Band of Brothers

Welcome back. I hope you had a great weekend, and I hope the Jewish and Christian members of our communities were able to enjoy their holy days with family and friends.

This morning I want to tell you a quick story about Joe and the lost keys. Around midnight one night, Joe realized he had lost his keys, so he left his home and retraced his steps to a nearby lamppost and under this post, in the middle of the night, he began to look for his keys.

First, he took a systematic approach. He took out some chalk and marked “A to Z” across top and then down the side he wrote the numbers 1 to 100. He then made a giant grid of boxes, and checked in each box, but he couldn’t find his keys.

Then Joe tried the behavioralist approach; he put a Snickers bar in each of the A to Z/ 1 to 100 boxes, and he rewarded himself with a candy bar after he had thoroughly double checked each of the boxes. Joe’s blood sugar increased dramatically, but as you probably guessed, he still couldn’t find the keys.

Joe then decided to take an educational approach: He took out his Iphone and used “google” to do some research. He studied topics such as “the history of keys,” and he explored the notion of “key as metaphor.” Again, he felt enlightened, but he was still keyless.

Finally a friend happened by, and after a brief conversation the friend asked, “Where did you actually lose your keys?” To which Joe replied, “Oh, I lost them about a mile down the road. But I’m looking for them here because the light is so good.”

Ok. I didn’t say it was a good story, but it does reveal a truth: No one likes to look in the dark. Maybe it’s because we are afraid of what we might see. I don’t know if it was this thought, or the fear that I am turning into an educational bureaucrat that has prompted me to spend some time recently in what might be UCC’s dark place. It’s the area where an admissions tour is least likely to lead a visitor. Yes, I have been downstairs in the locker rooms.

My hunch is that, if you went to any school any where at any time and asked, “Where is your school’s lofty mission least likely to be in full swing?” the answer would probably be in the basement area. Someone once described these as places where, “The strong do what they will; the weak suffer what they must.”

From my perch down in the corner next to the Music Room, I have discovered that things aren’t quite so bad at UCC; as a matter of fact, I’ve been pretty happy, in general, with the level of decorum I’ve experienced in our subterranean world. Yes, a lad will occasionally dangle a participle, and sometimes a wayward boy will even forget that a gerund takes the possessive case, but even when these sorts of moral aberrations occur, most scholars accept gentle correction with good grace. And if there has been one positive for me, it’s that I’ve enjoyed getting to know some students who would never ever make their way up towards the principal’s office to pop in and say hello.

But there is also one thing that has surprised me. It is something you refer to as “chirping,” a word a student defined as “the continuous put downs a student experiences; sometimes they are funny, but usually they are not.” For some reason, rowers, in particular, seem to get chirped quite a bit. It may be that they are more exhausted after their daily 5 am workouts, and, therefore, more vulnerable than the rest of us. But I’m not sure.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing at all wrong with having a good sense of humour or with engaging in a bit of witty repartee. But if you are a chirper, I want you to think a little bit about what it’s like to be on the other side of the equation. Some of you are verbally facile and are able to cut and slice and dice other guys up before they know what hits them. And when called on to explain things, most chirpers will say that they are just having a little fun. They’ll say it doesn’t mean anything. They think — and they may actually believe this — that their classmates aren’t bothered by this.

I asked a particularly aggressive chirper to stop by my office recently, and before we started our conversation, I asked him why he thought I’d asked for the meeting. He looked at me and had a tremble in his voice, when he said, “It’s about my geo test, isn’t it?” (If truth be told, I wasn’t aware that he was even taking Geography, let alone that he’d punted on a recent test.) I mention this only to reinforce the notion that some of our more intimidating students, are not even slightly aware that their behaviour really bothers others students.

I also want you to know that the cumulative pounding some guys get is more than bothersome, that it affects how they feel about school, about their classmates, and sometimes even about themselves. The constant putdowns can make a boy feel like he doesn’t belong, that he is not a part of things.

I don’t want to be an alarmist or to exaggerate what, in some instances, is a normal phase in adolescent development. Way back when I was playing basketball in high school — intramurals, I might add — I almost always heard the phrase “air-ball” before, during, and after I took my not so sweet jump shot. More often than not, this was an accurate expression of reality, and I chalked this up to enduring the normal “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that we all learn to live with.

But I recently came across, what I think are some alarming statistics that suggest that, in a typical high school, 25% of all students are unhappy because they feel they don’t fit in. I don’t know if we are any better than that, (I’d like to think we are.) but if even 1 out of every 10 students here feels lousy, then that number is way, way too high for what we want to be at UCC.

My point this morning is that, as innocuous as you might find it, the constant put downs, the ridiculing, the criticizing – it all undermines everything we want for you. And I want you to think about two questions:

First, do I tend to chirp one or two guys, and if so, is it possible that they don’t find this as funny as I do?

Second, why am I chirping these guys? Is this part of a back and forth way of relating to someone whom I think of as a friend, or am I doing it just to get a cheap laugh at the other guy’s expense?

For us to succeed as a school, we have ALL got to succeed. That means, we have to be comfortable. We have to feel like we belong. We have to feel accepted, even if someone else thinks we have the wrong clothes, background, or personality. You, of course, don’t have to pretend to be best friends with everyone, but you also don’t have the right to constantly put another guy down. You may think it’s funny, and occasionally a zinger might make some of your friends laugh, but in the very best boys schools — and that’s what we want to be — you’ll experience a deep and profound sense of belonging. I know that sounds corny, but it is what it is, and it’s why high school, in particular, means so much to old boys who have graduated from boys schools. It’s where they were so much a part of things. It’s where they belonged.

John Thomas, who was a great UCC teacher and coach and an even better guy, passed away two years ago, and in addition to bequeathing me a lifetime supply of Duke basketball game video tapes from the 80’s and 90’s, he left me one framed poster. It is over the door in my office. It’s a picture of the 2005-2006 Duke Basketball Team, and across the top of the frame are the words, “Band of Brothers.” I think John left that to me for a reason beyond my fondness for Coach K. Brothers may disagree with each other occasionally, and they may give one another the jazz from time to time, but they are always there for one another, through thick and thin, through good times and bad, in Laidlaw Hall and even in the locker rooms.


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