“I Can’t Breathe”

December 9, 2014

During the 1996 North Carolina senate race between incumbent Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt, the first African American mayor of Charlotte, Gantt called on his state’s most famous resident to help him with his campaign. Michael Jordan declined, famously saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

I thought of Jordan’s apolitical response, when I read about Derrick Rose and LeBron James’ wearing, “I Can’t Breathe” warm-up shirts last night, in memory of Eric Garner, who was recently choked to death by Staten Island police. (Garner’s “crime” of selling single cigarettes hardly required the heated attention of 4 police officers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

There are two truths behind this story. Yes, the police have an extraordinarily difficult job, and the great majority of them deserve our respect and gratitude because they perform their duties with courage and grace. But as recent news stories have highlighted, there are times when some police officers are overly aggressive in their use of excessive force, particularly when dealing with African American males.

In honouring Eric Garner, Rose and James are deliberately violating the NBA’s uniform code, and I applaud them for doing this. But rather than place Commissioner Adam Silver in a difficult position (Does he fine the NBA’s two biggest stars for an act of conscience, and therefore, spark yet another backlash a la Donald Sterling?), I would ask the two stars to take one more step.

I would encourage Lebron and Derrick to donate the money they would be fined to a cause that directly addresses some of the underlying issues currently plaguing the inner city poor. Perhaps Adam Silver would match his athletes and send those dollars to an organization like “My Brother’s Keeper.” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper) After all, as hoop fans are so continually reminded, the “NBA Cares,” right?

A gesture like this  might be an even better way to keep the memory of Eric Garner alive. And who knows? It might even inspire a certain North Carolinian to do something with all the money he has made over the years, selling sneakers to Democrats and Republicans.


A Song, A Protest, and a Betrayal

November 24, 2014

I was rummaging through the psychic sock drawer this morning and stumbled upon 3 disconnected items:

First, I want to express my gratitude to the many Maple Leaf fans who came through in the clutch last week. When a technical problem knocked out the Air Canada Centre’s microphone during the singing of the U.S. national anthem, Toronto fans picked right up where the singer left off and finished the extraordinarily difficult to sing “Star Spangled Banner” – without musical accompaniment. On behalf of 330 million countrymen and women, let me say thank you for a very graceful gesture!

Sock Two: You may remember that at an assembly last month, Kinton Cheung gave an impassioned speech in support of the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong. Afterwards a number of students and teachers came forward to don yellow ribbons to promote the democratic cause.

Last week I visited China and it’s not surprising that this topic came up in almost every conversation, but what was surprising was the reaction of our Chinese old boys, the vast majority of whom looked at this issue from an entirely different perspective.

Almost everyone believed that, while more direct representation might be a good thing, the occupy movement made five fundamental mistakes:

First, the students broke the law by occupying the streets without even applying for a permit. I’m not sure we in the West can ever properly appreciate how important the rule of order is for the Chinese, but even the thought of mob rule is extraordinarily disturbing in a country with 1.3 billion people.

Second, the protesters inconvenienced many people by disrupting Hong Kong’s extensive transportation system. As the protest has continued, support for the students has steadily diminished; the latest poll shows that most Hong Kong people want the protest to end immediately. (And most of our old boys are convinced the occupy movement will end within a month.)

Third, because of the traffic disruption, businesses have been cut off from their customers, and as a result, many small business owners are now close to bankruptcy, an eventuality that apparently has not caused the student-protesters to lose much sleep.

One old boy pointed out that the students don’t appreciate the fact that they have more freedom in Hong Kong than do citizens in any other part of China. “The fact that the Hong Kong protesters expect so much more for themselves irks me” he said, “and reinforces the belief that the protesters are out of touch.”

A number of parents and old boys pointed with pride to the fact that that the government has, for the most part, shown restraint throughout this ordeal; they believe Beijing learned an important lesson at Tiananmen Square in 1989. They also think the people of Taiwan and Tibet are closely monitoring how the government deals with all of this, because it is entirely possible that someday in the not-too-distant future, the Tibetans and the Taiwanees may find themselves in a similar situation.

