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The Sounds of Silence

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What was on their minds was a minute of silence. They had been listening to the news from Oklahoma City. That morning at 9:02--"That's 10:02 our time, Mr. Thacher!''--people across the nation would pause for a minute of silence to honor the memory of those who died in the bombing of the federal building there.

"We think it would be a good thing if we have a minute of silence, too,'' they explained. "If we all gathered together.''

For a moment, shifting gears from trustees to students, I was stunned and literally breathless. Their earnest request was right on target: Of course we should gather everyone together. Of course we should all observe a minute of silence.

And so, in a matter of moments, the message went out, carried by kids, by teachers, by e-mail, by parents serendipitously on campus as they prepared for the school's annual fund-raising rummage sale. We were gathering at the flagpole, where the flags drooped at half-mast, at 10:00. Don't be late. At 10:02, we would share a minute of silence.

All over campus, people interrupted classes, rehearsals, lessons, meetings, labs, songs, tests. They streamed out of our six buildings, leaving academic routines and offices behind. At the flagpole, no one had to issue directions: A circle formed naturally, enlarging to accommodate new arrivals. People talked a little, but even the most unruly preadolescents were subdued, as though we were gathering at the Lincoln Memorial.

By 10:01, we were together: students, teachers, staff members, the parents. I said a few words of explanation for the younger children. Then we were all quiet together. A minute of silence on a beautiful spring morning. It really was silent. No embarrassed shuffling, whispering, even glancing. All you could hear were the birds celebrating the season in the budding maples overhead.

A minute of silence is a long, powerful time. I thought of the families in Oklahoma and their great loss. I thought of our school community gathered here around the flagpole. I thought of the mission statement we had just been discussing, those trustees and I: "The school is committed to the nurturing of human relationships and to the experience of serving in the larger community.''

Community service. There were mothers in our circle, sifting through months of accumulated rummage to raise money for financial aid, to help our community embrace diverse families. We had teachers and students working together on so many "community service'' activities: projects on and off campus, projects that benefit our own community and the greater communities that sustain us. I thought of our campus work program, in which everyone participates. Community service. Standing in the sunlight, I felt the phrase taking on its religious significance.

Had it been a minute? The silence remained absolute. Our time was not up. I thought of "the nurturing of human relationships,'' the ways in which we were all part of something larger, something that reached around our circle, out to Oklahoma, across the seas.

And then I thought about the fact that our upper school students initiated this morning's simple memorial. It was wonderful to know that they did, but it was not so wonderful to know that the adults did not. I asked myself how I could have missed the idea. I thought about routines, about being so preoccupied with what seemed to be important that I might have missed the most important thing of all this morning. I was doubly grateful to be with these children. Once again, they had taught their elders a significant lesson.

I looked up to the flags, to the maples above us, full of the promise of spring. Relishing this palpable moment of community service, I was sure of one thing: Whatever each one of us had learned in this minute of silence would be by far the most important lesson of our school day. My own lesson, deeply reflective of our professed school mission, was inescapable: We must interrupt our daily routines from time to time in order to appreciate the simple truths, what one great Romantic poet called the "little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.''

A minute had passed. Perhaps more. Eye contact was made around the circle. Our silent sharing concluded. Quietly, thoughtfully, we returned in various directions to the daily business of school.

Nicholas Thacher is the headmaster of the New Canaan (Conn.) Country School.

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