'You belong here': Exonians cheer start of school

Exeter Interim Principal Bill Rawson '71; P'08 delivers inspirational message to ring in the 2018-19 school year.

Jennifer Wagner
September 7, 2018
Interim Principal Bill Rawson '71; P'08 applauds the student body during opening assembly Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.

New Interim Principal Bill Rawson '71; P'08 prepares to address the Exeter community at opening assembly Friday.  

Fist bumps and high-fives. High-pitched hellos and heartfelt hugs. Exeter is abuzz again with students reconnecting on opening day.

“I’ve been waiting all summer for school to start,” says upper Lucy Gilchrist. “I’m so excited.”

She isn’t alone. Eager students take the Academy Building steps two at a time, stuffed backpacks slung over their shoulders, racing from their C Format classes to convene the first assembly of the year.

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Inside, the cavernous Assembly Hall fills to capacity, with more than a thousand students gathering on cushion-topped wooden benches. Seniors confidently take their place in the front rows while wide-eyed newcomers ask, “Do you know where preps sit?” It is loud and warm in the Hall with standing-room only, and late arrivals are relegated to the exterior hallways. All around shine the bright faces of new and returning students, faculty and staff.

For the past 238 years, students have come to this campus with hopes and dreams. Assembly Hall is the heart of the Academy Building, and for this moment, the entire Exeter community.

 “As soon as I walked into the building and saw my colleagues all dressed up, I was energized,” says Instructor Bill Jordan, the chair of the History Department. “Everyone is so engaged with what we are about to do — to teach.”  

Jordan and his fellow instructors kick off the ceremony with a processional walk through the hall aisles. Students rise as they pass to honor them with applause. Dean of Faculty Ellen Wolff further acknowledges the “magnitude of collective teacher power” at Exeter by introducing new faculty members and feting longstanding faculty (such as beloved science teacher Rich Aaronian, appointed in 1971), and revered emeriti (yes, Principal Emerita Kendra Stearns O'Donnell is in the house.)

But the students have come here today to hear from the new Interim Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08. In a game-day atmosphere, he takes the podium to an ovation of celebratory hoots, claps and whistles. 

Rawson speaks passionately about his own experience 50 years ago as a new student at Exeter and offers three pieces of advice:

  1. Believe in yourself.
  2. Focus on learning and growth, rather than worrying too much about a narrow definition of success.
  3. Respect our school, respect your classmates, and respect everyone else in our school community.

The students visibly lean in, listen intently, and nod in agreement to his uplifting and thought-provoking speech. “We are not special simply because we are here,” he says.  “But because we are here, we have the opportunity to accomplish special things together.”

The principal’s words connect. “His speech was my favorite part of the assembly,” says Joy Liu ’20. “I liked how his experience mirrored my own. I started as a lower too…It’s inspiring…It’s a great way to start the school year.”

On a final note, Principal Rawson announces that the Academy Center will henceforth be named the Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center, in recognition of her contributions to the founding of the school.

The assembly ends with dismissal by class. Seniors first. The throng heads directly to the quad for Exeter Bars and new T-shirts emblazoned with each student's class year. It’s quite the auspicious start.