I took a couple of photos of “Occupy Central,” and like most visitors, I was struck by how organized and orderly the protesters were. This looks more like a Mountain Equipment Co-op than your typical Times Square protest.

China 1 China 2

Sock Three: You may have seen the beyond disturbing reports in the news last week about Bill Cosby. A number of women have recently come forward to accuse the 77 year-old icon of being a serial rapist. When I first read this, I was just gob-smocked. I still can’t quite come to grips with this because, if you had asked me to give you an example of a good father, a good husband, and a good man, I would have given you Dr. Bill Cosby, aka Dr. Huxtable.

But that, it turns out, was my mistake because Bill Cosby was not at all the wise, caring, and compassionate Dr. Huxtable.

Like a lot of folks my age, I feel more than let down. Maybe it’s because I’m from Philadelphia, Cosby’s hometown, and went to high school in North Philly, right down the street from Temple University, his alma mater, where he serves on the Board of Trustees. This time it all feels more personal. It’s worse than when Woody Alan broke the “creep-o-meter” index by marrying his adopted daughter. Woody and Bill both made us laugh, but Cosby was the comedian we all trusted.

In a strange way, Cosby’s sin is more disturbing than the infidelities of presidents and preachers.  That’s because “The Cosby Show” was all about goodness. It was about a dad’s helping his adolescent kids come of age in an almost too good to be true family, in an almost too good to be true post racial setting.

I’m not quite sure what the Canadian equivalent of this would be for you. Would it be finding out that Peter Mansbridge was coke-head or discovering 30 years after his career ended, that Gretzky had been on steroids? Whatever it is, it’s not good for the soul, this kind of disappointment. It can leave you cynical, and that’s not good for any of us.

What makes it all the worse is the fact that so many women did not feel they could even come forward for so many years – because Bill Cosby was such a cultural icon.

If there are lessons to be learned, perhaps they are two: One, we shouldn’t confuse the artist with the art. The fact that you are good at something, even family sit-coms, does not necessarily mean you are good. There is, after all, a profound difference between the dancer and the dance.

And second, the Cosby case shows us just how much more work we need to do in order to create a more equal society, one where the powerful don’t overwhelm and intimidate those with less social or financial standing. We all need to work to create a society where women are on equal footing with men, a society where the weakest among us can stand up to injustice, even when that injustice is committed by a popular, powerful man sporting a smile and a funky sweater.

A Soldier’s Story

November 12, 2014

The Old Boy, a World War 2 veteran, leaned heavily on his cane, as he sipped a coffee a few minutes before the Remembrance Day service.

“A lot has happened to me since last November. Since the operation, I’m now lugging this around (he pointed to his portable oxygen tank), and my wife and I had to move into a retirement home. We sold our house and everything, and now we’re living in just two rooms. It’s a little tight. I can handle it, of course. After all, I was in the army and got used to living in close quarters. But my wife, well, she has alzheimer’s, and the lack of space is hard on her…

But today, being here with the others, it all comes back to me. Why I remember one of my first nights in Europe. It was 2 am when I discovered that I was 3 miles behind enemy lines! You asked what I learned from the experience, well, that’s easy. I learned how to read a map!”

Veritas: Or What I Learned About Human Nature at Dunkin Donuts

October 21, 2014

I was in Boston this weekend for the Head of the Charles Regatta, and because we have a relationship with Harvard, our fans had the chance to watch the race from their boathouse. If you’ve ever been to Harvard, you cannot help but notice its motto “Veritas,”  (“truth” in Latin); it is visible all over campus. While “Veritas” may lack the commanding imperative of “Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat,” it does possess an intriguing simplicity.

You can’t help but ask yourself, “What is the ‘truth’ that Harvard’s founders so intentionally wanted us to consider?” I believe it starts with understanding the truth about human nature, and this morning I want to talk about that nature by looking at 2 incidents, 2 very human moments, which revealed something about our nature to me just yesterday, when I was in the land of “Veritas.”

