A few months before his freshman year of high school, Peter Xiao arrived in Boston from Beijing ready to begin the most formative years of his adolescence hundreds of miles away from home.
When he stepped into his host family’s home in Dedham, he took a deep breath. He looked at his bags of luggage and the unique setup of his new American bedroom. With his freshman orientation just a few weeks away, he knew the work cut out for him.
He also knew little about American culture, let alone the environment of an all-boys Catholic school. So, when he started at CM, he needed to find a way to express himself to his fellow classmates. This, he knew, required the right space. A space that allowed him to express his interests and ambitions.
Back home in China, he admired the visual and literary arts—painting, drawing, and poetry-- in particular. But none of the schools he attended in the past offered the sort of program that pushed him to take their inquiry to the next level.
But, when he saw the overwhelming support for the countless visual and literary art opportunities at CM from the school’s faculty and student body during his orientation, he then found peers who shared his same passion for the arts.
“When I came here to America, I had no idea how I was going to acclimate to the new environment,” said Peter.
“I think that caused me to lose confidence at first.”
So, he gave CM’s drawing class a try and, for the first time, Peter felt understood here in his new home. It also introduced him to one of his first mentors when he met Ms. Cassandra Akouri, the Fine Arts Department Chair.
“The first drawing I made, it wasn’t good. But, instead of criticizing my work, she encouraged me to be more creative and to take risks. I loved this.”
“When I finished one painting or drawing, she always helps me think of more creative ideas to work on.”
Over the next few years, Peter and his classmates explored poetry slams, drawing classes, and theater productions. Together, they shared artwork, practiced oratory speeches, and challenged one another to enter the latest schoolwide art shows. From this, Peter arrived at a more mature vision of who he wanted to grow into by the time he graduated.
“Nobody forced me to write, draw, or paint,” said Peter, when looking back at his first few years at CM.
“I did it out of their encouragement. They didn’t care if I did it bad or did it poor. They just wanted me to learn from what I enjoyed. It didn’t matter about the outcome of the poem or painting. They encouraged me to learn from the process, which I really enjoyed.”
Over time, Peter developed a newfound sense of confidence. He joined the speech and debate team, participated in the poetry club on a regular basis, and even performed in his first musical in the spring of his junior year. That same year, he won second place in the junior class public speaking competition, earned a silver medal in the National Latin Exam, and took home the Skidmore College Book Award as a member of the National Honor Society.
However, none of those awards compare to his crowing achievement as an artist. During the winter of his junior year, Peter won the National Gold Medal in the Scholastic Writing & Art Award contest for his charcoal drawing of the Santa Maria statue that stood on display in the old Administrative Wing.
While the old Administrative Wing undergoes construction for the new Center for Integrated and Applied Learning, the statue no longer sits where Peter drew it. However, the spirit of his drawing—the bold design and confident strokes— live on. Of course, the environment where Peter continues to learn facilitates the growth of this spirit.
“The amazing faculty at CM gave me this newfound sense of community and continue to facilitate a culture of brotherhood,” said Peter.
“It’s an environment full of love, really. I feel loved and cared for. I feel carried by others. It’s a feeling that encourages you to do the same thing to others.”
Catholic Memorial, the Christian Brothers School of Boston, prepares boys for college, manhood and a world full of unknown challenges, ambiguity and complex problems and the importance of relationships.