New Year's Resolution: Stretch just a little bit further

Vincent Dotoli has served as Head of School at Harlem Academy for the past 12 years. He visited Peddie recently to speak to students about his career path, and desribed how our own Rev. Johnson  "reached across barriers" to connect with him and encourage him to explore the world beyond his comfort zone.

Good morning, my name is Vinny Dotoli and until 2001 I had not taken any steps that would land me at this podium.

I grew up in suburban New Jersey and went to prep school.  After college, I went to work with Peddie’s famous Dean, Sandy Tattersall, at a camp in Maine while also starting to teach middle school math.  At that point, I became a reasonably productive do-gooder though still without much of a story to share.

But in 2001, I went to graduate school in New York City and my life took a turn that brings me here today.  Early in my first semester, we had to write a paper about school choice.  One of my classmates knew the rector of a historic Episcopal church in Harlem. This guy had decided that the best way to help his dwindling congregation was to transform a portion of the church into a school.  It seemed a bit crazy to me, but we agreed to write our paper about starting that school.

We researched current options, met with local parents, mapped out legal and building code requirements, and drafted a curriculum.

As the year went on, I started interviewing at traditional private schools for my next job.  It was what I knew and where I felt safe.  However at the same time, the crazy rector kept engaging me in a conversation about taking the Harlem project forward for real.

Why did he do that?  I didn’t have a compelling narrative for this partnership.  I had never held a significant leadership position and never done any work in a disadvantaged neighborhood.  In fact, my whole life I had really only spent meaningful time in communities that were almost entirely wealthy and almost entirely white. 

But the rector got past those dynamics and recognized an earnest, hardworking guy who cared deeply about some of the same things he did.  I realized that it was time to get past my habit of gravitating to the safe and familiar if it could make a difference. 

Early on, the rector continued to take the lead.  He vouched for me in meetings, wrote grants to get some initial funding, made space for an office next to his, and even found me an apartment.

Now I stretched for this venture too.  After all, the funding barely covered my health insurance, the office came with the patter of mouse feet scampering across overhead heating ducts, and the apartment was more of a room, in the church, complete with an organ bellowing its greeting each Sunday morning. 

But the rector was the one who put his credibility as a leader in his community on the line by forming a partnership with someone very different.  And ultimately that partnership was the catalyst for something very special.

Harlem Academy is now in its 12th year with 120 students and 50 successful graduates, including 3 sitting right here in this chapel.  Our school is one of the few places in Harlem where bright, motivated kids can go to contribute and be challenged.  The school’s trustees just bought a big piece of land and over the next couple of years we will open a permanent campus and eventually triple enrollment. 

Harlem Academy - An Introduction from Harlem Academy on Vimeo.

But bringing the story back to Hightstown, I ask you to think about ways you are putting yourself on the line by reaching across barriers to genuinely connect with people the way that rector did with me.  Today’s reading from Professor Gomes reminds us of the very special opportunity you will have to do just that in college, but really the time is now. 

I say this knowing that the rector I met in 2001 is now here as your chaplain and remembering the way my friend Sandy speaks of the strength of character uniting your faculty and students. I’m sure that many of these unlikely connections are already part of the fabric of your lives and the school.  But, I hope that a few words this morning get you to stretch just a little bit further.