Silver bowls lined up on Class Day

And the Award Goes to…

By Michael Wirtz, Hackley Head of School

One spring night, after an evening meeting, I wandered into the Middle School dining room. Although it was approaching 9:00 PM, I knew that being in that room would lift my spirits. Why? It was the night that the Upper School faculty stayed late to discuss the Class Day awards. There are few more uplifting meetings than ones where outstanding, dedicated faculty who know students at a deep level discuss how students have grown in “character, scholarship, and accomplishment.” To hear faculty speak so knowledgeably and passionately about students affirms the power of education to transform lives.

This ritual is repeated each spring, reminding us as educators that we are fortunate to work with so many wonderful Hackley students. The lists of potential nominees for each award are long and all seem deserving. Because not every faculty member knows each nominated student equally well, much of the evening is devoted to teachers sharing uplifting anecdotes about the students they have nominated.

“He has natural talent, to be sure, but what I find so remarkable is the humility, effort, and cheerful attitude he brings to every class. He helps everyone else in the room feel better about what we’re doing. Heck, he makes ME feel better.”

“I’ve seen such an amazing evolution in her since I taught her in Middle School. Then, she was cautious, quiet, but you could see the activity in her face. Now, she’s a real leader in my classroom, and goes out of her way to encourage peers who are less vocal, like she once was.”

“I’ve worked with her on the field, and I’ve taught her…and in every encounter I witness her inherent kindness. She’s the first to help a peer, never lobbies for her own advantage, and never fails to say thank you.”

Cheering for classmates

Having observed this meeting last year and this year, I only wish that our students and families could hear how well students are known and how deeply they are admired and appreciated. The decisions are difficult and approached with great care. Truthfully, faculty wish there was a way to give the award to each and every one of the nominees, avoiding the challenge of making a decision and casting a vote. Forced to do so, however, the points of differentiation inevitably center on measures of character more than on objective achievement. In one sense, Hackley’s approach to awards affirms Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideal and one of the school’s unofficial mottoes: “Character is higher than intellect.”

Anyone who has set foot on Hackley’s campus has likely been introduced to one or more of our mottoes, both official and otherwise. When students and families join the community, we strive for inclusivity as we “Enter here to be and find a friend.” Once here, “United, we help one another” guides us to collaborate and support one another and the community at large. As students draw towards Commencement and contemplate life off the Hilltop, we encourage them to “Go forth and spread beauty and light.” These mottoes, led by Emerson’s exhortation, illuminate Hackley’s core values and those expressed in our mission to “challenge students to grow in character, scholarship and achievement.” Importantly and purposefully, character comes first. It is these qualities we honor most when Class Day comes around.

The Parker Cup honors the student who sets an example for all students to follow.

Effort. Determination. Courage. Growth. Humility. Support and respect for others. Striving to overcome challenges. Joy in learning and sharing. Investment of self in the process, not just the product. Never thinking “What’s in it for me?” These are attributes worth celebrating and honoring with awards. And consistent with our school values and culture, we often find that the students who receive the awards are often the ones who expect it least. We certainly do not look for that quality, but it is hardly a coincidental byproduct. The student being honored is generally not focused on whether his or her name will be called; students who exhibit these types of characteristics tend to look outwards, instead focusing on their peers and the larger community. This ideal lies at the core of this year’s work defining the Portrait of a Hackley Graduate.

Class Day at Hackley is unlike other award ceremonies at other schools, just as different, perhaps, as the meeting and discussions by our faculty. Hackley’s mission — “challenging students to grow in character, scholarship, and accomplishment” — remains at the forefront of faculty discussions, with the emphasis on character taking center stage. More than affirming the work and growth of individual students, Hackley’s process and Class Day itself serves as a testament to the school’s values.

Leaving the meeting that night, I felt energized and ever more appreciative of our school culture. Each day I am awarded by seeing the work that our remarkable faculty does with and on behalf of our students. In turn, I get to see the ways in which our students respond, grow, and live out our school values. That seems reward enough for me…but I still look forward to next year’s award meeting.