As is want to happen from time to time, I found myself reading a newspaper at a coffee shop, (not to name drop but it was a “Dunkin Donuts”) where I stumbled upon an article about Novgorod, a city in Russia that was built upon what scientists call “magical mud.” The ground in this part of Russia has almost no oxygen, and as a result, the soil acts as a natural preservative.  Novgorod is Russia’s Pompeii, if you will, and scientists there have discovered thousands of artifacts, including letters from the 13th century, letters which were actually carved into birch bark. (Talk about the need to choose your words wisely!)

One letter, which was written from a father, named Onus, to his son, Danillo, says, “Send me a shirt, towel, and trousers…” and as if to inject a little dark, dark ages humour, Onus ends his note by saying, “and if I am alive, I will pay you.”

Another birch bark epistle is something of a love poem. Mikita writes to Anna, “Marry me. I want you, and you me.” Ok. Ok. It’s not exactly Wordsworth or Keats but remember the author didn’t have Christian Mingles.com, so poor Mikita had to find God’s match for him using  only a chunk of wood!

But the letters that grabbed my attention were written in the year 1260 by a 6 year-old boy named Onfim.  Some of these include Onfim’s school-work. It turns out he was a doodler! Onfim left us a number of drawings; in one he pictures himself riding triumphantly as a warrior on horseback. In another, he features a four-legged animal with a tail, and under it, Onfim wrote, and I love this, he wrote, “I, beast.”

Those two words took my breath away. Think about that for just a second. A 6 year-old boy, a boy the age of our Grade 1 lads, muses about himself or ponders some image of himself 754 years ago, and he expresses his dreams in one word: “beast”. From an echo lasting almost 8 centuries, this is EXACTLY the same word I heard on the sidelines of last Friday night’s football game, after a particularly violent hit under the lights. “That guy’s a beast!”  And what’s amazing about all of this is that Onfim didn’t have Netflix. He never had the pleasure of seeing  “Bravehart.” In fact, he never viewed so much as a single Underarmor ad. Without ever hearing anything from the muses of Madison Avenue, Onfim wanted to “protect his house”. He wanted to be a beast.

We share something of Onfim’s nature. We want to excel in some way, to stand out, to triumph. Who hasn’t had a heroic daydream or two — since breakfast? And we want to be able to point to our own triumphant beastliness in some way.  Did you ever notice how athletes celebrate after moments of success? Take a look at the Youtube of Chris Amoah’s first touchdown run for Laval. Even fans get into the act. While we ourselves may not draw animal images on birch bark, or pound our chests in delight, think about the guttural sounds and the booming cheers of our Blue Army on the sidelines Friday night. Do you see a connection, you beasts?

(By the way, as an aside: Imagine how tough it was taking the IB’s “Language and Literature” course in the 1200’s. Can you imagine what it would be like to do multiple re-writes on birch wood? “But, sir, my rock’s not sharp any more!”)

As I was thinking about my friend Onfim, I  happened to glance out the window in time to notice as a young woman wearing a red Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt walked over and gave a homeless woman the bagel she had just purchased. The Wisconsin fan had been in line in front of me just moments before, and she had either come in to Dunkin Donuts in order to purchase a bagel for the stranger or, after buying a bagel for herself, she then noticed the woman in need as she walked out of the store.

I can’t quite figure out which is the more altruistic scenario, but it struck me that a part of our nature involves compassion.  There is something in our nature that makes us instinctively respond to others when they are in need, even when those others are complete strangers. That Badger fan didn’t do it for a prize or a point or even for the Duke of Ed; she simply responded to what she saw. It is the same altruistic impulse that led my friend, an infectious disease doctor named Tim Flanigan, to leave his family and friends this fall to volunteer in Liberia. Isn’t it telling, in a way, that we call this kind of service “humanitarian”? It is literally of us, and on our better days, this impulse defines us.

