Remembering, Embracing and Aspiring

By Dr. Catherine J. Hall
Head of School, Noble and Greenough School

Good afternoon. I am truly humbled by all that today represents and symbolizes, incredibly excited to finally be here standing before you today to lead this extraordinary school, and deeply honored to begin my tenure as the seventh head of school at Noble and Greenough School.

Thank you, Dr. Locke and Ms. Reilly, for your wonderful remarks and for such a kind introduction.

I want to begin my talk with a story. It is a story about a particularly difficult situation another brand new head of school found himself facing.

This school was just getting its footing, but had been steadily gaining momentum over its short 50-year history. With a strong college list, a very good reputation in the community, and highly talented faculty, enrollment was growing and this newly hired head was optimistic about the future of the school he had inherited.

Very shortly after the school year was underway, however, he realized the situation was actually more complex and problematic than first appeared. While enrollment was strong, there had been growing confusion about what the school wanted to be, resulting in shifting admissions standards and some drift from the school’s original mission. Adding to the issue was a facilities dilemma, as very cramped spaces in need of significant repair became an increasingly urgent issue. Realizing that his school was actually in trouble, and at a crossroads, he saw both the threat and opportunity that lay ahead.

He identified several possible options, which he presented to his board of trustees. He recommended the boldest option, the one he felt best solved the crisis while also giving the school a chance to thrive and return to its mission most fully. He wrote the following to his board of trustees:

“The third scheme is ambitious and would require considerable financial backing to be launched successfully, and this can only be had if the Trustees and alumni are determined to have [the school] continued…The scheme would involve the procuring of land on the outskirts of Boston, to be arrived at by train, electric car, or motor bus.”

This head of school was Charles Wiggins, Nobles’ second headmaster from 1920-1943. Mr. Wiggins’ letter to his board would lead to the bold purchase in 1922 of the property we call home today, and Nobles’ courageous move from urban Boston to suburban Dedham. This was as much a move of facilities as it was of aspiration. This turning point would set the tone for Nobles’ story over the next hundred years, and it would serve as an important moment in our school’s inspiring history book.

As I begin my headship, and as we look ahead to Nobles’ next hundred years, I am mindful of three guiding principles I believe we need to keep very clearly in our sights.

First, we must always remember.

History is a tremendous gift, offering us the stories that can remind us of who we were and who we are; the invaluable lessons of the successes and failures that define our past; the traditions that represent our values and heritage; and the living memory of the hard work put in by our forbearers that enables us to thrive today. The story of Mr. Wiggins’ courageous decision to move the school is a wonderful example of how our history can anchor us, teach us and inspire us.

From my own history, there are many stories and people I remember to anchor myself. I have been blessed with a wonderful family, many of whom are here today. Filled with a beautiful assortment of eccentricities and quirkiness—and I have to admit I may add to the quirkiness just a bit—my family is also fiercely loyal, loving, and supportive, and the values that guide my life were learned from what my parents both taught me and modeled in how they have led their lives with tremendous joy, resilience and integrity.

I also remember the people who have believed in and taken risks on me, sometimes in moments I struggled to believe in myself. Ham Clark, Nobles Class of 1968, and T.J. Locke, our speaker here today, are two heads of school I respect tremendously who took a series of risks on me in opening doors and calling me to lead and serve over the course of my wonderful 13 years at Episcopal Academy. Dr. Locke actually asked me to serve as his assistant head of school in the first few minutes he was on the job at Episcopal. His confidence and faith in me were as surprising as they were empowering. I have found in my life that the people who took risks on me inspired me to take risks myself, to channel their faith in me into a newfound confidence in what I could accomplish.

My history has also taught me the importance of having a clear and organized plan to use as a roadmap in my life, with set goals and a solid path for getting there. It has also taught me the importance of being willing to completely abandon that very same plan. If you had asked me at any point in my life what I thought I would be doing in 10 years, I was, very consistently—and confidently—completely wrong.

It took me several sabotaged life plans as a young adult before I realized the healthy toggle between setting and releasing plans, and the tremendous asset that finding this balance could be, a balance that is motivating, anxiety-provoking and inspiring all at the same time. 

My life stories, and the people and places that have shaped them, are what I need to remember.

