Excellent Sheep

September 5, 2014

Yesterday an IB2 student wandered into my office and, as often happens with Grade 12 students, within minutes, he began to fill me in on his university plans. He is a good student. He has a terrific list of schools, and he has a very positive relationship with his university counselor. Despite all that he has going for him, the more he talked about these very competitive universities, the more his affect seemed to sag. He seemed to get smaller right in front of my eyes. Even though he has all kinds of personal strengths — and he is a wonderful, wonderful boy — his slumping shoulders suggested a fear that some Admissions Director might find him somehow lacking.

In his new book “Excellent Sheep,” William Deresiewicz claims there is actually a danger in a becoming a “HYPSter” his acronym for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford students. According to Mr. Deresiewicz, these institutions are breeding grounds for timid-minded students who are people pleasing, risk-averse, gold star searching, credential accumulators. Deresiewicz doesn’t blame the students; he sees them as victims of an out of whack admissions system that rewards those who jump through mind-numbing academic hoops, without ever giving themselves the opportunity to grapple with life’s important questions, questions such as, “What does it mean to live a good life?” or “How can I define success on my own terms?”

It is easy enough to take shots at snooty schools and their insanely competitive admissions’ standards, but I wonder if some of Deresiewicz criticism might ring true for us? In our personal quest for the illusive 7, do we, too, overlook what is important? If education is more than an elaborate training exercise, if it’s more than a search for power and prestige, do we pause often enough to ask ourselves what we are being educated for? What is the real purpose of the pilgrimage we begin today?

A few years ago, another Grade 12 boy told me that he had worked very hard to get into UCC; that he worked very hard while he was here to get into a competitive university; that he would continue to work very hard in university in order to get a job; where, you guessed it, he would work very hard, so that he could eventually be in a position to send his own son to UCC where he expected he would, in turn, work very hard. Why, he asked, was he doing all of this?

It’s worth noting that one hundred years ago, the Great War, the “war to end all wars” began. It’s been described as “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” I’d like to show you a short clip, taken from the movie “Chariots of Fire” as a way to respond to some of those important questions. Here’s the context: World War I has just ended, and former soldiers have now returned as new students at Cambridge, a HYPSTER school if ever there was one! This scene is of the opening banquet, where the headmaster delivers a short speech during which he addresses issues of purpose. The scene may remind boarders of last night’s dinner, if only we had had the Blue Notes serenading us in the Upper Dining Hall!)

 

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/bxbwi4y7hhywu06/AABPuevm4zx2HBWU4OtPnogea?n=236773826

 

A few observations: The clip begins with a shot of a great board, which honours the Cambridge old boys who had died between 1914-1918. That board may remind you of our own memorial plaques on display in the main foyer, where we honour the UCC old boys who made the same ultimate sacrifice, at the same time, for the same noble cause.

 

The headmaster then gives a short but profoundly eloquent speech, as all heads of schools want to do, of course on a regular basis. He begins by describing the old boys who had died, “boys who were full of honesty, and goodness, zeal, vigor, and intellectual promise. The flower of a generation. The glory of England and all that England stands for.”

 

The headmaster’s words, by the way, also describe you. You might bristle a bit at being described as “the flower of a generation” but that’s what you are. We don’t believe the admissions office made a mistake with your application. There were lots of bright and talented boys, boys with great promise who desperately wanted to be here in Laidlaw Hall with you this morning. For many good reasons, you are the fortunate few who have been blessed with this extraordinary opportunity. And we have great hopes for you.

 

Which leads me, at long last, to my takeaway, which echoes the headmaster’s final word of advice to his new students. “Let me exhort you. Let each of you discover where your true chance at greatness lies.”

 

A proper British school head would not have felt comfortable with language like “ignite curiosity, imagination, and passion” but that’s really what he is saying. “Discover where your true chance at greatness lies.” Find what makes your heart sing. Follow your bliss. Discover where time disappears. However you want to parse this sentiment, I hope that as you begin to explore the worlds and wonders of chemistry, Copernicus, soccer, and Shakespeare, this year you will find – not just hoops to jump through or gold stars to collect, but I hope you will find what excites you. “Seize this chance. Rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.”

 

Three Looks

August 20, 2014

Two boys, who happen to share my last name, were engaged in a rather heated disagreement last week (Perhaps they were discussing provincial equalization payments?) when the younger of the two came up with a profoundly old-fashioned solution. I believe he put it this way: “Let’s fight.”

