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!”


What the Concierge Didn’t Say

March 23, 2014

Hong Kong, China

While the Concierge helped me find a church for Sunday morning services, he failed to mention that Mass would be said in Cantonese. In hindsight, I should have known.

Though the architecture, the texts, the gestures, and the rhythms of the ritual were comfortably familiar, I found myself constantly on alert, looking out of the corner of my eye to see what everyone else was doing. (Was it time to kneel or stand or sing?) Half-way through Mass, I noticed someone from my own demographic, and immediately found myself trying to connect with him. Maybe he could help me follow along? Was he European or Australian?  His lips were moving. Could he actually speak the language?

Being in an environment where almost everyone looked and sounded different gave me just a hint of what school life must be like for some of our international students. And unlike our UCC boys, I didn’t have to take a test at the end of the service! This is one of the many reasons why I no longer ask, “Why do all the (fill in the blank) students sit together at lunch?”

The Kindergartener’s Questions

March 5, 2014

A friend of mine, a superb teacher, attributes her entire philosophy of education to a conversation she once had with a student she taught during her first year of teaching in 1976.

“I was teaching up North, and on the first day of school this boy arrived. He hadn’t been there for any of the preparation meetings, but he was just a young boy starting kindergarten. He was very, very quiet. He said almost nothing, until the third week of school, when he had an ‘accident.’

I was in the stall with him, cleaning him up, and that’s the first time he talked to me, there in that stall. And I will always remember his big dark eyes as he asked me 3 questions:

Is school hard?

Can I do it?

Will you be here every day when I come?

I’ve never forgotten that boy, whose now almost 40, and I’ve never forgotten those questions. They have stayed with me.”

Lessons from Google and the Premier

March 3, 2014

This past Saturday right here in Laidlaw Hall, in response to a question about last year’s “work to rule” issue, Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne said the following: “I believe that what happens outside of the classroom is as important, if not more important, than what goes on in the classroom. I don’t want to offend any of the teachers here, but I liked high school because I got up for practices early in the morning, and I liked being a part of teams. I still keep in touch with my high school track coach, and I’m 60 years old! Those relationships are so important. And those teachers WANT those relationships.

The Premier’s insights about the importance of teams and student-teacher relationships is timely, given that this morning we gather to celebrate our winter sports teams, but her comments also remind me of a recent news article about a man named Lazlo Bock. His name might not be immediately familiar, but Lazlo Bock is Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, which is a fancy way of saying he is the individual in charge of hiring. Bocke recently shared his cutting edge company’s approach to hiring and what he said made national headlines.

This is not easy or pleasant for the school teacher in me to hear, but Google has determined GPA’s and test scores are “worthless” as a criteria for hiring. “We found that they don’t predict anything,” says Bock. Instead, in addition to focusing on “expertise” which Google says is its least important factor, they focus on 4 key attributes: (These are all outlined in Thomas Friedman’s “How To Get a Job at Google” in the NYT.)

First, is what Bock calls “general cognitive ability.” This is the raw ability to learn, what some educators might call a “growth mindset.” It’s the “I can figure this out” mentality.

Second is what Bock calls “emergent leadership.” “Traditional leadership is, ‘Were you the president of the chess club? Google, though, wants to know if at the appropriate time, you can step in and lead. And just as crucially, do you step back and stop leading? Can you let someone else lead? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

Third is ownership. “It’s a… sense of responsibility… to step in to try to solve any problem. And it’s also the ability “to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.”

Fourth, Bock emphasizes humility and simply says, “Without humility, you are unable to learn.’” Interestingly enough, in his best selling book, “Good to Great” author Jim Collins emphasizes the same point about humility and claims that this virtue is the key to becoming what he calls a “Level 5” leader.

Some of you may be keen on going to Queens Commerce or Western’s Ivey Program or any one of the Ivy League schools. These are all fabulous places, but Google’s research suggests that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau, in part, because they have rarely experienced failure; as a result, they don’t know how to learn from failure.

