A Toss and a Prayer

Almost every family has its own rituals. In my particular tribe, whether it was having a catch (or is it “playing” catch?) with my dad, or reading bedtime stories to my kids, I assumed that these regular occurrences would go on forever. When they did come to an end, I wasn’t at all aware of the change at the time; it was only later that I saw their finality in the rear view mirror.

When my dad chucked his beat up old Spalding, left-handed baseball glove in the front hall closet after our final long toss, I didn’t recognize that we had just had our last catch. Of course, we kept that glove in the closet, where we always kept it, for the sure-to-be next time. In the same way, one night many years later, after I finished reading aloud “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (or was it “Danny, Champion of the World”?), there is no way I would have thought, “That’s it, Aidan and Liam, you are on your own. From now on, you can read to yourselves!” No, I’m sure those books were plopped right there on the nightstand, where they always stayed. After all, there would always be another night, another book together.

This morning, by contrast, I am aware, profoundly aware, that this is the last time I’ll get to speak to you here in Laidlaw Hall. I think that this awareness, along with all the words of wisdom I’ve recently received from having attending 3 commencement exercises this spring, makes me want to offer some advice for the long-haul. So I hope you’ll indulge me, if I go Polonious on you for a few minutes.

(By the way, the one line from my own graduation that has actually stayed with me through the years came courtesy of the pundit George F. Will who said, “I believe in the State of Ohio 1895 Automobile View of History. That is, in the state of Ohio in the year 1895, there were 2 cars. And they crashed.” In other words, bad things are going to happen, so be prepared!)

There will, of course, be magical mornings in Muskoka and beautiful evenings on Bloor Street, but you don’t need any help from me on how to manage those moments. You’re on your own there! No, this morning I want to offer a word advice for when bad things happen. And unfortunately, they will. They happen to all of us. Even if you eat your vegetables, do sit-ups, and really learn the passé compose. No matter what you do, some day there is a good chance you will hear a boss say, “It’s time for you to find a new job.” Or a partner confess, “It’s not you it’s me.” Or a doctor mutter, “I need to give you some bad news.”

I call these moments “The Big Arbitrary” because, despite your most conscientious efforts, you cannot control them. I’ll come back to “The Big Arbitrary” in a minute, but before that, I want to tell you why I was really nervous about becoming the principal of UCC 12 years ago, and about how a word of advice from a friend made things better for me. I wasn’t anxious about moving to a new country or learning how to skate backwards. I wasn’t even worried about my French accent. C’est la vie! No, what made me queasy was the fact that a significant part of my job would involve fund raising, and while I am wildly, passionately, and over the top committed to financial aid, I had never ever asked anyone other than my parents for money. And the thought of doing this on a regular basis made me feel downright nauseous.

Fortunately for me, I had a colleague give me some great advice: Asking for money is the very last thing to think about; my job with advancement was really about getting to know people who could help the boys and help the school; and the best way to do that was to listen very closely, especially when they told stories.

I hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s true that everyone has a story, a tale that reveals something important about their coming of age; or about what made them who they are; or about how they survived a challenge or difficulty that might otherwise have overwhelmed them. You may not be aware of your own story just yet, but it’s there somewhere, perhaps still in the formative stage of your consciousness.

One old boy from Hong Kong told me about how kind his English teacher, Marshall Webb, was when he first came to UCC, and about how Mr. Webb helped him understand “King Lear”, even though the then new boy found basic English almost incomprehensible. More than one old boy has told me about how Andrew Turner and Brent McKay, men who were their coaches and dorm masters, were also wonderful father figures when they first moved into Wedds and Seatons. There are lots and lots of stories about the men and women who shaped the boys and men of UCC. It’s those stories, by the way, that keep graduates connected to the school, long after the Leaving Class Ceremony is a distant memory. It’s those stories that really matter, long after facilities, and programs, and academic awards have drifted away into the hazy past.

