By Ansley Skipper
Every morning promptly at 9:40 a.m., you take your seat in Chapel. Some days you listen attentively, and some days you zone out completely, but inevitably, one day it happens: you hear something that makes you uncomfortable, shocks you, or with which you vehemently disagree. You’re left with nothing to do but sit there. Read what Rev. Bush and Mrs. Ray have to say about how and why we hear what we hear everyday.
Just the same as everyday, you walk into chapel, chatting with your friends, and make your way to a pew. The room buzzes with friends talking and laughing after the first two periods of the day, until finally, Rev. Bush rings the bell, and you settle in to take your daily deep breath. Sometimes you take advantage of the calm, but today you’re especially excited to see who’s speaking, and your thoughts wander all throughout the hymn. After an introduction, the speaker assumes his or her place at the podium and begins. Some days you listen attentively, and some days you zone out completely, but inevitably, one day it happens: you hear something that makes you uncomfortable, shocks you, or with which you vehemently disagree. You can’t jump up, interrupt the speaker, and go toe-to-toe with them on the issue. You can’t walk out of the room. You’re left to do nothing but sit there, externally placid but internally distraught, and wonder how this situation could have possibly come to be. You wonder who on earth is in charge.
One of the most unique aspects about St. Mary’s is that we have the freedom to discuss topics as an entire community in chapel, but chapel is also an obligation. We don’t have the opportunity to disengage ourselves when we feel uncomfortable or upset. As such, where is the line drawn on what is appropriate for a chapel talk? Should there be any restrictions on what we say in chapel? Are speakers given any guidelines as to what they can and cannot say? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that the entire community’s perspectives are heard?
Naturally, the expert on all things chapel at St. Mary’s is our chaplain, the Reverend Katherine Bush (‘93). Many students may not be aware that Bush actually plans very few chapels herself. She says that many chapels are predetermined. Seniors will speak, administrators will speak, and Father Webb will speak every year. Beyond that, she says, “Student Council, Diversity Club, and the Community Fund all [invite guests to speak in chapel.]” After those organizations, Bush takes suggestions from the community and tries to convince teachers to speak.
When it comes to student led chapels, Bush says, “When I hand off a chapel for someone else to plan, a student group or otherwise, I really do hand it off, and it is the responsibility of that organization.”
Another little known fact about the process of choosing chapel speakers is that there is a formalized document shared with guests with all of the information they need to know about speaking in St. Mary’s chapel, including what to bear in mind about the content of their remarks in terms of the audience and setting. This also includes a brief description of our community values and what we hope they will bring to the table in line with those in mind.
Bush affirms, “We value our religious and cultural differences, and we want to invite speakers who will be respectful of that.”
At the same time, Bush stresses that once a speaker begins speaking, there is nothing to be done but sit and listen respectfully. At that point, no one has control over what is said. She also understands that chapel is not always the right venue for every topic, but she always works to find a way to have all the important conversations, whether that be in a fireside chat, class, or club.
Though it is one of her goals to ensure that all perspectives and stories, however diverse, can be shared, she also says “Any one chapel may or may not float your boat … I’d much rather be judged on a year’s worth of chapels. Over the course of a year, did we hear a lot of different voices? Did we hear a lot of different perspectives? Did we represent a larger spectrum?”
While Bush’s influence over the content of adult speakers’ talks is limited, our senior speech expert and twelfth grade English teacher, Mrs. Shari Ray, plays an integral part in the determining what is appropriate for seniors to discuss in their speeches. Mrs. Ray takes the guidelines and goals of Rev. Bush and makes them easy for students to understand and implement. According to Ray, “Every girl tries to tell her story, but figuring out what one thing you would like to give as your speech is sometimes the hardest part.”
Like Rev. Bush, Ray stresses to the seniors the importance of bearing in mind the audience and choosing a topic that is appropriate for everyone. Ray points out that the hard thing about the chapel setting is that it’s obligatory; whereas attending a fireside chat is a choice and oftentimes a better format for something not appropriate for the entire chapel audience.
When approaching sensitive topics like politics or religion, Ray says, “Our goal is not to offend or alienate, but to inform. If you’re going to say something political, religious, about certain types of morality, or moral issues, our goal is to unite rather than alienate.”
In other words, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Revision can help in this area. Ray says, “softening the [loaded] language helps make it less alienating and more where everyone can hear it.” It is more important that more people hear a girl’s story, than it is to include certain lines which can be alienating or offensive. “Speaking in love to the whole group … is how you can really say what you want to say,” Ray adds.
At the end of the day, the St. Mary’s senior speech tradition and the school’s mission as a whole, according to Ray, “gives people confidence … and opportunities to succeed.” Ray wants seniors to feel like they’ve “said something that is important to [them] and said it well.” She also hopes that “everybody feels supported. Everybody feels heard. That adds to everyone’s confidence.”
Chapel should be used as a tool to have important, informative conversations that include as many points of view as possible and represent the community accurately and fully. As a St. Mary’s community, we should push ourselves to be inclusive and remember that there are those that disagree with us. We will not always be able to ensure that every possible perspective is included, but we can ensure that we all speak from a place of love with our goal being informing and including, not alienating or offending.
Though, an opportunity won’t always be handed to you to share your voice; sometimes you have to create this opportunity for yourself. But it is in this sharing of our distinct voices that we, as a community, can open our minds and allow for the sharing of more perspectives.
If you want an opportunity to have more of an influence in the content of chapel, Rev. Bush recommends speaking to your grade’s chapel committee representatives, or running for that committee yourself, or stopping by her office with suggestions. Chapel is a time which should be representative of the community as a whole, but, at the end of the day, it is incumbent upon each student to be her own advocate and force her unique voice to be heard.