The Benefits of Intentional Time

When our former Board Chair, Gerrit Vreeland ’61, made me promise before he retired from his post that I would take a sabbatical soon, I did not have a clear plan for how to accomplish his request even though I was exceedingly grateful for the offer. The idea of stepping away for three months, the typical amount of time granted to administrators and teachers in boarding schools, seemed incomprehensible considering how much I love the work I do, the ambitious goals we have for The Gunnery, and the rhythms of my family. Instead of coming up with a plan, I logged it in the back of my head last spring.

Then we entered the summer and I had a little more time than usual to think. I reviewed what I hope we will accomplish as a school over the next five to seven years, and what we’ve accomplished since 2012. I reviewed where our family is — this year we have an eighth grader, a sixth grader, and a third grader — and thought about the advice of many older, wiser parents, who have told me, “they just grow up so fast … don’t take these years for granted.”

I reflected, too, on the surprising wisdom of the premise of a book that was recommended to me by a series of people, Tim Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek.” While almost entirely irrelevant to the normal work of boarding schools, the author’s essential point — that laboring intensely in the present for a distant payoff that is not guaranteed in any way — got my attention (and was reinforced by the acknowledgement that my mother passed away at 55, my uncle just died at 62, and a friend and fellow educator my age has advanced ALS). I reflected on the wisdom of the apostle Paul when he wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world …” And I reflected on a pattern our family already works hard to cultivate — that no matter how packed Monday through Saturday are, we keep Sundays as quiet and screen-free as we possibly can, so that we can focus on each other and recharge. We have seen over and over again how ultimately productive that “unproductive” time is.

Our family, like most others, is pulled in a lot of different directions, all of them very good. But we are less often in the same place at the same time without needing to accomplish a task. Typically, when we are, we really enjoy the time together, something I do not take for granted. And when we’ve traveled together, just the five of us, we’ve loved it — it’s been transformative for our family. Even though we get plenty of downtime in the summer, because of good things like camps, less and less of the time we have is just the five of us. 

Combining that emerging reality with the wonderful but relentless pace of leading a 170-year old institution through growth and change, and a commitment to continue to do that for years to come, assuming the Board wants me to, plus consideration that once our oldest is in high school the ability to take her out of school for more than a few days becomes even harder, I decided that this year might be the last best opportunity to take advantage of our Board’s offer of a sabbatical. Rather than the full three months, I proposed that our family be away from campus from the Sunday before Thanksgiving through December 31, 2019, a window that would give us nearly 40 consecutive days together, but would only require me to miss two and a half weeks of school. 

First, I had to get my wife on board. This was just a weird idea. Who takes their kids out of school and just leaves town? (Thankfully, some good friends at another school had given us something of a precedent for this.) What would it mean for her career and work as a writer and speaker? Thankfully, she said yes.

So our family will hop on a plane to my mother’s hometown of New Orleans early on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, getting us there just in time for kickoff as our beloved Saints take on the Panthers in the Dome. I want my kids to see Drew Brees and Sean Payton in action, especially in a season when they will defeat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, which they would have done last year had the ref not blown the call in the NFC Championship. After Thanksgiving with our family in New Orleans, we will travel through parts of the southeast, visiting major sites in American civil rights history. Then we will travel west and spend the balance of the time visiting cities and friends along the west coast, and hopping in an RV to visit national parks. 

Obviously, it’s a tremendous privilege to be able to do this. It wouldn’t be possible without support from the Board and from the school’s leadership team. One of my big regrets is that, as a school, we don’t have a proper sabbatical program, something many schools do have — supported by endowed funds that allow the school to hire substitutes so that a faculty member or administrator can take three months to do something similar to this. It is something I hope to raise money for in the next few years, because it can be a great gift to folks who work so intensely to serve students. 

