A Dangerous Space

March 23, 2015

Yesterday’s paper contained an article, “In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas,” which describes how some universities now offer a “safe space” for students who are offended by outside speakers. If, for example, a student finds a speaker’s comments “troubling,” he or she can now go to a room where they might enjoy coloring books, cookies, Play-Doh, and calming music. (I’m not making this up!)

In response to the safe space movement, Adam Shapiro, a junior at Columbia, created what he called “dangerous space” because he believes, “Kindness alone won’t allow us to gain more insight into truth.” I hope you’ll indulge me this morning as I tell you about a couple of truths I learned in a “dangerous space” I once stumbled into during Grade 9.

It was my last fistfight, and it actually took place during an art class. We had a very progressive teacher who was new to the school, and she liked to flick the overhead lights on and off furiously, whenever the spirit moved her. I think this was her way of “igniting curiosity, imagination, and passion” in her students.

My erstwhile opponent was a guy known as “Wawa.” A quick aside: I have to explain that nickname. Those of you fluent in the language of Native Americans, or for the less erudite — if you are fortunate enough to be familiar with the quicki-marts that abound in Southeastern Pennsylvania, you know that “Wawa” means “wild goose,” but that’s not how young Tony Waters earned his moniker.

During the first month of school that year, we were shown “The Miracle Worker,” a wonderfully inspiring black and white film about Annie Sullivan, the woman who figures out how to communicate with and eventually teach Helen Keller, a girl who had been born without the ability to hear, see, or speak.

Annie Sullivan achieves a breakthrough when she uses her fingers to spell the word “water” into Helen’s hand. As Annie pumps water from a well, Helen makes the connection; she grasps that the letters w-a-t-e-r have meaning, and because she is deaf, she can only blurt out the sound “Wawa” in recognition. At that cinematic moment, in front of 200 Grade 9 boys in a darkened assembly hall, a somewhat sullen Tony Waters instantly became “Wawa.” We meant no disrespect to Helen, Annie, or even Tony for that matter. (Ok, perhaps there was a smidgeon of disrespect for Tony.) Because Tony took an instant dislike to it, of course, the name stuck.

At the risk of sounding like a bad sociologist, it seems to me that there were a lot more nicknames a generation ago, and I’m not quite sure what their absence means. Just don’t ask me to tell you what mine was. Ok. Would you believe it was “Supreme Leader?” Well, it was worth a try…

Anyway, I don’t want to embellish or glamorize things, and I won’t tell you if I won my last fight. I will only sheepishly admit that I ended up being thrown through the art room’s window, thus gaining instant access to a less than scenic view of North Philadelphia.  But my lack of pugilistic prowess is not what I want to dwell on today. (I will leave that for Wawa!) No, what I remember much more vividly was the dry-mouth dread I experienced as I walked into the Dean of Students’ office – along with Wawa – to have a face-to-face meeting with Fr. Kearney, the Dean of Discipline, a man known as “The Shadow” at our all boys Catholic school. Talk about experiencing a dangerous space!

Fr. Kearney would not have been nominated for any sort of peer counselling award. I’m not sure he could spell Carl Rogers’ last name if you had spotted him the R-o-g-e-r, and I don’t recall his ever nodding his head in quiet affirmation or starting a sentence with, “I think I hear your saying that…” Had “Ellen” or “Dr. Phil” been around during the less enlightened 70’s, I’m betting Fr. Kearney would not have tuned in on a regular basis. He was a hardened somewhat cynical cop, one who had spent too many years on the beat. A thousand boys a day can do that to you, I guess.

As a result, I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that a somewhat jaded Fr. Kearney was not at all interested in hearing MY side of the story. He didn’t care that Wawa had stolen my red Crayola crayon. He didn’t understand that I would have lost face in front of my grade 9 peers, had I let such a transgression pass. And he wasn’t even minutely interested in the racial overtones that lurked, I was sure, deep in the background of this conflict.

Instead, Fr. Kearney made 3 points, which still remain remarkably vivid today:

First, he made Wawa and me split the cost of the window — a double window I might add — despite my protesting that it was hardly my intention to break two panes of glass with my cranium. “I am not interested in your intentions, Power. I am interested only in your decisions.”