Which brings me back to what I call “The Big Arbitrary.”  At the risk of self-indulgently going “Dr. Phil” on you, I’d like to tell you my formative story. It goes like this:

My dad was an alcoholic. I wasn’t aware of this when I was a kid, because he went to work every day at the Lansdowne Post Office. Like many people at the time, I assumed that alcoholics were the poor, unemployed men on Skid Row. My dad, by contrast, was so determined to prove to my mom that he wasn’t an alcoholic, that he didn’t take even so much as a single vacation day for a decade, just to prove that alcohol wasn’t a problem. Even in hindsight, his drinking didn’t seem all that different from the other men who lived in our hardscrabble, blue collar, row house neighbourhood.

When I was in junior high school, though, my dad really tried to sober up, and he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous, a program designed to help people with addiction issues. I often went along to 12 step meetings myself, because initially at least, I wanted to do everything I could to help my dad. I confess that I walked around on eggshells because I always felt that, if I messed up, that might set him off, and he’d go out on a toot. I realize now that that wasn’t clear thinking on my part, but that’s how my mind worked in those days. By the way, there are all kinds of 12 step meetings; besides AA, there is also Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Over Eaters Anonymous to name just a few.

What all of these groups have in common, in addition to slogans, steps, and principals designed to promote self-awareness and sobriety, is a common prayer, a prayer that is said aloud by the whole group at the end of each meeting. The prayer, written originally by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

Courage to change the things I can and the

Wisdom to know the difference.


I’d like to offer 3 observations (or “takeaways” if you like) on Niebuhr’s prayer:

First, the prayer starts with the word “God”, and that term can be something of a problem for some people. AA tries to defuse this by referring to God simply as a “higher power.” Many members don’t believe in a theology of any kind, so while a higher power can reflect a traditional understanding of God, it can also involve belief in a group, or in nature, or in anything or anyone you might have faith in or be inclined to turn to for help. Don’t let the fact that you had a mean minister or a rotten rabbi ruin things for you. The point is we all need to be or learn to be humble enough to ask for help and humble enough to take advice. Humility is the key to getting better.

Second, the prayer begins with request for acceptance, for accepting what you can’t change. The hard truth here is you can’t change many and perhaps even most things. I couldn’t stop my dad from drinking. You and I can’t change the economy, the weather, geo-political strategy in the Middle East, the designated hitter rule, the IB grading scheme, or someone else’s bad mood. There are all kinds of things out there over which you and I have absolutely no control. It’s hard, and it can be frustrating at times, but we need to come to terms with that simple truth.

Third, is a request for courage to change what you can, and the insight here is that the only thing you really can change is yourself and how you look at the world. Aristotle said you can’t control the wind, but you can control your sails. Victor Frankl, a Jew who survived the Nazi death camp and knew a thing or two about dealing with adversity, pointed out that ultimate freedom is the way you choose to look at things. We may not always be conscious of this, but we always have a choice. Today can be dreary, depressing dark sky day or it can be a great day for a cup of tea and a good book. How we view things is a personal decision, and we should train ourselves to be conscious of that.

So remember that when the Big Arbitrary dope slaps you — as it inevitably will — I hope you’ll remember the serenity prayer. I hope you’ll remember to control the controllable, and accept what you can’t.

Speaking of the controllable, I want to tell you that despite a couple of initial slips after coming out of rehab, my dad did an amazing thing; he spent the last 42 years of his life sober, living as they say in AA speak, “one day a time”. He kept going to his meetings, and along the way, he helped others who had their own battles with addiction. Near the end of his life, he told me that he felt that becoming an alcoholic had actually been a blessing because AA helped him become a better man. (He had a good rear view mirror, too.) At his funeral, which took place 5 years and 2 days ago, (not that anyone’s counting) I was stunned by the number of guys my age, men I’d never met before, who thanked me for what my dad had done to help them with their own sobriety.

