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Headmaster Dennis Manning Gives Handshake to a First Grader

Two traditional gestures capture the kinship of the Norfolk Academy family: the pat (on the head of the Bulldog) and the handshake.

Headmaster Dennis Manning dedicated himself to those traditions on Wednesday, August 24, the first day of the 2022-23 academic year, the school's Year of Kindness, a theme that he chose (another school tradition). Mr. Manning has also noted that this year is also the “Great Restoration," marking a return to traditions, habits, and practices that have long defined the school community but were, of necessity, paused or modified during the pandemic, such as the dress code (with neckties for boys), family-style lunches, and full Chapels. All have returned for the upcoming year.

Bulldog patting is a grand tradition that is only used once -- when the youngest Bulldogs, the new first graders, enter the school. This year, these young members of the Class of 2034, came into the Lower School multipurpose room with their parents in two waves: the boys of 1A and 1B, and the girls of 1GA and 1GB.

Mr. Manning welcomed the assembled parents and students and offered a now-traditional question, a reminder of the school's longevity: “What happened four years after Norfolk Academy was chartered?" he said. “George Washington was born!" He emphasized to parents that the school's educational program is more focused on the moral development of children than it is on obtaining the decal for an elite college. That mission, counter-cultural as it may seem, is one that the school embraces through the Honor System and its foundational Philosophy and Objectives, which states: “We aim to prepare students to become ultimately useful and responsible citizens of a democracy."

Lower School Director Michelle Alexander got the first graders revved up for the Bulldog patting by explaining the process carefully, and then doing three rounds of “Are you ready?" to reach a resounding, “Yes!!!" One by one, the first graders stepped up with backpacks strapped on, patted the well-loved Bulldog, and shook hands with the headmaster, some with smiles and others with a more sober demeanor. Then they stepped over to their homeroom teachers to start their first day.

After welcoming the first graders, Mr. Manning headed to Upper School Chapel, where he greeted the sophomores, juniors, and seniors with a more serious message drawn from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the last of a group referred to as the “Five Good Emperors" of Rome, about the importance of living with “kindness, honesty, and justice," even if society has many examples to the contrary.

The school has had two years when masking was necessary, he noted, and faces were partially hidden. Now, with masks gone, everyone on campus needs to vanquish any form of anonymity, he said. Greeting people as you pass in the hallways and shaking hands are two traditions that demonstrate respect and build a sense of connection. 

“NA is the land of handshakes!" he said. “Looking someone in the eye and shaking their hand--there's no other practice that can approximate that." 

Such traditions are part of cultivating a sense of belonging for every student, he said, and the practice begins in the Lower School, as teachers greet students at the classroom door. “We celebrate our common humanity. Whatever our ancestry or background, Norfolk Academy is the perfect place to love one another." 

Learn more about Norfolk Academy's Honor System and distinctive programs at

Headmaster Dennis Manning greets a student at the bus line with a handshake.

Headmaster Dennis Manning greets students at the buses on the first day of the Year of Kindness. Mr. Manning has said that this year will mark a restoration of traditions, like the handshake, that had to be paused during the pandemic.

Handshake greeting from the headmaster on the first day of school.

Headmaster Dennis Manning greets students as they walk into Norfolk Academy on the first day of the 2022-23 academic year.

Lower School Director Michelle Alexander greets students on the first day of classes.

Lower School Director Michelle Alexander greets students on the first day of classes.

First graders head to their classrooms after patting the Bulldog on the first day of classes.

First graders head to their classrooms after patting the Bulldog on the first day of classes.

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