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Strengthen Their Character

An in-depth look at the people and programs behind a crucial outcome of Trinity’s mission
The high school years are a crucible — when values are forged before taking the final step toward adulthood.
 
In the view of researchers like Paul Tough, who has written extensively on the topic of education at all levels, high school represents the last great opportunity to develop and boost character. Tough writes in his 2012 book How Children Succeed: “In recent years, in response to this growing crisis, a new idea (or perhaps a very old one) has arisen in the education world: character matters.”
 
Brian Griffen has served as Trinity’s chaplain for 15 years, devoting most of those to deep analysis of how to build character through community and vice versa. “Paul Tough argues that the character that you leave high school with is pretty much the character you will have in college and beyond,” he says. “At Trinity, we do a good job of building that sense of urgency here with our mission. High school is a really good time to strengthen character and be intentional about it.”
 
When most people think of the Trinity mission the first thing that probably comes to mind is “Discover Your Path,” the ubiquitous and authentic tagline that has grown into a de facto school motto. “But I might say that ‘strengthen their character’ is the part of the mission that galvanizes everything we do across this campus,” Griffen says. “If you don’t have the character to undergird your talents, then what good are your talents? Likewise, how firm a footing is your academic path if it is not grounded in strong character?” 
 
What does character really mean, though? For Griffen, the definition begins with one big concept: honor. “Artist, athlete or academic,” he says, “we are all unified by honor.”
 
A CODE OF HONOR
The Honor Code at Trinity extends beyond lying, cheating and stealing. It extends beyond the pledge that a student has “neither given nor received any unauthorized aid” placed prominently in each classroom. It also extends beyond the oath each student signs in a solemn ceremony at the second official Chapel of each school year. And it extends well beyond the six elected members of the student-run Honor Committee, who work to give students a practical understanding of the rules as well as how to put principles into practice — now, in college and beyond.
 
“It’s completely student run, which I love because it fosters a community of respect between students,” says Caroline Benedetti ’19, one of three senior representatives on the Honor Committee. “We start to grow a system of trust.” 
 
A notable distinction of Trinity’s Honor Code is the absence of a single sanction. Brian Phillips, head of campus life, says that is intentional, because teenagers are not perfect. “It’s not about perfectionism; it’s about willingness to improve,” he says. “If you’re a brand new 8th or 9th grader, we’ll catch you when you fall and help you get back on the right path. But we’re not going to do that forever. Along the way you have to put skin in the game too and show that you want to learn.”
 
To hear Griffen describe it, instances like these epitomize Trinity as a community of grace. “The system is not simply a punitive system for when an honor violation occurs; it’s a system that encourages students to grow from their mistakes. Students have to suffer the consequences of their actions, but they are not shamed for their mistakes. Grace strengthens character.”
 
CHARACTER IS A HABIT
 
Character is like a muscle — it has to be built and developed over time with good habits. What better expert on muscle development than Trinity’s strength and conditioning coach, Adam Banwarth? “I usually don’t think about what I do as developing character traits,” he says, “but I guess I am.” 
 
Banwarth establishes a high bar for all of his athletes when they train. “Athletes are given a lot of freedom in this space,” he says. “I am hoping the athletes are honest with themselves, their teammates and me when they are completing their instructed workout. If I catch them ‘cheating’ or ‘skipping reps,’ I try to re-educate them about what we are trying to accomplish.”
 
Sometimes an athlete’s own body puts character to the test, as with Anna Black ’19, cross country runner. In her junior season, she was frequently sidelined by excruciating shin splints. “I made the decision to go into my senior season knowing I was not going
to run. I talked to Coach Weiler to see what options I would have. We decided that I would become more of a mentor and participate where I could. Through self-examination, my mentality about my role on the team became more positive than I had ever expected it to be — and the season was one of the best.”
 
VALUES IN ACTION
 
What does it mean to be a Titan?
 
Students and faculty now have a quick answer to that question: T.I.T.A.N.S. are trustworthy, intentional, tough, altruistic, neighborly and sincere. Developed in 2017 with student leaders, these attributes of a Titan have become second nature to Trinity students — thanks in large part to their inclusion in Morning Meetings, where Laura Hamlin Weiler ’00, head of community engagement, reads student- submitted plaudits each Friday for Titans putting these values into action.
 
“What I love about this initiative is that submissions are open to our entire community (students, faculty, staff), and we can recognize on a weekly basis all of the small moments, often intangible, that exemplify our values and mission and make our campus shine,” says Weiler. “It celebrates living values rather than simply talking about them, and it helps us all understand that living your values can happen in small or big ways, and that it only takes a moment to do the right thing.”
 
Further reinforcing these T.I.T.A.N.S. attributes are two more recent character-driven initiatives: First Fridays (new this year) and Mindful Mondays (now in year three at Trinity). In the First Friday Speaker Series, students gather in the theatre to hear three testimonials, one from a teacher and two from students, on one particular attribute.
 
“Neighborly is my favorite of the T.I.T.A.N.S. attributes, because it encompasses so much of what it takes to grow a thriving community,” said Librarian Mandy Augst, the inaugural First Fridays speaker this fall. “It’s kindness, it’s service, it’s being hospitable, welcoming, inclusive, giving, careful, thoughtful, friendly. It’s all those things. And I see students, faculty and staff demonstrate it every day here at Trinity.”
 
