Graduation Remarks 2001: Setting it in Concrete

Posted June 13, 2001


The final year at St. Patrick's School of its largest graduating class ever, the 50 students in the Class of 2001, is inextricably linked with the most significant development at St. Patrick's since it moved to Whitehaven Parkway about a quarter of a century ago. We've called it A Time to Grow, and what that has meant to you is that right outside the windows of your Grade 6 classrooms—some of them nicely blinded by sheets of plywood—a new academic wing and, just across the street, a new gymnasium have been rising above Whitehaven Parkway. Aside from some bone-jarring pounding in December and January, as workers installed the Geopiers that will provide the academic addition with the foundation it needs to outlast all of us many times over, there hasn't been much interruption from the construction across the school year. (I know Ms. Cole might beg to differ, but I'm sure, for rhetorical purposes, she'll allow me that claim.) In the midst of all of this work, you seem to have gone about your Grade 6 year much like the 27 graduating classes before you, or at least the other six that I've had the pleasure of observing in my time at St. Patrick's, not in spite of the construction, but simply alongside the construction. It simply became part of the routine here. Yes, it's true that your Spring Musical was easily the best ever, that you out-Dylaned Dylan, that you out-Garfunkled Art Garfunkle, and that you out-pelvised Elvis, but your Grade 6 year has pretty much looked like those that have gone before.

One floor below you, though, there was a class, Mrs. Allen's 1C, for whom the construction became really the organizing theme for their school year—and I know that some of you collaborated with them on construction poetry.

Let me share a stanza from Alex Moore and Parker Van de Water's poem, "I Love to Look":

    Outside
    The air is dusty
    The noise is of
    Work and talk
    From a hole in the ground
    To a towering place
    I love to look at the building
    Just stand and gawk

It was out of a chance visit that I made to 1C late one morning that emerged one of the organizing themes for me as I've looked back on this eventful year. 1C is one of those wonderful primary classrooms, where there's always a lot going on, and children are always deeply engaged in what they're doing and ready in a heartbeat to share it with you.

On this particular visit, I noticed a small, black-and-white photograph clipped to the chalkboard and crouched to look more closely. It reminded me of the photographs that I grew up with, before color photography was readily available—I know the historians in the group are picturing Matthew Brady's Civil War photographs, maybe, but I actually refer to a time in the middle range of the century just past.

Mrs. Allen explained the photograph, which was taken so many years ago in Malaysia, where her father was a rubber planter. There are three people in the picture: There is the child—Elizabeth Mayson, who would become Mrs. Allen but at the time the picture was taken was probably about two years old—there was Elizabeth's mother Mrs. Mayson, and there was the Chinese contractor who was building a new house for Elizabeth's family. It was a wonderful house, Mrs. Allen explained to me later, built up on a mountaintop, where it could catch the breezes. Shaped like a cross—a design that also helped catch the breezes—and topped with a green roof, the house on the hill was used as a marker by airline pilots as they approached the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Elizabeth's family learned later. But there is no house in the photo, just a two-year-old girl, her mother, and the contractor in a clearing surrounded by Malaysian jungle. It was her mother's idea, Mrs. Allen told me, to put a Malaysian dollar in a tin and place it in the concrete foundation.

Not long before my visit to 1C, probably in late January, the workers had poured the concrete for the grade-level beams, on which rest the walls of the academic addition above and which in turn distribute that weight to the Geopiers below. Maybe some of you looked out your classroom windows and saw them pouring the concrete, with that long hose snaking across the site. Did you view it with the world-weariness of the young adolescent, or was there something there that made you want to "stand and gawk" like the person in Alex and Parker's poem? Certainly some of the first graders saw it and, as first graders might do, they rushed to tell Mrs. Berry, who has taken photographs of the project across its various stages. In the midst of the excitement, someone exclaimed, "We should put something into the concrete!" And so Mrs. Allen found an empty candy tin, into which the children stuffed hastily written messages and pictures of themselves and of the construction on scraps of paper. They passed the tin, now bearing its precious contents, on to one of the workers, who in turn popped it into the grade-level beam as it was poured.

It wasn't until after Mrs. Allen got home later that day that she remembered the photograph of her mother and her in that clearing on a hilltop surrounded by Malaysian jungle, or even the act of placing a Malaysian dollar in the foundation of her new house, but at some level she must have known about it, remembered it all along as she and her Grade 1 children re-enacted the event so many years later, past and present merging in the glorious way that can happen only in a nursery or elementary school classroom—but with a curious set of expectations about what the future might bring.