There are lots of other layers of reality within human nature, but I think that Onfim and the woman from Wisconsin speak to two truths, truths that are occasionally in tension with one another. One focuses on the push for individual success, while the other impels us to connect with the wider community.  Like Onfim, we yearn to  distinguish ourselves. And like that anonymous college student, we are compelled to respond to others.

A month ago I talked to you about  “excellent sheep” and William Deresiewicz‘s criticism of approval-addicted “Hypsters.” What I learned in a Cambridge Dunkin Donuts makes me think that the “veritas” of human nature is that, when we follow what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”, we’re not so much dutiful sheep as we are compassionate beasts. I hope our old pal Onfim would approve.

Two Tips for University Students

October 16, 2014

Former NAIS president Pat Bassett offers two pieces of advice for students’ heading off to university

1.  What is most important is that you sit in the front row, especially in larger lecture hall classrooms. That and going up to talk to your professor after class are the best ways you can develop a relationship with your instructor. Understand that that relationship is vital when it comes to finding possible mentors and internships.

2.  Develop the habit of working in study groups. Be the one to create a study group, so you get into the habit of learning from one another.


Make a difference

October 9, 2014

Young Faces of Philanthropy

We’re all grateful when we hear about big donors making big gifts to big causes. But there’s a new trend in charitable giving, as young folks are making their own philanthropic impact.

The “We Day” initiative, and our own youngest leadership donor Taylor Harris ’09, who has donated $250,000 to financial assistance, are just two of the most recent examples of this inspiring trend, as the face of philanthropy becomes younger and younger, turning the notion of a self-obsessed generation on its head.

In the ad above UCC has joined forces with other leading non-profits – such as the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), Free the Children, Evergreen, Right to Play, and The Hospital for Sick Children – to showcase other examples of this growing movement. (A full-page version of the ad appears in the front section of today’s Globe and Mail.)

As Thanksgiving approaches, this seems like the perfect time to salute and celebrate this new generation of difference makers!

Doug Flutie and me

September 29, 2014

Russell Baker claims we should never let a “slavish adherence to truth ruin a good story,” but I want you to know this story is true.

My brother-in-law, John, holds a special, somewhat elevated status in our extended family for two important reasons. First, he is a medical professional, and as a result, he is respectfully referred to as the family’s “real doctor” – as opposed to another, somewhat less elevated family member who is known, affectionately I am sure, as the “phony doctor.” (I often tell folks that I, too, receive phone calls at 2 am, when people are desperately trying to deal with the dangers of a dangling participle. (“Don’t touch that comma; I’ll be right over!”) But so far, at least, this line of reasoning hasn’t affected my social standing.

The other, much more important reason for John’s prominence, is his claim that, during his student days at Boston College, he once played a game of “Monopoly” with a then unknown freshman by the name of Doug Flutie. Since there are no pictures of this event, however, I am compelled to give John only partial credit for this claim. And having an endless supply of “Flutie Flakes” in his cupboard can still not substantiate his allegedly  “going Boardwalk” with #22.

(A quick aside: The last time I went to a musical with some friends, we saw “Mama Mia” – which probably says a lot more about the joys of mid-life than I care to consider. During the intermission, a chum — who is even less theatrically sophisticated than I—foolishly told his wife that he was not a fan of Abba’s. His wife’s immediate retort was, “There are only 2 kinds of people: those who love Abba, and those who simply pretend they don’t love Abba.”)

I feel that way about Doug Flutie, who retired from football after 24 years of proving the critics wrong. You must either love Doug Flutie or simply pretend you don’t pull for him because, deep down, nobody has played a better David to the Goliaths of the USFL, CFL, or NFL than Doug Flutie.

Doug did a lot of amazing things on the gridiron, but he is best remembered for one particular play:


Forgive me for this one, but I just have to tell you my own Doug Flutie story.

Three decades ago, I was a graduate student at Boston College, which by the way, is not in Boston and is not a college. But for some reason, my suggestion to rename it  “The Just Outside of Boston University” has not received much support to date. I remain optimistic. But I digress.

