Forging Friendships Through Chapel Talks

By Melissa Stanek ’90, P ’21, ’23, ’30, Upper School History Teacher and Senior Class Dean
“As I reflect on several years of Chapel Talks,” wrote Andy King, “the various virtues that my colleagues have extolled and promoted are impressive: honesty, resilience, tenacity, courage, perseverance, patience, forgiveness, acceptance, kindness, and many more.”

In the years since he wrote those words, the Chapel Talks program has further evolved from a platform by which adults in the community share meaningful, personal stories with Upper Schoolers to one that also creates the space for seniors to share their own learned lessons with their younger peers.

We piloted the Chapel Talk series in the fall of 2010 with the Class of 2011. The concept was that adults in the community would volunteer to speak to the senior class about something meaningful to them. We hoped that in sharing experiences or thoughts beyond content or curriculum, we could more intentionally tackle moral-ethical questions, or questions of character. Not always meant to be lessons, the talks were sometimes light and fun, sometimes deep and thought-provoking, and very often personal, giving students the opportunity to see teachers and staff as individuals with rich lives outside of the school setting.

In that first year it became immediately clear that these talks were a great success. Students and other adults in the community eagerly awaited each talk listening with rapt attention as speakers shared with them stories from their past, reflections on the world around them, or their hopes for the seniors as they readied themselves to leave the Hilltop.

Over the past ten years, more than 50 different adults in the community from all three divisions and beyond have volunteered to give talks on themes as wide-ranging as perspective, technology, finding your people, serendipity, the power of music, the power of language, politics, and so much more. Sometimes, the talks are timely—the speaker shares just what we need to hear in that moment. Upper School English teacher Wil Lobko gave the opening faculty talk this year which reflected on “our personal and collective pandemic moment.” He asked, “when we think of before and after… What do you want to preserve from that time? What do you want to edit? What do you want to reject?” And sometimes the talks are timeless, like Cyndy Jean’s recent talk challenging us to redefine and even embrace failure. Regardless of the voice or the intended message, the impact of these talks has been to bring our community closer together. Seniors look forward to their turn to sit in the audience and know that they are experiencing something special and unique.

In 2013, recognizing the power of the faculty Chapel Talks, we launched the student Chapel Talk series. Seniors volunteer to speak to the 9th and 10th graders with the same intentions as our faculty speakers—to share stories or learned lessons all toward forging deeper connections and inspiring others. For the seniors, delivering a Chapel Talk serves as a formative moment as they take on the role of teacher, mentor, or role model for the younger students. And, their talks are equally powerful, wide-ranging, and well received. Initially, persuading seniors to give these talks was challenging as the prospect of standing in front of 100-200 students and faculty seemed too daunting for many. But once a few brave seniors gave talks in those early years, many more have been willing to take on this challenge. Now, many volunteer to speak because they remember sitting in the Chapel listening to older students that they admired share their stories, and they want to have a similar impact on their younger peers.

Serina Fasciano, Class of 2022, remembers sitting in the Chapel as a 9th grader listening to older students share a range of stories that were alternatively fun, funny, eye-opening, deep, and moving. She remembers one talk in particular where a senior opened up about real challenges she and her family had faced. The talk gave Serina a new perspective on someone she previously saw as just a friendly face in the hallway. She felt privileged to hear that senior’s story and ultimately was moved to share her own this year. As our first student speaker this fall, Serina decided to share with the 9th graders the challenges she has faced as a student of Italian, Filipino, and Puerto Rican descent. She began her story by explaining, “When I was going into my freshman year of high school, I decided that every single day for the next four years, including weekends, summer break, and other holidays, that I would wear at least one pink item.” At times funny and light, ultimately, Serina’s message was personal and powerful. Wearing pink, she explained, was “my shield of armour. It was the order in my chaos, and it was the concrete part of my identity when my race was ambiguous.” The 9th graders listened intently and it was clear that her story, as they all do, resonated with many.

As senior dean, each time I hear an adult share with my class their story or thoughts, I am reminded of the great wisdom, humor, kindness, creativity, courage, and generosity of this community. And, whenever one of the seniors delivers their own talk, I am filled with pride—I am proud of the growth that I have seen in these students, from when they sat in the audience as listeners to the moment they built up the courage to stand up and speak themselves. I am proud of the seniors who come to listen to their friends, and the support and encouragement the speakers receive from their peers. I am proud of an entire community who has embraced such a unique, special, and powerful practice. I feel grateful and privileged to be a part of this community and this tradition. It is my great hope that the remarkable power of storytelling through Chapel Talks will continue to bring laughter, smiles, and inspiration for years to come. But for now, if you happen to see someone in the audience fighting a losing battle to hold back tears, that person will most likely be me.