During job interviews candidates are often asked, “Can you tell me about a time you made a whopper of a mistake, and can you explain what you’ve learned from the experience?” You’d be surprised by the number of people who struggle to describe even a single mistake they have ever made, other than the fact that they work too hard! (Whenever I’m asked that question, I’m tempted to respond, “Biggest mistake since breakfast or lunch?”)

A quick aside, and I know I’ve told some of you this story before, so forgive me, but before I left Washington, DC, I went and had a heart to heart conversation with the head of a rival school. His is an absolutely sensational institution, a school that has an almost impossible-to-believe “can do” of a culture.  Since I was no longer going to be a competitor, I asked him if he would give me the recipe for his secret sauce. He went over and closed his office door, and then said, “I had a significant learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until I was done school, and as a result, I had terrible grades.” He paused for a moment before continuing, “And I never hire anyone who had better grades than me.”

I should say right now that, this being UCC, I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that at least one scholar in Laidlaw Hall is already thinking that the headmaster should have said “better grades than I.” You are right, of course, in pointing out a flawed elliptical clause, but as good as your grammar is, you may run the risk of missing the larger point which is this: That leader packed his school with folks for whom schooling was hard, and the result is, not academic minimalism, which some might fear, but just the opposite. They have created a downright inspiring “impossible is nothing” kind of academic weather for their students and teachers. It’s the kind of place where you might hear, “’Dante’s Inferno’ was a really, really tough slog for me at 17, but let me tell you why it’s worth the struggle.” Or “The passé compose might confuse you at first, but let me show you how I managed to get out of the fog on this.” I believe you can and do hear the same sort of comments right here at UCC, by the way. And that’s a very good thing!

So Lazlo Bock’ 4 keys to hiring are: an “I can learn anything” mentality; a flexible “your turn/my turn” approach to leadership; and a sense of ownership tempered with humility. I’d argue that while all of those qualities can be learned in a classroom setting, in many ways they are learned more naturally in a co-curricular activity, in part, because these 4 strengths are ways to respond to “real world” problems. If you need to figure out how to make sure the clarinets don’t get drowned out by the percussionists; if you need to figure out how to stop St. Mike’s running game; if you need to figure out how you are going to stage Banquo’s ghost – all of these challenges force your hand in real time. It’s not an option; these kinds of challenges make you embrace Google’s big four!

I’ll end this morning by returning to the Premier’s last sentence: “Those teachers WANT those relationships.” It is amazing how often, when Old Boys return, they want to catch up with the teachers they worked with after 3 pm. It’s their directors, conductors, and coaches who often leave an incredible mark on our graduates. And we don’t make this point all that often, but it is worth thinking about this: What kind of person wants to sit in the band bus to and from Chicago during flu season? Who is in his right mind, given all the other demands of this place, wants to spend his or her spring break in the David Chu Theatre or in Oak Ridge, Tennessee? And how many adults, with their own families and obligations and a stack of papers yet to be graded, choose to spend yet another Saturday in Aurora?

My colleagues, it’s true, sometimes do this out of a sense of duty, but more often than not, they go above and beyond because what they do is not a job, or even a career; it springs from their sense of vocation, and that vocation is deeply and directly connected with you. So while it’s good to know about Google’s new age hiring scheme, and worth considering the Premier’s thoughts on school sports, let’s also remember and recognize the good men and women who teach, and coach, and inspire all of us in every season.

We Can Be Heroes…

February 24, 2014

Last week was a tough week for me. Little did I know, that when I was soundly defeated by Ms. Ferguson in the Haiku contest, my sorrows were only just beginning. Part of my ongoing suffering has to do with enduring the wordless taunting of Ms. Ferguson. I notice now that, whenever she passes me in the hallway, she just smiles at me– ever so politely of course — but I know what she’s thinking. “5 7 5, baby, taste those syllables. Booyah!”