Second, when I apologized for fighting (and even now, I’m not sure if going air-born after a discreet and somewhat gentlemanly push actually qualifies as fisticuffs), he said, “I don’t care that you were fighting. You and Mr. Waters (Fr. Kearney had evidently missed “The Miracle Worker”) can go over to Broad Street and pound the “stuffing” (I’m not exactly sure if “stuffing” was the cleric’s word of choice on this occasion) out of one another. I am punishing you only because you fought here at school.”
And third, Fr. Kearney gave us “jug.” I’m not sure if j-u-g comes from “justice under God” or if it is from the Latin derivative “jugo-jugari – to punish,” but whatever the source, jug entailed standing silent and still in a hallway for an hour. When I modestly suggested that perhaps this time might be better used for study, Fr. Kearney cut me off in mid-sentence. “The purpose of this exercise is not academic in nature, Power. It is designed to make you never want to return to my office again.”


Like a hardened criminal, I can say that I did my time. And perhaps in a way Fr. Kearney became my Annie Sullivan. It may be something less than miraculous, but after serving my sentence, I think I got his message. I patched things up with Wawa, who raised a very good question, one that I had failed to consider: “What was I supposed to do? Ask ‘Mother may I’ for that stupid crayon?”

Group suffering can be good for the soul, even when one party is almost completely and utterly innocent and never should have had to pay for that window or served that jug in the first place. But I digresss… Who knows? Had this event occurred years later, Wawa and I could have starred in “Prison Break” together.  I might have even called him “Tony.” Well, maybe. All I know is that I never did get another jug, and I never got in another fight.

Don’t get me wrong. We all may need a “safe space” every once in a while, and I like Play-Doh as much as the next guy. But life’s lessons seem clearer to me in the dangerous spaces. That’s why, when a UCC lad tells me about an issue that strikes my middle age mind as something less than cosmic in significance, I stop and remember what I learned from spending time in a particularly dangerous space with Wawa, The Shadow, and that far too precious red Crayola crayon.

The Mask and The Man Box

February 23, 2015

“Youtube” celebrates its 10th birthday this month, and for those who fear that your life will be determined by the brand of your university, you may find some consolation in knowing that the 3 young, now fabulously wealthy founders of this billion dollar venture are graduates of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, neither of which is in the Ivy League. So there is hope for all of us, regardless of our standardized test scores!

One of my favourite Youtube talks is Tony Porter’s lecture on “the Man Box.” (I think Mr. Sturino has shown this to some of you in health class.) For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s about the danger of having a narrow understanding of masculinity. Tony Porter tells some stories that I couldn’t repeat here in Laidlaw Hall, but if you are interested, I hope you’ll go to your Google machine and take in his TED talk.

I have spent a good chunk of my adult life in boys schools, and while I enthusiastically support single gender institutions as an option for some students, not everyone is all that keen when it comes to boys schools. Some see institutions like UCC as semi-misogynistic bastions of boys will be boys, “Please pass me the Grey Poupon” privilege. While we may not be everyone’s cup of tea, being a boys schools does give us a special opportunity, and I’d argue, a special responsibility to focus on developing a healthy understanding of what it means to be a man.

We believe there are many roads to manhood, many paths to success. We think it’s important for you to feel a sense of belonging, to be a part of an open, affirming and challenging brotherhood, and we hope that this culture of camaraderie will give you the grace to find your voice, find your passions, and ultimately find yourself.

But that’s where Terry Porter’s “man box” comes in.

The Man Box

There are all kinds of cultural obstacles we have to overcome, and what makes this task extraordinarily difficult is that we may not even see these limitations for what they are. What’s in the box are the invisible assumptions that limit our vision, our relationships, and ourselves. If we fail to recognize these myths of masculinity, we can end up paying too great a price to “man up.”

One of my favourite books about boys is Michael Thompson’s “Raising Cain”. We’ve had Dr. Thompson speak many times at UCC, and he believes that the tale of Cain and Abel is the original story of male adolescence. Both boys want to please their father. One succeeds. One fails. And because of Cain’s frustration, because of his lack of affirmation, and because of his impulsive nature, he kills his brother Abel. Thompson argues that boys who experience failure have a choice: they can either act out or “process” out.

