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  4. Eric Mayer

What brought you to St Stephen's for the first time? What was it about the school that attracted you?

I had a chance to have a sabbatical in 2002, and I didn't know about the school, but I had been to Rome, and the school came highly recommended. I was particularly attracted to it being both urban and residential. At that time, we had three children. Peter wasn't born yet, and our kids were young; they were four, six, and eight, and so, being in an urban residential school felt like the right fit. We were excited to come back to Rome. The urban piece meant we could live without a car and without the isolation of being somewhere more rural. Because I'd come from a residential school, I knew there would be an instant community. So those were the big draws.

How did your first experience at the school influence your decision to return as the Head of School in 2014?

It was one of the best years of my life. The exhilaration of that year provided the enthusiasm for returning—[When I came back,] It was a dozen years later. I was different. Our family was different. The role was certainly different. When I came in 2002, I was the basketball coach and a dorm parent because I was otherwise homeschooling our then four, six, and eight-year-old children, and between that, doing sabbatical research for a new "World Religions" class, so that was all I had time for at the school. So it was a significantly different role to come back as Head of School. It was the exhilaration of that year in Rome that I remembered when I saw the job posting for the Head of School position; it was one of the few spine-tingling moments where the hair stood up on the back of my neck, in a good way, just, oh my gosh, that's exciting!

So, you've just mentioned that before becoming Head of School, you were a teacher. In fact, in the past, you have taught woodworking, religion, ethics, and coached! What drew you to education initially?

I was trained as an architect, and I practiced for a few years. I enjoyed it, and I was reasonably good at it, but it was too isolating. I also wasn't finding a way to have a social impact that felt like it corresponded to the family I grew up in, which was very much a family committed to social impact and social justice. I was in architecture just before the green architecture movement started, and I think maybe if I had been trained as an architect a decade later, I would've gotten involved in that. I don't know if you know the term "LEED," leadership in energy and environmental design, but that whole movement is profoundly important and has had a high social impact. That would have been attractive, but at the time, I found myself not having much social impact, drafting at my desk, wearing a pair of headphones for seven out of eight working hours, and I wanted to be more involved with people. So, when I thought about social impact and being more connected with people, education was one of the things that came to me. Both my parents had been teachers, so it was a natural thing to explore in some ways.

When you look back on your time at St Stephen's, are there favorite or memorable moments that helped you grow or inspired you to see something differently?

There are three things that are not incidents but things that caught my attention these past few years. The first is that labor is a right in Italy, not a privilege. In the U.S., it's the opposite. I didn't know until some years ago that the first sentence of the Italian constitution is, "Italy is a democratic Republic founded on labor." And I found it inspiring to be in a culture and a country where labor is protected and not seen as a privilege that can be so easily withdrawn. There certainly can be challenges, but I think the concept is quite noble. So that was one that struck me, and a second piece that I wasn't familiar with before coming to St. Stephen's was the school's active use of the city.

My prior experience had been in schools that were kind of islands; they had lots of richness on their campuses but rarely did things off-campus, and St. Stephen's was the inverse; it was embedded in an urban fabric with a high commitment to using the city and even during something as mundane as one's commute to the school as either a student or an employee every day, one is enmeshed in city life, one sees the preparations for a festival, one sees the billboards on the side of a bus announcing a new museum exhibition, one hears a band rehearsing for a parade or seeing a public demonstration objecting to some civic condition. So there was an intriguing use of the city with us as an urban school. And then the last thing that pleasantly surprised me was how the use of both food and culture to build community is so much more robust in a place like St Stephen's than anywhere I've ever been. There's such a culinary tradition, and it's expected that food and good wine will be part of the experience, particularly from the families. I didn't come from that tradition. And finally, I would add the idea that what's going on in the city of Rome will be actively sought out. I'm particularly thinking about the teachers and the parents who will go out and experience those things together as a way of building community.

Mostly I'm thinking here of pre-COVID; there were so many activities planned in and around the city as a means of building community. And in my experience before St. Stephen's, people would come together for cocktail parties, but there wasn't that culture per se; there was humanity, relationships, and conversations, and maybe there would even be some focus on the gathering, but there wasn't this sense of cultural depth that I've experienced here. So, those three things, labor, the active use of the city by an urban school, and food and culture to build community, were three things I came to see differently during my time at St. Stephen's.