Both lads immediately turned to me. Their look wasn’t so much a search for approval so much as it was a statement of fact: “We’re doing this — no matter what you say.” I paused for a moment before blurting, “No swinging.”

My wife was immediately and utterly appalled. “No fighting! Stop them!”

Before I could begin to explain why I believe that in a more perfect world all boys can verbalize all of their disagreements and peacefully process all of their problems, but that occasionally, as long as there is not a great imbalance of power, and both boys want to engage, it’s ok to let them wrestle some truths to the ground -– the two knuckleheads were already rolling in the grass.

My wife went running for the water hose, in the hope of dousing the combatants into a state of peace and equanimity. While she was searching for the UN of household accoutrements, the younger of the two was already displaying great energy and enthusiasm. Eventually, though, the bigger, older brother won out, thus ensuring that the moral order of the universe would prevail, at least for at least another day.

As the boys, now exhausted but in an apparently peaceful state of mind, walked away, I gave my wife a knowing and thoroughly self-satisfied look, and I began to quietly congratulate myself. “Power, you have such a deep and intuitive understanding of male adolescents. Perhaps this gift might lend itself to an article in “Old Times”? I can see it now: ‘Power the Boy Whisperer.’ Perhaps someone might, in a splurge of creativity, then turn this piece into a documentary? I wonder if we could get this done in time for the Toronto International Film Festival?”

My momentary reverie, though, was immediately interrupted by a loud bang. It turned out that one of the combatants still harbored some ill feeling, and had impulsively decided to put his fist through a wall. The dream of “Power and Peace in Our Time” immediately dissipated.

The look my wife gave me at that moment suggested that, perhaps in hindsight, we might want to save that “Boy Whisperer” article for the winter edition of the school magazine. My only consolation was the realization that we had already missed the Hot Docs deadline.

A Father’s Story: Many Roads to Manhood

June 29, 2014

Nashville, Tennessee

My son was not a great athlete, but he tried. He really tried. He was a wrestler, and he may have won more than he lost, but I remember the biggest meet of his life. He lost.  He went up against a guy who just completely tooled him, and during that match, his body was bent in so many ways. Afterwards, he went over and leaned against the wall, with a towel over his head, and he was just heart broken. You could just see it.  One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life was look at him there, leaning against that wall.

On the ride home,  I knew I should be quiet, and we didn’t say  anything for a few miles until my son asked, “Dad, do you want to talk?” I told him it was his call. And this is what he said, “I enjoy sports, but I’m just not a competitive athlete. I like them, but not like my friends do. It just doesn’t mean enough. I like music, and I like to write, and deep down I’m good with who I am.”

As a dad, I’m not sure it gets much better than that conversation in the car. For some reason, I am reminded of Mother Theresa’s line that, “We aren’t capable of great things, only small things with great love.” It was a bunch of small things that helped my son understand himself, and for that I am so grateful for the people who taught and coached him at this school.

Final Assembly of the Year

June 2, 2014

 

Memory is an arbitrary thing, but when I think about this past school year, 4 scenes come quickly to mind.

Scene One took place on a blue sky October afternoon, when our soccer and football and teams travelled to Aurora to play the Saints. If you weren’t there, you may have heard about the great kick, the wonderful catch, or the tremendous run. In the midst of this, though, there was a quiet player who dwelt in relative obscurity out on the edge of the football field. One of the hidden heroes of the day was Matt Wong, who spent his afternoon out on the  island, where he was matched up, one on one, against a bigger, stronger, and more physically gifted opponent. Matt never backed down. He was not intimidated. And he was unrelenting. I believe Matt won the battle that won the day. In doing so, he taught all of those in attendance something about courage. And I remembered  why, since his days as quarterback of the junior varsity squad, he’s been known as “Matty Ice.”

Scene Two took place in late November at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kouremenos. Christine Kouremenos, their daughter, your teacher, and our colleague, had passed away hours earlier. I confess that I didn’t want to be in that living room, because I was afraid of the pain. But when Mr. Poon, Ms. Berezowski, Ms. Kaye, and Ms. Gauthier invited me, how could I say no? What I learned from my colleagues that day was the importance of presence. Sometimes life isn’t about providing answers. (Sometimes there aren’t any.) Sometimes, it’s enough just to be there – especially with those who grieve.

Scene Three took place on a February morning in the Lett Gym, where we hosted the Special Olympics. What stays with still me was the way our guys went out of their way to welcome the Special Olympians. A crowd of UCC students gathered in the lower foyer to form a gauntlet of applause. They clapped and hooted and cheered all of our guests all the way into the gym. It was the kind of “tunnel of affirmation” you might expect to see next to the Oval before a varsity game on A day. Our special Olympians felt more than welcomed. They were celebrated. Some of them got into the spirit of the moment, and they started cheering for themselves, too – which struck me as a very UCC thing to do! To see the looks of delight on their faces, though, made all of us all realize that our Olympians were already playing a home game.