Acting out is easy. It’s what we do naturally and impulsively. Thompson believes, though, that boys can and need to be taught how to process things. We have to learn how and when to hit the pause button. We need to learn how and when to look at things from another person’s point of view, how to consider options, and how to think through the ramifications of our decisions. And we also need to figure out how to express what’s in our heart, as well as what’s in our head.

Let me give you one quick example of someone who has learned how to “process” a setback. Last week was a tough one for some of the boys who ran for leadership positions. I happened to be in the hallway last Friday, when I bumped into a Grade 11 student the day after he learned that he would not be wearing a white jacket next year. I didn’t know the boy all that well, and I didn’t want to be intrusive, but I wanted to make sure he was alright. As our brief conversation was coming to an end, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I had made a fist with my hand, when I asked, “Are you going to be ok?” At that moment the Grade 11 boy, who seemed be the very model of resilience, saw my gesture, laughed and gave me a fist pump as he said, “Strength and Honour!”

His action completely caught me off-guard; it took me a few seconds before I began to understand what this was all about. And then it dawned on me. Last fall the psychologist Adam Cox had talked to us in Laidlaw Hall about positive notions of masculinity, and he finished his lecture by fist pumping his way around Laidlaw Hall, as he promoted the virtues “strength and honour.”

So the processing of obstacles, challenges, and frustrations can be done — it just may take some of us old guys a little longer to understand when it’s completed!

I’ll end this morning with the trailer from Jennifer Sibel Newsom’s new documentary about the cultural challenges of masculinity. There are a lot of factors that can affect mental health, and when your inner state does not match the external demands of “The Manbox,” that dissonance can create stress. It seems appropriate then that, as we begin our “Mental Health Awareness Week,” we should also be aware of some of the social pressures we all face, as we try to figure out what it means to be a man, about what it means to be a good man.






3 Angry (but good!) Letters

February 9, 2015

This month we are using some of our school meeting time to focus on a range of challenging social issues. Last Monday, for example, Alex Duffy, an individual who identifies as “gender queer,” spoke to us about broadening our understanding of gender and masculinity. Later that same day, we heard the world’s most famous fugitive, Edward Snowden warn us about the danger of government’s over-reaching use of surveillance. This morning we will look at Black History and consider some of the continuing challenges of race and racism. And later in February, we will look at what we might do to de-stigmatize mental health issues, as part of Mental Health Week.

I believe it is important for schools to provide opportunities for us to examine important issues, and we hope to do this without turning Monday morning assemblies into a scholastic version of “The Jerry Springer Show.” (I don’t want to hear your shouting, “Jimmy! Jimmy!” as black-shirted bouncers scamper to separate combatants on stage –- not that I’ve ever watched “The Jerry Springer Show” myself for so much as a moment, mind you!) We aim to give you a chance to look at and think about some of the issues that are shaping the world beyond Lonsdale Road.

But here’s where it gets tricky. While it is important for the school to present issues, it is not always our job to “take sides” or advance a particular point of view. At times this may appear cowardly on our part, and not everyone agrees with this approach. Last week, for instance, a number of Old Boys sent me very critical and very worthwhile letters. This morning I’d like to highlight issues raised in three of them.

Letter I. “I have a big problem with Snowden’s line of argument. He claims that he acted in defense of democratic freedoms, yet he flees to Communist China and lives la dolce vita in Putin’s Russia. I thought his line about having more chance to be killed by lightening than a terrorist was puerile. And I believe that that he should, like Daniel Ellsberg, have stayed and made his case in the United States, instead of fleeing to totalitarians who have no doubt reaped a windfall of intelligence from him.”

Letter 2. “Knowing that he is a fugitive from US Justice, an accused thief and traitor to his country, and now a resident in Russia, I am absolutely appalled that you as the senior leader at UCC would allow such an individual to address your students. This appears to be a complete shift in values in the school at which I was educated.”

Letter 3. “Would UCC invite someone on the run, a white-collar criminal accused of a Ponzi scheme, bilking thousands of people out of their savings? Would UCC invite Bill Cosby, a man accused of drugging and raping over 20 women? What about a person accused of killing for religious reasons and hiding in Iran? The issue comes down to who at UCC …decides what crimes are “acceptable” and which are not?

A very disappointed loyal UCC alumnus.”