What have you enjoyed most about your job at St. Stephen's?

Two pieces. The first is innovation, and the other is getting to know fascinating people, and I can talk about those in reverse. Getting to know fascinating people is probably what drew you and many others to the school, so that would be coworkers, students, and parents. I think we've doubled the international diversity of the students since I've been there. St. Stephen's has an incredibly diverse, exciting parent body, one of the richest and vibrant parent bodies I'd say on the globe when I think about our families' different professions and different life experiences. So that's the part about getting to know fascinating people. And then the innovation leads into your next question about what I am most proud of.

Yes, I wanted to ask you, what do you consider your greatest achievement in your role as Head of School?

When I think about the signature programs that I hope will live on, a few things specifically come to mind. I can't take singular credit for any of these, but places where I've been able to have an impact, include the Aventinus Minor Project, the Writing Center, the I-Lab, the genetics program in the sciences, the food, gardens, and sustainability program which I bought from my last school, the Lyceum, and the curriculum redesign in years nine and ten which included the introduction of Arabic, a non-Western language, in ninth and tenth grades. There are a few others I could mention, but those are the ones that most stand out in my mind. And then the last thing is how we protected the community during COVID. There are several components to that. Number one is that we protected jobs in a city where other institutions lost many of their employees, nobody lost their job at St. Stephen's, and we retained the students. Part of that was because we rented a senior dormitory. Because of COVID, we had to spread the dorms out and de-densify, but we would not tell our rising seniors, "you can't come back to school here because of COVID."

There was just an incredible effort, particularly within the residential program, to make changes such that all of our students could stay. That included providing increased financial aid to families that needed additional help to stay, and we were able to do that. We kept the community safe from a community health standpoint as well. We were the first school in Rome to initiate an on-campus testing protocol. It's funny because I remember when I said we were going to be doing that, there were a lot of raised eyebrows, but in a pretty short time, all of that changed. Although none of us enjoy having something stuck in our noses, we all realized how important that was. I had a lot of people say, "it's just really good for me to test because I live with my aging mother" or, "I have a household full of children," or "I have a spouse who's medically fragile." I know that I felt relieved to be able to test once or twice a week and know that I wasn't going to expose coworkers or friends to this. So, we kept the community safe. Another piece that I'm proud of is how we've strengthened our boarding program. We had empty boarding beds when I came, which I thought was surprising given our location and our reputation, and I'm delighted that we've filled boarding now for a number of years, and the interest in the school has never been higher. We're seeing record levels of interest in both inquiries and applications, and that's a really exciting thing. That's the problem you want to have as a school administrator. It's painful to tell families that there isn't a space for their child or that they're on a waiting list, and yet it's an indication of a vibrant school. And I think we all can feel proud of that. And finally, I'm proud of the quality of the hires, and you're one of them. I look at the collection of individuals who have come in over the last decade, and I think it's a very impressive group of colleagues. So those are the things about which I feel proud.

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. Certainly, the people drew me to St. Stephen's when I decided to come work here. And what have you enjoyed the most about working here and living in the center of Rome?

Rome is quite a green city in terms of the number of parks and the access to nature within the city. There's richness in every direction of campus, to be overwhelmed with the history, the art, the architecture, the political developments, and the ecosystems on every street corner. So that richness in every direction is a big one for me, and also, the sunlight in Rome is different. First of all, it's just a sunny city in terms of days of sunlight, but I've also found that I experience the light differently, and others have spoken of a similar thing. I don't know if that has ever been proven, but I find the light really special. The final thing I would add is the ability of our community to engage beyond the four walls of the school, which I just think is fantastic. It makes me so happy when I see kids heading out on field trips, heading out on spring and fall trips heading, out on Lyceum trips, heading out for athletic outings, faculty heading out on faculty fun, we would be fools not to do that, and it's one of the unique things about being in the center of Rome.


You're currently working with Caritas, assisting Ukrainian refugees in Poland. What has this experience been like for you?

