Be the Beep

Good morning. Today is the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It is 1 of the 10 high holy days of the Jewish year, and traditionally this begins on Sunday evening with the blowing of the Shofar or ram’s horn. This sounding is supposed to wake us from our slumber, so that we might be more attentive to God in our day-to-day lives. That’s a good thought for all of us to keep in mind.

I’d like to show you a commercial about a new kind of tire, tell you about something that happened on campus last week, and then try to show a link between them.

First, the commercial: You may have seen the 30-second promo for the Nissan Altima, a tire that actually beeps when it is fully inflated. This new technology makes it almost impossible for you to make a bad decision, at least as far as your wheels are concerned.

This is one of those “Joe Everyman” commercials, so watch closely as our anonymous protagonist, a Willy Loman of Wheels if you will, makes – or almost makes—bad decisions at work, in the bathroom, at the poker table, and even out on a date. In each instance, he is miraculously saved from himself by a beep.

The not so-subtle message here is that, if everything worked as well as the Nissan Altima, our lives would be better.

Those of you who have been in the Upper School for a while know that I frequently talk about the importance of having a personal pause button, something to help us stop and think before acting. The Altima technology, the next generation of pause button if you will, is good, but the Nissan folks are on to something in suggesting that there is a need for these gizmos that goes far beyond your wheel base.

Which leads me to last Monday:

It was a beautiful early autumn afternoon, and I found myself on one of the benches out in front of the Upper School during lunchtime, watching a familiar scene. Middle year boys on the Prep Field and Upper School students on the turf formed an apparently happy and fluid water-coloured collage of soccer, baseball, football, fort, and Frisbee. I was thinking that Norman Rockwell could do something wonderful with this scene, when one of my colleagues, a long serving member of our buildings and grounds team, approached me with fire in his eyes.

“Those guys,” he said, pointing towards a crowd of students standing in front of a soccer goal, “I told them to stop pulling on the new nets, but they not only ignored me. They actually laughed at me.”

My colleague’s pain instantly triggered something visceral in me; I could feel my adrenalin surge and my heartbeat quicken. His anger had already become my own, as I began to walk towards the boys who had apparently shown up a colleague and friend. Had I been instantly beside those boys, I might have said something I would later regret. But I was lucky. I had to walk across the field, and that 40-yard stroll gave me the time I needed to collect my wits.

As I walked down the hill, I noticed that some of the students in question had already begun to slowly disappear into the crowds that were milling about the field. A handful of more courageous students, though, stood their ground, and when I reached them, they seemed to know what was coming next.

Like I said, I was lucky. That short walk gave me the chance to hit my pause button, but I had to hit it several times because I was so deeply disturbed by what I had just heard. It was only days later, as I tried to think through all this in preparation for this morning’s chat with you, that I finally understood why my response to this was so strong. While I was right to be disturbed by what had happened, my emotional response to it was probably disproportionate to the offense.

Let me explain why. I have spent my life in and about schools, but my very first memory of school involved my grandfather’s taking me to his place of work, the Ardmore Avenue Public School. I was 4 or 5 at the time, but I still remember how nice the elementary schools students were to my grandfather. I still remember being startled when the boys and girls greeted him as “Mr. Woods” because I had never thought of my “Grandad” as ever having any other name. But those boys and girls were kind and courteous and respectful of Mr. Woods, the janitor at the Ardmore Avenue School.

Anyway, thanks to that walk, I managed to calm myself down enough to have a reasonably coherent conversation with the boys in question. They quickly grasped the severity of the situation and recognized their need to make amends.

I hope you can see the dotted line connecting the tire commercial to what happened on the turf. A couple of guys made a very bad decision out by that goal post. They did so impulsively. We can debate their intentions but not the results.

While I in no way see the action of a couple of boys as representing the actions of the student body as a whole, what they did still troubles me, and I hope this bothers you, too, because we all know that this kind of thing would not have happened had these boys been addressed by someone with an office or a title. I don’t think Dr. Churchward or Dr. Kinnear would have experienced what my colleague on the buildings and grounds department had to endure last week.

All of this came about for two reasons: First, the individuals who showed a lack of respect for a staff member acted on a whim, and their instant response revealed a very disturbing and very ugly world-view, one where social status determines respect.

