The Rector of St. Paul’s School on privilege and ‘slaying.’

St. Paul’s School has been in the news lately as the trial of student accused of raping another student continues along with a discussion of the culture of privilege and sexism that the incident points to. Prior to the trial, during the Spring Convocation address, Michael G. Hirschfeld, the Rector of St. Paul’s School, spoke to the students, parents, and alumni about privilege, and the mission of a Christian institution that schools those privileged to be there.

On privilege:

So let me ask today: Have you ever considered a version of cosmic circumstance in any realm of your life? I think it is difficult to see actually, because we mostly take the circumstances of our lives for granted. Our cosmic circumstances are always with us, but they are usually as unnoticed as the air we breathe.

Consider being a Christian in this space and at this School. I am a Christian, so when I read the prayers in Chapel Services and Prayers or sing any number of hymns that refer to Jesus Christ, I can do so without pause. Being Christian is part of my air. I can recite the School Prayer without having to mumble or skip over the last line, “Through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.” I suspect there are many in Chapel this morning who do not share my comfort when we read, pray, or sing Christian texts. In this way, Christians in this space, indeed, at this Christian school, enjoy a privilege others do not. You will note when we recite Christian prayers often, but not always, Reverends Spencer, Greenleaf, or Courtright will recognize Christian privilege and ask all of us to pray or meditate as our faith tradition and comfort guide us. This small gesture reminds us that not everyone is breathing the same air.

Talk of privilege is tough. It is hard. I am not sure why this is so, but it is. It engenders guilt and defensiveness, or it does in me at least. You often hear of your privilege of being a student at St. Paul’s School. It has been a message delivered to you in this space and others since your arrival here, perhaps even before you arrived here. Don’t get me wrong, I believe it is a privilege to go to St. Paul’s School or a school like it. But the word privilege has a way of reducing our experience as individuals that makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? The word privilege seems to negate or work against our agency as individuals, like the simple fact that it was your own hard work, not just your cosmic circumstance that allowed you to come to school here. While we may all share the privilege of being at St. Paul’s School, does that diminish our individuality? And does the privilege of being here mean we should behappy all the time? It’s a tall order at any stage of life, maybe impossible as a young adult. Privilege is complicated.

One privilege I have is being white, a privilege literally born of the cosmic circumstance that my parents were white. I will confess that for most of my life I did not recognize being white as a privilege. My whiteness is my air – simultaneously everywhere and invisible to me. Put more bluntly my whiteness has allowed me the privilege of not having to think deeply about race in my own life. What does it mean to be a white person in America? Or at St. Paul’s School? These are questions I have not always had to ask or answer. But they are, I suspect, common questions for people who do not benefit from the privilege of being white. In this way, this privilege engenders in me a kind of blindness about race, a blindness I have been working to overcome.
On ‘slaying’:
Last year, on two separate occasions, I remember two students (a boy and a girl) used the words “slay” and “slayer” in Chapel in reference to heterosexual relationships. I remember these instances well. These words made me uncomfortable, as I suspect they did many other people. While these words made me uneasy, I did nothing as the head of the School to address their use nor, to my knowledge, did anyone else. Why was that? Are these words and what they suggest a part of our air? We should be asking these questions.

And as you know, the outside world is also asking questions about our air, our culture.
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Category : The Lead

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  1. Helen Kromm

    This is a shocking revelation. I had to read this several times to insure that I was interpreting this correctly. Hirschfeld’s statement is hard to process- unbelievable.

    It’s unconscionable to me that as head of this institution, he could hear such words on two separate occasions and remain mute. And having heard this and done exactly nothing, he is only now beginning to question the “air” in his institution?

    Perhaps there are several explanations for this revelation. At the moment, I can only think of two.

    The first, and perhaps the most charitable, is that this is an honest admonition of his own negligence and shortcomings. That his leadership and response was desperately wanting. And that he is honestly and sincerely coming forward with this.

    And the second explanation is that he doesn’t understand what this admonition means. What a horrible and incredible indictment this is upon his abilities and leadership. That he doesn’t understand the scope of his negligence fully, or comprehend the true meaning of this in terms of his own leadership and responsibilities.

    In light of this, I have to wonder how, under any circumstances, he could possibly believe he is fit to lead this institution. If my first explanation is the correct one, I have to believe he would already have stepped down. How can there be any other course of action that is appropriate?

    None of that really matters though. Regardless of the motivation, it’s clear that he can no longer remain in a position of authority within this school. He must go, whether that be voluntary or not.

  2. Dirk Reinken

    I had to look up what slay means – yikes!

    In the context of this trial, this letter, and previous issues St. Paul’s has had with its leadership that have played out in public (presumably more have not played out in public), I find myself asking what does a Christian school in the Episcopal tradition have to offer?

    I fully respect and agree with finding ways to acknowledge difference and give space for those of other faith traditions participating in chapel worship.

    But if the school has a culture that undercuts one of our core baptismal promises to respect the dignity of every human being, what is it offering? Why does it claim to be Christian and Episcopal? I was at a conference where a non-Episcopalian noted that to her knowledge we were the only Christian tradition that requires a promise to respect the dignity of every human being for membership.

    I find it interesting that the quoted letter touches on economic privilege and racial privilege that presumably benefits most in the school, but what about gender privilege that appears to be actively working against some in the school?

    Very disturbing questions to me about whether we take our faith seriously or consider it just one option among many outside the chapel as well as in the chapel.

  3. Where is a bishop when you need one?

  4. “Our air, our culture.” As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” One definition of “slay” described the practice as an “overdrawn moral bank account.” That the Rector did not openly question its use nor the practice of the Senior Salute, does suggest a considerable moral overdraft. But maybe that’s just being hung up on that middle class morality ridiculed by Higgins and eschewed by Doolittle..

  5. Barbara Young

    Let’s face it, sometimes we replay a situation and realize we weren’t really, for some reason, dealing with things. We may even think: that’s a time I failed. Remember “Save us from the time of trial?” We regather our self, attempt to make amends as best they can be, admit our failings and work on. If it was easy, 1) the world would be a different place 2)Jesus would be everyone. So, may all learn and grow more like Him.

    • Steve White

      I think you are so right. I have been appalled at how the Rector and the alleged rapist have been savaged by people who do not know the whole story. I don’t see much Christian charity in some of these comments and your voice of reason is very welcome. Thank you.

  6. Randall Stewart

    Some of this amounts to an admission of immense lack of curiosity and concern for what was happening on the St. Paul’s campus, if not gross negligence.

  7. Gail Schilling

    Just for the record, the man in the photo is NOT Bishop Hirschfeld who is my bishop whom I’ve met many times.

    • David Streever

      That’s correct; the photo is of the rector who the story is about.

  8. Philip B. Spivey

    Why is this man smiling?

    • Jay Croft

      Would you buy a used car from this man?

      • Philip B. Spivey

        Non, jamais!

      • Steve White

        This is an uncharitable question unworthy of this web site. To answer the question, I would happily buy a used car from this man and I would be happy to have him leading a school where my child is a student because I have taken the time to read all his responses to the S. Paul’s community at and because I realize that as an outsider I don’t have all the facts. This Rector is a good man faced with a terrible situation not of his making. It is very easy for others to second-guess and criticize from the sidelines every move he has made and every word he has written and uttered. Not so easy to be in his shoes.

    • Ann Fontaine

      This is one of the few photos available online of the Rector. No connection to his speech. (Editor)

      • Philip B. Spivey

        You can see, of course, why we thought the photo incongruous. Thanks for the clarification.

  9. Jeld Liko

    Ugh. This whole story is horrible. Christ forgive us all.

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