Seated Meal Still Seated
In examining the history of Seated Meal, it is clear that the tradition has maintained its value to the community, despite the challenges of evolving demands on schedule and work-life balance that have led to a reduction in their frequency.
After 161 years, Seated Meal is still a thing at SPS and the School community still cares about this longstanding tradition.
Jana F. Brown | Photos Courtesy Ohrstrom Library archives
When he was a young faculty member, former Rector Bill Matthews ’61 took each of his three boys to Seated Meal on a rotating basis. It was what was best for the family, and his boys, Billy ’86, Bobby ’89, and John, looked forward to tagging along with their dad to the Upper.
“Marcia put up a schedule on the refrigerator door,” recalls Matthews, “and everyone would take turns.” As a student, Matthews attended 21 Seated Meals per week, a number that had been consistent since the 1856 founding of St. Paul’s School. By the time he returned to the School as a faculty member in the fall of 1966, Seated Meals had been reduced to seven weekly formal dinners, including a Sunday noontime brunch after compulsory Chapel services.
The evolution of Seated Meal at St. Paul’s is one that includes complex considerations of tradition, colliding with accommodations for the ever-changing constraints of a modern-day boarding school schedule and a balanced family life. And though Seated Meal may not be today precisely as alumni recall it from their own eras – in terms of frequency, in particular – the most pertinent facts are these: After 161 years, Seated Meal is still a thing at St. Paul’s and the School community still cares about this longstanding tradition.
A Frequency in Flux
In the 2016-17 academic year, there are nine Seated Meals scheduled for faculty and students – three per term. Rector Mike Hirschfeld ’85, who, like Matthews, calls himself a traditionalist when it comes to the SPS formal dining practice, charged Dean of Faculty Michael Spencer two years ago with restoring Seated Meal to a version that resembled its original format. The School had reduced Seated Meals to six per year (two each term), with weekly advisee dinners inserted to ensure that community members, in small groups, were sharing meals together on a regular basis. This past fall, Spencer proposed adding one Seated Meal per term, with the idea that the dinners would be more formal than they had become in recent years, and provide more intentional opportunity for community members to come together. Now, students and faculty either have Seated Meal or an advisee dinner every week. The advisee gatherings provide a regular opportunity for students to connect with their advisers, to whom Dean of Students Aaron Marsh ’97 refers as “the front line of student support at St. Paul’s.”
“The best elements of Seated Meal actually have been restored,” says Hirschfeld. “The trick has been striking a balance between Seated Meal and the frequency of advisee dinners. Next year we will add one more Seated Meal per term because it is working in the ways it used to work. And the relative infrequency actually has made it more special.”
The frequency of Seated Meal has been in flux since the early 1970s, when the rise of interscholastic athletics introduced scheduling challenges that had not existed when community members were mostly restricted to campus while school was in session (I-93 was not fully constructed from Salem to Concord until 1963). Remember that the frequency shifted from 21 times per week to seven a week by 1966. By 1971, the community was attending Seated Meal four times each week. In 1982, the new Rector, Kelly Clark, polled faculty about Seated Meal in relation to quality of life – particularly family time – and, as a result, reduced the dinners to twice a week that winter, according to an article on Seated Meal history published in the May 16, 1997, issue of The Pelican. That winter experiment was just that, an experiment, and Seated Meal reverted back to four times a week through the early 1990s, until it began to fluctuate – mostly to accommodate athletic schedules – between two and three times per week in the late 1990s.
A History of Debate
Students and faculty often have deliberated the virtues of Seated Meal, from its frequency to its purpose to its dress code – a debate documented in the pages of The Pelican through the years. In an October 1994 issue of the student newspaper, two Paulies offered differing viewpoints on decreasing the dinners from four to two each week. In the fall of 1998, then-Rector Craig Anderson put together a Quality of Life Committee to review faculty over-commitment. First up? The merits of Seated Meal. The findings were that, while Seated Meal was considered a positive tradition worth maintaining, it had strayed from its original intent, becoming a shadow of its former self; a rushed food ingestion secondary to the social scene before and after the meal itself. Jim Baehr ’01 questioned a proposal to make Seated Meal casual in a February 1999 Pelican editorial. Three months later, in June 1999, Pelican staffer Ashley Kim ’00 wrote that “Seated Meal was changed from two formal dinners a week to one formal meal and one casual one.” A survey at the time showed students were split between whether or not the dress code should be consistent from meal to meal. The divide between formal and informal dinners continued through the following academic year.