It's heartbreaking. There is a "no man's land" between Poland and Ukraine, I think this is not uncommon between countries to have an area like this, and I'm often at this place receiving the buses as they cross a river out of Ukraine. I can see signs in Ukrainian and Ukrainian buildings half a mile in the distance, so these people are just arriving for the first time in Poland. And I think it's a bittersweet experience; on the one hand, they've made it to Poland, they're physically safe, and yet they're leaving their home and probably leaving a brother or a son or a father or an uncle behind in Ukraine. So, when these buses unload, they're typical coach buses with forty or fifty people; you see women and children streaming off. It's very rare to see a man. I believe that if you have three or more children or you're over the age of 60, you can leave, but it's very unusual to see a man who is my age or in their thirties or forties. So even in the demographics of who's exiting the buses, it is a portrait of dislocation and what's happening.

Some people are recovering from shrapnel wounds; some are bandaged or on crutches. Some are in wheelchairs. The signs of war are there, and I work alongside a volunteer who was in the International Legion, a group of international foreign fighters, who was injured in a cruise missile attack and could have lost his life had he been in the building when the missile hit. The shrapnel from a window injured him enough that he had to be discharged from the legion. These stories are very real illustrations of the madness and the violence that's occurring. And so that heartbreak is quite profound, and I'm particularly mindful of the children who have fewer psychological defenses and resources to make sense of what's going on for them. They're much more vulnerable.

I know that's an obvious thing to say, but to watch these five and seven-year-olds stream off of the buses, you know they've been pulled out of their schools, they may no longer be able to be with their friends, and in many cases, they are unable to be with their fathers, and they're moving to a country with a different language. They may even be moving through several countries, through several different languages. When you're five or seven years old, developmentally, you should be struggling with spilled milk and a skinned knee, not any of what they're experiencing, so that's the heartbreak. What has been inspiring is their strength. Now, I don't spend much time with folks who are on the move often; what they need is a hot meal, they need medical supplies, they need diapers, and they need dog food. It's very basic and focused on what you need to get through the day. But I sense from the Ukrainians a strength, dignity, and a resolve in this, both from the encounters I have had and the relationships I've formed with the other volunteers. I've gotten to know volunteers from four different continents, and everyone has the same story about why they're here. It's the same story I have, where something extraordinary happened, and I couldn't feel at ease with myself if I didn't respond in some manner. I've been working alongside people from Ireland, Colombia, many Americans, Germans, and Russians. One of the first people I met was a 20-year-old Russian who had left St. Petersburg because he did not want to fight. So that has been immensely rewarding to be with folks who have dedicated themselves to this work. People are sleeping in church basements and elementary schools, in sleeping bags, working long hours, and it's been quite cold here. It's just been warming up, but when I came, there was heavy snowfall, and everyone was doing this work without complaint and with a great deal of love and care for people. So I'll circle back to those two words. It's been both heartbreaking and inspiring. And personally, for me, it has felt healing to be able to contribute something of material benefit to people and maybe something of spiritual benefit. I don't want to get carried away with that, but to hand people medical supplies that they need, a hot meal, or to hold out a bowl of chocolate for kids and see their faces light up, as small a thing as that seems, it has felt like it's something to bring care and even a momentary smile to the faces of some of the folks here. It has been deeply rewarding to be here. I am also aware that we're having this conversation on April 12th. There may yet be another significant wave of refugees coming into Poland as it appears the violence is unlikely to abate anytime soon. So I imagine that there'll be a continued need for volunteers and support.

It is an extraordinary situation and quite the opposite of social distancing and the life many of us led during the first two years of the pandemic. It must be rewarding to be able to do something tangible and helpful to combat the negative impact of this horrible physical war.

Thank you for naming something that feels very true. This is the inverse of social distance. It's an experience that creates a degree of social connection, and that's probably doubly meaningful because it's a connection that all of us would've felt five or ten years ago. Still, it's perhaps amplified by the fact that we've been so cut off from one another.

Absolutely; I can imagine that it must be even more meaningful to do this work today than it would have been before COVID. So, before we conclude this conversation, is there a piece of advice you could share with our graduating class of 2022?

A quote comes to mind from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It's pretty simple. And he says, "life's most persistent and urgent question: what are you doing for others?" Life's most persistent and urgent question: what are you doing for others? And I think in the shadow of what we're experiencing here in Eastern Europe, that's an appropriate thing for graduates to be considering: what are you doing for others?

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