In the depths of my despair, I turned to the works of the late Joseph Campbell for solace. Campbell, considered the leading authority on myths of all kinds, dissected  the ancient stories from every tradition, starting with the Greeks, and he discovered that there is one common story that is contained within all of them. He called that story, “The Hero’s Journey.” Campbell broke all of these myths down into 3 parts: separation, initiation, and return (Most of what follows is outlined in detail in the documentary “Finding Joe”):

1. Separation: You were originally in a safe, protected world, but something forced you to leave. Superman had to escape the planet, Krypton, just as Harry Potter had to leave Godric’s Hollow.

2. The Initiation: You experience a call to adventure, and you ended up in a strange environment where you faced incredible trials; the result of this is  that you discovered your real strength, your best self. Rocky had to climb into the ring with Apollo Creed, just as Luke Skywalker had to square off with Darth Vader. In both instances, Rocky and Luke discovered something important about themselves.

3. You returned home, but you are now different in an important way, and you are compelled to tell the community the story of how you were transformed.  Think of how the Greek epics play off of this.

If you look at contemporary novels and movies, they all contain this same formula of the hero’s journey. You can see it in Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Matrix, and even the Wizard of Oz. Consider Dorothy for a moment. She is happy in Kansas, her natural environment, but then something happens to throw her world and her own home, literally, upside down.  The result is that she is forced to go on a journey where she has to face all kinds of challenges. At the end of the story, Dorothy finds her true self.  She is stronger because of her trials. She becomes a hero, and when she returns to Kansas, in addition to telling Aunti Em that “There’s no place like home!” she also has to tell everyone her story about the Wizard and the yellow brick road.

But the story of the hero doesn’t just live in a book or on a movie screen; we are somehow mysteriously connected to Dorothy and Rocky, and Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. Their journey is in some strange way our own.  In all of their trials, something resonates deeply within us. Something whispers, “You can do this, too. You are called to be more.” If you are ever asked, “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” Don’t you, too, yearn to go Batman and reply, “I’m not wearing hockey pads!”

There is the sense that like Harry Potter, we are “the chosen one,” and that we are called to do more and be more than we presently are. There is the sense that our greater selves are for some reason still hidden, even as we realize that our personal destiny somehow involves coming to terms with that hidden self, knowing that we will someday recognize the hero we all carry around inside our spiffy blue crested blazers.

Yes, Dorothy had an adventure, but it went far beyond learning how to deal with the wicked witch; it was also about recognizing her inner strength. She figured out how to get back home, but only after she had been tested. She had to face her fear before she could click her heals. When Luke Skywalker slays his archenemy (in a dream?), he opens Darth Vader’s mask only to discover his own face. The hero’s struggle is about coming to terms with the self. It is about our mastering ourselves.

By the way, the hero’s journey is alive and well at UCC. Just listen to almost any Grade 12 boy’s speech in Laidlaw Hall.  Think, for example, about Phillipe’s talk from this very podium just last week. First, it was about his separation.  He was comfortable at home in Quebec.  He didn’t need to come here, but something drew him to UCC. He had the call to adventure. Second, it was when he was in a far away land that he experienced a number of difficult tests. In his case, literally, he had to master the IB, ToK  and varsity rugby, and do all of this in a second language. And in all of these things, he experienced challenge, and triumph and transformation.  He is no longer the same boy he was just 2 years ago.

Philippe won’t describe himself as a hero, but he is a part of the heroic tradition. And in that tradition, he told us his story, his story of perseverance. I’ll end by sharing one of Joseph Campbell’s favourite myths, the story of the Golden Buddha. The story goes like this:

Many years ago in Thailand, there was a temple called the Temple of the Golden Buddha. And in that temple was a magnificent statue of a Golden Buddha. One day, word came that an army from another country was about to invade. So the villagers came up with a plan: they covered the golden Buddha with stone and concrete, so that it looked like an ordinary stone Buddha. When the army arrived, they thought it had no value in it, and so they never bothered to steal it.

Many years later, there came a time when the no one in the village remembered that the Buddha was actually golden. Until one day a young monk was meditating next to the Buddha, when a piece of concrete fell off. The monk immediately realized it was gold, and he ran and told everyone in the village. Everyone came out with tools, and they were thrilled to unearth The Golden Buddha.

