The View from Seoul

What does Kim Jong-il see when he looks at the streets of Cairo?

My Korean friend sat by the window, watching the snow fall.

“I’ve been watching the news in Egypt and it’s not as simple as Westerners might think. Let me tell you how we see things from my part of the world.

My country has the world’s 8th largest economy, and we burn a million barrels of oil each and every day. Without that oil, everything shuts down. And I mean everything. Factories and offices would close. The economy would come to a halt, and people would die. Remember, it is colder in Seoul than it is in Toronto.

We have a 15-day supply of oil, so what’s vitally important from our point of view is that the supply chain not be disrupted. Sure, we would like the people of Egypt to enjoy more freedom, more democracy, but at the same time we need stability. The world will suffer – my country would suffer if things became disrupted.

And that’s not something I am sure you understand.”

 

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The Write Off

Why we all need a second chance.

This morning I’d like to tell you a story that Mr. McKay sent to me. On one level, it’s a piece of fiction about a student and a teacher. On another it’s about all of us. Let me warn you that it is a bit sentimental, but I hope you’ll indulge me with this.

As she stood in front of her grade 5 class on the very first day of school, Mrs. Thompson told the children an untruth. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. However, that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Teddy Stoddard.

Mrs. Thompson had watched Teddy the year before and noticed that he did not play well with the other children; she remembered that his clothes were messy, and that he often needed a bath. In addition, Teddy could be unpleasant. It got to the point where Mrs. Thompson would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen, making bold X’s before putting a big F at the top of his papers.

At the school where Mrs. Thompson taught, she was required to review each child’s past records, and she put Teddy’s off until last. When she finally got around to reviewing his file, she was in for a surprise.

Teddy’s first grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is a bright child with a ready laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners. He is a joy to be around!”

His second grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is an excellent student, well-liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness, and life at home must be a struggle.”

His third grade teacher wrote, “His mother’s death has been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest, and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken.”

His fourth grade teacher wrote, “Teddy is withdrawn and doesn’t show much interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends, and he sometimes sleeps in class.”

By now Mrs. Thompson realized the problem, and she was ashamed of herself. She felt even worse when her students gave her Christmas presents. All the presents were wrapped in beautiful ribbons and bright paper, except for Teddy’s.

His present was clumsily wrapped in a heavy, brown paper that he got from a grocery bag. Mrs. Thompson took pains to open his in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was one quarter full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she explained how pretty the bracelet was, putting it on, and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist. Teddy Stoddard stayed after school that day just long enough to say, “Mrs. Thompson, today you smelled just like my mom used to.”

After the children left, Mrs. Thompson cried. From that day on, she paid particular attention to Teddy. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. The more she encouraged him, the faster he responded. By the end of the year, Teddy had become one of the top students in the class and despite her lie that she would love all the children the same, he had became a favourite.

Six years went by before she got a note from Teddy. He wrote that he had finished high school third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he had ever had.

Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, and would soon graduate from college with highest honours. He assured Mrs. Thompson that she was still the best teacher he had ever had.

Four years later and another letter arrived. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, Teddy had decided to go further. The letter explained that she was still the best teacher he ever had, and the letter was signed, “Theodore F. Stoddard, MD.”

The story does not end there. There was another letter that spring in which Teddy said he was going to be married. He said that his father had passed away a few years earlier, and he was wondering if Mrs. Thompson might agree to sit at the wedding in the place that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom.

Mrs. Thompson attended that wedding, and she wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. Moreover, she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Teddy had given her when he was ten years old. It was the perfume his mother wore on their last Christmas together.

Ok. I told you it was a sentimental story. But I offer three unsentimental reflections:

First, while I was moved by the story, I don’t buy the initial description of Mrs. Thompson because I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t want a student to succeed, and I’ve never known a teacher who took delight in giving a student an F. Teachers are our culture’s last and best idealists. They are drawn to their life’s work, not because they see it as a get-rich scheme. (It’s not.) They do what they do because they believe that what’s most important is helping someone else reach his potential. Your success is ultimately their success, too.