Our hopes for this time include just enjoying each other as a family with minimal screen time by all of us. We love that our kids are growing up in a beautiful town of 3,500 people, but we really want to equip them with an understanding of the size, diversity and beauty of our incredible country. We want them to see and experience places in person and have time to process those experiences with them. We want them to know my family. And we want our kids to see that we do not always have to simply receive the patterns that culture deals us — to see that that has costs and tremendous benefits. For example, they are very sad to be missing Christmas at their grandparents’ house and the holiday concerts at school, and our oldest two will have schoolwork to complete while we travel. At the same time, we are mindful that, unless you interrupt the patterns and cultural assumptions that are handed to you, you can, unthinkingly, just fall into the ruts created by the people ahead of you. 

I watched “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” too many times as a kid. Any fellow fan of that movie will remember the surprising wisdom of that Ferris: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” My family and I are grateful for the opportunity to do just that, grateful for the school that has allowed us to be part of it for more than seven years, and excited to return in 2020 to open the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center and set the course toward the demisemiseptcentennial (and beyond!) of Mr. Gunn’s school.

Convocation 2019 “Bring the Wood”

At Convocation on September 6, science teacher and former department chair Steven Bailey P’09 was honored with the Class of ’55 Distinguished Teacher Award. The recipient of this award is invited to impart some of his or her wisdom by delivering the Convocation Address. Before I share his remarks, a little bit about Steve:

A native of Staten Island, New York, he studied mathematics at SUNY Oneonta, physics at the University of Virginia (Wah-hoo-Wah) and naval architecture and marine engineering at MIT. He joined  The Gunnery faculty following a career with the U.S. Navy Submarine Forces. He also worked as a safety engineering consultant at NASA’s Langley Research Center and as a maintenance consultant for the Navy. Steve chaired the Science Department for ten years and currently teaches physics at all levels at The Gunnery, he coaches JV girls tennis and is known on campus for his eclectic collection of pins, ties and t-shirts.

DSC_3571We were especially pleased to welcome Steve’s wife, Jane, and their sons, Kurt ’09 and Garrett, and daughter-in-law, Eri, who drove nine hours from Richmond to see their dad accept the award last Friday. Several of his students also rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech, which is excerpted here:  

Thirteen years ago, I came to The Gunnery to teach physics.  I had had a full career in the Navy as a submarine officer and spent time after that working as an engineer at NASA.  Yet when I arrived at Gunnery in August of 2006, I felt both scared and anxious. As I ran from class, to sports, to study hours, to dorm duty and back again, I spent a lot of time wondering, “What have I gotten myself into?”  

In the beginning, I thought it was big, flashy things that mattered, like all the gizmos and gadgets in my classroom, and that I had to have all the knowledge to pour into students’ empty heads. But I’ve learned some things along the way.  Here are three lessons from the years I’ve been here:

Lesson #1:  My students don’t have empty heads after all. (Don’t get a swelled head just because I said that.) As a matter of fact, you teach me constantly.  I’m no longer afraid of not having all the answers because if I don’t have the answer, you might; and if not, we’ll work it out together.

Lesson #2:  It’s not the big, flashy things in my classroom that matter.  What really matters is that I see you as a person and you see me as a person, fallible, and teachable.  I’m not perfect, and neither are you. It’s Gunnery as a community that makes each of us more than we can be alone.  What that means, however, is that we need to help each other be better. We raise each other up in class or on the field.  And we stand up and call each other out when something needs to be called out.   

Lesson #3:  Gunnery is a beautiful place inside and out.  When I came to campus to interview, I was struck by manicured lawns and beautiful facilities.  It took teaching here to see that it’s the simple things people do for each other that is the real beauty of Gunnery: students offering to babysit for children of faculty; faculty offering to meet with students on off-hours to give them extra help; all of us making sure no one is left out.     

