What Maketh a Man?

I was watching a Prep soccer match last Saturday, 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 had 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.  It may have been, “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 deep voice bellowed, “Fight. Fight. Hit him!” I quickly realized that the voice was coming from the father of one of the visiting team’s players, and I went over to talk with him.

“You’re not really encouraging them to fight, are you?” I asked. I don’t remember his exact response but it was something other 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.”

I do remember that he asked me who I was, and after I identified myself, I asked him for his name, which he refused to give.  It’s never a good scene when you’re with someone who won’t own up to his own identity. In hindsight, it was a perfectly ridiculous moment.

The soccer lad who quickly learned his lesson and the lacrosse dad who didn’t are just two of the many instances of impulsive incivility that are all around us these days.  Serena Williams threatens a line judge at the US Open. Joe Wilson harasses President Obama during a formal address. And Kanye West demeans and embarrasses Taylor Swift during her recent MTV award acceptance speech. You can probably rattle off a list of other examples, all of which contribute to the coarsening of our culture.

When Mr. Griffin told me he was forsaking me, and abandoning the good ship UCC because of his own blinding ambition, I asked him to tell me a bit about  his new school, Royal St. George’s, and one of the first things he quoted was their mantra, “Manners maketh the man.”

While I may have been taken back initially by the “maketh,”  (It’s 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 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 tea-cup; 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 language 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 begin the year together, it’s important to remember these truths because we need to consciously make them our habits. These habits, in turn, 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.


One thought on “What Maketh a Man?

  1. re. manners maketh the man: not quite. The article is left out and is instead “Manners Makyth Man”, the motto of Winchester College in Hampshire (www.winchestercollege.co.uk) circa 1394. The original founders of RSGC (no Royal then) were inspired by the motto of the great English public school. Curiously, Winchester has enjoyed a great reputation for scholarship rather than the “playing fields of Eton” moniker which suggests, if not implies, that character is built everywhere but the classroom. Maybe the scholarly approach has more to building character than we give it credit for.

    Adam de Pencier, English Department, Upper Canada College

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