Socks of Soul

I offer two items from my psychic sock drawer this morning:

First, David Bowie passed away this week at age 69. I was not the only kid of my g-g-g-generation, I’m sure, whose high school yearbook picture featured Bowie in the background. This made perfect sense to me; he was everything I was not: cool, confident, popular, and thoroughly comfortable in his own ambiguous skin. He was an artist/musician who articulated the angst of the adolescent outsider. And at 17, who doesn’t feel like he’s on the margins of social acceptability?

Music seemed to be particularly impactful during those formative years. It was not unusual to see cars with bumper stickers’ promoting specific radio stations, but these ads were never a plug for your parents’ news-talk or easy listening venues. No, they always featured edgy, progressive, “Change the channel if your mom is listening” music. That bumper sticker told the world who you were – or if we were more honest — who you wanted to be — and you wanted the world to know that you were one with WMMR, one with David Bowie.

Bowie’s passing reminds me of a particular time of life, a time of leisure suits (which I didn’t wear, really!) and baby blue tuxedoes (which I did. Alas!) Hey, it was the 70’s. You had to be there. If you want to understand something of Bowie, something of your parents, and perhaps even something about your own adolescent journey, listen to Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel.” And the wonder of 2016 is that, if your parents happen by, you won’t need to instinctively ask, “How the traffic on the QEW?” as you switch to 680 All News Radio!




Sock Two: After two US navy boats mistakenly entered Iranian waters last week, they were detained overnight, and then released, once the American commander apologized. An international fiasco was averted, and that’s the end of story, right? Not during an election year it isn’t. Some politicians are now making a big deal out of the fact that the sailors apologized to their Iranian captors.

(An aside: I wonder, were the situation reversed, if two Iranian vessels inadvertently drifted into waters off the coast of Boston, would those sailors be freed so quickly? And would a two- sentence apology be considered sufficient?)

This morning I’d like to tell you why it’s important to get into the habit of apologizing when you make a mistake, and share a personal short story that illustrates this point.

In the fall of 1994, I was in my first year as headmaster of a boys’ school in Washington, DC, a school similar in many ways to UCC’s upper school. I was 35. I was way too young, and I was way over my head.The students were passionate about arts, academics, and athletics, of course, but they were especially enthusiastic when it came to sports, and in particular football. The night before the biggest game of the year, a game against The Landon School , our arch rival, another boys school which was located just a couple of miles away, some of our guys did something stupid. To provide a sense of context, I need to first tell you that Landon is a wonderful school, and it features an extraordinarily beautiful campus, a campus, which is outlined by pristine white rocks. (You can tell where this is going, right?)

It’s never good to get a 7 AM phone call from another head of school, but that’s what I got the day of the big football game. The call came from someone who was then a stranger, Damon Bradley, the head at Landon, and he quickly informed me that someone had snuck on to their campus in the dead of night and painted the white rocks blue. My Spidey-sense suggested he knew who the guilty party was.

At the faculty meeting later that morning, I raised the issue with my new colleagues and asked for their collective wisdom. The first speaker suggested that we teach the boys lesson; he urged us to cancel the game. Others followed this theme and talked about the many downsides of interscholastic athletics; someone else went so far as to suggest we eliminate the athletic program altogether, and instead invest our energies in intramurals (house sports).

As this idea started to gain momentum, I could see the end of my administrative career. To eliminate a treasured program, a program intimately connected to the school’s identity, in my first year no less, would have been, I’m sure, the end of me. And then the senior master, Fr. Aloysius Galvin, SJ, a man blessed with a great sense of gravitas, stood up and proclaimed, “I would prefer we do away with Catholicism rather than athletics at this school.” Fr. Galvin, bless his since departed soul, carried the day.

After the faculty meeting, I met with our student leaders, their version of the board of stewards, to see what they thought we should do. Within minutes, the boys decided that we should go over to Landon’s campus, apologize in person to Mr. Bradley, and then repaint all of the rocks. And that’s what we did. (If memory serves me correctly, the local newspaper ended up doing a story on the whole event.)

Twenty-two years later, I can’t remember who actually won the “big game”, but I do remember Landon’s head’s graciously accepting our apology. For me this was the start of my friendship with Damon Bradley.

My primary take away this morning is a reminder that apologies are good for many, many reasons, but primarily they are good for the soul. They humble us, and in the process, they make us more available to and open to others. I’m not sure I would have ever been more than a professional acquaintance of Damon Bradley’s, but that goofy rock incident, our apology, and our messy attempt at making amends helped forge a meaningful connection.

I wouldn’t want you to think of apologies solely in terms of utility, but I have to tell you that all of this did, eventually connect me to 200 Lonsdale Road. A decade after the rock incident, when Mr. Blakey announced he was retiring as principal of UCC, it was Damon Bradley who called and encouraged me to pursue what he called a leadership opportunity at “a terrific boys school in Toronto.” Forgive me for my ignorance, but at the time, I had never heard of Upper Canada College. It was Damon Bradley who put me on to you!