What is Joseph Campbell teaching us? That we are golden by nature. We recognize the gold in little kids; they are playful and at peace. But when they get older, we send them to school, and we teach them how they are supposed to dress, and what they are supposed to think, and how they are supposed to act, and with whom they are suppose to play. We tell them, in our case, what it means to be a boy, about what kind of man we expect them to become, and how they are expected to write and speak and while you’re at it,  don’t forget to get your permission forms and your agenda signed.

This is all well and good, of course, but you could also argue that we are unintentionally putting plaster over gold, and the real danger is that by the time you are in high school, you may only see yourself as a Stone Buddha. But you are not. You are of gold.

Speaking of gold, let me end this morning with a clip from last Friday’s celebration in Laidlaw Hall. (Please roll clip of the students’ reaction.) What is so interesting in these kinds of moments is that we have a few hundred people in a school auditorium,  thousands of miles away from a hunk of ice upon which men use pieces of fiberglass to smack around a hard piece of rubber. What’s amazing is the connection between those heroic hockey players in Sochi and the high school boys in Toronto. For just a split second, you are one. That wonderful, euphoric connection is the same sense you get, when you see the hero in any story, whether it’s Erin Brockovich, Batman, or George Bailey. They all whisper, “You can be more, too.”

From Russia With Love

February 22, 2014

or “What Would Moose and Skvirrel Do About This?”

Editor’s note: In June of 2010 a  Russian couple, who had lived for years as husband and wife in the USA, were arrested on charges of espionage by American authorities. (Their American neighbours had thought they were Irish!) Canada’s success in olympic hockey this week brought back this memory.

July 2, 2010

Golly willickers, was I floored when I learned that our next door neighbours, the Murphy’s, were Russian spies!

Sure, it took some time to get used to Boris and Natasha and their daughter Ludmeela. I was initially put off by the three of them wearing, “We Hate Sid the Kid” t-shirts,  (They had them in a just about every colour imaginable!) but hey, I assumed they were just Capitals’ fans.

Even though Boris wasn’t always the most lucid speaker,  (I think he told me he was from Belfast), I could certainly understand him when he’d say, “Oveeechkin, heek is zee bezzzt in zee hockey, no?”

Now that I think about it, there were some subtle clues we may have missed. You don’t see that many bumper stickers here in Peoria, Illinois sporting, “Have you Kissed a KGB Agent Today? “ and few Midwesterners  name their dogs “Trostsky.” But, hey, it takes all kinds, right?

Things often make more sense in hindsight, I guess. I remember once, when they invited us over for their weekly Thursday night “Sardines and Smirnoff,” things got a little tense. I didn’t think they  would mind if I turned on the TV  to watch “24” but that was a mistake. It all started when Jack Baur was interrogating a character whose accent, now that I think about it, reminded me a bit of Boris’. (I assumed the actor was Irish, though he didn’t sound much like Liam Neeson.)

Anyway, when ol’ Jack went “Rumsfeld” and jabbed a rusty knife into the knee of that bad guy, I screamed with delight. I could tell right away, though, that the Murphy’s didn’t share my enthusiasm.  Ludmeela started crying and Boris kicked over the Smirnoff  bottle before ordering us out,”in the name of Yuri Andropov!” (Was Yuri one of those three Irish tenors? Man, those boys can sing!). Well, that sure put a damper on things.

Natasha tried to explain things later  by saying, “Eeek vas haveeenk a vad day at zee work. Please forgeeeve heem.”

Things only got worse during the Olympics. I remember that when I asked Boris if he was cheering for the Americans or the Canadians in the hockey final, he muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “Poutine will feex all of zeez in a four years. “  I thought it strange that he had so much faith in a delicacy made up of French fries, cheese, and gravy, but hey, we’ve all got to believe in something, right?

Sir John and Basil Fawlty

February 13, 2014

Good morning and welcome to our annual Founders Day Assembly.