Scene Four occurred during the annual Quarter Century Club celebration in May. Up at the podium, in front of the entire assembly of past and present, faculty and staff, Mr. McKay and Mr. Sharpe, both talked openly, honestly, and somewhat movingly about the importance of their friendship. Mr. McKay and Mr. Sharpe are in some ways two fairly traditional guys; they are men who have taught, coached and mentored UCC boys for decades. They are also what some might call “besties.” Critics of boys schools believe we fail to model male intimacy, but I learned something about the value of friendship that night thanks to those two men who are, as another Quarter Century Club member might put it, “The best of friends.”

***

Finally, way back on a Monday September 16th after talking about masculinity, and about how our culture often influences how we think about manhood, I invited you to send in commercials that touched on this topic.

A number of folks submitted some great ads, and this morning I’ll end with two of the best. These were sent in by Mr. Smith and Markus Vulver, respectively. The first is about when a Snickers is perceived as being more than just a candy bar. The second is about when a friend is really more than just a friend.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oooij6sQYgI

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyeDBZaxFa8

Herb Lotman: Man of McNuggets

May 26, 2014

 

Herb Lotman died last week. That name might not ring a bell, but I’d argue that Mr. Lotman has had a profound impact on both western civilization and on my boyish figure. In 1981 the owner of McDonalds went to Mr. Lotman and challenged him to come up with a way to put boneless chicken on their then burger-dominated menu.

The boneless chicken had long been considered something of an impossibility, the gustatory Holy Grail if you will. In the same way that Roger Banister conquered the 4-minute mile, so too did Herb Lotman shatter our fundamental understanding of fried poultry. He created the almost sacred “Chicken McNugget.”

Let me go old school and tell you that, like a lot of things, McNuggets have improved over the years. Originally, the golden orbs were often made of dark meat, and — I want to put this as delicately as possible at 8:40 on a Tuesday morning — I’ll just say that “quality control” was probably not priority #1 in the early 1980’s. If you had 4 edible nuggets out of 6, the Golden Arched gods were smiling at you. I remember occasions when a particularly resilient McNugget would deliver an especially loud crunch, only to discover that hidden beneath that luxuriously intoxicating coating of herbs and spices was a chicken claw or knuckle or gizzard; if you were particularly unfortunate, you might discover that you had had been contentedly chewing away on the original yet seldom advertised “Chicken McBeak”.

Despite these initial culinary inconsistencies, I am proud to point out that Herb Lotman was eventually inducted into the “Meat Hall of Fame.” (You can’t make this stuff up!) At the risk of mixing metaphors and/or fast food chains, I have to believe that honour had to be high on the aptly named Herb’s “bucket list”. Nevertheless, I am such a Nugget aficionado myself that, were there a “Mount Rushmore of Meat,” I believe Herb’s corpulent mug should grace its facade. After all, you could say, there can be no bones about it!

Please Pass Me the Raisin Bran

May 20, 2014

Almost a decade ago, when I was traveling in Asia, I met the father of a then year 1 boarder who asked me to keep an eye on his son, a new boy who was struggling with homesickness.

For the next 4 years, I had breakfast with this UCC student almost every Saturday morning, and I watched as he gradually made friends and found his way here at school.  Even as we got to know one another, though, our conversations remained somewhat stilted, in that they consisted primarily of my asking him questions about his classes, about the swim team, and about his family.

Over a bowl of Raisin Bran one Saturday morning a week or so before he was to graduate, I pointed out that while he had always been polite and occasionally even expansive in his responses, the young scholar had never initiated a conversation. As a matter of fact, he had never so much as asked me a single question. “So go ahead,” I encouraged him, “ask me anything about English, politics, the IB, the US, the world, or even the meaning of life. If I don’t know the answer, I’m more than willing to bluff!”

The soon to be Old Boy paused for a moment, and then — ever so slowly– said these 4 words, words that have stayed with me ever since: “Why no white rice?”

His words stung me. Clearly, this son of Confucius was speaking metaphorically. Was he raising a point about conformity, about the insidious push towards homogeneity? Was he offering a pointed criticism of the school’s desire to increase diversity? Was he indirectly questioning the IB learner profile? Or had he anticipated the Supreme Court’s overturning affirmative action programs and other race-based initiatives?