I’ll end this morning by pointing out that there is a thread of sorts that links all of us through the web of generations and geography, and I am conscious of the fact that, since I haven’t had an original idea since 1983, most of what I’ve thrown at you on Monday mornings these past few years has been an echo of what my father tossed my way. If you caught one or two sliders, that’s great, and I hope you’ll toss a breaking ball or two into the future, as well. Even if you don’t have your own beat up old Spalding, left-handed baseball glove.

Thank you.

Email: jpjpower@gmail.com

Twitter: @Jpower1183


Dwayne Wade and Aristotle

If you’ve been following the news, you know what has been going on out in Fort McMurray, so I ask you to keep all of those people in Alberta in your thoughts and prayers this week…

With Mr. McKinney’s arriving at UCC this summer, I am reminded of the story about the new head of school, who shows up on his very first day and finds on his desk three envelopes, marked 1, 2, and 3, along with a note from the previous head, instructing him to “Open only in case of emergency.” Sure enough, during that first year there was a crisis, and the new principal opened the first envelope and found a note saying, “Blame your predecessor.” He did this, and things got better.

A couple of years later there was another crisis, and when he opened envelope #2, he found a note instructing him to, “Blame the economy.” He did this, and again things improved. Still a few years later there was a third crisis, and when he opened envelope #3, the note simply said, “Prepare 3 envelopes.” I am in the “prepare 3 envelopes” phase of life at UCC, and even as I am starting to see brown boxes in my sleep, I know that, as good as things are here – we are still a work in progress. Let me give you just one example from earlier this year.

I was watching a Prep soccer game last fall, when our team scored a goal to tie a game against Ridley. At that moment one of our players, a young boy who was sitting right in front of me, yelled out, at the top of his lungs, “Ridley’s goalie sucks!”

Now even if I hadn’t been sitting next to a friend, who happens to be a Ridley parent, I would have felt obligated to have a chat with this enthusiastic lad.  Later, after a brief conversation, I think he understood that, while it’s perfectly fine to celebrate a good play, it’s never right to ridicule another player or use that particular verb in that particular context.  I hope it was “a teachable moment.”

Not all moments turn out so well. For example, a few years ago during a heated lacrosse game against one of our traditional rivals, two players lost their heads for just a moment and started to mix it up out on the field. From out of nowhere, a man bellowed, “Fight. Fight. Hit him!” I realized that the voice was coming from the father of one of the visiting team’s players, and because he was small, I went over to talk with him.

“You’re not really encouraging them, are you?” I asked. I don’t remember his exact response but it was something less than, “Thank you very much, kind sir, for bringing this momentary lapse in civility to my attention. In the future I shall strive to model good sportsmanship in all I say and in all I do in the spirit of the Positive Coaching Alliance.”

I do remember that he asked me who I was, and after I identified myself, I asked him for his name, something he refused to give.  It’s never a good scene when you’re with someone who won’t own up to his own identity. By this point, there were lots of other parents staring at us, and I quickly realized how perfectly ridiculous we both looked, as we continued a somewhat heated public debate on the importance of decorum.

The soccer lad who quickly learned his lesson and the lacrosse dad who didn’t are just two of the many instances of incivility that are all around us these days.  I was reminded of this last Saturday night, when Dwayne Wade continue to shoot jumpers – even during the playing of the Canadian National Anthem. What made it worse was that afterwards, instead of saying, “I was wrong. It wasn’t my intention to show a lack of respect, and I apologize” Wade dug himself a deeper hole by saying something to the effect that, “Anyone who knows D. Wade knows he wouldn’t disrespect another country.” Actually Dwayne, you did. And using the third person to talk about yourself doesn’t suggest a sense of humble contrition.

By the way, if the situation were reversed, if a Canadian player continued to shoot around during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, my American cousins would go ape nuts. That player might need protective services for a while, because people would be deeply disturbed. When I mentioned this to Mr. Ferley this morning, he disagreed. He thought the Canadian organist might instinctively apologize for starting before the player had completed his workout. “Sorry!”

