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Transformed by Community
Dr. Alex Sundman, Head of Middle School
Dr. Alex Sundman with Students

Head of Middle School, Dr. Alex Sundman chats with students before school begins.

On September 14, 2001, little Lucy Larkin sidled over to me: “Dr. Sundman, would you like to borrow some of my clothes?” Momentarily bemused by this gesture of compassion, I realized that my students had started to notice that I had been wearing my first-day-of-school outfit since Tuesday. I got it. Nine-year-old Lucy was doing what Sacred Heart educators hope all their children will do: look around and employ the heart of Christ as a lens to recognize the need and dignity of each person in their community.

This moment has stuck with me. Aside from the fact that Lucy’s offer was somewhat incongruous (Lucy was a good foot-and-a-half shorter than I), her sincere kindness and perceptiveness humbled me. Four days earlier, my husband and I had become refugees of a sort when our apartment building had been declared structurally unsound from collateral damage caused by the fallen World Trade Center. Truly, at that point, I did not have access to my clothes, or much of anything else for that matter. And yet, figuring out wardrobe issues were quite the least of my worries in the blur of hours and days that followed 9/11. And still a child of the Sacred Heart noticed my plight and offered what she had.

In November of that year, Middle School students at 91st Street planned a liturgy for the surviving firemen of Hook and Ladder 13. The memory of little girls walking down the chapel aisle holding the hands of men broken with grief for their fallen brothers still takes my breath away. That year, I saw children call upon the heart of Christ to minister to the suffering they saw and felt in their community.

That year, 2001-2002, was my first teaching in a Sacred Heart school. And that year, that Sacred Heart community at 91st Street transformed me, my heart, and the vision I had for myself as an educator. For days, weeks and months, I watched my students witness the horrors and suffering in their immediate and wider circles and do something about it.

Several years after the earth-shattering events of 9/11, my husband and I moved to Washington, DC, with a new baby. While settling into my new home, a cold call from Sister Anne Dyer, then Headmistress of Stone Ridge, ended my stint as a stay-at-home mother. Stone Ridge had a sudden Upper School English opening, and might I, asked Sister Dyer, “be interested in returning to the Sacred Heart community?” I remember feeling that Madeleine Sophie Barat’s words were becoming prescient to me: “once a Child of the Sacred Heart, always a Child of the Sacred Heart.”

"Stone Ridge students, Sacred Heart women, see themselves and act as the connective tissues between both proximal and distal communities."

In the fall of 2006, I began teaching at Stone Ridge. From first setting foot in Hamilton House and standing under the gaze of Mother Perdrau’s ubiquitous image of Mater Admirabilis, I had the uncanny feeling of returning home in this brand-new school. Working with much older girls—young women, really—and in a brand-new physical setting, I was enveloped by the sentiment of being part of something much greater than myself. With the advantage of a newcomer’s perspective, I began to distill the similarities of spirit between my new and former Sacred Heart homes.

My Stone Ridge Upper School students welcomed me with warmth and generosity as I worked—and sometimes struggled—to juggle a new job, a new city, a colicky infant, a husband who was often on the road, and teaching a curriculum that I—frankly—knew nothing about! But it wasn’t just toward me that I witnessed manifestations of my students’ kindness and desire to connect. All Sacred Heart girls, I had begun to realize, are nurtured to center others in their lives. Through their cocooning of classmates and teachers who were struggling with illness and tragedies, their Wednesday Social Action work which touched all corners of the Washington DC metropolitan area, and their global awareness (marked by efforts such as the one to collect supplies and resources for victims in Myanmar of Cyclone Nargis) my Stone Ridge students engaged in acts that underscored their belief that our communities radiate outwardly from ourselves in concentric manners. Stone Ridge students, Sacred Heart women, see themselves and act as the connective tissues between both proximal and distal communities.

As children and educators of the Sacred Heart, we subscribe to the tenet of building of community as a Christian value. But what does this mean? What are the cornerstones—the building blocks—of Sacred Heart communities? We need to turn our minds to the myriad and the granular to identify these pieces. The building blocks, I believe, are found in how we learn to recognize the Holy Spirit working within our hearts and in how we learn to channel the heart of Christ to guide us—our children, our families, our colleagues—to see, feel and hear the dignity of every human being around us. And both in microcosm and macrocosm, as one person—a single child or teacher—walks in the Light, others begin to perceive a similar path for themselves. And such examples multiply by touching and transforming others, ultimately cementing communal webs that radiate outward from that very heart.

"I realize the great wisdom of our founding mothers as they set out to educate girls—to grow them in faith, intellect and social awareness—to have a transforming influence on our communities."

This past year, I jumped at the opportunity to return to the Sacred Heart community as the Head of Stone Ridge’s Middle School. I was not at all unhappy where I taught previously. Quite to the contrary. But for two decades, the pull of the mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart has remained both urgent and profound to me, particularly as I consider both the great beauty and brokenness in our shared world.

These days, I find myself again passing daily under the gaze of Mater, who resides outside my office, and thinking deeply about the august responsibility of helping others hold as sacred our communal spirit. And, at the same time and in another striking moment of humility, I realize I have little to do with the bonds of community I perceive around me. I marvel at how my colleagues channel the love of Christ as they act with selflessness and generosity in nurturing children in their classrooms, art studios, and athletic fields. I delight when a sixth-grade girl fishes out her friend’s mistakenly discarded retainer from the trash can in the Matthews Dining Hall. Seeing a student relinquish her chance to strut her stuff at basketball tryouts to coach another student with her dribbling skills inspires gratitude. My heart sings when our Middle Schoolers spend an afternoon crafting fleece blankets for the wounded veterans next door. When Stone Ridge girls look for thorny injustices in the world around us and see ways to build and use tools of inclusion and justice to make our global community more equitable, I realize the great wisdom of our founding mothers as they set out to educate girls—to grow them in faith, intellect and social awareness—to have a transforming influence on our communities.

During Orientation last summer, a colleague asked me: “Why Stone Ridge?” Without pause, the answer resounded in my mind: the Society’s steadfast belief in the unequivocal goodness and power of a Christian community. Learning to be a Sacred Heart educator has taught me that feelings of fellowship and common purpose do not just “happen.” They are heartfully constructed by the layering upon layering of those fleeting moments in which we see, grasp, and act upon the dignity of our fellow humans. And our Stone Ridge girls know, it is through the power of Christ’s heart that we are given the fortitude to model and pursue this community-building work that is ever-so-vital to healing the world around us.