These and other thoughts raced through my mind, and I found myself completely perplexed. After a few agonizing moments, I ever so gently asked if he could elaborate. My companion gave me a look of complete disgust, before pointing to his plate and saying, “Why do we always have brown rice? I prefer white.”

 

Yet Another Reason to Love Zombies (and Boys)!

May 11, 2014

The dad had a twinkle in his eye, as he described a recent conversation with his son.

“He’s doing fine (but) he could do so much better if he just pushed himself a little bit more. I know some boys feel a lot of stress, especially this time of year, but that’s not my guy.  The other night I found him watching something called, ‘The Walking Dead.’  I know he’s got exams coming up, so I tried to press him on this.

He just looked at me and said, ‘Dad, if there’s ever a Zombie Apocalypse, I’ll know exactly what to do. I’m good!’

Now how could I ever argue with that kind of thinking?”

Donald Stirling and “Inside Out” in LA

May 4, 2014

Let me begin with an admission of guilt: After 25 years of boarding school life, when I run out of toothpaste, my first impulse is to call maintenance and shout, “Help!” I make no bones about it; I am soft. But even a marshmallow like me was taken aback by the self-congratulatory air of the LA Clippers, who after hearing that their owner, the morally bankrupt Donald Stirling, had made racist remarks, decided to wear their sweatshirts inside out as a sign of protest. Even if you throw in their also wearing black socks, the Clippers can hardly be accused of “Going Gandhi.”

While most fans applaud the players for their course of action, I think the Clippers missed a unique opportunity to make a statement. For example, what might have happened last Saturday when the story first broke, if as a sign of protest, the players had simply boycotted their game against the Golden State Warriors? After all, even a playoff game is just a GAME. And the fact that the players might have actually sacrificed something (their salaries), would have said something meaningful — and perhaps even memorable.

On a more practical front, consider, too, what ABC/ESPN might have done in order to fill that prime time slot. Something tells me that, given the interest in the issue, they would not have re-run “Heidi.” Just imagine how Charles Barkley might have filled 3 hours of precious airtime? Talk about “Must See TV’!

Sacrifice is something we all try to avoid, but it’s the price people pay when it comes to important moral issues. Something tells me we wouldn’t remember Rosa Parks, if she’d stayed at the back of the bus – even if she had worn her hat backwards.

Try to imagine an aging Chris Paul someday trying to explain all of this to his grandchildren, “Yes, indeed, back in ’14 when Donald Stirling said those terrible, terrible things, I wore my warm up shirt inside out!”

Can’t you just hear those kids’ saying, “Gramps, you are so ‘rad’! Some revolutionaries storm the Bastille, but you, you had the courage to head to the hosiery section at Harry Rosen!”

“I didn’t want to disappoint you.”

April 26, 2014

A friend was talking about his son’s experience of high school, when he mentioned that, despite the lad’s many successes during grades 11 and 12, the earlier years had been a bit rocky.

“We realized — long after the fact of course — that our son had actually been bullied in grades 7 and 8. As a matter of fact, the only reason we even found out about this at all was because the bully was later thrown out of the school. His expulsion sparked a conversation, where my son finally told me about how he himself had been victimized by this guy for over a year.

When I asked my son, ‘Why didn’t you at least tell us about this at the time?’ all he could say was, ‘I didn’t want to disappoint you.’ Can you believe that? Didn’t want to disappoint me?

It’s been years and I still think  about that comment. It is just mind-boggling; it says so much about ‘boyland.’”

The Obscene Shirt: Lessons from a Lion

March 31, 2014

The folks who really know me understand exactly why I have a large black and white photo of the Cowardly Lion taped to inside of my office door. It is an ever-present reminder of one of my “areas for growth.” Like a lot of people with, what I like to consider a “high aptitude for cowardice,” I go out of my way to avoid confrontation; I, in fact, dread conflict (which is actually not such a helpful quality for a school head), and I happen to think the late Rodney King posed just the right question when he asked, “Can we (just) get along?”

A few years ago, I found myself in an airplane, sitting directly behind a man who was wearing, what I considered, an offensive t-shirt. While I’d have been less than thrilled to see anyone wearing clothing of this nature, it really bothered me to see a guy around my age sporting sexually explicit attire. Because we were flying to Calgary, I had over 3 hours to think about this situation, and I’ll come back to the issue of time because it is important.  Before telling you how this t-shirt situation played out, though, let me pause here to tell you a story about someone who didn’t have the benefit of time.

