A Chance to Create

Angel Xin ’26 and Arya Vishwakarma ’25 in Opinions | September 9, 2023

The last time the late-summer sun beat down on Lawrentians in formal attire, the Class of 2026 had only spent about a week on campus. At last year’s Convocation, fanning themselves with program cards, the then new II Form class rose from their seats and listened to the carillon ring out the opening chords of “Triumphant Lawrence.” They sheepishly eyed the returning students, wondering who would initiate the singing. That day, nobody did—the ceremony opened in reverse a capella, Lawrentians silent under the sound of the bells. Their baffled looks—“I don’t know how this goes!”—reflected Lawrenceville students’ collective identity last year: undefined and undecided. On the second day of orientation this year, Doug Davis, Assistant Dean of Student, pointed out Lawrenceville students’ inability to condense its school culture into words. The real challenge facing our community is neither memorizing the lyrics to the school song or coming up with an appropriate sound bite for an audience, but being decisive about the actions we take to build a culture we’d like to live in. 
Two centuries ago, the School did have a thriving campus culture—Lawrenceville was unified through its students’ upbringing, a monolith of white male privilege. Long before female students and students of color were as valued and significantly represented in the School community, a closed off Lawrenceville fostered homogenous values, ambitions, and thus a strong, unified campus culture. Like today, Lawrenceville admitted a student body of certain desired demographics, but for most of Lawrenceville’s past, these coveted traits belonged only to an elite cross-section of America. Campus culture was not more coherent because it contained more spirited kids; but because it was cherry-picked by an administration with particular goals. 
Today, Lawrenceville no longer limits their admissions to a certain subset of the population but by the presence of certain ambitions, admitting highly competitive students who perpetuate competitive cycles between close communities like Houses. Lawrenceville’s student body evolved in parallel with an America learning to dismantle discriminatory systems, and with this diversity came the need for artificial structures to grow deep, genuine inter-student connections from. The rise to prominence of the House system, and with it, today’s vibrant, rich “House culture,” was not an accident; it was a deliberate strategy employed by a School seeking talented students willing to leave their own communities in search of new, exciting ones. What sets Lawrenceville apart from peer schools is that we have such a strong House culture, for better or for worse. To some extent, School culture is House culture, and the competitive, somewhat stereotypical spirit it breeds: as each House represents a microcosm of the school, it isn’t naive to hope that what flourishes in the structure of the house could bloom on a larger scale across Lawrenceville. 
That House identity is so integral to the Lawrenceville experience represents the administration’s success in hoping to evoke a strong sense of belonging in every student, even if they only feel such community within a small cross-section of the School. Yet an insulating House system has darker effects, cultivating toxic behaviors on the basis of House divisions. The work of creating and upholding this unique dimension of our residential life is, as described at orientation, a continuous process, one that any Lawrentian can help define. The adults who place students into Houses do so with optimism for who they might become, but it is in the students’ power to craft a future for themselves out of these opportunities. This year, student leaders are drawing confidence from this power to cultivate culture in order to unify the campus across House lines. The historical rise of strong House spirit should not mean that school spirit is unachievable—if we can choose to identify with and support a random subset of the community, why shouldn’t that affinity be directed towards the entire student body? We can be kind to anyone, after all—as Head of School Stephen Murray H ’54 ’55 ’65 ’16 P’16 ’21 touched on in his commencement speech, the current version of Lawrenceville can find common ground through courageous concern, a School of bully-vanquishing chevaliers, knights in red armor. However, spontaneous and habitual kindness doesn’t need to be prompted by crisis: a passing smile, a nod of appreciation between classes, and a knock on a library pod are everyday building blocks of community. Unlike the School’s initial culture, built on socioeconomic, racial, and gendered uniformity, choosing to be empathetic is an ability that every individual has. By expanding the circle of who we stand and clap for, we could become competitive without being cutthroat, abandoning the razor-sharp line between winning and losing. Could such a campus culture—in some sense, a widening of the House–sustain itself? That’s something entirely in our power to decide. A campus culture built on students’ mutual respect and understanding may knit our huge community into one that is as intimate as a House.