I happen to agree with our old boys on a number of points. Like the writer of letter one, I hope that Snowden will return to the US and face the courts. Heroes don’t hide. I may be naïve about this – I don’t know what it’s like to experience death threats — but I would like to think the US justice system would go out of its way to avoid making him a martyr. The final chapter on Edward Snowden has not yet been written. I hope that in the end history will see him as being more like Daniel Ellsberg and less like Jane Fonda.

The author of letter two asks why we should allow a criminal to speak to our boys. That is an important question because it cuts to the heart of the civil disobedience issue. I hope that somewhere during your high school career, you will study Antigone, Thoreau, Gandhi, and especially this month, Dr. Martin Luther King in order to understand what happens when a just man or woman confronts an unjust law. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a primer on the importance of nonviolent resistance. It is a reminder that acts of conscience always have consequences.

The last letter writer raises what are for me the most difficult questions. Whom should we invite to speak at Laidlaw Hall? And upon what basis do we make such invitations? Last year Bill Cosby would have been a coup. This year he is a pariah. We wouldn’t invite Stalin or Hitler or Holocaust deniers. But would we invite Richard Nixon or Mao Zedong? This is where things get interesting. Would we offer speaking time to a scientist who doesn’t believe in global warming? (I tend to be a bit more libertarian about issues like this, but I also know that some of my colleagues disagree, some quite passionately — on what they would see as our promoting “bad science”.) At the same time I worry about double standards and wonder why we often hear about the “hard right” but never about the “hard left.” Is there an implicit orthodoxy to which we all adhere?

I was initially opposed to Columbia University’s inviting Iran’s then president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the leader of an oppressive regime, but in hindsight, I was wrong. When in front of a packed press conference in NYC, Ahmadinejad announced that there were no gay people in Iran, the audience erupted in laughter, and he appeared visibly shaken by the response. (I guess not many people chuckled in Tehran when he made those kinds of statements!) So there may be value in inviting people with whom you disagree, and the value can cut both ways.

I should also mention that, in this spirit of openness and balance, we do want to have someone speak to us from the other side of the Snowden argument, someone who will talk about the importance of comprehensive governmental surveillance.

We are extraordinarily lucky to live in a country where people with different viewpoints, backgrounds, and perspectives are accepted and affirmed. Just last Friday, for example, I was struck by even the linguistic diversity of our students; among those running for the 6 stewards’ positions were individuals whose first language was French, Italian, Russian, and Mandarin.

Our job, though, is to do more than just try the chopsticks, nibble on the croissants, pass the pasta, and sample the stroganoff; celebrating cultural richness goes far beyond lauding culinary delights. We should try to promote discussion and understanding and provide time and space for reflection and debate on a whole host of issues from a great variety of perspectives. That is one way for us to live up to our aspirational mission of “igniting curiosity, imaginations, and passion.”

There are other places where such an approach would be unthinkable. There are parts of the world where those who disagree are intentionally marginalized or imprisoned or killed. But if democracy means anything, it means we willingly give others– even those with whom we have profound disagreements — the freedom to think and speak for themselves. The rest, of course, the hard part, is up to you. We trust you’ll think things through and come to your own conclusions, even on some of the more difficult topics.

From a distance, we may appear guilty of institutional inconsistency in giving air-time to someone with whom we have serious disagreements. While there may be some moral ambiguity in the air, I’ll end this morning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

I believe you are first rate.

I believe you are up for the challenge.

The Fugitive

February 3, 2015

Like a lot of the folks who walked into Laidlaw Hall last night, I had mixed feelings about Edward Snowden.  (And if emails from a few angry Old Boys are any indication, “mixed” might be the most pleasant way of describing how some alumni viewed UCC’s hosting the world’s most famous fugitive!)

Snowden’s argument is simple and straightforward: while surveillance is necessary (Remember he did work for the NSA), it needs to be limited because the unchecked accumulation of “mega-data” can undermine our democratic values. “If these (surveillance) agencies aren’t accountable to the public, then to whom are they accountable?”

The larger issue Snowden presents is as old as Antigone. What does an individual do when he believes the government’s laws are unjust? Snowden reminded us that Mandela went to jail for breaking the laws of South African apartheid.