A while back, the head boy at another boys’ school found himself in a tough spot. He was in a locker room after practice, of course, where and when these kinds of situations always seem to occur, and he was about to take a shower when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something that made him feel instantly uneasy. A number of Grade 12 boys were calling out to him, encouraging him in no uncertain terms to join them in the fun. They had picked up a teammate, a fellow senior who had evidently annoyed them throughout the soccer season, and they were about to carry him towards the washroom, where they intended to give him a swirly. Let me emphasize that the head boy, a good and decent boy, felt he did not have time to think things through. And let me also emphasize that the head steward is always in a difficult position because, while he wants to have a good relationship with the faculty and administration, he also really needs to maintain his “street cred” with the student body, especially with the members of his own class.

What went through the head boy’s head was this: “I’ll grab the kid’s elbow and be a part of the group. The guy will cry out once he gets to the washroom, and we’ll just put him down and laugh about it.”  With this thought in mind, he went along with the group, but of course things didn’t go according to plan. The boy didn’t cry out, and the group didn’t stop. And afterwards, the victim sat in a corner of the locker room in a fetal position and he cried. The head boy was already feeling guilty about what had just happened when someone grabbed a phone and took a picture of the crying soccer player, and that picture went viral, and before the head boy knew what hit him, he was sitting in the principal’s office, where he was told that he was no longer the head boy; that there would be a meeting with his parents later that day; that he was now on probation; and that all of the colleges and universities to which he had applied would immediately be informed of his change of status.

Like I said, the head boy felt he didn’t have the opportunity to think. And while he certainly wasn’t a bad guy, what he did – in that moment – was, and the consequences for his bad decision went way beyond anything he could have possibly anticipated.

Now that I’ve killed the joy of the day, let me return to the scene of two frumpy middle-aged men, riding in coach, on a plane bound for Calgary, a city whose ironic name underscores my narrative. Because I had 3 hours to ponder my options, I came to the conclusion that the best place to address my fellow passenger would be in the baggage claim area. That way, in case it got ugly, we could both – ok, ok, I – could flee the scene of the crime. Let me also somewhat sheepishly admit that I was heartened by the fact that my fellow flyer was something less than a dead ringer for a young Clint Eastwood. I once heard a psychologist say that, whenever 2 men meet for the first time, the first question each has in the back of his head (from caveman days) is “Can I take this guy?” (An aside: the same psychologist claims that, whenever 2 women initially meet each asks, “Am I thinner than she?”) I can’t comment on the latter, but I think the former may be right.

Anyway, after securing my luggage, I gingerly approached my counterpart and asked him, “”Do you mind if I ask you a question? (I have found that in conversations as in classes, it’s often helpful to start things off with a question.) When he nodded in the affirmative, I continued. “Do you feel funny about wearing a shirt like that? Because I’ve got to tell you, if my kids were with me, it would really bother me to see you wearing that.”

He looked at me for a second and said nothing. I’d like to think he was (pat biceps) sizing up the situation. But then he blurted, “Yea. I am a little self-conscious.” And he put on his jacket and walked away.

A bit anti-climactic I know but the story offers 3 “take aways” for you on this last Monday in March:

1. I am no hero, and I freely admit that if the stranger were the size of Mr. Hefernan, I would have said nothing other than, “I really like your shirt! Think it comes in a smaller size?”

2. I admit I was ticked off. It really bothered me that this guy would try to inflict his sordid view on sexuality so publicly. I may have read “The Catcher in the Rye” too many times and in the process developed an acute case of the Holden Caulfield syndrome. So point 2 is that, as a schoolteacher and a father, I had an emotional investment in the issue. Some things, I hope, bother you, too, on occasion.

3. Let me also admit that, if I had walked past this guy on a street corner, I would not have said a thing. It was only the long plane ride that gave me the time to think through options – time that former head boy never had.

I mention all of this now because we are in what passes for springtime in Toronto. New teams are forming. There will be lots of time spent in locker rooms, and next weekend we have our Batt Ball, with its own set of social issues and inter personal complications. I hope you don’t find yourself in a tough spot any time soon, but we don’t live in a hermetically sealed environment, and you may end up in a situation where you’ll have to make a decision—a decision in a hurry. I hope that you’ll keep your pause button handy; that you’ll give yourself the time you need to think things through; that you’ll remember that it’s always better to at least ask a question than it is to go along with the flow of group think. And if nothing else, I hope you’ll think of the Cowardly Lion and remember his philosophy:

“What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk? What makes the muskrat guard his musk? What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?  Courage!”

 


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