Now, 13 years later, I know what I got myself into … a place where every day I can soak up faculty advice, student energy, and enjoy sharing a subject I love with students I also love.  Oh, and remember those gizmos and gadgets I said weren’t important a moment ago? I lied. They really are important as I do care, a lot, that you leave Gunnery knowing “What’s it all about?”  The answer of course is “Everything happens for a reason, and that reason is usually physics!”

Years ago, that is, before Gunnery, I was watching TV in my home in Virginia on a cold and slushy night. Heavy wet snow weighed down tree branches.  Suddenly, a branch broke from a tree in front of our house and came down on the power cable between the telephone poles. There was a loud bang as the power went out and the house plunged into darkness.  The electrical arcs from the power cable instantly ignited a fire in the upper portion of the tree. From my window seat, I watched the display of sparks flying like fireworks.

I called 911 and the fire trucks were there in minutes, along with the power company.  They put out the fire and worked on the power cable. After a while, the trucks left, except the big hook and ladder, which weighs anywhere from 15 to 20 tons (about 18,000 kilograms).  From inside my house, I could hear the rear wheel of that fire truck spinning as it tried to get traction. Apparently, one rear wheel was off the road in a ditch that ran along the street and couldn’t get enough traction to get out.

I went out to see if I could help.  The fireman and I were looking at the problem. I told him I had a large plywood board in my garage that might work as traction.  He didn’t think it would work but was worth a shot. We placed the board on top of the snow and slid it down the embankment to the rear wheel, wedging it behind the huge hook and ladder tire.  The driver slowly put the truck into gear and the wheel rolled onto the board and up and out of the culvert. The fireman was thrilled to be out of his predicament and happier still that he didn’t have to call his fire chief. He thanked me profusely for being there and bringing the wood.  I wasn’t a hero, I didn’t save a life; I only brought the wood. That simple piece of wood made a difference.

Right now, many of you are feeling anxious and scared.  You might be worried as I was: What can you bring to your classes?  Your teams? Your dorm? Am I good enough?

Mark Bezo says in his Ted Talk, “A Life Lesson from a Volunteer Firefighter,” “Every day you may not get a chance to save someone’s life, but I promise you that every day you can change someone’s life.”   

It’s the simple things we do – as a mentor, classmate, teammate, or just as a friend, to provide an ear or shoulder when needed – that can make a difference.  All I ask you to remember every day is to “bring the wood.”  

Commencement 2019

On May 26, The Gunnery graduated 84 students in the great Class of 2019. The ceremony was memorable in many ways – from our grand school traditions and the glorious weather to the graduates themselves and our inspiring Commencement speaker, Wanji Walcott P’19, Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees. Watch Walcott’s speech here.

Looking back on our 169th Commencement Exercises, what I found memorable, too, were the words of Madeleine Aitken ’19, who delivered the Head Prefect Address. In her speech, Maddie captured in a very real and authentic way, what it is like to be a student at boarding school and, more specifically, what it is like to be a student at The Gunnery. Her reflections were inspired in part by a book recommended by her English teacher, Melissa Schomers. Titled “The Opposite of Loneliness,” it was written by Marina Keegan and resonated with Maddie because of her experiences here. As she said: “There’s a certain kind of magic that exists within our stone walls, and that magic is what makes us who we are, what helps us become who we will be, what gives a sense of the opposite of loneliness.”

What Maddie described is an intangible combination of joy, camaraderie and connectedness that permeated her experiences in the classroom, on the playing field, in the dining hall and the dorm, through organized activities such as the All-School Walk and formal dinners, and quiet moments spent with friends “where everyone feels truly happy and comfortable and safe and content.” Her speech is both a tribute and a testimonial to what we hope all of our students experience, whether they are part of our community for one year or four, and what we hope they will carry with them when they leave our campus and venture out into the world. Here are her remarks:

Thank you —- for that great introduction. I’d like to welcome you all again, and thank you for being here. I think I speak for the entire senior class when I say we have a lot to thank you all for. To our parents and families, to our teachers, to our friends, especially the ones we’re leaving behind, and above all, to each other.