The second lapse, though, has to do with the wider group. There was no beep to be heard on the turf last Monday. Because technology can’t warn us during social situations, we have to rely on one another. Last Monday we needed just one boy to step up to say just one word. That might have been enough to prevent a very ugly incident from taking place. In those kinds of social situations, an Altima is useless. You are not.

So my two takeaways for today are:

First, keep your pause button handy, especially when you feel yourself becoming emotional. If you can’t find that button, take a walk. That can do the trick, too.

Second, understand that there will be times when you will need to stand up and step in. When you find yourself in a social situation where things are heading south, or turning ugly, you can’t just walk away or hide in the crowd or rationalize your own passivity. If we really never walk alone, we owe it to one another to be there for one another. Sometimes that will require us to stick our neck out. Remember, you don’t have to deliver a state of the union speech. Sometimes just a quick, “Knock it off” or “My friend didn’t really meant that” or even a simple “Yo!” will do. If the vocabulary evades us in the moment and all else fails, we can remember that goofy tire commercial. Better yet, we can go Gandhi and “Be the Beep.”


6 thoughts on “Be the Beep

  1. I remember the Principal at a Toronto boys’ school (a friendly school to UCC) advising the boys to please walk carefully on the new yellow floor because their polished black dress shoes were scuffing it and making it difficult for the caretakers to clean it at night.

    Two days later I saw a young boy (third grade) outside my office window, just out of my line of sight. He was crouched down on the ground… so, as any passionate teacher should, I kept watching him to see that he was alright and hopefully to learn what had caught his attention. As I watched, he painstakingly removed three scuffs from the floor using his finger and saliva, taking about three minutes each. He would have kept going, but recess ended and he had to return to class.

    For the next hours and days I thought about whether to let him know that I had caught him in the act of doing something kind. As his science and physical education teacher I knew that he was a boy of the highest character; what I had seen had just reaffirmed my belief.

    Most times I work very hard to let a boy know what is good in him. However, rightly or wrongly, on this occasion I let the kindness go unmentioned. After all, it is usually what we do when nobody is looking that makes us great; to have someone notice when we hope to be unnoticed in kindness may somehow tarnish that greatness.

    I no longer wonder what I should have done; rather, I wonder if the smile that radiates from that boy whenever I see him on my visits back to that school originates, at some level, from him knowing that he is good – even when no one is looking.

    1. Mr. Brown,
      I remember that yellow floor. No boy could have helped leaving scuff marks on it. Those marks were not marks of disrespect, they were the inevitable outcome of 300 boys in black school shoes forced to walk the yellow floor to return to class after assembly. The flooring choice was unwise. The boy who cleaned the floor with his saliva is an example of a child made to feel anxious and responsible due to the constant berating,not advising, in assembly about the yellow floor. We were very fond of the staff who had to clean the floor and it was the rare boy who would have purposely left scuff marks. Those marks on the floor were the same as footprints in the sand. It is difficult to walk in the sand without leaving footprints.

  2. This is definitely ‘not too strong’. We’ve worked hard at my school to frequently recognize support staff – kitchen, maintenance/facilities, bus drivers – in front of/with the students & teachers to reinforce that we are all one school family…and in many cases to let them know who they are/see their faces/know what they do. Mutual respect is a given, but never taken for granted. So, in addition to this admonition/reminder/request, perhaps invite your prefects to consider how they might approach this going forward?

  3. Great story.

    But adults don’t confront their peers when they seem doing something oafish or uncivil, so it’s hard for boys to do so. The boy that does is very special, and strong.

  4. I totally disagree. Your first reaction was the best one.
    My grandfather was an inheritor of his father-in-law’s Fortune 500 company, as well as a reputed descendant of extremely high European royalty, and yet I have the same initial reaction to the situation with the boys that you did.
    I believe the reaction of anger to this situation is one more of a righteous anger (and believe me I am not a “true believer” type).
    I think that the fact that the boys understood the error of their ways through a conversation with you simply evidenced that they know how to better play the situation, and will know better how to appear to be “good guys”,
    “really nice people” in the future. Kids like this were lost, truly, way before middle school. I miss old school teachers like Mr. Meikle and I think most of the good mothers have been lost to the workforce.
    I don’t know what the answer to all of this is, but I think you have captured an off-kilter picture of the situation.

    All the best,


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