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Seniors and first grader with Class of 2031 sign

The launch of this school year, The Year of Belonging, has already included many “firsts.”

Opening chapel assemblies in all three divisions. For the new first graders, first handshakes with the Headmaster and patting the bulldog. Book talks about summer reading. The Tunstall Olympiad. Athletic orientation as student-athletes begin the fall season.

But, as Headmaster Dennis Manning observed, there is nothing that feels quite like the opening Convocation, when nearly everyone on campus—1,184 students, faculty, and staff—gathers in Burroughs gymnasium to start the year together.

“We gather to inaugurate the school year and the 292nd year since the school was chartered,” Mr. Manning said. “It is not so often that we gather as an entire school, and it is a reminder of what a remarkable, beautiful, and large family we are. You belong to a very special place.”

After students were seated on the bleachers and floor of the gym, the seniors with their first-grade buddies—the Class of 2031—marched in, to the upbeat tempo of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” Many of the younger students held hands with the seniors and happily waved their orange and blue pompoms. “Our newest Bulldogs led in by our most experienced Bulldogs,” Mr. Manning said.

The ceremony opened with a prayer on the theme of belonging, composed and read by Kedar Johnson-Smith ’20, president of the Tunstall Student Council. It closed, “Bind our hearts, so that we may enjoy the unifying ecstasy of compassion.” After he concluded, Tessa Chavez ‘26, president of the Lower School Student Council, led the Pledge of Allegiance, and Danielle Doss ’20 sang a soaring rendition of the National Anthem.

This year’s Convocation had a second, parallel purpose. It was simultaneously S. Barron Segar Day, when the Honor Council, the school’s most important student organization, is installed in office. The day is named for a trustee from the school’s post-World War II era, who was renowned for his integrity.  

After Mr. Manning swore in the seven members of the Honor Council, this year’s chair, Juliet Lancey ’20, spoke to the students about the power of the Honor System in forging a trusting, close-knit community. The Honor System “is not some complex, lofty, abstract code, but something that belongs to each and every one of us, and is a way of living our lives.” (Read more about the Honor Council Chair’s speech.)
 
Mr. Timothy Stiffler P '12, '15, president of the school’s Board of Trustees, offered some personal reflections about the power of learning in a community shaped by honor. As a student growing up in New Jersey, he attended a school where “every locker had a big metal door with a combination lock” and “you couldn’t leave a backpack or jewelry hanging around.”
 
It was only as a college student at the University of Virginia, which has an Honor Code, that he began to truly understand the impact of such a system on how students learn and interact with both peers and faculty. “You are the lucky ones,” he told the students. “You know how all of this works…The Honor System is a partnership between you and your teachers.”
 
Mr. Manning closed Convocation by reading an excerpt  from a children’s book by Corinna Luyken, My Heart. He prefaced his reading with a reflection: “When we talk about our hearts, we think about our inner voice and how we speak to ourselves. We have words for it—our conscience, our guide.”
 
Audrey Permenter ’23, president of the Royster Student Council, closed Convocation with a prayer including the entreaty, “Help us to remember to do good on the largest possible scale.”  
 
As many students returned to class, the seniors and their first grade buddies gathered in the Pit for a get-to-know-you session over donuts. Senior Donuts on Thursday is a well-entrenched school tradition; the first graders were thrilled to participate, and the seniors were more than happy to share.  
 
“Belonging is realizing that I was in first grade with my senior buddy,” said Isaiah Whitfield ’20. “It has come full circle.”

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