When I think about that afternoon on Landon’s beautiful campus, I have to admit that it was more than a little embarrassing to be out there in the sun, slopping around with buckets of white paint in tow. As Landon parents drove by to pick up their sons, a few offered witty comments like. “Hey, Mr. Headmaster, I think you missed a rock over there!” I felt like a developmentally delayed Huckleberry Finn. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh.


If there is a thread that connects the two socks this morning, it’s this: Both speak to issues of the soul. Bowie sings about our brokenness, our personal and communal shortcomings. To express sorrow at our own inadequacy then is just a recognition of the human condition. Developing the habit of apologizing when we are wrong, whether we are members of a spiffy school or a part of a global navy, is a way to be true to ourselves and true to one another. With some humility and a little practice, it’s can be easy as painting rocks.


19 thoughts on “Socks of Soul

  1. I too LOVE Bowie, and share your memories of the 1970’s. Your thoughts on apologizing are so well written and true – they lift up my Monday morning to a whole other level.
    Thanks Jim.

  2. You’re right – learning to apologize is a good thing … and hard to do for many adults so good to learn as a kid for sure!

  3. Hi Mr. Chips!
    I don’t know what I would have done about the rocks. But I can’t believe the Faculty’s initial response..

  4. Just read this to my husband and he is now calling for the firing of Prep’s faculty with their silly suggestions – I guess he was thinking it would be retroactive 20 years).

  5. Apologize?
    I know what Trump would call you.
    And Cruz would have carpet bombed Landon.

    Does UCC know that you’re headed off to middle America?

  6. Wonderful talk! Your humor and informality win me over! Anyway, who other than you, me, and the other geezers is going to appreciate Daltrey’s amphetamine stutter in “my g-g-g-generation?” Though, on second thought, this may represent a crucial difference between these times and when we grew up.

    My parents liked Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Tony Bennett. I like that stuff, too, but The Who, much less Ziggy Stardust, made no sense to them. But now I play music in my classroom before class begins—everything from Brubeck to Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” to Gorillaz—and my students are always interested and, often, knowledgeable. “Hey, is that ‘Sweet Black Angel’ from ‘Exile on Main Street?’” There isn’t the same generational divide. They don’t “Hope I die before I get old.”

    I remember, though, my parents coming home from having been out for the evening with some younger friends. They told me, “We heard two new groups at this little club, and you know, they weren’t bad at all. One was called ‘The Mommas and the Papas’ and the other had these strange names—what were they again? Simon and Gar-something.”

    I like what you say about apologies, and can relate. I’m sure you try to teach your boys that candor and a stand-up attitude does your soul more good, and makes a better impression (on the magnanimous, at least), than evasion or self-justification. Sometimes, oftentimes, I think that if we can teach the kids to be those archaic things, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll have done something much more important than getting them into Dartmouth. Not exactly what Mick and Kieth were trying to say, but they do their work, I mine.

    I love Father Galvin’s comment. It has the ring of God’s truth, based on my own Catholic football-factory high-school experience. Just like the faculty’s extremism cloaked in ethics versus the boys’ common moral sense.

  7. I saw the David Bowie final video and it was awful but amazing at the same time. When my dad died from cancer, he looked very much like Bowie did in the video. Dad was emaciated and weak but still managed to have that gleam of life like Bowie did in the video. Although I cried the first time I saw it – I watched it again and it comforted me. I know that, as Bowie had accepted his fate, so did my father and he was able to glide into the next world accompanied by the sounds of all of us singing the Irish songs of his youth (out of tune…. but he wasn’t fussy:) ).

    I also loved the “punishment” your students came up with. An apology and a logical “fix” makes perfect sense. I’m not really sure why it takes so long for politicians to apologize for things their governments have done in the past. It’s always such a big deal in the media that this or that government apologized for an incident from the past. Is it so bad to have made a mistake?

  8. You are certainly forgiven for the blue tuxedo as I believe I wore one too to the senior prom that year. Jr. prom it was kind of beige, I too was saddened by Bowie’s passing. The rocker I have had that thought about be being my alter ego was and is Peter Wolf of the Jay Giles ban

  9. Great piece! While I’m neither a big music person in general nor a big Bowie fan in particular, I love what you say here. It brings me back to a time when things like that (favorite bands, radio stations, teams, friends, really mattered. Intensely so. And to paraphrase Will Smith, parent just can’t understand.

  10. I too LOVE Bowie, and share your memories of the 1970’s. Your thoughts on apologizing are so well written and true – they lift up my Monday morning to a whole other level.
    Thanks Jim.

  11. If I may add an anecdote of my own. Years ago, I overheard my son’s playmate trying to convince him to do something that was “wrong”. This playmate had a full-proof strategy for what to do after he gets caught, “Just cry and say you’re sorry”. I believe apologies need to be 1) Sincere and 2) Accompanied by actions to make amends.

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