Convocation 2023 kicks off new school year
Convocation 2023 featured three student speakers, two campus locations, and one overarching message: authenticity matters — in relationships, in being true to one’s self, and in being vulnerable even when doing so is difficult — all of which are foundational to engagement and learning excellence.
“Nothing or no one can replace you,” Head of School Chris Fortunato P ‘26, ‘28 told Upper School students in the CFA’s Hale Theater and, a short time later, Middle School students in Thompson Hall, speaking about the power of personal connections at Thayer.
Kicking off Thayer’s 146th school year yesterday (Wednesday, Sept. 6), Fortunato raised a thoroughly modern issue when he discussed how Thayer will navigate evolving realities of artificial intelligence. As he began his remarks, he shared his screen with the audience and, in real time, plugged in a few keywords while asking the generative AI to create a welcome address for Thayer students. In what would have been seen as science fiction a few years ago, ChatGPT instantly produced a welcome address that was both plausible and serviceable. But it was a shortcut to a destination that skipped the joy of the journey and for Fortunato, it felt thoroughly inauthentic.
“I wouldn’t use it,” Fortunato told his audiences. “Because it wouldn’t be me. It wouldn’t be real.”
Echoing recent faculty and staff training on the potential impact of artificial intelligence in the classroom, Fortunato compared human intelligence — with its experiences, emotions, ethics, and traditions — to sunlight and artificial intelligence to moonlight, i.e., a mere reflection of the real thing. The moon may mimic the sun’s powers, but it cannot yield the same impact like warmth and energy.
“In all that you say and do at Thayer, I want you to generate sunlight,” Fortunato told students.
And to create that sunlight of authentic growth, he asked students to be vulnerable and share at least a part of their stories; to seek out their classmates' stories; and to be brave enough to live in a world of uncertainty – a world where there are more questions than answers and in which disagreement must find platforms for civil discourse during which we focus first on being curious as opposed to being furious at others. Fortunato invited every student in the audience to share an activity that makes them feel fully engaged; something they love to do even when it is challenging.
At the Upper School, Student Government President Katelyn Sentnor ‘24 welcomed fellow students back to a new school year and said the most memorable parts of her Thayer experience — from pop quizzes posted on the ceiling to bonding with soccer teammates to meeting new people in her advisory — stem from the relationships she’s built.
“True, authentic relationships are what make experiences,” Sentnor said before challenging her classmates to create new relationships by stepping out of their comfort zones. She ended her remarks with the following advice: “Value and treasure the people who make this place what it is.”
At the Middle School, Maddy Call ‘28 and Tommy Lally ‘28 welcomed both new and returning students and urged fellow students to look past the nervousness to the adventure ahead.
“So today, moving forward, I encourage you to try to be your best selves, be kind to others, and try new things, like a sport or a play,” said Call, adding that the Middle School’s faculty and staff are there to support students on their various journeys.
Lally recalled how nervous he was coming to a new school as a sixth grader but said connecting with others eased that initial anxiety.
“I’ve met so many great friends in my past two years here at Thayer,” Lally said, “and I’m looking forward to meeting many more. Some of my friends share the same interests as me, and others have different interests. But regardless of our similarities and differences, we all appreciate one another and respect one another. To me, that’s what makes the Thayer community so special.”
During her remarks, Call said her experience with the Middle School’s Showstoppers production turned out to be a risk worth taking. During his remarks, Lally told students trying new things might lead to a new passion in life.
“You never know until you try,” he said.
Across both divisions, ten Thayer teachers shared their own passions and how those interests bring joy to their lives. Topics discussed included painting, yoga, nature, basketball, clamming, and puzzles. In the CFA, Upper School Theater Director Kelly Hines P ‘18, ‘19 displayed her passion for the arts by leading a group of Upper School students in the singing of Thayer’s alma mater. In Thompson Hall, Director of Parent Giving Marchelle Jacques-Yarde P ‘29 offered an incredible rendition of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” assisted on the piano by Middle School Choral Director Jeff King ‘04. Midway through the performance, Middle School World Languages Faculty Richie Iskra joined in with a rap version of the song with lyrics specially crafted for the start of the school year.
In keeping with the spirit of being vulnerable and authentic in order to forge real relationships, Fortunato played the piano while Josette Chenaur ‘24 performed a piece written by the head of school when he was still an undergraduate. The song — part of an original play written by Fortunato — had not been shared with a live audience for roughly three decades. Both Upper School and Middle School audiences applauded enthusiastically for the performance.
As he ended his remarks at the Upper School, Fortunato urged his audience to seek out authenticity in themselves, in others, and in their lives.
“Time goes by really fast, and we need to focus on the things that really matter to us,” he said.
Editor's note: video added