall. The air would be charged with excitement as students cheer and applaud the faculty processing into the Assembly Hall from both sides. Seniors would claim seats in the front row for the first time, and preps would take it all in from the balcony, perhaps with a bit of wonder.

Although we cannot gather together in person for this address, I know that you share in my excitement today to begin this academic year. It certainly will be unlike any other year, but I believe it will be an important year, and a very good year, one that will stand out in our memories because of obstacles overcome and important work accomplished.

We return to school having been through a very difficult period of separation, with the emergence of COVID-19, the recognition of its disparate impact that mirrors inequities in this country and the world, and the trauma induced by anti-Black violence and racism that continue to plague this country. We come together each year to teach and to learn, to be in community, and to support one another. We need to be in community now as much as ever, and we will navigate the challenges before us together.

And so I welcome you to the start of school. Welcome to our students and faculty, and to all of the employees who contribute to the teaching and learning that occur here. Welcome to our distinguished emeriti/ae faculty, who ordinarily would join me on stage in Assembly Hall for this address. I hope you are able to join us remotely. I thank you for the many years of service that you have given to Exeter and its students.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to parents and express my gratitude for the trust you have placed in us and for your support of our school. And, finally, I welcome those alumni who are watching. I thank you for your many voices, and for the many ways you support our school and our students, for whom I know you care very deeply.

Students, among the wonderful gifts of an Exeter education are the relationships that you form not only with your classmates, but across generations of Exonians. The community we build here together will be carried with you throughout your lifetime, and will be there to support you wherever you may go.

To our new students, who join us for the first time, I will say to you what I say to all new students every year. If you are feeling a little anxious, that is entirely normal. You likely are not alone. Rest assured:

You can do the work.
You will make lifelong friends. 
Absolutely, you belong here.

To our students who are not on campus, we miss your physical presence; we look forward to having you back on campus when it is possible; we will do everything we can to hold you in community while you learn remotely.

To our students who are on campus, and to those who will be joining us in a few weeks, welcome back. Many people have worked very hard all summer to prepare campus for your return. Their commitment stems from a deep belief in the mission of our school and a genuine affection for the entire student body. I hope that when you have an opportunity, you will express gratitude to all of the people whose efforts and dedication make your time and experiences at Exeter possible.

In my first opening-of-school address, I spoke of respect: “It starts with understanding the privilege we all enjoy simply by being here. If we take things for granted, or act with a sense of entitlement, we disrespect the privilege we enjoy by being here, and we disrespect the sacrifices of others that have made our time here possible.”

I followed with: “We are not special simply because we are here. But because we are here, we have the opportunity to accomplish special things together.”

I hope you will internalize these words as we begin the new term. Respect is an essential component of how we live, learn and build community at Exeter. So, too, are cooperation, empathy and participation. I ask each of you to practice those traits in full as we navigate this pivotal time together.

Students on campus, we must all commit to live by the health and safety protocols that we have developed to combat the pandemic. We must take these responsibilities seriously and follow them without exception. We are fortunate that in New Hampshire the pandemic is less prevalent than it was in the spring, but it remains a threat that must be taken seriously. Our ability to stay in community on campus depends on our unfailing adherence to these protocols.

This is non sibi in action. Wearing a mask, keeping physically distant, washing hands, and using hand sanitizer at every opportunity are ways we help protect the health of those around us. This includes your friends, the adults in our school community and their families, and the people in the town of Exeter.

Though this year will be different as a consequence of the pandemic, our aspirations as a school are the same. You will be challenged in your classes; exposed to new ideas; learn and grow in unexpected ways; and assume new leadership roles — as Exonians do each and every year. You will work hard, and we will support you in all that you choose to pursue.

My hopes for you as students also are unchanged. I would like you to feel about Exeter today as I did when I was a student. I hope you find joy in all of your activities; in knowing that you belong here; in finding kindred spirits; and in building friendships with those who might seem very different from you. I encourage you to focus not on what is currently out of reach because of the pandemic, but on what you can do, here and now, to make the most of every day and every opportunity. I am excited to see what you will accomplish in the coming months.

I urge you to take advantage of the many kinds of support that we have here to help you thrive, including proctors and student listeners, affinity groups, deans, counselors, your teachers, coaches, advisers, doctors and nurses, the adults who supervise clubs and student activities, and more. We all need support from time to time — please use these supports.

In the very first paragraph of the school’s Deed of Gift, the founders wrote, “The time of youth is the important period, on the improvement or neglect of which depend the most weighty consequences, to individuals themselves and the community.” I have quoted this section before because it is the singular reason our school exists today. Your time here matters, not only to your own development as human beings, but also to those with whom you will engage throughout the course of your lives.

The Academy’s mission and everything we do together at Exeter is grounded in that belief.

Last year, a small group of trustees and faculty were charged with producing a short, modern expression of Exeter’s mission: a concise statement adapted from our original mission that can live at the forefront of our minds as we go about our daily business of teaching and learning.

Our revised mission — each word derived from our Deed of Gift — is to unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.

Our mission statement is accompanied by five core school values, which draw more extensively on the rich language found in our Deed of Gift, and which I will summarize briefly here.

Our first core value is our commitment to uniting goodness and knowledge. The Deed of Gift states:

“Above all, it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to [hu]mankind.”

The challenges that students meet at Exeter and the support they receive have a common purpose: to stimulate their development as individuals and prepare them to lead purposeful lives.

Our second core value is our commitment to academic excellence. In every discipline, and at every level within our curriculum, we inspire students to develop critical-thinking skills and seek complex truths. Intellectual exploration through rigorous inquiry and thoughtful discourse at the Harkness table nurtures inquisitiveness, creativity, insight, empathy, independent thought and mastery in our students.

