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.”