Second, it is way too easy to look at this story from Teddy’s point of view. You may be nodding your head in agreement and thinking, “Yes. I have suffered. Yes, I, have been misunderstood, and yes, I have bad hygiene.” (ok, maybe you aren’t thinking about your hygiene.) But if you are asking the question, “Where was my Mrs. Thompson when I needed her?” then the challenge is to look at the story from the perspective of the teacher.

Finally, Mrs. Thompson was guilty of something we have all done: she wrote someone off.  She assumed that the kid who needed a bath was not her kind of student. It was a mistake, but aren’t we all guilty of doing the same thing from time to time?

Do we write guys off who don’t meet our own personal standards? Do we pigeon hole others if they care too much about the violin or too little about cricket?

I know I’ve committed this sin. One example jumps quickly to mind. Last year, on a particularly busy day, I was supposed to coach a basketball game, and I was running late when I realized I hadn’t asked anyone to run the clock. When I got to the gym, I saw one student sitting there, and asked him if he could help out. He paused for a moment and then asked, “Will I get a CAS (service) hour for doing it?”

It’s not a bad question, but it hit me at just the wrong time in just the wrong spot, so I confess my instinct was to write the guy off. (I found myself wondering: If I asked him for a cup of coffee, would he ask for a CAS minute?)

I mention my own shortcoming because we don’t always have what Mrs. Thompson had, which was the benefit of hindsight. She could read those reports and gain a deeper understanding of Teddy Stoddart. We don’t have that luxury, but we do have the opportunity to give folks a second chance. That’s something all of us – even those of who occasionally chase CAS hours –deserve.

Tiger Mom Reconsidered

There’s been quite a buzz about Amy Chua’s new book “Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mom.” While most critics have been quick to pounce on Chua for her heavy-handed approach to parenting, David Brooks sees things from a different perspective.

“I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.”

What do you think? Is Chua just being honest about a reality (most of us coddle our already indulged children) we’d rather not think about? Or is she too narrow in her definition of success? Or is there something else in the air that has sparked this reaction?

A School Head’s Story

We know what it’s like when schooling is painful...

“I was the head of a boys school in a city that had a good number of really strong boys schools. Ours was terrific, but I’d be less than honest if I said we were clearly the ‘best’ of those schools. Each had its own niche and its own strengths.

One of these schools, though, had an incredible – for lack of a better word – I’ll call it ‘culture.’ We all talk about individual attention and about making sure kids don’t fall through the cracks, but these folks really had that down pat. You could just feel it when you walked into the building. The adults there really cared about their kids. It was almost palpable.

Before I moved, I went over to have a last cup of coffee with the head of this amazing school (we had become friends over the years) and I said, ‘Look. We’re no longer competitors. Can you tell me what makes this place so good? How do you do it?’

He went over and closed the door. Then he looked around the room for bugs. (For a moment I thought he was going to give me the secret recipe to Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken!) Then he said something that has stayed with me for years:

‘I have a learning disability. I never did well in school. I spent most of my life on academic probation, and I never hire anyone who had higher grades than I did in school. In other words, what we have here is a school full of teachers who struggled in school. Lots of them had undiagnosed learning issues, and some just came from tough home situations. But what we all have in common is this: we know what it’s like when schooling is painful. Because of that,  I think we can connect with boys in a way that a school full of Ivy leaguers never could. I’ve got nothing against the Penn and Columbia crowd, but what we’ve got here, well, it’s not something you’d pick up in Harvard Yard’.”

 

A Coach’s Story

An Old Boy’s Insight

“I was coaching one of those midget hockey teams a few years ago. The kids were 12 or 13 years old, and our most talented player kept getting caught up with retaliation penalties. I wasn’t quite sure how I should handle it, but here’s what I did:

After his last penalty, we were getting beaten, when I pulled the team together in the locker room and I asked, ‘Do you think of the other guys on this team as your friends?’ Nobody had to say anything, but their heads all bobbed up and down like one of those bobble-head dolls.