When I asked the first graders what they wrote on the slips of paper that found their way into the candy tin, in turn into the hands of the workman, and in turn into the still-wet concrete, there were certain similarities. Their names, of course, and their ages—most of them were seven years old. Some included their date of birth and a construction-related drawing or two—all of this done very quickly, of course, in the moment, which is where an elementary school education resides and where it finds its meaning, if there is any to be had. If they had missed this moment, it would have been gone forever, but they seized it—an inclination that I would like to believe is a defining characteristic of St. Patrick's. Some mentioned in their messages what they wanted to be when they grow up—a marine biologist, in one case, and an artist who would also do construction, in another, the latter no doubt an attempt to curry favor with the construction gods overseeing the project right outside the window. But clearly there was some expectation that this tin, which the worker had pushed deeply into the setting concrete with one of the bars, the re-bar, they use to reinforce concrete, would at some point be opened and its contents read by someone. But by whom? And when?

"By the construction workers," one first grader suggested.

"No, they'll be dead by then," a classmate responded.

"The building might fall down some day," another offered, "then they'll be digging around it to build it again. And somebody'll find it."

"Maybe a hover car will crash into the building and knock it down, then they'll find it," said another, who was trying to fit the technology to the age, many years in the future, in which he thought the event would occur.

Estimates differed as to when any of this might happen, but only by the number of zeroes attached. A hundred years, said one. No, a thousand, said another, or maybe ten thousand. When I asked how many thought they would still be alive when the contents of the tin were read, almost every first-grader raised his or her hand. "When we're old women and men," said one girl, "and maybe our children are like 50 years old." Clearly, Mrs. Allen had told me, her students believe that this tin of messages, now encased in concrete, will some day be uncovered. And while they're sure that the construction workers won't be around at that time, they also seem pretty certain that they will be.

Now you, as sixth graders, have a much more highly refined understanding of time—and maybe of construction techniques and materials, and maybe even of one's own mortality. But I'm remembering that when I arrived here at St. Patrick's for the beginning of the 1994-1995 school year, you were the ages of these very children—actually, you were a year younger, because you were Kindergartners when I arrived. So your sense of time and of the world around you offered some rough approximation of what these first graders were bringing to the question at hand—although one of the most exciting things about teaching young children is the remarkable growth that occurs even in a relatively short period of time, say from Kindergarten to Grade 1, let alone from Kindergarten to Grade 6.

But I continue to be struck by the conflict between permanence and impermanence in the first graders' approach to the building and their certainty that their messages would some day be read. Living in Washington, DC, one might well be aware, even your garden-variety first grader, that we are constantly knocking down buildings to build new ones in their places. As I drive to and from school each morning and evening—from school I go up Foxhall Road and then turn down Garfield Street or Cathedral Avenue, depending on how slowly the car ahead of me is moving or where Classic Rock 94.7 is in its Seven Song Super Set (hence my delight in your performance of 2001, A Musical Odyssey)—I'm always amazed that people buy these beautiful, large houses and, before they even move in, demolish them to build different beautiful, large houses—or at least different large houses—in their places. So maybe the first graders aren't so far off. But won't the academic addition that has risen outside your classroom windows this year last and last and last? And won't these seven-year-olds' messages to the future remain trapped in tin and concrete almost forever, a genie never to be freed from its lamp?

When you're a Head of School involved in a building project, one of the first things you learn to say—because it's true—is that the most important thing about a school is not bricks and mortar, not new buildings rising where none stood before, but the children and teachers who inhabit the school and the magical things that happen between them in the spaces that already exist. You come to realize—because it's true—that schools really are just collections of people who come together in the same place during a certain period of time—and hopefully a community results, although a community doesn't just happen. But you, our graduating Class of 2001, have been absolutely critical to the formation of the community that is St. Patrick's and so are like 1C's tin of hastily inscribed messages and dashed-off pictures of dump trucks and backhoes. Kindergartners when I arrived, you are part of the very foundation of St. Patrick's School, not trapped in concrete but nonetheless at the very core of this place—in its classrooms and hallways, in this very Nave and singing a descant up in its balcony, in the ghost of the gymnasium and auditorium where your Spring Musical was not just the best ever but the last ever to play upon that stage. You are a part of this place in a way that can't be explained, or understood, or ever undone—or, I trust, ever forgotten. But you are also genies about to be freed from the lamp.

Visitors to St. Patrick's School many years hence may study the plaque outside the new Upper School art room that will emerge from this summer's renovation project. That plaque will say that it was given in the name, and through the generosity, of the Class of 2001—there's that bricks and mortar stuff—and they'll wonder what the Class of 2001 was like. The people sitting at these tables tonight know just what you were like, just what you are like. And your teachers and parents and special friends are grateful for what you are and what you are becoming.

During my visit to 1C so many months ago, after I listened to the children's breathless accounts of the candy tin, and their messages, and the concrete, one girl slumped in her chair and, in a way perhaps only a first grader could have done it, murmured, "That was the best day of my life." In fact, Mrs. Allen told me later, that lovely young girl approaches life in a way that has yielded plenty "best days of her life." With that in mind, as I close, let me hope that all of the members of the Class of 2001 have had plenty of the best days of their lives here at St. Patrick's School, and let me wish you plenty best days of your lives still to come. Thanks for sharing one of them with us tonight.

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