Last week a politician made a mistake when she talked about UCC’s Ontario Model Parliament and our use of Queens Park; the government official got her facts wrong, branded us as elitist, and as of yet, has refused to apologize for her error. (We’ve all had bad days!)
When Mr. Kawasoe discussed this with the Prep boys on Friday, he stressed some familiar themes: “Do your research. Find the facts, and be knowledgeable. When you make a mistake, apologize and make it right.”
As usual, Mr. Kawasoe was dead on, but with an older audience here this morning, I’d like to add one more variable to the mix, and I apologize if my argument sounds shallow. I want to talk about impressions and perceptions.
We know that there are people out there — good people by the way –who don’t like the notion of private schools in general, and have a dislike for schools like UCC in particular. These folks see us as the sons of Bertie Wooster, entitled toffs, who hold our smug noses in the air, as we lap our lattes and gaze disapprovingly down on all the “littles” who approach but never quite feel comfortable enough to enter through our wrought iron gates. Even our geographic location suggests privilege: Avenue Road, the main North South thoroughfare in the biggest city in the country, literally bends to our collective will. There is, after all, no “welcome” sign outside our version of Downton Abbey!
Throw in the fact that we also happen to be a single gender school, and a boys school at that, and you can almost understand why the very thought of UCC’s blue blooded, blue blazered. “Pass me the Grey Poupon,” old boy connected culture has some folks racing for the Pepto Bismol. God bless us, everyone!
We may see UCC in a different light, and while privately we might find solace in our socio-economic diversity and our commitment to service, we have to acknowledge that those things don’t make headlines. As a student once told me, “No matter what we do, we will always be seen through the shadow of the clock-tower.”
If that student is right, and I think there is some truth in what he said, I want to offer 4 simple suggestions this morning.
Simple Suggestion One: If entitlement is our original sin, then we should do everything we can to counter any sense of collective arrogance. I suggest we start small. If you see a stranger in the foyer who looks a little lost, stop and ask him if he needs some help. If he doesn’t know where he is going, don’t just point to an office; take the time to walk him there. Little things mean a lot. Forgive me for a utilitarian bent even with this, but university representatives, for example, are often influenced, not just by the boys they interview but also by the student body they observe during their time on campus.
Simple Suggestion Two: One of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite books is the description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan from “The Great Gatsby.”
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
I confess that carelessness is a big issue for me, in part because when I was a kid, my grandfather worked in the maintenance department at Ardmore Avenue Public School. My first introduction to the world of schools was through his eyes. I was sensitive to how the Ardmore Avenue kids treated him and “his” school.
I know that adolescence can be a sloppy stage of life, but can I ask you to do me a favour: at least when you are at school, I’d like you to go out of your way to pick up after yourselves. For example, when lunch is ending in the Student Centre, remember to throw your trash away. It says all the wrong things if you go Tom and Daisy on us and let other people, especially those considered lower on the ladder, clean up the mess. That sort of blind carelessness reinforces all the wrong things.
Simple Suggestion Three: A few years ago, I had a conversation with a UCC boy, as he was heading off to a particularly exclusive university. The boy was somewhat introverted, and as someone with the same disposition myself, I readily admit there is nothing at all wrong with intensely enjoying your own company. But my advice to the old boy was this: If you don’t greet people a little more warmly, if you don’t extend yourself just a little bit more socially, you run the risk of being perceived as aloof. Because he’d been at UCC for years, people knew and accepted him for what he was. But when you go to a new environment, where people don’t know you and all they perceive is that you are part of an exclusive club, your reticence might be misinterpreted. If that resonates with you, you might consider pushing yourself just a bit to connect with others.
Simple Suggestion Four: Let’s admit that the most effective antidote to arrogance is a sense of humility. You may not have experienced this yet, but eventually life teaches every one of us the centrality of this virtue. We all age, and fail, and fall apart, and lose friends and games and jobs and teeth and hair and so much more. The best people I know are those who learned humility early in life. In the process, they came to know themselves, and they avoided what Walker Percy once called, the “great suck of self.” They grasped the truth that life isn’t about my hair, my face, my transcript, my future, my recommendations, my university applications, or even my IB score — as impressive as all of these might be! Remember, as David Brooks points out in “The Road to Character” that Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. We’ve got to make ourselves small in order to really appreciate the grand landscape of humanity that’s all around us – that we are a small part of.
And finally, don’t forget to say thank you. As an example, last Thursday night we had our annual reunion for Old Boys in NYC, and one of those in attendance was Devin Hart. Devin was on the football and rugby teams, and he was head steward. But he was an especially good musician, and an even better guy. When I asked him what advice he’d offer today’s students, here’s what he said:
So my handy dandy “kids DO try this at home” take-aways for today are:
1. Say hello to and perhaps even help a stranger
2. Remember Tom and Daisy and don’t go “Lord Grantham” on me
3. Extend yourself, even if you are shy.
4. The most interesting man in the world used to say “Stay thirsty, my friends”. Today he’s saying, “Stay humble, my friend.” Be your best down to earth self every day.
5. Remember to say thank you.
None of this will radically alter the fate of western civilization. The Leafs still may not make the playoffs next year. But remember Coach Wooden’s advice: ”It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”