So what from our Nobles history should we remember? Which stories anchor us to our mission and teach us lessons to carry forward? We certainly need to remember the key moments and events that defined this great school’s journey, from the school’s founding, to the pivotal move to Dedham, to our decision to become a coeducational school.

We also, though, need to remember the smaller moments that collectively created our school culture, and through which our mission has been so visible. These smaller moments are rarely captured in plaques or books. They are, most often, learned from stories. It is through stories that we learn the texture, emotion, and smaller moments that comprise our history, tradition, and culture.

One of the gifts you can give yourself and our school is to take the time to ask our graduates and tenured faculty to share stories about Nobles. There are 11 teachers on our faculty who have worked at Nobles for over 30 years. Eleven!

In order of tenure, they are: Dick Baker, 46 years; Nick Nickerson, 43 years; Bill Kehelnbeck, 42 years; Mark Harrington, 41 years; Tilesy Harrington, 40 years; Bob Kern, 39 years; Deb Harrison, 36 years; Steven Toubman, 34 years; Tom Resor, 31 years; Sheila McElwee, 30 years; and Bill Bussey, 30 years. These 11 teachers collectively have 412 years of teaching experience at Nobles alone! I would like to take a moment to thank and honor them for their lifetime of dedication to Nobles.

Please seek them out. Ask them to tell you their stories, ask follow-up questions, and listen very carefully. Over time, while you are still here at Nobles or in the decades that follow, you need to pay this same gift forward by sharing these stories you have heard, along with new ones of your own you will create. This is how our Nobles stories remain a part of our history, our present, and our future. Ultimately, Nobles is its people, and it is through all of you and your stories that Nobles lives and continues.

Remembering our past affords us the wisdom and insight to shape our present.

Our second guiding principle is to embrace who we are.

True clarity about who we are and who we are not, and what we believe in and what we do not, helps to ensure we fully live out our mission and values.

Where are our stakes in the ground? How do we want to be known? This kind of clarity requires tremendous self-reflection and a willingness to take a stand at times that might be very uncomfortable, perhaps even contentious. It is relatively easy to have strong conviction about who you are when you know everyone around you will agree. It requires a very different kind of conviction and confidence to declare who you are or are not in the face of disappointment or resistance.

I know by now the students and faculty are counting on at least one Springsteen reference in this talk, so here it is. In his song “Better Days,” Springsteen writes, “…it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin, and can't stand the company.” We need to be able to live in our own skin and embrace and celebrate with pride who and what we are.

When I reflect on my own personal mission and how I want to lead my life, it boils down to living a life consistently focused on honesty, hard work, and kindness. While luck and opportunity certainly play a role in how any life path unfolds, and it is tales of random luck or counter-intuitive opportunity that make the best stories, I have found that honesty, hard work, and kindness as a strategy is pretty hard to beat. In case I needed another sign that I was meant to be at Nobles, I found one—actually, I found three—when I walked into our Pratt Middle School building and saw the three banners that hang on the wall. One reads, “Be honest,” another “Work hard,” and a third, “Be good to each other.”

Living an honest life, for me, means I never worry that what I have written, said, or put in my desk drawer will be discovered. It means I say what I believe with transparency, that I am willing to say something I believe that may engender disagreement or judgment, and that I take responsibility for my mistakes. It does not mean, however, that I use the umbrella of “honesty” as permission to say things that are hurtful to others, nor does it abdicate me from needing to do the hard work of being fully informed and critically evaluating what I believe.

I am also a firm believer in the power of hard work to reap tremendous rewards, whether it is to gain new skills, to solve a problem, or to help others. For me, hard work does not mean working yourself into the ground, nor working for the sake of it. Hard work to me means that I will never question whether my work ethic is the reason why I did not accomplish something I cared about. Hard work can be a great equalizer in an imbalanced world. Never, ever underestimate the impact of working hard to create opportunities for yourself or to make a difference for others.

Lastly, I believe that kindness is the secret ingredient to so many of life’s struggles. In the face of anger, hurt, frustration or pain, a simple response of kindness can make such a quick and meaningful difference. With one small act, you convey empathy, love and understanding, make clear your interest in helping and listening, and take all the tension out of a stressful moment instantly. If in doubt, be kind.