This past summer, I read a book Ms. Schomers recommended to me called “The Opposite of Loneliness.” It’s a collection of essays and stories written by Marina Keegan, a 2012 Yale graduate who tragically died in a car crash at 22 years old, just five days after she had graduated. The book is made up of nine essays and nine stories, some published and some unpublished. Her writing is interesting and powerful and impactful and I wholeheartedly recommend the entire book, but what I’d like to talk about today is her title essay, which was originally published in the Yale Daily News, called “The Opposite of Loneliness.”

In the essay, Keegan introduces the idea of the opposite of loneliness. We don’t have a word for it, she says, but it’s what she wants in life. To quote her, “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” Keegan wrote this essay as a reflection on her time at Yale, and in it, she talks about how she’s found the opposite of loneliness at Yale, and how she hopes she can continue to feel this way for the rest of her life. When I read Keegan’s essay over the summer, I was struck with a feeling of intense understanding, because I also found the opposite of loneliness somewhere. I found it here.

While trying to figure out what to write this speech about, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the three years I’ve spent here at The Gunnery. The good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the laughs and the cries. The people that have come and gone, the teachers that have impacted me, the friends I’ve made. The memories I’ll remember for years to come.

But I kept going back to Keegan’s book, and especially the title essay and her words on the opposite of loneliness. I feel impossibly lucky to have spent three years in a place that has made me feel the opposite of loneliness every single day, in ways big and small. I’ve felt it in in traditions, in classes, in co-curriculars, in experiences, in singular moments, in what have and what will become memories.

All-school walks. Orientations. Spring carnivals. Community weekends. Dorm dinners. Holiday concerts. Class trips. Staying up too late in the dorm, talking and laughing. Making guacamole out of dining hall salad ingredients. Going down the slip and slide on senior skip day. Having a two-hour snowball fight on a freezing winter night and sledding down the Marich’s hill on a plastic blow up chair. Trapping a bat in a lacrosse stick on multiple occasions in Bourne. Singing and dancing at Fire Pit Fridays. Taking college shirt photos on senior rock. These are all distinct memories, but even more than the memories, I appreciate the simple moments. Every moment I’ve spent with my best friends, with whom I’ve had my best adventures and made my favorite memories; from whom I’ve learned lessons that have helped me grow as a friend and as a person; and without whom I wouldn’t have had the same Gunnery experience or be the person I am today.

Endless hours in the dorm, the dining hall, the library. Every new friend, every laugh, every unexpected conversation. Being outside on warm nights, playing on the turf or talking on the quad. These small moments are the ones in which I feel the opposite of loneliness most. The ones where nothing seems important except each other, where no one’s rushing off to do anything, where everyone feels truly happy and comfortable and safe and content.

Here at The Gunnery, our schedules are packed. We go from classes to co-curriculars to dinner to study hall. And our schedules are packed with different things. Different classes, different co-curriculars, different clubs. We’re all in these different circles and everyone is in a unique combination of circles. But despite those differences, and despite our other differences, our commonality is that we are Gunnery students.

There’s something about that “in it together” sense of camaraderie alone that makes me feel the opposite of loneliness. Some of that comes with boarding school itself, I think – the whole living together thing kind of just does that to you. But if I had gone to a different boarding school, would I be able to make this same speech at that graduation and mean it? Without a doubt, I know the answer is no.

And the reason I say no is because I think this opposite of loneliness feeling isn’t something you find everywhere. Actually, I know it’s not. We’ve all been a part of numerous communities throughout our lives, from our hometowns to other schools to teams and camps and groups, and that’s how I can say with confidence that there’s no place like The Gunnery.

I originally wasn’t going to come here, and to think that I almost didn’t get to experience this school and its people makes me want to go back in time and thank freshman year Maddie a million times over for making what was, in more ways than I could’ve imagined, the right decision. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made, actually. There’s a certain kind of magic that exists within our stone walls, and that magic is what makes us who we are, what helps us become who we will be, what gives a sense of the opposite of loneliness.

