Cardigan Mountain School A boarding and day school for boys in grades 6 through 9

Courage, Compassion, and Creativity

Christopher D. Day

Originally published in May 2020 in News from the Head of School, Volume 3, Number 2.

One of my favorite Cardigan pastimes is to get to a meal early, stand at my table in the far corner of the Cardigan Commons, and watch the boys enter the dining hall. Middle school boys have a strong pull towards the tactile: they have to touch each other!

It is an inexplicable gravitational pull that, in the polite space of adulthood, we suppress behind an unspoken recognition of personal space. At a time when members of the Cardigan community—and others around the globe—have been asked to distance ourselves from each other physically, this has been much on my mind. Like sand in a bathing suit, restraining a Cardigan boy’s demonstrative nature just feels wrong. 

We adults are also struggling with being apart. As a school, we underscore connections and prize relationships, and there’s no denying that Cardigan is best when we’re all together. So many special aspects of school life grow from mere proximity: casual conversations around the lunch table, shared silences in Chapel, playing catch after dinner until the sunset bell rings and we need to get inside to study. It has been difficult for us all to conceive of a Cardigan spring that has none of those things. 

Images from News from the Head of School, Spring 2020

The safety of Cardigan boys is our top priority. At left, school nurse Marion Noldt assists during student flu vaccinations in 1960. In March 2020, the caption for an image in Cardigan’s social media posts (right) reminds boys that “[on campus] even our snowmen are practicing good social distancing.”

Yet times of stress require us to retrench, find our feet, and build outward again from the essentials. At Cardigan, these “essentials” will always be our Core Values. During our first (virtual) meeting at the end of March break, I told the faculty and staff that we would have to draw deeply on our courage and compassion to face the impact of this virus. I reminded them that we are all “alone in this together.” And, even knowing that we will face our own share of personal anxieties and challenges, I called on the faculty to provide special care for our students. In times of crisis, we must work harder than ever to support the boys’ safety and growth. 

This spring isn’t what we expected, but it IS very Cardigan: we are connecting with each other, meeting challenges bravely, and learning from every experience that comes our way.

Unsurprisingly, our school community immediately put our Core Values into action. In these last weeks, I have witnessed innumerable acts of caring on The Point. A few boys, struggling to find safe passage home, were cared for in McCusker Dorm by dedicated faculty; master teachers helped each other to learn new tools and strategies before the spring term; colleagues curtailed family visits to preserve campus safety. The community instinctively rejected the idea that distance must lead to isolation, and immediately scrambled to connect to our boys. Whether hosting virtual 5K runs, distributing crowd-sourced video shorts featuring students around the world, offering a global “coffee house” for aspiring musicians, or decorating campus with inspiring messages to share with our boys, our adults have never stopped thinking about the students. 

Just as a very unorthodox “vacation” period ended, an unusual spring term began. Our faculty has had to educate themselves for a new paradigm of distance learning, and I can tell you without exaggeration that Cardigan boys continue to have the best role models out there. New teaching platforms, new time zones, new curricula—our teachers rolled up their collective sleeves and never looked back. They have been learning by doing. 

Images from News from the Head of School, Spring 2020

Cardigan faculty members teach with the tools at hand...even if only temporarily! At left in 1956, faculty member Jack Morgan builds teamwork by clearing land for Frieze House with students (l-r: Morgan, Toby Kravet ’56, David Dagnino ’56, Buster Blomerth ’56, Nicholas Stenzel ’56, and Toby van Esselstyn ’56). At right, faculty member Annie Johnson holds advisory with off-campus students via a new distance learning platform.

Perhaps the most important lesson we teach our boys is that obstacles will always be part of our journey. To be thwarted by those obstacles is a choice—one that is not in the DNA of a Cardigan Cougar. I am reminded of this as I watch our teachers and students work hard, shoulder to shoulder, to find creative solutions to each day’s new challenges. Familiar aspects of school life have been transformed: advisory meetings are held via Zoom; the Cardigan Hymn is sung in front of computer screens (in our best attire—even if we don’t have a Cardigan blazer or gray flannels at home); the Polar Bear Challenge has taken place in bodies of water around the world. The priority throughout? To preserve, as best we can, the human connections that represent the “special sauce” of a Cardigan experience. 

I miss seeing the boys fill the dining hall with their uninhibited energy and genuine affection for each other, and I mourn the loss of some of our springtime traditions. This spring isn’t what we expected, but it IS very Cardigan: we are connecting with each other, meeting challenges bravely, and learning from every experience that comes our way. This is possible because Cardigan’s Core Values form the rock-solid structure around which our mission and daily work is organized. They are truly at our core, giving us inner strength so we can stand straighter and withstand some tough hits.

That’s by design, and that’s the Cardigan Way

Christopher D. Day P’12,’13
Head of School

Cover of News from the Head of School Newsletter

Originally published in May 2020 in News from the Head of School, Volume 3, Number 2Please download the newsletter in its entirety:

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