Thoughts From Inside the Dunk Tank

Just emptying out the psychic sock drawer from the first month of school, and found a few lose threads:

First: Last week I heard Pat Bassett, the president of the National Association of Independent Schools, talk about how it will become increasingly important for schools to teach their students to become “cosmopolitan.” Cosmopolitan is not a word I use all that often; I associate it with French berets, filter-less cigarettes, and slowly paced British dramas. But Pat went on to explain that cosmopolitans are individuals with the ability to live and work easily in a variety of cultures, and he offered one example of how things can go wrong, when we aren’t aware of or sensitive to cultural nuances.

At an international school in Japan, they had had a problem in their languages department, a department composed of 4 Japanese teachers and 1 American. (You can already see where this is going, can’t you?)

The department had to select a new department chair, and the first person to be considered, of course, was the most senior Japanese faculty member who said, “I could not possibly accept this honour. I am not able to head this great department at this wonderful school.” Remember that in Japan, deference and humility are important cultural values. When each subsequent Japanese teacher was offered the position, it was the same deferential response. Finally, when the offer was made to the American, he immediately said, “Sure! I’ll give it a try!”

The new chair was delighted. His colleagues, though, were crushed, but nobody said anything. The chair’s joy was short-lived, however, because when he called for a department meeting, nobody showed up. When he sent out emails, no one responded. And when he left voice mails, nobody called back. A week later, he resigned from the position, and after another extended, humility-filled departmental meeting, the senior member of the department reluctantly accepted the post.

My first question for you this morning is this: We are blessed with boys from 24 countries. Are there ways we might take greater advantage of this great diversity? Are there things we could do, approaches we could take, that will help all of us become more cosmopolitan?

Point 2: As a belated Christmas present, a colleague – who shall remain nameless — gave me a book on how to become a more compassionate human being. (I am not making this stuff up.) I wasn’t quite sure just how to accept a gift of this nature, but I did read the book, and I hope you will notice a profound difference in my behaviour over the course of the next few weeks.

The book begins with a news story about a boy who had become lost in the Colorado woods during the dead of winter. As hypothermia set in, and he began to freeze to death, he saw emerging, ghostlike out of the swirling snow, two large elk. (Having never seen an elk, I had to go to my google machine to find out what they were, and to any city boys out there, let me say that elk look like deer on steroids.) Feebly, he threw stones at them, shouting until his voice gave way. Then he lost consciousness.

Early the next morning, he awoke to find himself sandwiched between the two great beasts, who had laid their warm bodies next to his, through what would have been a fatal night.

That’s what he told the search team, when he staggered into a clearing and was rescued. The rescuers, though, were naturally skeptical; hallucinations are often a side effect of extreme stress. But when he led them back to his sleeping spot, they found there, in the snow, the concavities made by two enormous animals, with an imprint from the small boy in between.

Compassion, then, may flow from something deep within our common biological roots, but there are times when it seems to be in short supply. For instance, during a recent Republican debate, a crowd cheered wildly when it was announced that Texas leads the nation in rates of execution. Closer to home, last week some of our fans were jeering a visiting player, after his team had fallen hopelessly behind. In these cases, we aren’t dealing with bad people, but we sometimes end up behaving badly when we have the anonymity of a group. My read of human nature is that we are compassionate as individuals, but group-think or group behavior seldom brings out the better angels of our nature.

Point 3: The realization on group think and group behaviour crystallized for me on Saturday afternoon, as I was sinking to the bottom of the dunk tank. Let me offer just one dunk tank observation: I was surprised by the look of almost demonic glee on the faces of small, otherwise innocent children, children who seemed to delight in the possibility of dunking a mild mannered bureaucrat. I found myself thinking, “I don’t even know these kids, and they clearly don’t know me well enough to muster up a healthy sense of hatred. If it were Pete Hannon or Alex Malone firing baseballs at me, I get it completely. If I had the chance, I’d be throwing the split finger back at them, too. But these were apparently angelic pre-adolescents, and yet there they were, just thrilled just to see someone get soaked.” It was not an uplifting observation, and it made me wish we had more Elk here for A Day.

Finally, the paradox of UCC is that what helps us with that first goal, cosmopolitanism, being home to talented boys from all over the world, may actually work against us when it comes to the second goal, promoting compassion. After all, if you find yourself surrounded by highly competitive, type A personalities, you may develop a little bit of an edge yourself. I can’t tell you the number of prospective parents who have told me, “I want my son to go to UCC but I don’t want him to become entitled or arrogant.” Years later, by the way, they almost always report that their son has remained the same humble and loveable lad he has always been.

But when we are in a group of highly confident individuals, isn’t it natural for us to imitate their swagger? Without giving it much thought, we can end up chirping those lower on the social ladder, or icing others who for some reason or other, don’t quite measure up to our high social standards.

There is a great line in our school hymn, “Praise My Soul” and it is this:

“Praise the Lord for grace and favor 
to all people in distress; 
praise God, still the same as ever, 
slow to chide, and swift to bless.”

That last line goes right to the heart of how all of us might be. If I had a tattoo, that line might be bicep worthy. Of course, we want to be cosmopolitan. I understand and applaud that as a worthy goal. But let’s also remember “Praise My Soul” and know that it’s not just God who is supposed to be “slow to chide, and swift to bless.”


One thought on “Thoughts From Inside the Dunk Tank

  1. To become truly cosmopolitan a child needs supportive parents, travel experience which includes living with residents of other countries and acquired fluency in two or more languages. If you grow up in some countries like Switzerland you need to acquire three languages to play with the other children. I met a Swedish waiter in Florence, Italy this summer who spoke Swedish, English, French and German.My wife speaks fluent Estonian and English because her immigrant parents spoke Estonian in the home. She acquired English at school and in the city of Toronto.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s