Norfolk Academy students have come to expect, and even anticipate, Headmaster Dennis Manning's exhortation in his final remarks before summer: “Read an hour a day!"
Students aren't alone in taking on this charge. Faculty and staff also head into summer with assigned books under their arms, as well as plans for plenty of free reading. Assigned reading for the Year of Togetherness included two works of nonfiction, an astonishing chronicle of a woman who sought and received restitution from the man who re-enslaved her and an exploration of loneliness as a public health crisis by the current U.S. Surgeon General. Both books formed the basis for discussions during the opening faculty meetings.
Sweet Taste of Liberty by W. Caleb McDaniel, which won a Pulitzer Prize for history, tells the story of Henrietta Wood, who was legally freed in 1848, only to be kidnapped and re-enslaved five years later by a Kentucky deputy sheriff, Zebulon Ward, who became wealthy in the post-Civil War period as an architect of the nefarious practice of convict leasing. Wood sued Ward for damages, and fiercely pursued her case for eight years to obtain restitution. A federal jury in 1878 saw the need for redress, awarding her the sum of $2,500; that money helped her son earn a law degree and purchase a home, positively shifting the financial trajectory of Wood's family, as her son became a prominent Chicago attorney.
McDaniel, who is chair of the history department at Rice University, met with the faculty via Zoom to discuss his research and answer questions. In his presentation, he showed photos of historical artifacts that he encountered on his journey to document fully the life story of Henrietta Wood, one that had many twists and turns. He showed a map of all of the places that he traveled to search for documents and conduct interviews.
Answering questions from the faculty, McDaniel noted that the title referred to the payment to Wood as “restitution" rather than “reparations," because she never received an apology or the “truth-telling" that is an essential aspect of reparations. “She got $2,500 but she never received an acknowledgment from Ward of wrongdoing or from society of the consequences of the system," he said. He also observed that those who oppose reparations often say that slavery happened so long ago that it is a closed chapter, one that should be left in the past. The story of Henrietta Wood shows that African Americans made the case for reparations “at the earliest moment they could, and how difficult it was" even then, before the additional accumulated suffering and loss caused by Jim Crow, redlining, and convict leasing.
Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, by Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who is currently serving a second term as Surgeon General, was the focus of faculty discussions by division. The book opens with a combination of anecdotes and research that persuasively argue for viewing loneliness as a public health crisis. Murthy shows that loneliness afflicts individuals across all ages and socioeconomic groups, and his book explores different ways that individuals and communities have worked to foster connection.
The discussion questions for faculty focused attention on school culture and ways to reduce bridge differences and help students build stronger friendships. In all three divisions, the conversations spotlighted the impact of social media use, and how unhealthy habits and even dependencies are aversely affecting students' wellbeing. Faculty also explored the difference between loneliness and solitude, recognizing that the latter is important for becoming attuned to the world and the needs of others.
Ideas raised in these discussions will fuel activity around the year's theme--togetherness--and faculty will be sharing additional reflections with the three teachers who crafted the school-focused questions and organized the activity: Lower School Assistant Director Katie Aladj; Dance Master Elbert Watson; and English Department Chair Ari Zito.
Meetings and back-to-school preparation continue this week, with an outdoor luncheon for seniors and orientation sessions for new students on Monday. School starts on Wednesday, August 25.