You may have heard the story about Joe, the guy who lost his keys in the middle of the night. After spending hours looking under a lamppost, a friend happens by who asks, “Where did you actually lose your keys?” Joe responds by saying, “I lost them a mile or so down the road, but I’m looking for them here because the light is so much better.”
Ok. I didn’t say it was a good story, but it does reveal an important truth: We seldom like to look in the dark.
I thought of that story recently after a meeting with a group of very conscientious parents. (An aside: I meet with parents, by grade level, every other Friday for an “agenda free, whatever’s on your mind, shoot from the hip, don’t quote me on this”, informal gathering. I’ve been doing this for a decade, and the sessions are usually a lot of fun. Over the last couple of years, though, the meetings have grown more serious, in part because we seem to devote more and more time to one particular topic, assessment. It comes up every single meeting. Last Friday, for instance, almost every parent question had something to do with our grading system; how we determine academic honours; why we include art, music, and physical education in our calculations; how Canadian and American university admissions offices view transcripts; and whether or not we should continue to post academic awards. Last Friday’s parents had boys in Grade 5).
I don’t want to sound critical of these folks. In fact, I can’t blame them for being anxious, (in many ways we are responsible for this state of affairs) and I applaud their interest in their sons’ academic well being. But let’s face it: academic scores are clearly an “under the lamppost” issue. Grades are completely visible; we can see how you are doing in math, French, and English. What we can’t accurately determine, though, are the more important questions, questions such as: How do you deal with adversity? Do you demonstrate courage in the clutch? And what’s most important: What kind of guy are you becoming?
The author, David Brooks, takes the light versus darkness image one step farther by suggesting that we might think of our lives in terms of “resumes” and “eulogies.” The resume virtues are what those conscientious Grade 5 parents were asking about; they are the qualities that will get you into Queens or Cornell. The eulogy virtues are, by contrast, the ones that might get you into heaven. “These are the qualities that will be talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful.” These are all related to character.
How do you teach character? Boston University’s Kevin Ryan tries to shed a little light on this dark and often mysterious area by saying that we should think about character development in terms of “The 4 E’s.”
The first “E” is expectations. Adults need to make it clear what we want from you in terms of your behaviour, and this goes far beyond dress code. It has to do with how you act when nobody is looking. It assumes that you are the same guy Friday night at the Palais Royale that you are Monday morning in Laidlaw Hall.
The second “E” is exhortation; it’s a thoroughly old fashion word that might conjure up images of Teddy Roosevelt, but it means grabbing the bully pulpit in order to encourage others to aim high. When IB2 boys offer their “This I Believe” speeches, they are often doing exactly this, as they encourage and inspire all of us to do more and to be more.
The third “E” is experience. You won’t live in a desert or a monastery. You are a part of a busy, connected, adrenalin soaked and saturated world. Character isn’t emoted in isolation. It doesn’t spring from a test tube. It’s your engagement with others in these fluid experiences – it’s your thousand interactions and conversations a week – which actually forge your character.
The fourth and final “E” is by far the most daunting: It’s example. Values are caught more than they are taught. I don’t care what his IB score looks like, but the kid with the shakiest transcript can smell it when an adult is insincere. High school boys, in particular, seem to have a gift for this sort of thing; they have an antenna for almost any sort of posturing. If an adult acts one way to someone in a blue shirt downstairs in the basement and another way with someone in a white shirt in an administrative corner office, kids immediately pick up on this double standard. But this hypocrisy test cuts both ways. It’s one of the reasons why so often just a handful of boys in Grade 12 can have a profound impact on a school year. It’s because those guys have such a significant influence on the younger boys.
By the way, I spend a lot of time with Old Boys, and almost every one of them can rattle off from memory the names of a dozen guys who were a year or two ahead of them in high school half a century ago. Almost no one, though, remembers boys who were so much as a year younger; it’s as if adolescent males go through high school with their chins tilted up, always looking at those who are slightly and yet so impressively ahead of them. Nobody seems to use the rear view mirror at 16. So for those of you in Grades 11 and 12, know that the youthful eyes of Blues Nation are forever upon you, and like it or not, this actually presents a great leadership opportunity for all of you.
It is a truism that what gets measured, gets valued, and in the case of schools, especially IB schools like UCC, that means grades are extraordinarily well illuminated. By the way, I don’t want to minimize your academic accomplishments, but I have to tell you that, when I talk to old boys who struggle in university and beyond, it’s almost never because their French accent isn’t good enough, or a result of their inability to solve equations with 3 or more variables. I can’t remember the last time I heard about an alumnus whose struggles were purely academic in nature. Most of our old boys do very, very well, but when they do hit an occasional wall, it’s almost always something related to social emotional development, maturity, decision-making, or mental health.
Let me end this morning by going back to the beginning, to the story about Joe. If we really want to help you find and become your best selves, we have to figure out a way to help you move beyond the light of a lamppost and out into the darkness. Because –as Joe knew all along — that’s actually where the keys are.