For scientists, it is easy to see why autumn colors are so bright. As trees shut down their production of chlorophyll, other pigments—anthocyanin, xanthophyll, and carotene—shine through. For a poet like Robert Browning, however, the greater task is to explain why those colors make the fall season our favorite: “Autumn wins you best with this: its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay.” In other words, we love this time of year because we know that those vivid oranges, reds, and golds, for all their brilliance, hold inside them their own withering, and we sympathize with those leaves that must, by their very nature, fall into the sere. That sympathy arises, I think, from our memory of the vigorous growth we witnessed in June flowers, July corn, and August oaks. Our awe, mixed with envy for those leaves that once touched the sky, eventually turns to pity as they return to the ground.
So, what does all this have to do with Gill St. Bernard’s—other than the beauty of our campus and the good fortune we have to witness it every day? Our children are like those trees. They are nurtured in the good soil of sound education and firm relationships. They grow to reach intellectual heights that will hopefully put us adults in the shade. They are vibrant, colorful, and strong. And the catch, for us, is that they sometimes do not grow as tall as they wish, and they sometimes bend or branch out in ways they themselves cannot foresee.
Browning also said that our reach should exceed our grasp—that we never achieve all that is possible, that success grows from the same soil where last season’s leaves of failure have fallen. No more than we could wish that gingko leaves never turn gold, we cannot wish that our children never taste disappointment. The key for Gill families is healthy risk-taking—being able to see the hazards and still reach for the clouds, being able to branch out in new directions and continue to grow. Our students take these opportunities every day: posing a tricky question in Mr. Hercules’ calculus class, participating with Mr. Rabel in the health check of a newborn calf, stepping up to sing the lead in the choir, taking a sharp-angled shot at the county championship, or donning a silly outfit for Halloween. Each offers a chance to venture outside old comfort zones, weigh costs, and accept results. We know that stepping away from the shade feeds an adolescent need for novelty, and our students can stretch from soil to sky precisely because their roots are so deep.
What, then, does autumn ask of us? That we help our children live out their ideals: have the courage to take a step and have the integrity to own the consequences, have respect for those who take risks and feel compassion for the ones who fall—all with the intention of grasping our final ideal, excellence, which stands tall as a Home Winds oak and shines bright as an October sun.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.