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.

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Hope of Emmanuel

I am a regular viewer of those late December “year in review” news programs, and this year, I was completely taken by the story about the Charleston Church Massacre. You may remember that this past June 9 churchgoers, (they might be described as “God fearing people” in South Carolina,) were killed by a deranged gunman during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Although he was an outsider (the gunman fits my demographic) Dylann Roof had been warmly welcomed into the church that Wednesday night, before he turned his violence on the pastor, a state senator, and 7 other members of the congregation. The gunmen later admitted to the killing and said he hoped it would ignite a race war.Unfortunately, violent events like this are far too familiar, but what makes this story truly remarkable is what took place two days after the murders when, during a public hearing, victims of the family were invited to make a public statement.

Please listed to Nathane Milton Brown who testifies, even as she grieves the loss of her sister: (from 5:18 to 6:10)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc8yRyBll-Q

As moving as Ms. Brown faith and humility are, the story doesn’t end there. Just a few weeks later, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, an Indian American woman, signed a law, and the confederate flag was finally removed from the South Carolina capitol, 150 years after the end of the American Civil War. Governor Haley used 9 pens during the signing ceremony, and afterwards she gave them to each of the Emanuel families.

I start today with the story of Emanuel because, in the end, it’s a story about hope. It’s about surmounting the seemingly insurmountable, and it illustrates the potential for bringing good out of evil. What animated the congregation and the governor to act the way they did? I think their actions flow from two virtues, virtues they had in great abundance: faith and courage. At UCC we talk about “igniting curiosity, imagination, and passion” and about our “belief in boys.” Both are expressions of faith, faith in the capacity of our boys to become the men they are meant to be, and faith in ourselves, that we might be able to play some role in helping them along their journey.

An aside: As I look at the picture of the gunmen, I can’t help but see another thoroughly confused and insecure adolescent boy, a mixed up kid, and I wonder what might have happened if he had had a relationship with a teacher or coach or a significant adult, someone who might have helped him think through the distorted ideology that tormented his soul. Because the gunman is not a man. Throw a blue blazer on him and a house tie, and he might not stand out in at Laidlaw Hall.

All of this may leave us wondering: Are there needy boys, boys with different kinds needs of course, but needy nonetheless, walking our own hallways? And how might we help them? That may be too difficult a question to ponder on a cold January morning, but there will always be things that seem too hard, too intimidating, and that is where faith — in ourselves, in one another, in a higher power– and courage are intertwined.

If you think about “The Lord of the Rings,” or “Harry Potter,” or “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” you see that in each, an ordinary person is called to confront an extraordinary obstacle, and each succeeds because of faith and courage. Those same virtues were, I believe, what sparked the heroic actions of the congregation and of the governor. Faith and courage become the animating elements for dealing with the seemingly insurmountable.

In this the darkest time of the year, we know that change is in the air. In my own family, for instance, over the course of the next few months, we will have 3 boys graduate from 3 different schools, and I will change jobs and countries. Some may find this sort of thing exhilarating; others, though, may be anxious or ill at ease with uncertainty. The “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign that hangs in my office is more aspirational than actual, but I hope that as we start the New Year together, we’ll be able to count on one another, as together we embrace the slings, arrows, and opportunities of 2016.

Let’s remember that we have been blessed with fabulous teammates, the folks with whom we are gathered right here this morning. Of course, as Nathan Milton Browne reminds us, we are all works in progress. So let’s remember that everyone deals with change in his or her own way. So we need to be patient with one another.

Even in the darkest days, let’s rely on our faith and on our courage. Let’s find hope in remembering, too, that in addition to all of the good folks who are here with us this morning, we have 1,167 reasons to have courage. 1,167 reasons to have faith. 1,167 reasons to believe.

Stress and the Buddhist Nun

(Editor’s note: During last Monday’s assembly, the Venerable Robina, a Buddhist nun, and former Sacred Heart sister, spoke at length about her personal philosophy. When a befuddled adult asked her a question about applying this philosophy during the Q +A, Robina responded by saying, “HAVEN’T YOU BEEN LISTENING?)”

