One of the pleasures of my job is reading publications from Episcopal schools.
One such piece came across my desk the other day. It was the text of a talk by a recent college graduate who had returned to her alma mater, a parish day school, to induct graduating eighth graders into the alumni association.
Full disclosure: In my former life I headed this school and I know the young woman very well. She was the one to collect coins to donate to a fund to support families of firefighters who died on September 11. She was the student who invited her entire eighth grade class to her Bat Mitzvah and who staffed the Amnesty International table at the annual Christmas Fair. I was not surprised that she had come back to talk to the “new alumni.”
Part of her speech, however, was wholly unexpected. She wrote:
When I was up in arms in high school over upper school gossip or the fact that I swore the drama teacher had a personal vendetta against me and that was her reason for never casting me as a lead, my mom would gently hold one of my hands, look me in the eyes and say…“Just be a good person.”
In these moments I return to the…pews where I would rest my small feet on top of those faded pink pillow kneelers, which I was always tempted to pull down and kneel upon in the middle of a chapel, or I return to the moments when Mr. Hunter would lead these sensational and dizzying rounds of “Seek Ye First.” Where singing at the top of my lungs, my small body was whisked away into the harmonic chords of an unabashed community.
It’s that last sentence that stopped me in my tracks: ”Where singing at the top of my lungs, my small body was whisked away into the harmonic chords of an unabashed community.”
It was chapel. It was simply being in chapel. The pews and the kneelers, the singing and the hymns. Not assembly or morning meeting. A different kind of space. A space that said “who shall you be today?” rather than “what shall you accomplish today?” A space that said “come as you are.” A space that said “we are together.”
It is a truism that, as time passes, graduates of Episcopal schools recall the powerful effect of chapel. But such a simple statement does not begin to capture Claire’s experience. Chapel, where a non-Episcopalian and a non-Christian little girl lived something that has sustained her long after it passed.
Claire did not have to talk about chapel at all; she could have talked about any number of other things. But here it is. And had she not given that speech, I would not have known what she made of her time in chapel.
Chapel is one of the mysteries of Episcopal school life. Like teaching, we can never be sure “how we’ve done.” We cannot measure our success in truly satisfying ways. But we persist nonetheless to bring the sacred into some small part of school life. And we listen for the “harmonic chords of an unabashed community.”