These three values I try to live by—honesty, hard work, and kindness—are my own personal mantra. What is Nobles’ mantra? How do we want to be known?

First and foremost, at the center of the Nobles experience, is the strong, empowering, supportive relationships students form with their teachers, coaches and advisors. The Nobles catchphrase, “relationship before task,” guides our work in very meaningful ways. As our programmatic priorities have evolved and shifted over decades, our commitment to our students, and to keeping them in the center of our work, have remained true.

Second, Nobles has a commitment and history of excellence that is simply remarkable. It is certainly visible when you see the list of diverse and impressive accomplishments from our graduates and current students. It is more notably present, however, in the ways in which our students push themselves to grow, lead and learn where accolades are not paving the way, where visibility and prizes do not drive the effort, and yet where our students still epitomize excellence in all that they do.

While rigor is certainly part of how we think of excellence at Nobles, rigor does not mean extra work, nor is it at odds with the well-being of our students. Rigor at Nobles is about excellence in how we learn, how we live, and how we lead. Every member of the Nobles community—students, faculty, staff, and administrators—come to school each day looking to be their best selves, ready to take risks, work hard and tap into the power of such an extraordinarily talented community.

Third, at Nobles we strive to embed our mission-driven focus on cultivating leadership for the public good throughout all facets of our school. Whether it is through our expansive community service program, a transformative EXCEL travel experience or the incredible work our graduates are doing across the world to lead in ways that serve, Nobles fosters and supports an authentic, enduring focus on leadership for the public good that is a clear part of our Nobles mantra.

Fourth, we strive for Nobles to be an inclusive school, where we actively defy hate and where we celebrate the tremendous positivity that emerges from our joyful community. There is nothing partisan about this stance, and we are certainly not breaking ground by coming out in strong opposition to hate, but it is important that we do, now more than ever.

I spoke earlier about the power of kindness. Kindness, empathy, and understanding are certainly at the root of how we need to face an increasingly complex world, where hate and acts and words of anger are often getting more attention than goodness and joy. We have committed ourselves to educating our students to understand history, to tolerate dissenting or competing viewpoints with respect and with an open ear and mind, to seek to learn and know before deciding and acting, and to step in and step up to lead in ways that contribute positively to our local and global communities.

If we first remember and we then embrace, we must, finally, aspire.

Aspiration is an optimistic, joyful way of seeking to be our best selves, of looking for ways to evolve, grow, and be inspired. We are not looking ahead assuming we need to change, but we embrace opportunities to continue to push ourselves to learn.

Aspiration does not imply there is a set finish line that needs to be crossed. In fact, it suggests just the opposite. Our pursuit of excellence motivates us to move forward with confidence and conviction, irrespective of where we are in the race or how far we have to go to get to the next milestone. We seek excellence that is uplifting, where student wellness and resilience are natural partners with rigor and accomplishments.

Aspiration embodies the essence of our mission. Leadership for the public good is deeply dependent upon an aspirational approach to learning and living. Our mission speaks of “motivating students to achieve their highest potential and to lead lives characterized by service to others.” Leading and serving in this increasingly complex world necessitates a growth mindset, one that is agile, empathetic, resilient, inquisitive and relentlessly focused on improvement.

It is in this final guiding principle of aspiration that my path and Nobles’ path converge. As we look ahead, we will forge this next journey together, remembering our histories, embracing who and what we are and looking ahead to aspire to do great things—in our classrooms, on our fields, on our stages and in the world around us.

Nobles is uniquely equipped to aspire in ways other schools could not dream of doing. Our history, and the people who came before us, have given us that gift. Our mission, and knowing what we stand for, have given us that gift. Each of you in this room, with your tremendous talent and character, has given us that gift. To turn that privilege into practice, we have some hard work to do. It is work, though, that is as exhilarating and it is rewarding.

Mr. Wiggins, in his decision to move Nobles to this incredible place in 1922, kept the three guiding principles of remembering, embracing, and aspiring very clearly in his sights. He looked ambitiously forward, possibly envisioning a day like today, when his school would again be looking forward with lofty aspirations for our next journey together.

I am truly honored to be able to lead our great school forward, and am thrilled to become a part of a community that is filled with so much passion, kindness, excellence, and joy.

Great things await us. I look forward to discovering them with you.

Thank you.


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