Let me begin with a confession: When I first landed here a decade ago, having absolutely no understanding of Canadian history (I didn’t even know who had ACTUALLY won the War of 1812!) let alone the history of this wonderful school, I remember looking up at the portrait that dominates Laidlaw Hall and thinking, “Wow! I’ve never seen George Washington in red before.”

Forgive me! It was only later that I could begin to fully appreciate just how offensive such ignorance might have been to Lord Seaton. To compensate for this shortcoming, I threw myself into a book called “Colborne’s Legacy,” written by former Prep Headmaster, Richard Howard, and there I discovered 5 things every UCC boy should know about our founder.

1. It’s worth knowing what Colborne was not. He was not an educator or a politician, and he wasn’t a part of — or even a particular friend of — the Family Compact, the Tory group that led Upper Canada from 1812 to 1840. (It’s worth noting that the family compact’s spiritual leader was a man named Bishop Strachan.) Colborne was, though, a stunningly courageous military man who was wise enough to start a school and never foolish enough to run it. As a military man, he knew the value of delegating!

2. On this point: Colborne hired the first principal, an Anglican minister from England named James Harris,  (You can see his dashing portrait right above that of Mr. Blakey’s) who led the school for 8 years. Here’s a little UCC/ TV trivia: when Harris retired, he like Colborne himself, moved to a part of England called Torquay — which happens to be the setting of my favourite British comedy, “Fawlty Towers,” which revolves around the misadventures of an utterly pretentious and completely inept hotel owner named Basil Fawlty. (There are days when I wonder if there is some sort of mysterious connection between Basil and me. If you ever catch me muttering, “Don’t mention the war!” under my breath– I hope you’ll understand.) By the way, when Reverend Harris retired, he did so by announcing that, “The labors of the present situation were too onerous to be relinquished with regret.” Reverend Harris was 38 at the time.

3. As great as UCC’s aspirations have been, it has never been nirvana; it had personnel challenges right from the start. Members of the Classics Department, Misters Phillips, Matthews and Boulton, questioned Colborne about their relationship with the principal. They were unhappy because they believed they had been hired to be Reverend Harris’ colleagues. Instead Harris had ended up treating them as “assistants or ushers.” This may explain why Harris retired at 38.

4. Colborne was a headstrong and  thoroughly non-collegial leader. No slave to process, at one point without consulting anyone, he actually suspended the school charter, an act that completely dumbfounded the Family Compact members, especially Bishop Strachan.  At one point William Lyon Mackenzie actually drew up Articles of Impeachment against Colborne for his conduct of the college. Howard points out that, “UCC was brought to life, not by a committee or a consensus of the best and brightest, but springing like Athene (the goddess of heroic endeavor) out of the head of one decisive, strong-willed, arrogant man, who was not very knowledgeable about either education or the environment in which he was operating.”  (There are days when I find both great inspiration and great solace in those words!)

5.  Colborne deliberately set the tuition fees as $8 for day students and $25 for boarders in an attempt to have the school be as accessible as possible, and yet despite that noble effort, the school had status right from its start. For one thing, it was a “college” and not just a school or an academy; it was almost a university, and for another, it had a principal, not just a headmaster. Howard writes that, “From the day it opened, the School reflected the image of exclusiveness, an image which it never lost.”

I remember a Grade 12 boy’s once telling me, “I know people perceive us as arrogant, but no matter what we do, I think UCC boys will always be seen under the shadow of the clock tower.”

(A personal aside: the summer I moved to Toronto, I bumped into an American who had been living in Canada for some time, and he offered me this advice, “You think you are moving to Andover or Deerfield or some place like that. But it’s different up here.  The boy from Andover may go to California for college and end up working in Oklahoma City before settling in Cincinnati or some place where nobody knows anything about where he went to high school. On the other hand UCC boys, some of them may go abroad for a time, but the great majority of them are going to live in one of 3 Canadian cities, and where they went to high school will matter for the rest of their lives.”)

