Upper School students learned about the sacrifices that military service members and their families make during a powerful chapel on the day before Veterans Day.
Mr. Bernie McMahon, an Upper School History Teacher and retired Navy SEAL, led the chapel on November 10. He began with a history lesson, explaining that Veterans Day has roots in World War I. The average age of those who died in that war was 19, not much older than the students listening in Johnson Theater. After more than four years of battle, soldiers agreed to put down their weapons in the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month in 1918.
Mr. McMahon then introduced a poem, “In Flanders Fields," written in 1915 by John McCrae. The poem commemorates the sacrifices of those who were fighting in the war. That poem opens, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row,/That mark our place..." To emphasize the significance, Norfolk Academy's Military Appreciation Club handed out poppies to students as they walked into the theater. Those poppies were in their hands as Mackenzie Savage '23 and Annamarie Russell '23 sang a rendition of the poem, accompanied on the piano by Music Teacher Cheney Doane.
Following the performance, students listened attentively as Mr. McMahon spoke about experiences of some Academy faculty and staff who served in the military. Mr. McMahon did not reveal the names of these women and men, although he knows all of them as friends, but he told students about how one joined the Navy at age 17, learning “about being part of something larger." Another was a cook in Texas trying to figure out life before joining the Navy and finding “so much pride, wearing that uniform."
Another felt lost as a youngster, before seeing the USS Constitution and electing to join the Navy. That service imparted the value of hard work and dedication. Still another received a call at 1:30 a.m. from a son, announcing he was enlisting in the Marine Corps. Another was a mother who devoted herself to raising two young boys while her husband was deployed. Mr. McMahon's final story came from an Academy family member who had attended nine different schools in 13 years because of military travel. Rather than harp on the negatives of that experience, the person saw it as a “golden opportunity to meet new people."
The military community is a tight-knit group, Mr. McMahon said. They realize “they're part of something much larger."
Mr. McMahon, who directs the Upper School's community engagement programming, then issued two challenges to students, which involve reaching out through thought and action. The first should be easy to do: Take a moment on Veterans Day to pause and thank those who have served our nation. The second will take more effort: Seek out service members and let them tell their stories of sacrifice.
“You deserve that, but more importantly, they deserve that," Mr. McMahon said.
The chapel closed with another moving performance. Mr. McMahon explained that the song “Amazing Grace," is one that he often thinks about with profound sadness because of the many military funerals he has attended where the song is part of the service. However, he noted, “Amazing Grace" is actually a song of rejoicing. With that, Dance Master Elbert Watson, attired in army camouflage pants, performed a dance against a video backdrop of soldiers singing.
In honor of Veterans Day, Norfolk Academy will not hold classes on November 11.