Holding onto Peace

Danny Stock

Just before Winter Break, GDS marked another founding tradition with the celebration of the Christmas Peace Assemblies. 

Kindergarten teachers read the Christmas story aloud. High School Morris dancers skipped and smashed their sticks together jubilantly. Russell Shaw sang his GDS Christmas Blues. In every division, students and faculty joined in songs of peace.

Yet unsurprisingly, while the spirit of the assemblies remained intact, the programming in the virtual format was anything but traditional. 

Lower School

The Lower School reimagined their assembly to include video collaborations and teacher-led singalongs. LMS dance teacher Joan Ayap said the tradition “stayed true to its heart” as 3rd grade dancers presented the nativity story through movement dialogue recorded along with narration by their peers and the kindergarten teachers. Joan’s Pre-K and kindergarten dancers performed “Silent Night,” filmed on campus and online, as 3rd grade animations appeared around them on the screen. Watch a sample »

Lower School music teacher Heather Philips led the live singalongs, playing guitar and singing from her home while students and their families sang in theirs. LMS arts teachers Regina La Valley (music), Vanessa Smith-Bados (visual arts), and Heather presented another video collaboration featuring Lower School student artwork over a choral recording of students singing “Let Me Be a Light.” Watch a sample »

Middle School

The Middle School chose to honor the spirit of learning about each other's traditions and “days of joy,” a hallmark of GDS’s major assemblies since the school’s founding. 

Aggie O’Neil, the first head of school, once wrote, “It is most important that we should try to understand each other. One of the best ways is through participation in each other’s days of joy. We are not trying to impose religious belief on anyone; only to show them the beauty of other nationalities and religions.”

Students, faculty, and staff contributed videos in which they spoke about their beloved winter holiday traditions, wishes for each other, and their understanding of the meaning of peace. Seventh graders performed a radioplay of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” There were earnest recollections of Christmas tree lights, nutcrackers, gingerbread houses, early morning pancakes, and, of course, gift exchanges with family. Students also referenced Kwanzaa celebrations, menorahs topping Christmas trees, visits with extended family that would have to be put on hold this year, and the joys of family togetherness over “a well-cooked meal.”

It was just what Gladys Stern, GDS’s third head of school, had in mind. She once said, “At GDS we encourage a formal feeling of respect for the beliefs and values represented in our student body.” Though this now-103-year-old GDS icon could never have imagined celebrating in this manner, the feelings of respect and peace permeated the virtual gathering as students and faculty sang traditional Christmas songs.

High School

The High School Peace Assembly once again wrapped the community in an assortment of carols and traditional Christmas readings, including from Luke (chapter two) with Posy Brown ’24, Olivia Brown ’24, and Ranja Andriamananjara ’23. Nadia Fairfax ’22 sang “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Gustav Holst, Izzy Auerswald ’23 sang “What Child is This,” and Bryce Savoy ’21 performed Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” by candlelight and blue monitor glow. Watch a sample »

Instrumentalist (and history teacher) Topher Dunne performed the assembly prelude then partnered with creative music director Brad Linde for a piano-accordion rendition of “All I Want for Christmas is You.” They performed in masks with the bulk of the piano between them as messages of affection poured in through the live Zoom chat.

The Morris dancers pre-recorded their exuberant, bell-jingling folk dance outdoors on the High School field, pausing comically to sanitize their ribbon-wrapped sticks. Friends of GDS delighted in the performance shared on social media. GDS alum Jake Riley ’98 wrote, “Loving seeing that a pandemic didn’t stop this fine GDS tradition,” and former acting teacher Jim Mahady wrote, “Fantastic!! Wouldn’t be Christmas without it!” Watch now »

Theater director Laura Rosberg carried on the torch from former associate head of school Kevin Barr, who offered a Dylan Thomas reading each year. Laura sat in front of a peacefully trickling outdoor fountain and performed Susan Cooper’s “The Shortest Day.”

Finally, Head of School Russell Shaw performed his GDS Christmas Blues from his home, wearing his classic green-and-white winter scarf. Though Russell’s original lyrics frequently referenced the pandemic, the 2020 rendition will likely be best known for surprising the community with news of two teachers who added a bit more love into a difficult year with their under-the-radar marriage back in March. (The deluge of joyful chats after that reveal were truly heart-warming!). GDS wishes the pair peace and happiness.

In one of his final blog posts for the Hopper Effect before retirement, Kevin chose in January of 2019 to write about GDS traditions like the Christmas Peace Assembly. He concluded, “In a world which can seem chaotic, we can crave something sturdy to hold onto. GDS and its celebrations are a pretty sure bet.” 

While Kevin, like Gladys, could not have imagined the changed world we are living through now, he understood then that hard times are ever-present, but that moments of joy, love, gratitude—and peace—can help us weather them. Grab hold.

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