That stranger was right. This school matters. A great deal. And I think that its founder would like that. He might also like the fact that nearly two centuries after he founded this institution, we still reflect the personality of one decisive, confident, strong-willed man, a man who was willing to take funds that the Crown had originally designated for the future University of Toronto, and was willing to use them to create his school, his Upper Canada College.

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright…

February 9, 2014

My friend Pat has a knack for pushing other people’s buttons. There is nothing he enjoys more than throwing a  verbal  firecracker or two into a room full of people– just to see how they’ll react.

Something tells me that Amy Chua is a bit like Pat. The author of  “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” is at it again, and this time she teams up with her husband, fellow Yale Professor, Jed Rubenfeld in writing “The Triple Package: How 3 Unlikely Traits Explain Success in America.”

The 3 traits are

1.A sense of exceptionality, the belief that “I am special.”

2.A sense of insecurity; the feeling that you haven’t quite done enough; that you need to do more to prove yourself.

3. A sense of self-discipline; the ability to resist temptation.

The authors are quick to point out that they are not criticizing the alleged shortcomings of any particular ethnic, religious or racial group; instead, they want to emphasize the important and yet too often overlooked connection between culture and success. (An aside: A good number UCC Old Boys have quietly admitted to possessing the first two traits, even though these characteristics seem to contradict one another. How is it that an individual can feel he is both exceptional and inadequate?)

Chua and Rubenfeld point out that Cuban Americans and Mormons, to name just two groups, experience this same sense of paradox. Both see themselves as islands of morality, a chosen people; while at the same time, both groups feel marginalized by mainstream culture. And it is this sense of being the “outsider” that directly contributes to their drive to succeed.

All of us would like our kids to have a healthy sense of self, while possessing tenacity and self-discipline. That being said, I am uneasy when it comes to talking about “group success.” The authors makes it too easy for us to look down on those who currently cling to a low rung on the economic ladder, and the they gloss over other variables that contribute to success. For example, one critic has pointed out that the US government made low interest loans readily available to Cuban immigrants, while making no such program available to any other Latino immigrants. (Take that, Fidel!)

If nothing else, though, Chua and Rubenfeld leave us with some interesting observations:

*  3rd generation Asian American students are no different than other American students in terms of academic performance. This suggests that the “Asian advantage” is cultural rather than biological in origin.

*2nd generation Holocaust survivors grew up under incredible stress, and they turned out to be a remarkably successful group. Chua argues that this stems from a combination of  tremendously high expectations  and enormous impulse control. “These children didn’t want to disturb parents, and they did need to succeed for all the others who never had a chance.”

Two Boxes

January 21, 2014

It was just a typical conversation with a stranger. We found ourselves in a university’s rectangular admissions office, two middle age dads’ making small talk, as we waited for our sons to return from a campus tour.

When asked,  “Do you have any other kids?” the stranger grew suddenly silent. He took a long, slow sip of coffee.

“I’m not really sure how to answer that question.” He paused again before continuing. “I had another boy, but something happened with social media, and he got blamed for something he didn’t do. He was in a box, and he couldn’t find a way out…”

His voice trailed off, and he began to stare intently at his coffee. He quietly swirled the Styrofoam cup in his hand.

The quiet continued, and the stranger blinked several times, before turning to look out a window. When he turned back, he seemed suddenly renewed.

“It’s a beautiful college, don’t you think?”

“Yes, yes, it is,” he said, “but I prefer Dartmouth. You see, they have a lake.”

The 4th Box

January 7, 2014

If you’ve ever played “rock, paper, scissors,” you know that the moral order of the universe has ordained that rock takes scissors, scissors take paper, and paper takes rock. In his latest book, “David and Goliath” Malcom Gladwell points out there is military parallel to rock, paper, scissors, and it goes something like this: heavy infantry (foot soldiers) beats cavalry (soldiers on horseback); cavalry beats artillery (slingers and archers) and artillery beats heavy infantry.