 

Forgive me if I start to sweat and stutter more than usual this morning, but this stage brings back a semi-traumatic memory from just a week ago, when our guest speaker, the Venerable Robina, shamed me here in front of 700 people.  (You know you are having a bad day when a Buddhist nun takes you out in public!)

I deserved the hammer, of course, because in a particularly inarticulate way, I was trying to get Venerable Robina, who had done a fine job of explaining the Buddha’s philosophy, albeit in a somewhat racier fashion than might be the custom here in Laidlaw Hall, to apply her thinking to the life of a typical student. I wondered how the Buddha might help the boy?

I raised this issue because, when I meet with parents, they almost always ask the same 3 questions:

  1. “Why aren’t there more teams in the Upper School (so that my kid can make a team)?”
  2. “Why can’t you target your communications? My son is in the band, why do I have to read about the jv basketball team?
  3. “Why are so many of our boys so stressed out?”

It is that third question that I’d like to kick around with you this morning.

First, let me suggest that part of this is historical: Lord Seaton wanted his school to create leaders, and not everyone can be a leader; by definition this process is competitive and exclusionary. Furthermore, our founder deliberately kept tuitions low, not for reasons related to social justice (he wouldn’t have known what that term meant) but as a way to ensure that UCC would be a place, not for the wealthiest, which was the tradition of private schools at the time, but for “the best and the brightest.” (How we define “best and brightest” is a topic for another time…)

From the very beginning then, there has been a profoundly competitive element in our institutional DNA, and you can see the echo of this in everything from the iconic Rogers Tower (What is the purpose of a school tower, by the way, other than to say, “We are here. We are significant. And let’s make sure that Avenue Road bends to our will!”) to our school motto, “Palmam qui meruit ferat,” which some scholars loosely translate —  much to Ms. Erb’s dismay —  as “Eat what you kill.”

Second, it’s clear that some stress springs directly from contemporary culture.  I once worked with a woman who had been a cheerleader during her years at Duke University, and she told me that the culture at Raleigh Durham meant that she might study until 5 am, as she often did, but she also had to be up, with her make up on, her hair blown dry, and looking her best for her 8 am class. When I suggested that this was just a Southern peculiarity, like dressing up to go to football games, she immediately stressed that at Duke no one ever talked about how late they had worked, or about how hard they had studied. For Dukies the goal was always “effortless perfection.” At UCC’s, with the exception of the occasional complaints about “hell week,” our own mantra might be, “Never let ‘em see you sweat.”

This culture of high expectation isn’t limited to just the Blues and Blue Devils. A recent survey of the Georgetown and Stanford student bodies, for example, reveals that 39% of these students are taking medication for anxiety and depression. It is no wonder then, that stress is an issue for so many students in highly competitive schools.  If you feel a high degree of stress, know that you are not alone. It is, in a way, the price of privilege.

Some people, by the way, believe that the stress level at UCC is particularly high because of the IB. I don’t.  While the IB is certainly challenging, if we put all of you in an AP school, the culture wouldn’t change. You would still work hard. You would still want to be the best. And many of you would still measure yourself against an unrealistically high standard.

So where do we go from here? Well, while we would all like to find a way to help reduce stress, there is no single solution or technique that will work across the board. Stress is like the weather; it is experienced by everyone, and it isn’t going away any time soon.

(An aside: During my first year in Toronto, I made the mistake of one day complaining about what was to my way of thinking,  a particularly late in the spring snow shower, when someone told me, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” That approach holds true for dealing with stress. It’s out there; the question is what can you do to deal with it? What is the proper footwear for stress?)

With this in mind, I went to my google machine and checked WebMD to see what the medical professionals had to say about all of this, and here is what I found:

  1. meditate
  2. breathe deeply
  3. be present
  4. reach out (to your social network)
  5. tune in to your body
  6. decompress
  7. laugh out loud
  8. crank up the tunes (soothing music)
  9. get moving
  10. be grateful.