By contrast to this, the mantra of one of our brother schools, Royal St. George’s, is “Manners maketh the man.” While the term “maketh,” is not a word you come across all that often this millennium, I have to applaud the Georgian insight. Manners actually are important because they are a part of a larger cultural code, a code that goes to the very heart of what it means to be civilized.  It goes to the heart of who we are or at least who we ought to be.

Civility is not about curling your pinkie when you hold a teacup; it’s not about knowing how to show courtesy before the Queen. It is about knowing how to behave – no matter where you are, no matter whom you are with. And it’s about always giving the other guy the benefit of the doubt. Civility is holding your tongue when someone cuts you off, and your first impulse is to use terminology that won’t appear on the SAT. It’s about cheering for your own team, without demeaning the opposition. And it’s about helping the other guy up after a tough play, no matter the colour of his jersey.

None of this is terribly new, but as we watch with dismay as the American presidential campaign starts to resemble something out of the depths of UFC (with apologies to Conor McGregor!), it’s important to remember these truths because we need to consciously make them our habits. Aristotle pointed out that these habits, if consciously cultivated, will shape and define our character. And character is, as Robert Coles points out, “Doing the right thing – even when nobody is looking.” Even during a Prep soccer match on an otherwise peaceful Saturday morning, and even during the singing of National Anthem on a muggy night in Miami.

Go, Raptors!

Joshua Chamberlain

Good morning. The flag has been at half-mast for the past few days, and I want to explain why.

You may know that John Risdel, the Canadian who was taken hostage by militants in the Philippines last September, was killed last week by his captors. What you might not know is that John was an Old Boy from the class of 1966; he was just a year ahead of Mr. Webb at UCC. John was the head of Seatons during his final year here. John Risdel

I ask that we keep John and his family in our thoughts and prayers, as we stand now for a moment of silence. Thank you.

There is no possible segue, so I won’t even try.Today’s assembly may seem different, with the Grade 12 boys’ abandoning us this morning to start their IB exams. Laidlaw Hall looks a bit empty, and I confess that, on a personal level, the room seems somewhat strange because this is the first Monday morning in almost a decade when I haven’t had a son in attendance.

Speaking of which, my son, Seamus is a student Bowdoin College, and I mention this only because – in the same week that “Captain America Civil War” debuts, (I am sure that, like me, you are counting down the days!), with thoughts of heroes bouncing in our heads, I want to tell you why a classics master from Bowdoin is one of the men I most admire.

Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain was a Latin teacher at Bowdoin College in Maine, and he had just been awarded an all expenses paid trip to Europe, when the Civil War broke out. Chamberlain passed up the sabbatical opportunity and instead enlisted with the 20th Maine Division to fight for the Union.

Joshua ChamberlainThis was fortuitous because a couple of years later, Chamberlain was in charge of the 20th Maine, as they tried to defend the high ground of southern flank during the pivotal battle of Gettysburg. His troops were greatly outnumbered by rebels from Alabama, rebels who stormed an area known as Little Round Top. Five times the rebels attacked, and each time Chamberlain’s men repelled them. Chamberlain learned, though, that after final assault, his men were out of ammunition. What to do?

Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets to their rifles, and he convinced them to charge down the hill, into the face of the Alabama regiment. It is amazing to realize that 200 men from Maine actually followed Chamberlain’s order and attacked 500 fully equipped soldiers. Chamberlain had what Napoleon called “the courage of the early morning.” Seeing these wild men from Maine come screaming like banshees down the hill in their direction, the Alabama troops wrongfully assumed that they were greatly outnumbered, and they fled the battle.

Two years later, the former Latin teacher was again in an important position, when he found himself at Appomattox on April 12, 1865 for the Confederate surrender. Leonard Sax described the scene this way in his book, “Boy’s Adrift”: “As the Southern General John B. Gordon was leading his troops to surrender – disheartened, sick, many of the men wounded, and all of them wondering what awaited them at the hands of the victorious Union forces – Chamberlain, on his own initiation, gave this command to his men: ‘Attention! Carry-arms!’