Gladwell theorizes that David’s defeating the giant Goliath in battle, while considered the ultimate upset, surpassing perhaps even the Bruins’ 3 goal comeback against the Leafs last year in the playoffs, (sorry, that was a low blow!) was a case of archer (or “slingshot” in this particular case) beating foot soldier.  Gladwell’s point is that the little guy can beat the big guy – he can overcome great adversity –if he thinks differently.

A few years ago I heard Gladwell talk about a similar theme, when he suggested that we should think of life in terms of four boxes:

First, there is the box of advantage that is a true advantage. For example, you happen to be born into a loving family that really values education. Your folks are able to send you to UCC, where you get to spend time with me. Talk about advantage. Lucky you!

Second, there is the box of advantage that turns out to be a disadvantage.  This might be that you are born into an extraordinarily wealthy family, but you are so indulged that you never develop a work ethic, and you end up leading a life of hedonistic purposelessness.  I’m told that the 2 scariest words for affluent parents are “Paris Hilton.” (An aside: You may have read about the 16 year-old North Carolina boy who was convicted last month of killing 4 people in a drunk driving incident but was given a suspended sentence because the judge saw him as a victim of “affluenza.” Egad!)

Third, there is the box of disadvantage that is just that. You are poor and receive an inadequate education, which seriously handicaps you for the rest of your life.

The most interesting box, though, is the fourth box, the one that is the disadvantage that turns out to be an advantage. Can you think of anything in your own life that appears to be a disadvantage but may actually turn out to be an asset? (Those of you in Year 2 now reading “The Odyssey” may know that the entire Homeric tradition is based on this.)

I can think of two examples from my own less than Homeric existence. First, during the summer before Grade 10, I broke my thumb playing baseball. Because I was going stir crazy, my mother, in an attempt to get me out of the house (and perhaps out of myself!) signed me up for a typing course. When school started in September, the editor of the school paper, a guy who couldn’t type, discovered that I could, and made me the copy editor. That sparked an interest in both the news and in writing that has enriched my life.

A second example is a bit more personal, so forgive me if I go Oprah on you for a minute: My father was an alcoholic and because of this, I have attended quite a few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. AA’s program is built on the 12 steps and slogans, one of which is “one day at a time.”

The thinking behind this is simple: Alcoholics never get cured. They always have within them the desire to pick up a drink. Since the idea of never ever having a drink again can be overwhelming for someone with a compulsion for alcohol, AA focuses on staying sober “just for today.” The take-away is that, in almost any situation, all you need to do is figure out what you can and should do for just the next 24 hours. And just take care of that.

It is worth noting that the 4th box has had a profound effect on some inspirational political figures. Lincoln went bankrupt, had a nervous break down, and endured the death of two sons. FDR got polio and spent most of his life in a wheelchair. Bill Clinton’s father was killed in a car crash before he was born, and the future president was raised by an alcoholic stepfather who was physically and emotionally abusive.

These are not just isolated incidences; there may be something akin to cause-effect relationship with some 4th boxes. Think for a minute about Barack Obama’s 4th box: He was a bi-racial boy abandoned by his father. Not exactly what most would consider a recipe for stardom. But what does he do? He writes a best selling book about the search for his father (You could consider Obama a modern day Telemachus!), and in the process gets himself elected president. Not bad for a student who had to live with his grandparents, while he attended Punahoe School on financial assistance.  All of this happened because of his extraordinary mom and his ability to take disadvantage and make it an advantage.

I mention the 4th box today, because as 2014 starts, you are going to face your own 4th box. If this morning, for example, you are discouraged when you see the results from your first semester exams, or if you are overwhelmed when you hear about the amount of work you are expected to do this term, take a deep breath. Do not panic. Do not give in to anxiety; that “one day at a time” philosophy that has helped addicts and alcoholics stay sober, can help the rest of us live more manageable, and perhaps even serene lives.

So my New Year’s take-away is this: The next time you encounter some hardship, something that appears intimidating or insurmountable, ask yourself this question: Is this Box 3 or Box 4? The answer may depend on your attitude and your willingness to persevere. Remember the adage that “Perseverance is the hard work you do, after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” And it might help to keep your sling shot handy because paper always beats rock.


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