There are lots of good suggestions, but it’s worth noting that almost of these recommendations are attitudinal in nature; they are things we CAN control. On this point, I am reminded of Victor Frankl’s insight. Frankl, who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” a book about his personal experience of surviving and eventually trying to make sense of the Holocaust wrote,“ Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

That is a pretty lofty thought for a Monday morning, but you have the same choice and the same freedom. Stressful issues will be with you throughout your life. You can’t always control them. What you can do is manage how you look at them. You can choose your own way.

I’ll close this morning with two take-aways on how you might want to think about this:

First, Venerable Robina suggested that it is important to learn how to be a good friend. She advised us to be trustworthy, loving, nonjudgmental, and to love yourself as you would a friend. If you are ever overwhelmed, or if you have a friend who is in trouble, or if for any reason your “Spidey sense” starts to tingle, reach out to a teacher, coach, advisor, counselor, nurse, or any other adult you trust to help you get the help you need. Remember that “Never walk alone” is more than just a spiffy song.

Second, I know this is hard for some of us, but we need to get off the emotional roller coaster of life, the one where you are elated with good scores or results and devastated by setbacks. Think “long term and big picture.” School is a lot like a 9-month baseball season. Some days you may go 0 for 4. That doesn’t mean you are Minnie Mendoza. Other days you may go 4 for 4. That doesn’t mean you are Josh Donaldson. Some day, like Old Boy Kaleem Hawa, a 4th year University of Toronto student, you may win the Rhodes Scholarship, as Kaleem did last week. At other days, you may get dusted by a Buddhist nun. So be it. Just smile and wave and remember that things will eventually, over the long haul, balance out. Give it your best and let the chips (or in your case grades) fall where they may.

And remember George Will’s adage that you can’t play baseball “through gritted teeth.” The same holds true for  school and for life. Just keep swinging – and remember to wear your rubber boots!

Pretty in Pink: Greg Hardy vs Ken Taylor

Let me start this morning by offering the truism that there is a world of difference between substance and show. As an example of the latter, I offer you the National Football League, a league apparently so concerned about women and women’s health, (and I want to stress the word “apparently”), that they have put a pink ribbon on their iconic shield, while also supporting the cause of breast cancer awareness by having players wear an assortment of stylishly pink socks, gloves, hats and other accoutrements throughout the month of October.

I am sure the NFL does believe in this good cause, but because the League has had 6 players arrested already this year for domestic violence, and one for sexual battery, I suggest Roger Goodell’s guys consider adopting a less flamboyant approach to advocacy in the future. Perhaps they could do something more subdued — like quietly supporting research and/or funding domestic abuse shelters.

The 7 violations, by the say, don’t even include Greg Hardy, who didn’t play last year because he was initially convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. She testified that the 279-pound defensive end dragged her by the hair, hurled her on to a futon covered with weapons, and then tried to strangle her with his bare hands. Hardy conveniently reached an “out of court settlement,” and as a result, his conviction was dropped just in time for him to suit up with his new team, America’s team by golly, the Dallas Cowboys.

Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner who went out of his way to sign Hardy as a free agent, must have been channeling his inner Mother Theresa when he claimed, “He’s alright. He’s a good boy. We’re going to get him all straightened out over here and bring him in.” Isn’t it amazing how much compassion NFL owners can muster, especially when they need a good pass rusher? Only the good Lord himself knows just how much the cup of Jones’ empathy might overflow if some day someone like Aaron Rogers were in need of forgiveness and perhaps a new team. Why, I can almost hear Jerry now, waxing eloquently about the parable of the prodigal passer…

But before I get too dark on a Monday morning, let me point out that there is reason for hope because there is substance as well as show in the world today. As a case in point, you may remember “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s 2012 award-winning film about the dramatic rescue of American hostages from Tehran, shortly after the Iranian Revolution. The hero of the story was the understated (of course!) Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, who put himself and his family at great risk by hiding 6 Americans, before later helping them escape from Iran.

Ken Taylor died this week in New York at 81.

According to newspaper reports, “Mr. Taylor always insisted that he had done nothing extraordinary; he instead preferred to characterize the episode as simply a triumph of Canadian diplomacy.”