Our third core value is our commitment to youth from every quarter. Our Deed of Gift states that the Academy “shall ever be equally open to youth of requisite qualifications from every quarter.” We seek to build an intentionally diverse community of students and adults. Our Harkness pedagogy is grounded in the belief that we are all better equipped to learn and to lead when our thoughts are tested by others, particularly by those whose ideas, perspectives, experiences or identities are different from our own.

Our fourth core value is derived from the sentence in the Deed of Gift that I quoted earlier, that the “time of youth is the important period.”

Our fifth core value, non sibi, or “not for oneself,” is inscribed on the school seal and attests to the philosophy that wisdom gained here should be used for others as well as for oneself. We seek to graduate young people whose ambitions and actions are inspired by their interest in others and the world around them.

These five values reflect the character of our school and the reason that we are all here today: to prepare you to lead purposeful lives. I hope that you will take these words to heart and see our school’s mission as an invitation to open your minds and to seek out new avenues of discovery in all that you pursue here.

Fifty years ago, almost to the day, I sat in Assembly Hall as a senior and listened to Principal Richard Day’s Opening Assembly. He began by telling us, “This will be a year of precedents — set by you.” In the audience sat 39 courageous girls, including 10 seniors. They were day students embarking on their first term at the Academy. Trustees had approved coeducation just seven months earlier. Boarding girls would begin to matriculate the following year, and the number of girls overall would grow as each year passed.

Principal Day went on to say to us, “You bear a special kind of responsibility to show, by the way things go this year, that girls are not only admitted to Exeter but that they are really accepted, and part of the life here. Let people say of this year that it was a happy one, a year when we grew in awareness and understanding of each other, in which we made a fundamental change with wisdom and foresight.”

As we sat there, my friends and I understood what Principal Day asked of us, but few could comprehend fully the impact coeducation would have on Exeter. The Trustees’ decision was fundamental in nature and as transformative as the decision years earlier to adopt Harkness as our method of instruction. We will dedicate the entire academic year to celebrating this pivotal milestone and how it has shaped the school you know today.

Our theme will be “Her Voice at the Table: 50 Years of Coeducation at Exeter.” Ours will be an inclusive history and honest reflection, explored through assemblies and guest speakers, our course curriculum, a special website, alumni virtual events, and — if safe to do so — an on-campus celebration in May.

We will recognize that the journey was not always easy, and for some it was painful. We will recognize that part of our story. At the same time, we will honor fully “Her Voice” in every aspect of Academy life.

We will celebrate the extraordinary accomplishments of our alumnae, as students here at Exeter and in the world beyond. We will celebrate the impact and leadership of women who broke into the leadership ranks at the Academy and fought to accelerate equity and inclusion within every aspect of Exeter life. It is going to be a historic celebration, and there is much that we can all learn from it as we move forward.

We also commit ourselves this year to taking important, concrete steps toward realizing our vision for diversity, equity and inclusion at Exeter. This work, as stated in our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vision Statement, is “fundamental to our educational mission and method.” In June, we announced the Academy’s renewed commitment to realizing our DEI vision, and expressly stated our commitment to becoming an anti-racist school. We listed a series of initiatives to advance our work toward these ends. We will pursue our DEI work this year with unwavering dedication and a greater sense of urgency.  

This work of self-examination and action touches on all aspects of Academy life — including how we incorporate issues of race, equity and justice into our curriculum; how we provide support for Black students and all students of color; and our commitment to increasing the representation of Black faculty and all faculty of color in our classrooms and in leadership positions across all areas of Academy life. We have set aside times in our weekly schedule for students and adults to have intentional conversations about what it means to be an anti-racist school, and what we must do to live up to our vision for diversity, equity and inclusion. We will have more to say about these initiatives in the coming weeks and during the school year, but as we move forward with this work and achieve our objectives, we will become a stronger and better school.

Our DEI work and commitment to becoming an anti-racist school is not the work of a few; it is work we all share. It is work we must actively do together. As stated in our DEI Vision Statement, this work “is critical to sustaining and strengthening our tradition of excellence in all aspects of life at Exeter.” Our mission and our school values and our vision for diversity, equity and inclusion are inseparable.

Our success will depend on our willingness to think critically, challenge our assumptions, listen to thoughts and perspectives that differ from our own, and, in the words of the DEI vision statement, “collaborate to forge a greater understanding of the world.” The emphasis is not on thinking alike, but on unlocking the richness of our diversity and engaging across differences. The Vision Statement concludes, “Only when we skillfully engage our differences ... will we find a path to that greater understanding of the world and how we can be of service to it.”

I encourage all of you to commit to this work. When it feels a little uncomfortable, commit yourselves even more fully. The work that you do here to help us achieve our vision for diversity, equity and inclusion is just one way you will be preparing yourselves to lead purposeful lives.

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, in his short novel The Alchemist, writes, “When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.”

Students, in deciding to study and learn at Exeter, you have jumped into a strong current — a current wide, deep and rich with opportunities and possibilities. It might take you where you have always wanted to go, or in entirely new and unexpected directions. If you are focused on the former, I urge you to be open to the latter, and to all kinds of as yet unimagined possibilities. The process starts the day you arrive, and continues long after you graduate.

As you are on a journey, so, too, is the school. When we look back on this year, I hope we will be able to say that we worked hard, with purpose, kindness and joy. Echoing Principal Day’s remarks on the first day of coeducation 50 years ago, I hope we will also be able to say that we grew in awareness and understanding of one another, and brought about changes grounded in wisdom and foresight.

Senior class.

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