I kept going with this. ‘If the other players are more than just teammates, if they are really your friends, don’t you have an obligation to look out for them? To look out for one another?’ Again, the heads bobbed up and down. So then I went for the clincher.

So if you are all looking out for one another, if you’ve got one another’s backs, then how can you put your own selfish desire to get back at somebody who tripped you or did something stupid to you – how can you put that selfish desire above the good of your teammates and friends?’

Do I need to tell you that that was the end of our retaliation problem? Deep down these boys, they care for one another. And if you can tap into that goodness, you can do great things. Even in a goofy midget hockey game.”

 

On Fear and Hope

Good morning and welcome back. I hope you had a great break.

Like a lot of folks, I spent part of the holiday at the movies, and I found myself intrigued by “The King’s Speech,” a film about his royal highness, Albert Frederick Arthur George, otherwise known as the Duke of York, otherwise known around the palace as Bertie, the man who would eventually come to be known as King George VI. The movie focuses on Bertie’s painfully pronounced stutter, and on the steps he takes to overcome it. This personal issue takes on added significance when Bertie unexpectedly becomes king, after his brother’s abdication, and is called upon to comfort and inspire his countrymen at the outbreak of World War 2.

While the film doesn’t spend a lot of time examining the root cause of Bertie’s stuttering, it is suggested that his impediment was the result of his being mistreated as a child. Bertie’s father, George V, is remembered for saying, ”I was frightened of my father, and I am damned well going to make sure that my children are afraid of me.”

For many in that era, fear was a normal part of the pedagogy. I am sure George V did what he thought was best for his son; after all, he didn’t want his Bertie to be confused with Bertie Wooster, and while he needed to toughen his son up, he never envisioned this his young, stuttering boy might some day lead  a vast empire.

***

An aside: Each spring UCC hosts a dinner for Old Boys who have graduated more than 50 years ago; some of these men came of age around the time that Bertie assumed the throne.  The first time I heard these now old men describe their school years, I was flabbergasted. Some, with tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats,  talked fondly, and in some cases almost reverentially about masters who used to cane them on a regular basis. I remember one Old Boy, in describing a beloved master, saying almost wistfully, “He gave me 3 of the best!”

While there are some extraordinarily painful exceptions, in general, most of these Old Boys harbor no ill will towards their teachers. When asked what he thought about being caned, one Old Boy almost snapped, “I had a brother in the war. How could I possibly complain about the switch or anything that was done to me?”

I mention all of this, just to give you a sense of context.  Like Bertie and his father, these men were a product of a different age. It was a time when, for example, one UCC master actually soaked his switches, so that there would be more snap to them when they were employed.

***

“The King’s Speech,” though, is about more than just overcoming a speech impediment; it’s about hope overcoming and fear. What changes Bertie, what helps him get through the agony of his stuttering, is a teacher who believes in him – even when he no longer believes in himself. Lionel, his speech therapist, achieves a breakthrough, in part by shrinking the social distance between student and teacher; he forges a first name relationship with his patient, and that’s not so easy when the patient’s name is Albert Frederick Arthur George.

More than anything, though, Lionel gives Bertie a sense of the possible. A UCC colleague once told me that hope is the most powerful gift we-educators can give to a student. She said, “A man figures out who he wants and needs to be through the hope of others.”

All of us have impediments, and stutters come in a variety of shapes, sizes and degrees of difficulty. You are surrounded by talented boys, and what may surprise you is the number of them who quietly feel that they are lacking in one area or another. As we begin this New Year together, my wish is that you not only find the hope you need, but that you recognize that you are a source of hope for one another.

You are a source of hope when you say “hello” to a guy you pass in the hallway, even though you don’t know him all that well, or when you help someone who can’t find his backpack. You are a source of hope in the classroom when you offer that pen to someone who has forgotten his or when you take the time to explain something to a classmate who might be lost or confused. You are a source of hope whenever you offer a word of encouragement to someone who seems down. If we remember George V’s quote about his children and fear, then we should also remember the late Christopher Reeve’s observation that, “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”