Beginning in 2001, faculty began to rotate their Seated Meal responsibilities from term to term, meaning that some Seated Meal tables were headed by Sixth Formers, with no adults present at the table. By April 2007, Pelican writer Whitney McAniff ’08 had lamented, “The long tradition of Seated Meal is dying; slowly but surely students are coming to see it as a hurdle they must pass to get through the day.” McAniff cited the informal, hurried nature of Seated Meal as the reason, and made a plea for a return to “linen tablecloths and napkins.” McAniff wrote that fall, when full faculty presence at the dinners was further restricted by updates to the local fire code, that “Seated is an opportunity to speak with people that are not in your normal social sphere…and makes us grow as people, talk to others, and say please and thank you.”
Bill Matthews was Rector at that time, and recalls that the decision to eliminate Seated Meals during the Winter Term of 2009 was not a decision he welcomed, but he determined that the demands of athletics and family life had made sustaining the current schedule implausible. Matthews expressed his regret to Genevieve Denoeux ’10 in the November 2008 Pelican, but cited student health in the winter, alleviated by an experimental late-start schedule, as the deciding factor in temporarily cutting the formal meals.
We kept Tuesday and Thursday Seated Meals in the fall and spring and replaced them with advisee dinners in the winter,” Matthews recalls. “Advisee dinners offered more flexibility in the schedule, but I am a big advocate of Seated Meal because I feel strongly that institutions need to find healthy ways to bring adults and adolescents together. We held onto the Seated Meals because of their importance in that way.”
Formal vs. Informal
Seated Meal’s winter hibernation continued through 2010, when Michelle Park ’12 wrote in the Pelican that “Regular advisee dinners ensure that students get to check in with their advisers at least once a week.” Around that time, student writers also began to question the dress code as a class issue manifested through Armani jackets for boys and designer heels for girls who could afford them. The sit-down dinners returned in the winter of 2011, but students were permitted to arrive wearing classroom attire. Believe it or not, the change from formal to more casual attire upset some students, who enjoyed the occasions for wearing their best clothes. Amelia Dickinson ’12, who now works at SPS as a safety officer, offered a different view. “The fact that classroom attire is worn gets back to the basic idea of Seated Meal,” Dickinson told The Pelican in December 2011, “which is building community through meeting new people and forming stronger relationships in a comfortable environment.” It was the dress code that caused another more recent adjustment to Seated Meal. In March of 2013, the administration presented students with two options: Eliminate Seated Meal entirely, or adjust the dress code. Students were up in arms about the possibility of eliminating the classic St. Paul’s tradition, but increasingly inappropriate choices of attire had forced the administration’s hand – clothing had become more appropriate for night life than for a formal, sit-down dinner.
Hirschfeld credits that year’s Sixth Form President, Kristin Ramcharan ’13, with coming up with the idea of eliminating high heels from the dress code for girls, while boys were no longer allowed to wear flip-flops or athletic shoes to the meals. That change gave pause to students when they considered what to wear to Seated Meal, and the result was a more thoughtfully dressed student body. “There had been a feeling among faculty and students that Seated Meal had become a socioeconomic differentiator,” says Hirschfeld. “[Kristin’s idea] eliminated the fashion-show element.”
Seated Meal is Here to Stay
In the fall of 2017, the plan is to augment the number of Seated Meals per term from three to four – a total of 12 for the year. As with the current iteration, each table will be headed by both a student leader and a faculty member, returning to the tradition long held at the School before more modern accommodations to time management reduced faculty presence at the Upper. Under Michael Spencer’s plan, meals last a minimum of 35 minutes; gone are the days of the dine-and-dash that had taken over in the last 15 years. The quality of the family-style food has improved under new Executive Chef Steven Stinnett, and meals celebrating the cuisines of different cultures now provide conversation-starters at each table. The lineup of post-Seated-Meal pizza delivery vehicles outside the Athletic and Fitness Center has thinned as a result. More than anything, today’s Seated Meals return to their original purpose of, as Spencer puts it, “table fellowship and breaking bread together as a full community.” What Hirschfeld remembers most fondly about Seated Meals during his own time as an SPS student were the opportunities to get to know faculty members with whom he might not otherwise have connected.
“Any opportunity to strengthen relationships between adults and kids supports how we live together and how we treat each other,” Hirschfeld says. “Schools change, and we are trying to be the best St. Paul’s School we can be. We are moving in the direction of restoring what people most fondly remember about Seated Meal experiences.”