In a week when we are focused on the importance of gratitude—being grateful for what we have and counting our blessings—we have been reminded at SJA that sometimes we see the ways that we are blessed in vivid contrast to misfortune, and we are made to recognize what we’ve had by losing it.
This past weekend St. Johnsbury Academy experienced the sudden and unexpected death of one of our beloved educators, Ms. Shondelle Paynter. As the Head Proctor of Sheepcote dorm, she made a home and a haven for every student in her care.
Shondie was born in Bermuda on June 30th, 1976, and according to her own account, when former headmaster Bernier Mayo visited Bermuda to recruit students, he found himself eating real Bermudian food in her family’s backyard. And he brought Shondie back with him to St. Johnsbury, Vermont to attend the Academy. If you don’t know what Bermuda is like, you should know that it is a very warm place with clearwater beaches and palm trees. There are lots of ways for a place to be beautiful, and we in Vermont don’t share many of these with Bermuda.
Shondie never did make peace with the cold, and she responded to snow as a kind of personal insult, often with vivid language. But she loved St. Johnsbury Academy. Many of our current faculty and staff had Shondie as a classmate in the early 1990s. She graduated in 1994, and to hear her good friend Jamie Ryan tell it, after graduation while in college at Lyndon State, she just kept gravitating back to campus, and she more or less started proctoring in Waterman dorm before anyone had made the wise decision to hire her for the job. She never left. Shondie lived and worked at SJA for 28 years, and over that career she made every dormful of students into a family. She touched countless lives. She was a mother for anyone who needed a hug, or a shoulder to cry on, or someone to join in a shriek of delight when a celebration was in order. She was irreverent and hilarious, and said things like “Holy Bejeezus Batman!” When she said, in response to something outrageous, “Shut the Front Door!” it was pretty clear what she meant.
She was also wise and intuitive, and if you ever struggled with a student or community conundrum, someone might say, “Go see Shondie—she’ll know what to do.” This was true for many generations of SJA resident students, their friends, and their families, and for her colleagues and everyone lucky enough to know her. She seemed to have infinite springs of love and compassion for her Academy family. This touched us all, and was particularly meaningful for the students of color here, about whose experience and concerns as students in northern Vermont she was always thinking.
Her loss—the loss of this beautiful soul—is literally being felt around the world. Hundreds of alumni and friends have flooded social media with words of condolence, and with many wonderful stories about Shondie from those who knew and loved her as much as we always knew she loved us. It’s hard to have known her and not to have a story about her, because she was always so completely herself, outspoken, honest, and joyful.
There is no script for these moments. But Shondie would want us to remember, I think, that despite the snow (Holy Bejeezus!), this is a week when we should be counting our blessings—and that we should, without a doubt, be counting her among them.
Dr. Sharon Howell
A service for Shondie will be held at South Church Hall on Monday, November 21, 2022, at 2:00 p.m. For those unable to join us in person, you can watch via live stream at SJA Webcaster Public - YouTube. For those asking about in memory gifts, they can be directed to the Development Office, St. Johnsbury Academy, PO Box 906, St. Johnsbury, VT 05819, or online at Make a Gift - St. Johnsbury Academy (stjacademy.org). Be sure to reference, “For Shondie.”