Chamberlain’s men snapped to attention and presented their arms as a show of respect to the defeated Confederates. General Gordon, in reply, wheeled his horse around and commanded his men to dip the Confederate colours in answer to Chamberlain’s courtesy. There was not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, not a word nor motion… but awful stillness, as if it were the passing of the dead.

Chamberlain’s salute was reported in Northern newspapers, inciting some controversy. Many on the Northern side felt that it was inappropriate for Chamberlain to have commanded his men to salute the defeated Confederates. Some apparently might have liked it better if Chamberlain’s men had heckled or abused the rebels. But Chamberlain’s education – rooted in the classics – led him to value the magnanimous gesture above the pettiness of revenge or spite.”

After this past week, a week during which we saw too much of Laremy Tunsil’s smoking up via his hacked Twitter account, and heard too much about Jay Z’s infidelity’s via Beyonce‘s “Lemonade”, it’s good to step back in time and know that there are others out there whom we can look to as models of manhood.

Joshua Chamberlain offers us 3 take-aways:

First, it would have been easy to sit out the Civil War, (and I confess, I might have taken that boat to France!) but Chamberlain had a sense of duty and a sense of purpose. If someone were to ask you about your own sense of duty, your own sense of purpose, what would you say? You don’t need to have a ready at the lips answer at this point in your life, but it’s not too soon to begin to think about these questions.

Second, at Gettysburg Chamberlain’s decision to attach bayonets shows his remarkable courage and leadership! It is worth noting that as a child, Chamberlain actually had a speech defect that he overcame and in the process, he learned something about the importance of rhetoric. How many of us could persuade men without ammunition to charge into superior numbers with superior weapons? Have you ever tried to persuade others to do something that was not in their short-term best interest?

Finally, at Appomattox Chamberlain shows us grace. He could have been less than respectful towards General Gordon, but instead, as much as he may have detested Gordon’s politics, he recognized his humanity. In each of these situations, Chamberlain had options; he could have gone to Europe. He could have surrendered, and he could have taunted a vanquished foe. On each occasion, Chamberlain did the hard, right thing.

You will face a number of decisions this day, this week, this month. They may not be life and death at Gettysburg decisions, but they may still be important calls nonetheless. Let me suggest that in almost every dilemma we face, there will be an all too tempting easy option, an “opt out” of one sort or another. I hope, though, that like the Latin teacher from Maine, we will respond with a sense of purpose, a sense of courage, and a sense of grace, as we follow Chamberlain’s example. That’s something that might make even Captain America marvel!

It’s All About Relationships

When I was a kid, the adult in the front of the class made the weather for me. I’m not proud of this, but I have to confess that I “rewarded” teachers I connected with by giving them my best effort. And, foolish as it now seems, I “punished” teachers who didn’t seem to care about me, or the subject matter, by putting in a perfunctory effort. If they were only going through the motions, well then by golly, so would I! (As a matter of fact, I so severely “punished” my high school chemistry teacher that I almost sent myself to summer school!)

As I leave Upper Canada College after 12 years, I remind myself of the importance of relationships. There is a line in the UCC school hymn that describes the Almighty as being “slow to chide and swift to bless.” I applaud our Higher Power for this good habit. Knowing when to chide and when to bless is a key insight, because Lord knows (and we should too), that if you were so inclined, you could “chide” all day long – in every school you care to name!

Adolescents need to be blessed, swiftly and meaningfully, on a regular basis. They need to be encouraged, acknowledged, and occasionally even celebrated, because those years can be scary and unsettling ones. The stormy seas of physical, mental, and emotional changes kids sometimes swim in can rob them of the kind of quiet self-assurance they’ll need to eventually join a workplace, or a school club, or even a conversation.

hoto: Jim Power’s high school graduation photograph, 1976, back in the era when he “rewarded” and “punished” his high school teachers.

