Spencer Virtue, Palm Valley School Class of 2012, graduated Vassar in 2016 and was recently accepted to Yale's graduate program at their School of Divinity. He plans to become an Army chaplain and considers his time at PVS, which spanned from fourth grade until his senior year, vital to forming his character.
“The majority of my life influences came from my teachers,” Virtue said. “I would definitely be a vastly different person if I hadn’t gone to Palm Valley. Most notably, I was able to come out of my shell.”
Participating in mock trial, drama and combining his public speaking skills with classes designed to teach students how to defend their views, Virtue became an articulate, award-winning rhetorician. However, Virtue cherished as much the room PVS teachers gave him to fail and learn, even when there was a lot at stake.
“Riverside County is one of the most competitive regions in the country,” Virtue explained. “It holds you up to a standard of performing like an adult and facing the criticism that you would as an adult.” One of his first mock trial duties was to be the timekeeper. “I completely screwed it up,” said Virtue, yet his teammates and coaches didn’t dwell on it. “It wasn’t, ‘You failed, and you’re on your own.’ It was, ‘You failed, here’s how to make it better.’”
At Vassar, Virtue saw a number of students unused to setbacks struggle. “Children can be almost coddled in ways that really prevent them from becoming adults,” Virtue said. “We had a lot of students who came there and who were told they were God’s gift to scholasticism. They didn’t know what it was like to fail.”
The high expectations from his teachers at PVS pushed Virtue, who learned to excel at the tasks he was given.
“Children are capable of remarkable things if we treat them like adults and give them the opportunity to reach their full mental capacity,” Virtue said. “I know the students [at PVS] are given the respect of doing challenging work.” Beyond learning resilience, Virtue maintained he was also taught at PVS to ponder the larger questions of life and society, which he finds vital in his chaplaincy role today.
“The Army deals with death and morality all the time,” Virtue said. “To be the person there who is sort of the moral compass seems a great responsibility and also a great honor.” The military itself presents Virtue with moral issues he finds fascinating.
“Running into battle is so anathema to everything we know about the survival instinct,” mused Virtue, using D-Day as an example. “These soldiers believed in an ideal that they valued higher than their own life. If they didn’t, they’d refuse to fight. That lofty ideal is a religious experience.”
The theology program at Yale is a three-year Master’s course that emphasizes projects in the community, something that Virtue, who has worked in different churches as a musician already, is eagerly anticipating. “It’s actually the same program you go through to become ordained as a priest,” said Virtue, though he points out it’s open to laypersons as well.
His own personal religious journey has involved a denominational detour. “I was a Catholic for my whole life and I actually recently converted to the Episcopal Church,” Virtue said. “It’s a much different institution in terms of what they believe about morality, but the liturgy and the services look similar.”
More than anything as he reminisced about his school days in Rancho Mirage, Virtue commended how PVS teachers urged him to realize his own potential and his capacity to contribute to others in doing so.
“Part of raising kids in a society is teaching them that as they receive from their community, they too are called to give back,” explained Virtue. “In those times when I was in error, I was brought to feel love in my faults, to be cared for and nurtured to become a better member of that community. I was never punished. I was never talked down to. I was treated like a member of a family who wanted me to be my best. Being your best self is all you are ever called to do in order to better society in the biggest way.”
After leaving PVS, Virtue realized how unique its learning environment, geared toward preparing students to contribute to a global society, really was. “I look at my peers who are from different places who unfortunately haven’t learned this lesson,” Virtue said. “It has to be inculcated. It isn’t a natural trait. I’m really glad I learned it there.”
While Virtue is working continuously on becoming his best self, he’s also planning to contribute to his alma mater in another way in the future.
“One day, when I have money, I will be most happy to support Palm Valley, because it gave so much to me.”