In between classes one afternoon, I wandered over to the athletic complex to play basketball. For some strange reason, perhaps it was destiny, I was the only person in the entire complex until 8 of the largest human beings I have ever seen, walked in from the weight room, along with one significantly smaller student.

It turned out, that this was the offensive unit from Boston College’s then nationally ranked (#4) football team.  Because there were 9 of them, they waited around for a while, in the hope that someone with a bit more athletic promise might eventually appear. When he or she didn’t, they eventually and reluctantly invited me to join them for a game.

When they finally asked, I replied, “Let-me-think-about-it-YES!” before spending the next hour running up and down the hardwood with my new best friend, Doug Flutie.

I’d like to tell you that I fit right in. That Doug called my play. That we did a lot of high-low, give and go, take it to the rim and ”show me the love” kind of thing together. I wish I could tell you that I vividly recall my new best friend’s saying, “If we want to win this game, we have to put the ball in Power’s hands, and then clear out, so that he can operate.”

But I can’t. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure if I even touched the ball that entire afternoon. But that was ok. I was happy just to run baseline to baseline with my new best friend, Doug Flutie.

Three decades later, I have 2 memories from that magical afternoon.

First, Doug had the hairiest hands I had ever seen. He was a complete bear, even at 5 foot 8.

Second, I was struck by the fact that when the other guys addressed my new-found best friend, they’d yell,  “Flutes!” I confess that I tried to follow their example with this, but it wouldn’t work. I, too, wanted to assume familiarity, but when I tried to call out, “Flutes,” the proper noun caught in my throat. It felt disrespectful.

As I drifted up and down the court, I found myself wondering, if in the same spirit, Achilles’ friends had ever call out to him, “Hey, ‘Ack’, I’m open!” or “’A-dog’ hit me!” when they were playing  “Rockball” or “Attack the Goat” or whatever it was they played in between graduate school classes back during the Trojan War?

Today at UCC we talk a bit about imagination, innovation, passion, excellence, and compassion. I think Doug Flutie embodies all of these qualities. You may know, for example, that Doug started a foundation to help those dealing with autism, a condition affecting his own son.

It’s important to remember Flutie’s career, because you may hear the same kind of “you’re not good enough” messages he had to put up with early in his career. From time to time, people may tell you, “You’re not good enough in science to become a medical doctor.” Or “Your voice isn’t strong enough for you to be a lead in the musical.” Or “You don’t skate well enough to play at a high level.” I hope that, when you do hear these kinds of messages, you’ll take heart and remember a 5 foot 8 kid with hairy hands, who for over two decades did what he was told he couldn’t do.

Finally, I’d like to tell you that my “Me and Doug” story has had a profound impact on my social standing in the family.  Alas, it has not. I am still the erstwhile “Phony Doctor.”  But no matter.  My brother in law may have played “Monopoly” with an 18 year old freshman, but I enjoyed a magical afternoon of hoops with a guy who’d won the Heisman Trophy the week before, my friend “Flutes.”

Shake It Up: Success, Ray Rice, and Taylor Swift

September 15, 2014

A few years ago, after the Leafs won their first game of the season, a very happy friend of mine said, “You can’t win all 82 until you get that first one!” As it turned out, unfortunately, the Leafs did not reel off an 82 game winning streak, but for that one shining moment, after that glorious opening night at the ACC, my buddy had a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye.

I hope you are feeling that way now – even on a Monday morning. Now that you’ve got the first week of school under your belt, you may have made or renewed a friendship or two, and perhaps joined a club or team. The first big academic tests are still out there on the distant horizon; your notebooks are organized; your laptop is in good working order, and you’re starting to think that this will be a successful year for you. It’s that topic of success that I’d like to focus on this morning.

There has been a lot of research on success, but by far the most important study on the subject that I’ve ever come across was done by Professor Doug Heath of Haverford College. Heath conducted a longitudinal research project; he interviewed Haverford students/alumni when they were 21, 31, and 41 years of age in an effort to find out what are the traits or characteristics they possessed as students that actually correlated with success later in life? What makes his research interesting is that he defined success broadly; he didn’t just focus on financial success. He looked at a wide range of variables such as marital happiness, sense of community, engagement in the wider world, and a sense of purpose and well-being.

