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Students walking up and down the stairs
David Jacobson

“No pressure, no diamonds.”

The 19th century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle coined that phrase, referring to the way that extreme pressure on carbon deep within the Earth eventually yielded precious gems made of some of the world’s hardest material.

Metaphorically, Cadets have always faced that reality. Saint Thomas Academy provides a more pressurized environment than many schools. Academic rigor, military discipline, adherence to the Cadet creed, and historically competitive sports programs are just some elements of the Academy that eventually deliver, in the form of its graduates, a more polished product.

The Coronavirus crisis both threatens and promises to increase that pressure during the 2020-2021 school year. “Threatens” because, realistically, who wants to deal with a pandemic? And “promises” because, philosophically, Cadets now have an opportunity to rise to a historical occasion.

That is why Cadets can make this the best school year ever. Not the easiest, not the most convenient and comfortable, but nonetheless the best.

The challenges endemic to pandemic are heightened by our nation’s questions about race and social justice, especially here, near the epicenter of the movement arising from George Floyd’s murder. Against that backdrop, Kelby Woodard arrives as the Academy’s new Headmaster.

At calmer moments, that change would seem monumental. When calmer times return, in the wake of this historical wave, that change may be monumental. Here’s how Woodard sees the moment and will help Cadets seize the moment to make this the best school year ever.

“The key,” he said, “is ‘make this.’ That really does put it in the hands of our Cadets to make this the best year ever. It could easily become a year of difficulty, a year in which we become pessimistic, where we question the future. But we can make it the best year ever if we take all the challenges we’re facing and turn them into opportunities for growth, opportunities for us to change things that we see need change, and use our four pillars as the foundation for that change. I think that’s pretty exciting.

George Will wrote a piece in late July about how 2020 is similar to 1942, given the change the world was engaging with in World War II, and given the social justice issues we’re facing now, which they also were facing then. There was lots of conversation about integrating the armed forces, though that didn’t happen until after World War II. Really interesting questions were being raised at the time – ‘How do African-Americans feel about fighting for a cause that doesn’t allow them to integrate?' – that are similar to questions being raised now.”

On the topic of social justice, Woodard has spent a good part of his first six weeks on campus “in a community-engagement effort,” he said, “talking to past alumni, especially diverse alumni, about their experiences at STA and what we can do to increase diversity at the school. Those are powerful conversations, ongoing conversations. A lot of what I’m saying about the four pillars comes from those discussions, how important they thought those four pillars are at the Academy, even if they want to see the Academy get better at some things.

“When we talk about making this the best year ever, the Cadet experience goes beyond what happens on campus. It’s about walking among people who are different, who have different points of view and life experiences. That’s what makes everyone stronger and prepares all Cadets for a world out there that is very diverse. Engaging in those conversations and journeys with others prepares them for what the real world is like. To tie it back into our mission here, that is preparing boys to be men of character.”

Woodard also spoke to many senior Cadets “about what it means to be the leaders at the school during such a time of change,” he said. “The class of 2020 is forging forward in what may be a new world. How do we use those four pillars in an environment in which, without a doubt, it’s going to be difficult to be socially together in the formats we’ve experienced in the past, such as the Military Ball? How do we get creative to make sure that the Cadet experience is as powerful as it’s ever been?”

Amid all these questions, Woodard expressed some certainties, such as starting the school year with students back on campus, while also offering an online option for families who are uncomfortable or face circumstances that make their son’s attendance unsafe. However, he emphasized, that meant no lowering of the Academy’s standards.

“If you’ve ever had kids who weren’t feeling well, and that’s because they have a physics test today, you would get them to school,” he said, “But in this environment, in the near term, we have to change that. We can’t allow kids who have symptoms that could be COVID-related on campus. The remote learning option means you don’t get the day off if you have a little bit of a headache or a tummy-ache.”

As an example of the leadership Woodard embodies, which will help the Academy continue to develop more leaders, he embraces the challenges of the upcoming school year. “We have an opportunity to sharpen our intellect when it comes to the big questions of our time,” he said. “We can’t ignore them, and we shouldn’t ignore them. These Cadets are the generation that will actually answer the questions.”

Compared to years past, that’s an increase in pressure. Presumably, the Academy will produce even more diamonds that shine even more brightly.