Stories

On the first day of school, ninth graders greet each other after the summer break.

At an Upper School assembly, Dominic Randolph welcomed students on the first day of the new school year:

My name is Dominic Randolph, and I have the privilege of being the sixth Head of School of this great school in its 112th school year. I hope you will seek me out or stop me in a corridor to have a chat this year. It is my pleasure to try and make this school, along with all my colleagues, the best school possible for you all. 

Welcome back. It is great to see you all here. I would like to especially welcome all the new students with us today. You may be new, but this is just as much your school as someone who has been here for years. Welcome. I want to welcome back all students, but note the special year that it is for the great Class of 2020. Congratulations on getting to this final year of school here. I am looking forward to seeing how well you culminate your time with us here and prepare to head off to the next phase of your life. Be the great leaders you have become and good luck to you!

I want to tell you a short story. 

In my early twenties, my brother and I sought a way to come over to Europe and work over the summer. We didn’t have much money. We wrote to vineyards and vegetable farmers in northern Spain and southern Italy. We wrote to friends we had in the construction business in the UK. No one responded, save one place we had written to: the New Valamo Russian Orthodox monastery in the Lake Region of Finland about 300 miles northeast of Helsinki. Since I had a friend in Helsinki, we decided to go. The deal was that we would have to work 6 hours a day six days a week in order to get our room and board. Seemed like a good opportunity and Finland was a black box for us. We had little idea of what it would be like. It was more exotic than staying in New Jersey for the summer. 

When the bus dropped us off at the edge of a road in a forest of fir trees, we lit off down a dirt road for a few miles until we arrived at the monastery. The monks had come from the original Valamo monastery in Lake Ladoga in Russia. Due to Russian governmental persecution, twelve monks had ventured across the frontier and founded New Valamo in the lakes and pine trees of central Finland in 1948. Now, in the late 1980s, the monastery was larger than the original building and had grown to include farmland, outbuildings, houses, and a church. It was still inhabited by about 12 monks, but now they were mostly Finnish. We spoke no Finnish. The monks spoke little or no English. Luckily we had a group of about six other international workers with us and some Finns who were doing their military service volunteering at the monastery. This group of young people was a convivial group. We hung out together. We lived together. We ate together. Six days a week, we were told what to do by the monks and our new Finnish friends translated. 

So my brother and I just asked lots of questions. How hot should the dishwasher be? Where do we get the potatoes? How long is it to the cemetery? What is a Karelian cake? The questions were an easy way to become part of the community and they increased our learning tenfold in those first weeks. Some people like us, young travelers, came to work and spouted off their opinions about various things, including things they knew little about like Finland and its culture. They always left fairly quickly. The questioners remained. The questions were a way for this small international group of workers and travelers to learn about each other in a non-judgmental way and learn about the sometimes strange workings of the monastery. Questions made everyone be curious and thoughtful and that made our small community rather special. 

We found in those first weeks that many Finns we were with were brutally honest. They tell you what they think quite calmly and quietly with little drama. “It does not seem very sensible that you are here.” Olli Tappio would say to my brother and me. “This does not taste good,” said Annina after I had spent an afternoon cooking on our day off. At first, that honesty and straightforwardness were jarring. Given my English background, we are taught to say “I don’t mind it” when what you really mean is you hate it. That frank honesty was foundational to the Valamo community. People said what they thought and it was meant purely as feedback to a community member in order to make the community work better. No one needed to steal anything since the community provided for your basic needs. Lies, even white lies, came to seem unnecessary. There was a purity to the simple honesty I found in that place that I have never experienced elsewhere. It made life better. It made people better. 

Finally, one morning a week or so before departing after we had spent two months at Valamo, Father Ephraim, the monk who would give us our work assignments, assigned my brother and me to bury a recently departed monk. “Bury a monk!” We were shocked at breakfast since we had usually washed dishes, peeled potatoes, painted floors or picked apples. This was both daunting and extraordinary since we realized that this was Ephraim’s gift to us—it was a task that deserved special care and we had shown him that we cared about this community and its members. At the end of our stay, we had become truly part of the community. We had cared about Valamo and, in return, we now belonged. Great communities and people in those communities care in many ways about the members of the community and that caring leads to belonging. And, when you belong, you work better and you feel better. 

So, based on this little story, I wish these three things for us this year. I want us to become better questioners of each other. I hope that you will seek out people you don’t know and get to know them by asking them good questions. I hope that you will ask good sharp questions of your peers and teachers in your classrooms. I hope that we will work on our honesty, that we will take responsibility for dishonesty and hold others to fair expectations of honesty. I hope that we can become a more honest place in this year ahead. Finally, I hope that we will care for each other in good ways so that everyone here feels a sense of belonging to this special place and this special school. Everyone deserves to belong here, and it is all of our duties to make sure that everyone feels that sense of belonging at Riverdale. 

Frank Hackett and his wife Frances founded Riverdale Country School in 1907 to create a place where students could come to a “country” campus in New York City and work with other students from around the globe. They wanted this place to be as diverse as possible and for the learning environment to be enriched by that diversity of background, experience, race, religion, socio-economic background, and of thought. That is what we still aspire to. At the same time, we know that there are capacities such as curiosity, honesty, empathy, optimism, self-control, resilience and others that make our characters strong and that make that work as a community possible. I hope that we will be especially curious, ever honest and thoughtfully caring with each other so this year will offer us all the amazing opportunity of a great Riverdale experience. All of us deserve that. Let’s make it a great year. 

Thanks for listening, and I wish you growth, good work, and fun for this next school year.