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Brendan Largay, Head of School

In Search of a Phoenix: Hope Rising from the Ashes of Notre-Dame

I visited Notre-Dame Cathedral on Easter Sunday in 1998, nearly 31 years to the day of the devastating fire that ravaged its beautiful spire, wooden arches, and much of its roof. As you might expect, the Mass that day was said entirely in French. I remember three things with crystal clarity from that morning—I didn’t understand a word of French, it didn’t matter, and I may never have so spiritual an experience again.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, is much more than a religious site—it is a national emblem, fixed in French history, culture, and identity. Six known architects are credited with conceiving of the Cathedral—the first was Jean de Chelles. Each man that followed was a pioneering designer who played a pivotal role in carrying forward the original 12th-century ideals. This history of Notre-Dame and its architects, sculptors, and masons is a journey of passion, excellence, grit, and hope.

I have and will always believe that pre-k to grade 8 are the most important years in a child’s education. These years are foundational, beginning a journey that establishes the underpinnings of learning, with scaffolding that is clear and intentional to support the bright future of every student. Our graduates are well-prepared for high school, college, and often graduate school, places where the passions sparked in the elementary and middle school years will continue to take shape and evolve into lifelong commitments to something greater.

The ideals of education have certainly changed over the centuries—notably, all of the known architects of the venerable Cathedral were white men of the elite class—but the principles that guided their excellence have not changed. When our faculty arrives each day, each week, each school year, they see the possibility in every child they teach. They believe that the likes of Pierre du Montreuil may very well be in their midst.

Many have heard the expression standing on the shoulders of giants, attributed to another Frenchman, 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres. The progress achieved in a particular generation is possible only because of the progress made by those who came before us. France and the city of Paris will be relying on the ingenuity and knowledge of this generation to restore Notre-Dame to its glory.

CAD images of the interior of the Cathedral with detail down to the nanometer are being shared through social media. Religious communities—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—and others in France and around the world have expressed collective sorrow at the loss. More than $700 million was crowdsourced and donated to fund the reconstruction in the 24-hours after the fire. Closer to home, and inspired by the fundraising for Notre-Dame, journalist Yashar Ali put a spotlight on the Seventh District Baptist Association’s crowdsourcing effort to rebuild three historically black churches in Louisiana that were victims of arson. More than $2 million raised in response.

As I watch our students, wide-eyed and refreshed after April break and ready for the seven-week dash to summer, I see innovation and excellence in the cardboard prototype of the 16th Street Baptist Church created for Freedom Night and in the entrepreneurial notions developed in designing fitness trackers in PE. I see creativity and problem-solving in the creation of musical tables in art class and models of the ancient Roman baths,  and in learning about the ancient Greeks. I see compassion and care when our students learn about other cultures through travel to Quebec or Puerto Rico.

I see in them the hope and possibility of the future—a hope that fuels us each day, and especially in our most challenging moments. I am reminded, too, that de Chelles, du Montreil, Bernard du Chartres and Yashar Ali were children once, dreaming, as our students do, of making the world a better place.

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On Tuesday, we will gather for our annual Thanksgiving assembly—an opportunity to express gratitude as a community.

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