On Saturday, we celebrated our school’s 110th May Court Festival with ceremony, music and dance. Since 1907, our school community has come together every May to welcome spring and reaffirm our shared commitment to the School’s motto of Veritas, Virtus, Venustas – Truth, Virtue, Loveliness.
The first time I experienced May Court was as the incumbent Head of School, invited as a guest to observe this special day. I remember watching the procession of girls as they emerged from the Castle doors, accompanied by a lone piper. Flags from around the world representing the home countries of the international boarders, banners from the four school Houses, and the mesmerizing sound of the bagpipes conveyed how important this time-honoured tradition remains to the Trafalgar Castle community.
Last in the procession came the May Queen and her Court, made up of two Counsellors and three young girls, one of whom carried the floral wreath used to crown the Queen. It was a sight that was simultaneously beautiful and jarring – a snapshot of homage to a centuries-old festival juxtaposed with a 21st century construction of what it means to be A Trafalgar Girl.
I admit that I struggled in that first year to understand how such a tradition could be reconciled with everything I believe about the empowerment of girls and young women. As an outsider, it felt anachronistic, to say the least. But I resolved to do what, I believe, good leaders should do. I resolved in that first year to ask questions, to listen and to learn about the meaning and the importance of a tradition that was obviously so dear to the School and its alumnae.
The first thing I learned from the girls is that dressing up is fun. I don’t write that glibly but sincerely. I learned that part of the allure of the ceremony is found in the elegance and beauty of the long dresses worn by the May Queen and her Court. It is a moment when each girl shares in the transcendence of the ceremony – when those donning the school uniform see in the May Queen and her counsellors the embodiment of Veritas, Virtus, Venustas.
I learned that careful thought goes into writing the speeches given by the May Queen and Counsellors, as each girl speaks to one of the words in the School motto. Veritas, meaning truth, and Virtus, meaning virtue, lend themselves readily to reflection. Venustas, meaning loveliness, requires more thought lest it appear superficial in today’s context. But every year, a careful and sincere effort is made to consider how loveliness in 1874 (the year the School was founded) informs the values of the School in the present day.
Finally, I learned that traditions may be altered to reflect the changing times, but the value of what underpins a meaningful tradition must endure. The graduates no longer dance around the Maypole. Today, that is the job of our Grade 6 girls, and they are mighty proud to demonstrate their skill. This year, the May Court chose to forgo the tradition of long white gowns in favour of Trafalgar light blue, a nod to more modern times. And the fun-filled festivities that follow the ceremony now include a dunk tank, likely not standard in earlier days.
What endures is the strong sense of community that has forever been a part of our school. It’s a community that provides the love of family, particularly for our boarders who call the Castle home. It’s a community that provides comfort, support, and strength, and fosters within each girl a belief in her ability to overcome life’s obstacles and realize her dreams.
In the late afternoon when the festivities were over and the only evidence of celebration was an empty stage and a drained dunk tank, I encountered a man walking up the driveway of the Castle. The man asked me if this was still a girls’ boarding school. When I said it was, he looked up at the Castle and thoughtfully replied, “My mother was a student here. She passed away recently in Vancouver. She was 92. We’ve come to Ontario to visit her family home. ” Two sisters made their way up the drive to join their brother, and were excited to learn that this was indeed the school their mother attended. I asked if they’d like a tour of the place that was obviously an important part of the pilgrimage they were on, and they eagerly said yes.
As we entered through the Lions’ Doors and walked the beautiful halls of the Castle, they told me the story of their mother. After her own mother’s passing at a young age, she was enrolled by her father as a boarder at what was then the Ontario Ladies’ College (OLC). She thrived under the tutelage of the School’s skilled teachers and caring matrons, and graduated in 1943. With encouragement from her father, she attended Queen’s University where she graduated from medical school. She met her future husband at Queen’s, and the two of them moved to Vancouver where they practiced medicine and raised the three children who were standing before me as adults.
Reflecting on what the School meant to their mother, her son talked about the sense of family it provided to a young girl living away from home. He shared that his mother often spoke about the friends she made and the fun she had. But most meaningful to me, her son shared how his mother was encouraged to pursue higher learning at a time when women’s choices were often determined and limited by their gender. He attributed much of his mother’s inner strength and resilience to her time as an OLC (now Trafalgar) girl.
After our visit was over, I reflected on my day. The joy of our school community celebrating more than a century of shared values was followed by my chance meeting with a family that showed how these values endure not only in the lives of our alumnae but in the generations that follow them. It was, without doubt, evidence that truth, virtue and loveliness remain a part of our dear old Trafalgar.