THE REINCARNATION OF FRESHMAN ORIENTATION
July 24, 2020
Interrupting the still of quarantine, an anthem rises at last from the Lower Field at St. Benedict’s – “Boola, Boola! Boola, Boola! It’s the war cry of the Gray Bees!” The voices of young men, a new crop of freshmen at The Hive, is music to the ears following the blanketing silence of COVID-19's lockdown.
Since March 16, the St. Benedict’s community, like the rest of the world, has remained connected through technology, seeking and finding ways to “stay together” as Fr. Mark instructed, with virtual classrooms, live-streamed (and lively) morning Convocations, Town Halls, and countless online mini-meets for special interests and social gatherings.
Those already in the embrace of St. Benedict’s held tight; but there’s an indoctrination for those who are new, and it’s something that happens overnight. At THE Overnight – a week-long orientation experience in which freshmen learn and buy into what it means to be a Gray Bee. How, in a world of social distancing, masks, and ever-shifting rules, would St. Benedict’s leadership initiate the Class of 2024?
“I knew we had to do something that was difficult right away,” said Fr. Edwin, “Something difficult that these kids could refer back to after leaving Benedict’s and to carry through life. The pandemic itself is defining the Class of 2024. We had to figure out a way to make the experience meaningful for them.”
Joking that you don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room if you surround yourself with smart people, the Headmaster assembled his team.
A nod of thanks goes to Don Laurie ’60, who connected Fr. Edwin with two former Navy Seals, Rob Newson and Robert “Gus” Gusentine, whose enthusiasm, expertise, and out-of-the-box approach to problem solving were a perfect complement to the innovation and intellect already at work at Benedict’s. Their collaboration with Craig White ’04 and Glenn Cassidy, Ed.D. ’90, the present and past freshman formation leaders, helped create a pandemic-proof plan to serve the incoming students.
By the first day of Summer Phase, July 6, 2020, the FY Team was “Ready 5.”
“We have worked together to combine many of the traditional aspects of the freshman summer program — learning the school’s history, the group/leadership system, and songs — with a more in-depth exposure to the people within our community,” explains White.
Alternating synchronous virtual classes Monday/Wednesday/Friday with asynchronous training sessions on the property Tuesday/Thursday makes for a safe, meaningful, and rigorous summer program to keep the traditions of The Hive moving forward, always forward.
Every afternoon, freshmen meet virtually with different members of the community. Br. Simon ’08 and Br. Thomas ’06 discuss the inner workings and structure of the monastery; Ms. Susanne Mueller and Mr. Didier Jean-Baptiste ’86 address the basics that foster academic success, such as calculating GPAs, using Google Calendar to stay organized, and email etiquette to communicate professionally with teachers and others.
Every evening, freshmen Zoom in for “fireside chats” to meet as many faces in the community as possible during their most formative weeks.
“It has been a lot of fun to sit back and listen to stories from alumni, coaches, families and friends of St. Benedict’s over these weeks of orientation,” said White of the chat sessions. “These nightly talks will continue through the end of summer term.”
But what about those in-person asynchronous training days on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Challenging as ever, and living up to the tenets of St. Benedict’s that hang along the field fence as visual reminders: Benedict’s Hates a Quitter, The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, Whatever Hurts My Brother Hurts Me, and, new to the Prep Division this year, Whatever Hurts My Sister Hurts Me. Even with color groups separated into pods to comply with social distancing recommendations, to coach Sylvers Owusu ’03, one sure message is clear.
“If You Cut Me Down, I’ll Grow Back. No matter how hard it is with social distancing, the SBP family continues to find ways to build community,” Owusu said. “Bringing the freshmen back here and seeing the interaction of faculty and students working together to keep our legacy going gives me hope for these new members of the community. With everyone’s effort and courage, the SBP family will always grow back from anything by moving forward.”
On the field, pods of freshman move from one activity to the next, miniature cogwheels at work to drive the engine of this hybrid Benedict’s boot camp, hitting the turf for pushups and raising their voices in song.
“The kids seem to be engaged and enjoy being a part of our community, in spite of COVID and everything else that’s happening in the world,” notes White. “And none of this would be possible without the input and support of people like Mrs. Lenahan, Mr. Marlow, Mr. Lewis, Ms. Stafford, Mr. Leahy, Mr. Delaney, Mr. Moncur, Mr. Laine, and Mr. Owusu.”
Observing it all, encouraging the kids and lending his signature good-natured taunting, the Headmaster takes stock of this new way of instilling community.
“It will be a continuing process. The rocket is still on the launch pad and it hasn’t fallen over yet! We have ignition and a chance at getting liftoff,” assesses Fr. Ed. “It’s a great start.”
--Story by Susan Kronberg
--Photos by Mike Scanlan