What he discovered may surprise you because he found there was a significant gender difference. According to Heath, the most successful women possess a high degree of autonomy and a strong sense of self. It’s no wonder that so many girls’ schools do a good job of focusing on these strengths; their marketing materials frequently show young women doing remarkable things, as they emphasize female empowerment.

According to Heath, though, successful men share a different set of traits. Happy, productive, engaged men have two things going for them: first, they have a surprisingly high degree of empathy. They understand the emotional state of others. Without getting cynical, think of Bill Clinton’s biting his lower lip and saying to a voter, “I feel your pain.” The second characteristic these men possess involves strong social skills.

Even in the animal world, zoologists have observed that it’s not the biggest or strongest baboon that is the most successful baboon in the zoo. (And because this is a “family rated” assembly, I’m not going to define how a zoologist actually defines “success”. Let’s just say it has very little to do with an IB score.) No, the most successful baboon is the one who is best at communicating and coalition building.

At this point, I hope you’re asking, “What does a ‘successful’ baboon (which I’d rather not think about after breakfast, thank you very much) have to do with me?” Let me answer that question with a question: If you buy Heath’s thesis, that your success will be a result of your being empathetic and possessing good social skills, ask yourself this: How am I learning empathy and sociability? Where are those qualities taught in schools?

Dough Heath, bless his soul, did more research on just that issue, and he discovered that, while you can learn about empathy and EQ in a classroom, those qualities are more easily learned and developed in after school programs. As a result, Heath would never call drama or swimming extra-curriculars; he sees them as cocurriculars because very often, some of life’s most important lessons are learned after 3 pm.

If you are still asking, “So what does any of this have to do with me?” the answer is simple. It’s the same message you will hear from almost every IB2 boy who speaks in Laidlaw Hall. It’s get involved. Get engaged. It actually doesn’t matter what you are doing: drama, dance, fencing or football. Be a part of a group. Work together to achieve something. Tackle stage directions or running backs or difficult symphonies by working together with others. Put on a show. Create a product. Overcome a challenge. Put a beat down on St. Mikes’. Win, lose, get frustrated, cry, celebrate. In the long run it’s not the outcome but the engagement itself that is important. Through the mysteriously churning cauldron of all these mixed human interactions, you will learn how another person thinks or sees things. All you have to do is participate and pay attention.

I’d summarize Doug Heath’s research by saying, the Lone Ranger rides no more. And your role models should be Don Kawasoe not Don Draper; James Weeks not James Bond; Bart Badali not Sylvester Stalone. Your success, our success depends upon our ability to understand others and to connect with them in meaningful ways.

I couldn’t, of course, let the moment pass without at least saying something about the ongoing Ray Rice saga. If you’ve been following this case of domestic violence, you’ll know that the original sin of Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner who cares so much about women’s health that he makes his players wear pink, was his giving Rice a perfunctory 2 game suspension for punching out his then fiancé in an elevator. It was only after a tape of the violence became available that Goodell saw things differently. It was his apparent inability to put himself in the victim’s shoes that made him think Rice should escape with just a slap on the wrists. That inability to understand the other is a key stumbling block for many men. I know it’s one I struggle with. It’s why we should all read “To Kill a Mockingbird” every summer.

Let me end this morning with a clip that Ms. Robertson sent me yesterday. It features a bunch of college guys lip-sincing a Taylor Swift song. I show this to you because, in a way, it suggests progress. Had I asked my university dorm mates to join me in lip sinking a Stevie Nicks’ song back in the 70’s, I’m pretty sure I’d be doing a solo. (We had fairly traditional definitions of masculinity back then.) This Youtube, which has already had over 2 million hits, suggests that some gender barriers may be changing, at least for some frat boys from Kentucky!


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!)




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.


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