Two lines from his obituary caught my attention: “When revolutionaries stormed the embassy on November 4, 1979, taking more than 60 hostages, nothing in Mr. Taylor’s background suggested that he was prepared for the potentially dangerous mix of espionage and intrigue that would follow. For much of his career he had acted as a trade commissioner, spending time at the Canadian consulate in Detroit.”

Taylor’s unassuming life reads like something out of a Graham Greene novel. But his passing presents an opportunity for us to ask, “Was he simply a government bureaucrat, or was Ken Taylor a quiet hero all along, just waiting for his moment?”

It’s easy enough to fall prey to youthful notions of the heroic. Whether it’s Clint Eastwood or Kobe Bryant, we can mistake celebrity for character. But a quick glance at Mr. Taylor’s photograph reveals an apparently oh-so-ordinary guy.Ken Taylor appears to be a 1980’s everyman, someone who would have been inconspicuous at Young and Bloor; nobody would have contacted TMZ about him, and odds are, he would not have been invited to hang out with the lovely Kardashians.

That is actually good news because it suggests that we all have within us that same noble possibility, however remote, however unrecognized. While Mr. Taylor may not have had a 40-inch vertical leap, what he did possess was something that can lift all of us: a simple and profound and wonderfully old-fashioned sense of duty.

Ken Taylor never wore pink bling, and he never thought of himself as anything special, but he was hailed as a hero in both Canada and the United States, where he was awarded both the Congressional Gold Medal and the Order of Canada.

On a day like today, when a long and sometimes bitter political campaign finally comes to an end, it might be tempting for some of us to be a bit cynical; we might smirk at quaint notions like “peace, order, and good government.” But Ken Taylor’s courage, his grace under pressure, his willingness to risk himself for imperfect strangers, bares witness to a timeless value, to a higher good. It is a good we can all aspire to, too, even if there is nothing in our background that would suggest we were prepared for “a potentially dangerous mix of espionage and intrigue.”

Lessons from New Orleans

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of “Katrina,” a hurricane that wreaked death and devastation on the citizens of New Orleans. But the Crescent City has always been a tough, edgy, “hit first and ask questions later” kind of town. NOLA has never been confused with Forrest Hill.

A century ago, a young boy, a boy with no parents, a boy who was being raised by his grandmother, went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Because New Orleans was even then a dangerous city, he took his grandmother’s boyfriend’s gun, so that he could join his friends, who were also going to fire their pistols in celebration of New Year 1913.

He and his friends were walking towards the centre of town, when a stranger fired a blank in the direction of the young boy. The youngster did not hit his personal pause button. He impulsively returned fire, and after his subsequent arrest and trial, he was sent to an institution for what was then called “wayward boys.”

Unlike most of the other reform schools of its time, this group home was founded by an African American man named Joseph Jones, who tried, as best he could, to give his “non traditional students” a well rounded education. Like our own Dr. Kinnear, Jones promoted taking a “whole boy” approach to learning. Part of this involved twice-weekly band activities.

A teacher named Peter Davis ran the band, and despite his best efforts, he didn’t click with the newest member of the band class. The new student didn’t seem all that interested in trying to play any of the instruments, and he seemed lethargic in class. But Peter Davis kept trying.

Then one day, the new boy picked up the tambourine, then the drum, and then the horn. Something clicked as he began to play. It didn’t take long for him to discover – and for everyone else to recognize – that he had an unusual aptitude for the alto horn. And he began to throw himself into playing as he had never done before.

Years later, the no longer young man went from entertaining people on the streets, then to dance halls, then to recording studios. The rest, as they say, is history.

The story of young Louis Armstrong sticks with me for 3 reasons:

First, there is a sort of serendipity to life, a serendipity we often fail to recognize. It’s important not just to be lucky, but to recognize our good fortune. If Louis hadn’t brought the gun, if he hadn’t been right there when that stranger fired the blank, if he hadn’t been arrested and then sent into exactly the right place, where he would bump into exactly the right teacher, the world would be a poorer place.

My questions for you on this are: Can we recognize our own good luck? Are we doing anything with that luck? And have we ever expressed gratitude for our good fortune?