Trump, Boys Schools, and The Invisible Knapsack

I was doing some spring-cleaning last week, when I found this 11 year-old “A Day” video. It’s a spoof of the then popular TV show, “The Apprentice.”

When the boys in college film created this back in 2005, I never ever thought that somehow, someday, someway, the object of their satire would be a leading contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.  Life can surprise you that way. More on this in a minute.

First, though, I want to begin this morning by admitting that I thoroughly enjoy working at a boys school. I attended one myself, so I’m biased, and I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in two terrific boys schools for the past 23 years. I enjoy the games, the plays, the concerts, and shows. I enjoy assemblies, even when the Friday morning games don’t quite work as well as we’d planned, or even on those cold Monday mornings, when 700 high school boys try to warble through “Morning Has Broken” in a way Cat Stevens might not recognize.

I like to tell prospective parents, especially those who are worried about sending their sons to an all boys school, that we are like a” Big and Tall” store. If you are 6 foot 6, you might find a suit at Harry Rosen (if you can afford it!), but you are much more likely to find one that fits at a “Big and Tall” store because that’s what they specialize in. I believe the same holds true for a place like UCC. The people who choose to work at a school with almost 1200 boys tend to really get boys. As our school hymn regularly reminds us, the folks who work here are or at least aspire to be “slow to chide and swift to bless.” And God bless them for that!

A few years ago, I happened to be at a Prep assembly, when they were celebrating the grade 7 soccer team’s championship, and the team captain, instead of simply offering a speech, he sang a song he had written especially for the occasion as a tribute to his team, a song based on the melody of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive.” I remember thinking, as I sat there in the back of Weston Hall, that song would be a lot harder to sing if there were even one adolescent girl in the audience. So part of the charm of this place is just the joy of boys themselves, boys who aren’t burdened with the kind of posturing that can sometimes affect the culture of a coed school.

As much as I enjoy boys schools in general and UCC in particular, though, I don’t need to tell you that life is a co-ed experience, and somehow or other, part of our job here is to prepare you for that world. This is becoming increasingly important in a culture where there is a growing concern about how men treat women.

If there is a silver lining in after-wave shocks of the headlines surrounding Ray Rice, Jameis Winston, and Bill Cosby, it is that we have had important conversations about violence and football, and about how celebrities are treated by the judicial system, and about why victims sometimes keep returning to their perpetrators.

I confess that it is not easy to talk about these issues in a manner that won’t seem way too preachy or in a way that suggests men are intrinsically evil. It seems off kilter to do this, especially at a school that so public touts its belief in boys. A belief we all stand by.

So while I don’t want to stand on a soapbox this morning, given where we are today, we all have to admit that our society has a long way to go before men and women are treated equally and ethically.

This may sound a bit remote for some of the younger boys in Laidlaw Hall this morning, but for the older students, especially those of you in IB2, these issues will become very real to you, especially within the next six months. My hunch is that almost everyone in grade 12 will have a meeting early next fall with some university official, where someone on your campus will talk about campus rules regarding sexual activity and sexual assault. No good school can ignore these issues any more than they can avoid drug and alcohol use and how all of these issues tie in to student behavior. But the facts are the facts and the latest research says that as many as 1 in 4 women is a victim of abuse.

My friend Rick Melvoin, the long-serving head at Belmont Hill Academy, a boys school very much like UCC, recently talked to his boys about all of this, and he tied his comments into Peggy Macintosh’s ground breaking research. Thirty years ago she wrote that some people in our society have unconscious advantages over others. Her research suggested that white people have this over blacks; that men have it over women, and that in terms of gender, men carry with them, something she called “an invisible knapsack” in which we all hold, unconsciously, all sorts of male privilege.

I confess that have not always been aware of this knapsack.

Macintosh, though, points out that men move with ease through society in ways that women can’t imagine. Men earn more money, are stronger physically, dominate corporate CEO and board positions, and populate the halls of government, and we do this while leaving the bulk of child care to spouses. Again, this privilege, Macintosh believes, is unconscious. It is simply our life. Welcome to our world.