After each First Friday comes a Mindful Monday, with lessons planned by School Counselor Molly McDonald. A chapel period is replaced by small-group activities designed to help students practice mindfulness and develop strategies for incorporating
T.I.T.A.N.S. values into their daily routines. Following Augst’s Friday talk on neighborliness, students wrote on strips of the paper ways that they can be neighborly, such as “inviting someone to eat lunch with you.” These positive sentiments were combined to create a “chain reaction of positivity” now hanging in the library.
 
BUILDING BRIDGES
 
Weiler and McDonald have also teamed up to bring Trinity a big-brother/big-sister program called Trail Guides. “The Trail Guide Program was started with the goal of pairing older, current Trinity students with incoming new 8th graders to help ease their transition to school life here and also to start building bridges between these students in our community,” says McDonald. This year there are 29 Trail Guides, ranging from 10th through 12th grades.
 
Sam Strange ’19 was paired this fall with Meredith McCray ’23, and they both say they have benefitted from the experience. “I’ve tried to relay that there truly is a place for everyone at Trinity,” says Strange. “No matter what you’re passionate about, you can find a place and a group of people that support your interests. Also, I’ve done my best to explain to Meredith how meaningful it is to form a deeper bond with at least one of her teachers.” 
 
McCray says she is thankful for the opportunity to learn and get to know Strange. “We have talked about college and future career options, and she has helped me view certain topics in ways I had never thought of before,” McCray says. “She has truly helped me adjust to the overwhelming process of becoming a semi high school student, she’s given me advice about Trinity and the future which lies beyond.”
 
Mentorship opportunities have also recently extended to Trinity’s neighbor to the southeast, St. Michael’s Episcopal School. Groups of five juniors and seniors have been interning at St. Michael’s with their Extended Day program. They help with arts, crafts, cooking, STEM projects, gross motor play, homework and more. “These students have been integral in developing a symbiotic relationship and they have represented our school beautifully with our neighbor,” says Head of Community Engagement Laura Hamlin Weiler ’00.
 
Programs like Trail Guides and New Student Orientation especially are crucial ways for older students to model strong character and shared values to the roughly 120 new students Trinity welcomes into its community each fall.
 
Ben Slone ’19 has recent experience on both sides of the coin. This year, he is a senior leader and member of the Student Government Association, but just a year ago, he was a new transfer student learning the ropes. “If I had to name one trait that I’ve seen throughout the Trinity community, I would say open-mindedness,” Slone says. “People are very open to other people’s beliefs and interests. I don’t think I would ever find someone mocking another person’s interest or belief. They might debate, but never mock.”
 
FINDING COMMON GROUND
 
“Campuses are a crossroads for faiths and philosophies,” says Brian Griffen, school chaplain. “Trinity models this well.” 
 
Respect for others’ cultural backgrounds and ethnic traditions is a key tenet of one of Trinity’s youngest clubs. “The aim of Cultural Awareness Club is to create a safe space for discussions amongst all opinions, all ethnicities, all perspectives, all nationalities,” says Tolliver Mance ’19, the clubs co-founder and president. “When you walk into the room, regardless of how you feel about the issue we’re discussing, you should feel safe in sharing your opinion and you should feel safe in learning about other people’s opinions.” Mance says the club has given students and faculty the chance to engage thoughtfully on some of today’s most painful and challenging topics, including the history of blackface and the plight of Native Americans. “While the club does teach you about what is happening in the world and how to analyze and inform your opinions and beliefs, it’s also a lesson on how to strengthen your character in the world around you,” she says. “You have to have a firm voice and you have to be able to shape your opinions and beliefs in to words — and you have to be able to listen. Those are three very important things for building your character.”
 
Andy Davis ’19, president of the Political Union Club, shares Mance’s commitment to providing a space for respectful exchange of ideas. “Political Union seeks to establish common ground. We always invite everyone into the discussion,” he says of the club’s
monthly open meetings, which tackle thorny topics like immigration, electoral politics and abortion. “We try to build character so that people are respectful of others opinions” he says. “That’s desperately needed in today’s political world.”
 
 
IT GROWS OUT OF RESPECT
 
It’s no secret among soccer players competing in the Virginia Prep League that Trinity is the odds-on favorite to win the sportsmanship award each season.
 
“Sportsmanship at its essence means saying, we’re going to respect people,” says Brian Phillips, head of campus life, theatre teacher and boys soccer coach for the past 23 seasons. “I often say ‘you can criticize the official when you’ve played the perfect game,’ which in the history of the world, no one has done — not Pelé, not Cristiano Ronaldo. Referees are humans too, and they will make mistakes. Be respectful of the fact that it’s going to happen.” “Sportsmanship grows out of respect,” Phillips continues. “Respect your opponent. Respect the shield. Respect your family. Respect
your team. Respect yourself. If you’re a good sportsman, at the end of the day, you will have done all five of those things. Respect is the single biggest thing it comes down to.”
 
Phillips’s mantra of respect for others has made an impact not only on his soccer players but also on his drama students. 
 
“I’ve noticed friends whose character was strengthened by joining theatre, and I’ve definitely noticed increased accountability that wouldn’t have existed without my involvement in theatre,” says Gabe Parker ’19. “When you’re a part of a group, you need to be on time. If one person fails to follow through, then everyone fails.”
 
THE CHARACTER OF A TITAN
 
Trinity’s vaunted community of trust and respect does not happen by accident or through inertia. Every day at Trinity, a committed team of educators and student leaders are working to bolster traditions, develop creative new initiatives and set high expectations for the character of a Titan.
 
“Character goes far beyond the classroom,” says Brian Griffen. “It is present in every major decision in our lives.”
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