Second, everybody needs a Peter Davis. Without him, Louis could have been just another fatherless boy, just another statistic. It would have been easy for Peter Davis to write off young Louis. Who needs one more knucklehead kid? Why wait on a boy who won’t meet me half way? And why should I care about a kid whose own parents have given up on him?

It would be sensational, by the way, if every student had 6 teachers with whom he forged a Davis-like connection, but my experience tells me that what you really need is at least one. We all need one other adult whom we can turn to in that dark moment of the soul because we all hit the wall from time to time, and as Michael Thompson points out, every boy needs a third parent once in a while.

Third, we all need to find an alto horn. Not literally, of course. But Louis found his aptitude. Our challenge is to find ours. A strength of UCC is that you are exposed to so many different options; you can test drive math, science, film, rugby, service, and cricket – to name just a few.

We talk about “igniting” in our mission statement, and that’s really what I’m talking about. Many of you already throw yourselves into arts or sports or technology. It almost doesn’t matter what the activity is. What’s important is that it is YOUR interest, not your mother’s, your father’s, or your advisor’s, and that you care so much about it that you are able to stay with it, to practice endlessly, so that you feel you can achieve some degree of mastery. Because it is that sense of accomplishment, that belief that you can solve a problem or do something really well, that can help give you the confidence to tackle other, bigger challenges in the future.

Let me end with a question I sometimes struggle with myself: I think it is great that you have so much on your plate. It is wonderful that you have so many academic, artistic, athletic, and service options. It is also terrific that at UCC we tend to attack all of these with great energy, and that our expectations are very high. We don’t just play rugby, we expect to get to OFSAA’s. We don’t just fiddle with the Jazz Band, we want the audience’s ears to feel like they are in the French Quarter.

The downside to these universally high expectations, of course, is that we can sometimes feel inadequate if we aren’t good at everything. And I want to challenge that sense of inadequacy. Very few adults are good at all things. (You should see me dance or do taxes or dance while I’m doing taxes!) And I sometimes ask myself, “Would the world have been a better place if Beethoven had been a better math student? (Mr. Tong might argue the other side of this.) But I will leave that question unanswered, at least for the time being. I just hope, though, that you aren’t always measuring yourself against some impossible standard.

So my 3 “takeaways” from this morning are these:

1, You and I are lucky. Let’s recognize our good fortune and do something with it.

  1. Find your Peter Davis. He or she may be in Laidlaw Hall right now. Don’t wait for him or her to find you. Start shaking that tambourine!
  2. Search for your own version of Louis’ alto horn. You may be fiddling with flute or banging the drums right now. That’s ok. Keep exploring and practicing until you get to your horn.

And the next time you hear Louis’ classic, “What a Wonderful World,” I hope you’ll remember the story of a parentless boy on New Year’s Eve. Remember Peter Davis’ persistence. Remember that we can never give up on one another. If you can keep all of this in mind, you’ll hear in that song Louis’ recognizing and rejoicing in the great serendipity of life.

“Oh, yeah…”

 

On Humility

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:

https://youtu.be/OeQyuzvyWIg

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Keys and Resumes and Eulogies

You may have heard the story about Joe, the guy who lost his keys in the middle of the night. After spending hours looking under a lamppost, a friend happens by who asks, “Where did you actually lose your keys?” Joe responds by saying, “I lost them a mile or so down the road, but I’m looking for them here because the light is so much better.”

Ok. I didn’t say it was a good story, but it does reveal an important truth: We seldom like to look in the dark.

I thought of that story recently after a meeting with a group of very conscientious parents. (An aside: I meet with parents, by grade level, every other Friday for an “agenda free, whatever’s on your mind, shoot from the hip, don’t quote me on this”, informal gathering. I’ve been doing this for a decade, and the sessions are usually a lot of fun. Over the last couple of years, though, the meetings have grown more serious, in part because we seem to devote more and more time to one particular topic, assessment. It comes up every single meeting. Last Friday, for instance, almost every parent question had something to do with our grading system; how we determine academic honours; why we include art, music, and physical education in our calculations; how Canadian and American university admissions offices view transcripts; and whether or not we should continue to post academic awards. Last Friday’s parents had boys in Grade 5).