What does this all mean for you? Let me suggest that there are parts of our culture that reinforce this distortion. Which takes me back to Donald Trump. One small part of this off-kiltered world-view has to do with something called “the objectification of women.”

I don’t need to tell you how deplorable the Republican nomination process has been with the kind of name-calling and sexual innuendo that seems like it was taken right out of the pro wrestling circuit. But last week, I was reminded of an old “Seinfeld” episode, one where Elaine tells Jerry, “Sometimes when I think you’re the shallowest man I’ve ever met, you manage to drain a little more out of the pool.”

Last week, the political pool ran bone dry when candidates started using social media to display pictures of the candidates’ spouses, as a way of promoting their campaigns. Melania Trump, Donald’s wife, is a former model –or as he might say, “a big model” — and the Trump campaign sent out an unflattering photo of Heidi Cruz next to a glossy shot of Melania. It was a not at all subtle way of saying, “Vote for me because my spouse is more attractive than his is.”

I mention this to you now, just to point out that you are coming of age  in an age riddled with contradictions. It’s a time when –even though you will hear a lot about the push for equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, orientation, or race – you will still see today’s politicians try to portray their spouses as eye candy. It’s also a time when indigenous women are missing or murdered, and shows like “Dateline” have very little if any interest in covering their plight. It’s a time when countries like Germany, for example, are rolling out “women only” train cars as a way to minimize the threat of assaults.

And while all of this is happening, you’ll soon be heading off to universities where some of your future classmates may assume you have misogynistic tendencies because, after all, you did attend an elite boys school. How do you get yourself ready for all of this?

I don’t have an easy answer for you, but I suggest that, even as we are bombarded by media messages, messages suggesting that women are defined by their physical appearances, and messages that imply that men always will be in charge, we need to start by examining our own attitudes and behaviours.

David Brooks points out that, “Wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.”

Let me confess my own ignorance: I didn’t always buy Peggy Macintosh’s argument, but I now understand that it’s impossible to see and understand what’s inside that “invisible knapsack” until you first believe that it is actually there.

Fathers and Sons: The Headmaster’s Story

I want to thank all of the actors and crew members who helped make “Pippin” a wonderful show. There was “magic to do” at the BSS theatre last week, and I know the audience thoroughly enjoyed your good work!For those of you who missed the magic, “Pippin” is about a young man’s coming of age; it’s about Charlemagne’s son’s effort to figure out what he wants to do with his life, and it’s about also about his relationship with a father who doesn’t quite understand him.

UCC is a member of the International Boys Schools Coalition, and because of this, every summer teachers from over 300 schools from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and North America gather to exchange their collective wisdom on working with boys. At a recent boys schools gathering, a psychologist gave a lecture on what she had learned about father son relationships. Her research suggests that, when it comes to fathers and sons, Pippin is not alone:

30% of adult males report having no relationship at all with their fathers;

30% say they have a “prickly” relationship with their dads. They don’t see their fathers all that often, and when they do, their dads say things like, “You bought the wrong lawn mower” or “Your tie is too skinny.”

Another 30% describe having a “dutiful” relationship with their dads. These are the sons who call home every Sunday afternoon and talk to their dads about the Leafs, Argos, and Raptors. If they’re feeling particularly connected, they might talk about the Blue Jays, but that’s about it.

According to the research, only 10% of adult males have an unconditionally affirming, “I’ve got your back. You’ve got mine, and we can talk about anything” kind of relationship.

When I asked the speaker why the research skewed so negatively, without a moment’s hesitation she blurted, “It’s a result of the industrial revolution. We haven’t recovered from it yet. Before the industrial revolution, adolescent males spent most of their days in the company of fathers, uncles, and extended male family members. By contrast, today most dads work in isolation, away from the home in a city centre or away in a glass tower. Most boys have no real understanding of what their fathers do or what they are about.”

