Friday, July 21, 2017  

St. Margaret's School
Charting our Course on the Rappahannock since 1921  
Four hundred years ago, Captain John Smith navigated his way up the Rappahannock River and sailed past the present day campus of St. Margaret’s School. Eighty-five years ago, the school’s first graduate arrived by steamship from Hopyard Wharf in King George County. The ship tied up at the town wharf; perhaps her family stayed a night at the hotel at the bottom of Prince Street before she walked the short block to the school. Nancy Berry Chapin ’23 joined her teachers and classmates to live and study in the elegant 1850 Gordon Wright home, now called St. Margaret’s Hall. Yes, from its founding St. Margaret’s School was always both a school and a home by the river.

Today the wharf is gone and the Downing Bridge joins the two sides of the river; a condominium housing a handful of alumnae has replaced the hotel; and the school has lovingly restored its 18th and 19th century historic buildings and then stretched out along the river bank and across Water Lane. Traditional spaces hold contemporary programs and new facilities support teachers focused on a 21st century education. Today, the 150 girls who attend St. Margaret’s School still come up and down the river, but they also come from across the country and around the world to form a truly global community here in Tappahannock. They come because they are intrigued by the school’s mission and captivated by its location.

What makes this school so special? The river! From opening day kayak races to the formal presentation of seniors at May Ball and graduation services on the river lawn, life at St. Margaret’s School revolves around the river. The Rappahannock greets us across the breakfast table through the windows of the dining room. Science classes measure water quality and plant oysters they have grown from seed. Art and English students bring the river into the classroom in pictures and words. Weekend community service projects connect girls with others committed to preserving this richly diverse environment, with one serving as a junior board member for the Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends Committee and others clearing streams and trails. An occasional Sunday evening compline service on the river lawn restores our focus for the week ahead. And every night, just before lights out, we can take one last look out our windows at the moonlight dancing on the water.

At dawn, rowers lower their shells into the water to take advantage of the early morning calm. Our ten-year-old crew program is guided by a former university-level Division I coach who values teaching more than competing at the collegiate level. Each fall, new students have the opportunity to learn to row. During the winter season, committed rowers use the rowing machines in the campus fitness center to prepare for their spring season. Competition against other independent and public schools keeps rowers on the road each spring weekend. Laura Caton, a five-year participant, now a college graduate and teacher, commented, “It’s all about discipline, the work you put in to prepare. My dad says that I’m much more confident and outgoing now than before I started rowing.”

By graduation, every girl knows the story of our river from its source in the mountains to its mouth at the Chesapeake Bay and finally to the point where the bay meets the ocean. And while she is learning about the river, she is also learning about herself. Each September, two days are set aside as River Days. The eighth grade camps at the headwaters in Shenandoah National Park. Ninth graders kayak at the fall line in Fredericksburg. The Captain Thomas delivers the tenth graders to the dock at Wheatland where they crab, swim, and muck in the marsh mud. For juniors, it’s a Chesapeake Bay Foundation course on Port Isobel in the middle of the bay. Finally, seniors, with their eyes firmly focused on their post-St. Margaret’s years, head to Virginia Beach to kayak with the dolphins. Our mission challenges us to ensure that our students leave us with an education for life, and this final adventure provides our seniors with a vivid reminder that they are about to enter a still-connected, much larger world.  

Life on the river is not always peaceful. Hurricane Isabel tested our emergency preparedness rewarding us with a feature segment on The Weather Channel for our readiness to face a storm of this magnitude and our efficient evacuation of the campus. It also floated our boat house downriver, destroyed our dock, and eroded a section of our riverbank. New riprap broke the force of the waves, while the thirty teachers and students who remained on campus gathered in a dormitory basement and took refuge in art. Artists-in-residence Konst and Konstantina Konstantinov opened the adjoining studio and refocused the students’ attention. “It was different from normal art classes. The girls kept working and turning out art until it was too dark to see. Then they sat around a table with a lantern and talked about art. I think they were charged with the energy of the weather. It would be impossible to get those results on any other day.”

There is a big difference between looking at the river and getting in it! One September Sunday each year, just after dawn, the school community gathers on the beach for an informal river-themed morning worship service followed by the river swim. No, you don’t have to swim, but you can support those who do by kayaking or canoeing alongside them or riding in one of the family boats surrounding the 25-30 swimmers, ensuring that each swimmer is always in someone’s sight. Although we always calculate the state of the tide, currents here are strong, and it is not unusual for girls to be swept up or down the river. Understanding when to change course midstream is a life-skill learned first-hand in this river swim. Yes, they do all make it to the other side, rewarded by a Mile Wide Club tee shirt they proudly wear. From competitive swimmers who compete to arrive first to the courageous novice who wants to set and meet a challenge early in the school year, each participant will look at the river differently knowing she has tested herself against it and succeeded.

Just as St. Margaret’s School has charted its own course in its growth along the banks of the river and its development of an academic program challenging to each student, its teachers have plotted the courses of their students’ experiences here. Today, St. Margaret’s is a boarding and day school for girls with a college-preparatory curriculum and an impressive array of artistic and athletic offerings. Graduates know the value of a small school where each student is personally known by every member of the faculty and staff and encouraged to try new things and pursue her passions. They also know they are ready for the most challenging college programs because they know themselves and how to reach out to others.

The Rappahannock is a resource we joyfully share. Every June, Tappahannock holds RivahFest, an old fashioned town fair drawing over 10,000 visitors to the area, and St. Margaret’s puts the rivah into the event. Children’s activities, boat shows, the RivahFest Idol contest, and family picnics all take place on our shady lawn between Water Lane and the Rappahannock. Now in its twentieth year, Bill Portlock’s Teachers on the Bay, a summer graduate-level course run in partnership with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Mary Washington University, brings elementary and secondary teachers here to learn how to take the science and magic of this water to their own students. Participants in resident writers’ workshops and church retreats find inspiration in this peaceful spot. Brides schedule weddings years in advance to be able to share our river with their friends and families with a service or reception overlooking the water.

What is it about this river that makes its way into the hearts of all those who experience it? Generations of St. Margaret’s girls would tell you that it has illuminated their home, inspired their thinking, and provided them with unexpected opportunities. It is always their first stop when they return with friends, husbands, and children. Not surprisingly, some decide to stay!