As bright and cheerful as Snowden was – despite the fact that it was 4:30 am Moscow time—I found myself wondering about the price he has paid, and the price he may still need to pay for following his conscience. As clear as his thesis was last night, Snowden’s message might be more convincing if he were willing to meet the full cost that civil disobedience demands.

Ernie’s Attitude

January 26, 2015

In honour of “International Languages Week” this morning the weatherman said, “Today’s cold blast of air is a result of El Nino, which for those of you who don’t speak Spanish means ‘The Nino’.” (Forgive me.)

Ernie Banks died this week. You may not recognize the name, but for baseball aficionados, Banks belongs on the Mount Rushmore of all time greats. The best power hitting shortstop of the 20th century, the 11-time all-star is remembered and celebrated, not so much his many athletic accomplishments – as impressive as they are — as he is for his infectious, unconquerable optimism.

One opening day, after the Cubs had just come back from beautiful spring training weather in Arizona, they were facing the Cardinal’s intimidating ace Bob Gibson on cold, gray Chicago day. When it started snowing in the 6th inning, a teammate remembers Ernie’s saying, “Isn’t this a great day. We’ll keep nice and cool, so we don’t get overheated.”

Some fortunate folks are apparently born with an optimistic inclination; sunshine is in their DNA. But for most of us, disposition is a more of a deliberate matter. We have to make a conscious decision about our mindset, and my point this morning is that attitude, mindset, approach — call it what you will — is actually something we can control. We are not a “victim of the fates”.

If you’ve studied “Hamlet,” you may remember the young prince’s telling his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Act 2, Scene 2) For all his dithering, Hamlet was no dope. He was on to something there. Remember, too, that Rosa Parks didn’t sit down because she got tired. She thought about it. Her decision to change was intentional. You can take that same approach with your own attitude.

Scientists believe that one of the ways you can adjust your thinking is by consciously trying to cultivate a sense of gratitude, and they have identified an “attitude of gratitude” as one of the keys to cultivating an optimistic spirit, one of the most powerful antidotes to depression. If you can get into the habit of noting things for which you are grateful, even simple things, you can actually adjust your disposition’s “factory setting.” For example, if you are presently thinking, “Golly, I love listening to the principal talk at assemblies. I sure hope he goes long this morning!” you’ve probably got a positive, if somewhat dubious mindset!

In the course of your life, you may bump into a handful of people, who like Ernie Banks, remain optimistic despite unfortunate circumstances. (The Cubs were almost always abysmal throughout Banks’ career, yet “Mr. Cub” predicted a pennant each and every spring.) Chris Taylor, an Old Boy from the class of ’71 and former UCC colleague, is the most upbeat man I know, despite the fact that he’s had to deal with some daunting health challenges. He has taken what he has learned and is now helping others who are facing their own health crises. He is “making a difference” in a profoundly positive way. If you are lucky, you may have a friend like Chris, someone who has climbed off the emotional roller coaster of life, and despite “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” made the conscious decision to be positive.

This decision is not always easy; it’s requires more than just jumping on the “Up with People” bandwagon. An extreme example comes to us from Auschwitz, where next week survivors of the death camp will gather on the 70th anniversary of their liberation. These men and women have been gathering every decade since 1955, and now that they are all in their 90’s (some are over 100), they have decided that this will be their final reunion.

Victor Frankl, after Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous of the Auschwitz survivors, wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a gripping book in which he details his experiences in the death camp. Frankl comes to the conclusion that, even under the worst possible experiences imaginable, there is still what he called ultimate freedom. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The wisdom of a Holocaust survivor might be a lot to take in on a Monday morning in late January, but you have a choice right now. You can look out the windows of Laidlaw Hall this morning and see nothing but a cold, gray, inhospitable sky. Or you might choose to see something entirely different. When friends from my hometown of Philadelphia ask about how I cope with the Canadian winter, I like to tell them that, at the risk of imitating a cheesy sitcom, “It’s Always Sunny in Toronto” – regardless of the weather.

A Conversation, a Movie, and an Obituary

January 6, 2015

This morning I’d like to talk about a conversation, a movie, and an obituary, all of which were a part of my day last Friday.