At this point, I happened to be sitting next to the head of an English boys boarding school, perhaps the spiffiest of spiffy boys schools in the world. Because I am an unrepentant social climber, I asked him if the research rang true. Instead of answering me, my newfound best friend told me this story.

“My father was much, much older man when I was born, so there was always a great distance between us. He had been fighting in Europe during World War 2, when his first wife and daughter, my half-sister, were evaporated by a bomb during the blitz.

My father returned from the war, became a mechanic, and married a younger woman. I am the sole result of that union. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but my father was probably suffering from something we today would call ‘Post Traumatic Stress.’ All I knew was that we didn’t talk very much. There was, though, one conversation in our home, which I to this day can recall: I had just won a scholarship to attend ——– , and my parents couldn’t decide whether or not I should accept it. I remember being upstairs listening to the only argument I can remember my parents ever having. My mother’s point was, ‘He has to go. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.’ My father’s response was, ‘We can’t send him. It will change him.’

For some fortunate reason, my mother prevailed, and I went to ——–. My father never ever visited the school — not once –during the entire 6 years I was there as a boarder. The already considerable distance between us continued to grow. My mother went there on only one occasion. She stood in the school’s foyer for 10 minutes, and then she left. She didn’t resent the place, but she immediately came to the conclusion, right then and there, that she simply didn’t belong. And she never returned to the school.”

I know this may sound like an out-take from Downton Abbey, but the English headmaster ended his story by saying, “Some 30 years later, on the day I was appointed the headmaster of my old school , I kept thinking about my parents’ conversation, and I realized that strangely enough, they had both been exactly right. Attending the school was an incredible opportunity, one for which I am extraordinarily grateful. So my mother was right. But my father was right, too; my going to live and study there effectively changed our relationship. We never fully reconnected after that because, you see, I was now of a different world.”

The headmaster’s story has echoes because we are all, to varying degrees, cut off from one another, and sometimes it is a real struggle to try to understand someone, especially when there are generational or cultural differences.

Let me offer a personal example. I became an English major largely because of Mr. O’Brien, my Grade 11 English teacher. Mr. O’Brien was witty and engaging, and he had a great sense of humour. I liked him so much that I didn’t hold it against him that he had cut me from the Grade 9 basketball team, though in the history of athletic misjudgments, I am convinced that that particular oversight would be on the Hall of Fame of egregious moral errors!

As much as I liked Mr. O’Brien, though, he had one flaw; it sometimes took him a while to return essays. I hope I wasn’t a grade grubber. Perhaps I was.  Decades later, when I was a high school English teacher myself, I happened to bump into Mr. O’Brien at a teachers’ workshop, and I was surprised and delighted that he remembered me. I was even more taken back when unsolicited he said, “You were with us in the mid-70’s, right? Those were crazy days for me. My wife and I had a bunch of kids, and I was selling real estate on Saturdays and insurance on Sundays, just trying to make it all work!”

I suddenly felt very small. What I had perceived, as a kid, as a lack of care on his part, was in fact Mr. O’Brien’s trying to juggle one too many balls. What I had thought of as a lack of interest was really just a matter of economic reality for Mr. O’Brien.

So my take-away from this morning is this:

I want to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone here has a father, but many of you will be parents some day, and you’re going to want to do better than the 30/30/30/10 split. When it comes to fathers and sons, there will always be challenges, but there are difficulties in every relationship. It’s the nature of human interaction.

When we are young, there is a natural temptation for us to blame others for the breakdowns that occur. But relationships cut both ways, and we owe it to one another to try to extend ourselves, to understand what it’s like to be in the other guy’s shoes, whether he is an ageing emperor, a widower soldier, or an English teacher with lots of kids and even more essays.

The ability to understand another, whether you want to call it emotional intelligence, social skill, or basic compassion is what allows us to bridge the gaps that separate us from one another. That generosity of spirit, that moral imagination is what, as they say in “Pippin” separates the charlatans from the Charlemagnes.