I don’t want to sound critical of these folks. In fact, I can’t blame them for being anxious, (in many ways we are responsible for this state of affairs) and I applaud their interest in their sons’ academic well being. But let’s face it: academic scores are clearly an “under the lamppost” issue. Grades are completely visible; we can see how you are doing in math, French, and English. What we can’t accurately determine, though, are the more important questions, questions such as: How do you deal with adversity? Do you demonstrate courage in the clutch? And what’s most important: What kind of guy are you becoming?

The author, David Brooks, takes the light versus darkness image one step farther by suggesting that we might think of our lives in terms of “resumes” and “eulogies.” The resume virtues are what those conscientious Grade 5 parents were asking about; they are the qualities that will get you into Queens or Cornell. The eulogy virtues are, by contrast, the ones that might get you into heaven. “These are the qualities that will be talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful.” These are all related to character.

How do you teach character? Boston University’s Kevin Ryan tries to shed a little light on this dark and often mysterious area by saying that we should think about character development in terms of “The 4 E’s.”

The first “E” is expectations. Adults need to make it clear what we want from you in terms of your behaviour, and this goes far beyond dress code. It has to do with how you act when nobody is looking. It assumes that you are the same guy Friday night at the Palais Royale that you are Monday morning in Laidlaw Hall.

The second “E” is exhortation; it’s a thoroughly old fashion word that might conjure up images of Teddy Roosevelt, but it means grabbing the bully pulpit in order to encourage others to aim high. When IB2 boys offer their “This I Believe” speeches, they are often doing exactly this, as they encourage and inspire all of us to do more and to be more.

The third “E” is experience. You won’t live in a desert or a monastery. You are a part of a busy, connected, adrenalin soaked and saturated world. Character isn’t emoted in isolation. It doesn’t spring from a test tube. It’s your engagement with others in these fluid experiences – it’s your thousand interactions and conversations a week – which actually forge your character.

The fourth and final “E” is by far the most daunting: It’s example. Values are caught more than they are taught. I don’t care what his IB score looks like, but the kid with the shakiest transcript can smell it when an adult is insincere. High school boys, in particular, seem to have a gift for this sort of thing; they have an antenna for almost any sort of posturing. If an adult acts one way to someone in a blue shirt downstairs in the basement and another way with someone in a white shirt in an administrative corner office, kids immediately pick up on this double standard. But this hypocrisy test cuts both ways. It’s one of the reasons why so often just a handful of boys in Grade 12 can have a profound impact on a school year. It’s because those guys have such a significant influence on the younger boys.

By the way, I spend a lot of time with Old Boys, and almost every one of them can rattle off from memory the names of a dozen guys who were a year or two ahead of them in high school half a century ago. Almost no one, though, remembers boys who were so much as a year younger; it’s as if adolescent males go through high school with their chins tilted up, always looking at those who are slightly and yet so impressively ahead of them. Nobody seems to use the rear view mirror at 16. So for those of you in Grades 11 and 12, know that the youthful eyes of Blues Nation are forever upon you, and like it or not, this actually presents a great leadership opportunity for all of you.

It is a truism that what gets measured, gets valued, and in the case of schools, especially IB schools like UCC, that means grades are extraordinarily well illuminated. By the way, I don’t want to minimize your academic accomplishments, but I have to tell you that, when I talk to old boys who struggle in university and beyond, it’s almost never because their French accent isn’t good enough, or a result of their inability to solve equations with 3 or more variables. I can’t remember the last time I heard about an alumnus whose struggles were purely academic in nature. Most of our old boys do very, very well, but when they do hit an occasional wall, it’s almost always something related to social emotional development, maturity, decision-making, or mental health.

Let me end this morning by going back to the beginning, to the story about Joe. If we really want to help you find and become your best selves, we have to figure out a way to help you move beyond the light of a lamppost and out into the darkness. Because –as Joe knew all along — that’s actually where the keys are.