First, the conversation: I happened to bump into a UCC dad Friday morning at a coffee shop downtown, and as I nursed a Grande Pike, he talked quite openly about his son. Perhaps it was because it was an impromptu chat, or maybe it was because we were off campus, but for whatever reason, he spoke freely about his son’s experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly of high school life. One thing seemed particularly important to him, and he ended our conversation by saying, “I’d be lying if I said my son and his friends were always perfect. They’re not. But the one thing I do know is that they are there for each other.  If they are out socially and someone is doing something stupid, someone will confront him. They really do look out for one another.”

Later that day I saw the film “Unbroken.” Some of you may have seen the movie or read Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel. For those of you who haven’t, it’s the story of an extraordinary man, Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, (he competed in the 1936 Olympics) who becomes a soldier and eventually a prisoner of war during World War 2. As the title suggests, Louis has an incredible capacity for endurance. Whether he is floating in a dingy for a mind-numbing, spirit-sapping 47 days of sharks and storms, or being brutally beaten by an almost demonic prison guard, Louis remains a paragon of resiliency. He is the man who will not break.

After watching Angelina Jolie’s movie, you can’t help but wonder about the source of Zamperini’s remarkable inner strength.  There are some hints. Louis had, for one thing, a strong religious faith that sustained him during his time of trials. But there was something else that kept him going, too.

Early in the film, we see that Louis was no angel; as an early adolescent, he was caught drinking and stealing. (Were he a UCC student today, he might well be spending some time with Mr. Williams!) One day, though, his older brother, Pete, steps in and changes the course of Louis’ life. Pete sees something in Louis that Louis does not recognize in himself. Louis has a gift. He can run.

Pete not only affirms his younger brother’s athletic promise, but he also becomes his de facto trainer, and he is there to cheer him on, as Louis becomes a track star in high school, in university, and eventually at the Berlin Olympic Games.

Friday, I also happened to come across the obituary of Mario Cuomo, the former governor of the state of New York, the man who could have been — and some might argue should have been — president. Cuomo had the Democratic nomination for the asking in 1992, but he decided not to pursue the position because he wrongly believed the incumbent, George H. W. Bush, was unbeatable after liberating Kuwait. I say “wrongly” because a brash upstart from Arkansas upended Bush ‘41 in the general election that year, and Mario Cuomo, the so-called “Hamlet on the Hudson” because of his tendency to deliberate, had to spend the rest of his life wondering “What if?”

In 1984, I heard Mario Cuomo deliver a graduation speech at my alma mater, and his words still resonate 30 years later. At the time it felt like he was talking directly to me when he said,

“…This world of ours … is a threatened place, bleeding and broken, in pain. Not for all, however. For some inscrutable reason there are those of us who always seem in this great game of life to fall on the safe squares. To escape the real tragedies. And many of you, I’m sure, will be among the lucky players.

You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have a skill; not enough to have read all the good books, even all the great books; not enough to know all the important facts or mouth all the nice humanitarian sentiments that liberal arts graduates are supposed to memorize…. This place (college) was justified because it had something special to say, and what it had to say was that you are supposed to love openly, freely, absolutely with all of your heart and all of your will, not because it’s a nice thing to do and it will help you to keep your sanity, but because your souls are at stake, because without that love we will perish…”

This is pretty lofty stuff, even for a politician, but on Friday I found myself thinking about Cuomo’s words, and about UCC boys’ standing up for one another, and about Pete Zamperini’s looking out for his kid brother.

The common thread is a fundamental question: What do we owe one another? What are our mutual obligations? For instance, when a classmate starts to go over the edge at a party, what are we supposed to do? When a not yet charming lad stumbles socially in front of his peers, how do we help him out? If there is someone whose name we don’t know, and he or she seems to be in vulnerable situation on a Saturday night, what are we called to do?

And what are our obligations to the Louis Zamperini’s  who are hidden in plain sight among us right here in Laidlaw Hall this Tuesday morning? Their gifts may not involve athletic potential, but there are boys in this room who roll through these halls for the most part unseen and unrecognized; the real pity is that they don’t see or recognize their own goodness, their own talents.  What do we owe these guys? What role might we play in helping them through the sharks and storms of high school life?

As we start this New Year together, let’s heed Mario Cuomo’s advice.  Let’s be there for one another. Let’s affirm the goodness and talents – not just for those on Lonsdale Road –but for others, and especially for those who have landed on life’s less than lucky squares.

“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.


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