We all have different opinions of The Gunnery, especially the seniors on the question of graduating. Some of you are probably silently begging me to finish this speech so we can leave this tent and this day and this school, while others could happily stick around for another year. It’s fine to differ in our opinions, and it’s natural to dislike aspects of our school, as it is with any school. But that being said, one of our undeniable strengths as a community is the way we create and spread the opposite of loneliness.

This feeling comes from within all of us, and it’s up to us to share it with others. We all have dreams and passions and aspirations and plans, but I think, at the end of the day, what we all really have is a desire to feel the opposite of lonely. To feel loved. Supported. Accepted. Lifted up. Valued. Appreciated. I could go on with the adjectives, but what it boils down to is we want to know, as Keegan wrote, “that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.”

This school makes me feel that way, and I hope the students here, and maybe even the faculty, can identify with what I’m saying in the way I identified with what Keegan wrote. For the underclassmen, I hope you’ve experienced the opposite of loneliness here, and I hope you continue to do so. If you sense someone isn’t feeling this way, I hope you help them get there. And for my senior class, I hope we can all look back on our years spent at The Gunnery and say we felt the opposite of lonely. Not only that we felt it, but that we recognized it, that we appreciated it, that we helped others feel it. And even after we leave this place, I hope we continue to want it, continue to strive for it, continue to spread it.

My greatest hope for us is that when we walk out of this tent today with our diplomas in hand, as we scatter across the globe to attend different colleges and then scatter again to live in different cities and work at different jobs with different people, we stay rooted in what we learned at The Gunnery. Not just what we learned in the classrooms, but what we learned about life – what it is and what it should be –and what we learned about ourselves – who we are and who we want to be.

And especially, I hope we remember learning what it means to feel the opposite of lonely. It’s how I feel right now, it’s how I’ve felt throughout my three years here, and it’s how I hope to feel for the rest of my life. When I read Keegan’s essay over the summer, I understood her words about finding the opposite of loneliness somewhere. Now that I’m graduating, I also understand her desire to feel this way forever. We’re leaving this school behind, but that doesn’t mean we have to leave this feeling behind, too. I owe both my appreciation of and desire for this feeling to The Gunnery, and to all of you. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

A License to Use Cell Phones

Head of School Peter Becker has been reflecting on the question of why we require teenagers to obtain a license to drive a car, a process that typically involves some level of preparation and training, and yet, no license or training is required for teenagers, pre-teens and even younger students to own and operate a smartphone. It’s a question worth exploring for parents before they simply turn over the keys to the internet and social media to their children, and allow them to attempt to safely and appropriately navigate that terrain without proper guidance.

I have not looked to see whether anyone else has proposed this idea before, but I assume that someone has. It emerged out of a conversation with colleagues and I honestly don’t remember who said it first. My wife and I decided a couple of years ago, once the requests from our three children for a device began, that we were going to wait until they were in ninth grade before allowing them to have their own smartphone. (We may not be in the minority here. According to a report issued this month by “Parents” magazine, which polled 1,000 moms of children ages 1 to 10, only 21 percent of kids ages 10 and under have their own smartphone. But more than a third of kids who have their own phone got it before their sixth birthday, the magazine said.) Our decision was made after watching so many terrific students be swallowed alive by their devices over the 11 and a half years since the iPhone® debuted. As a teacher, a school leader, and a parent, I have had misgivings about any approach ostensibly intended to equip teenagers to use technology wisely and well that amounts principally to telling them what they can’t do, which is how most schools and families seem to handle this topic. I’m very aware that given the power of a smartphone, for both good and bad, simply postponing the moment when they have access to one is not the same as helping them learn to use it well.

During the aforementioned conversation with colleagues, we drew a parallel between smartphones another device that most teenagers long to get their hands on: the automobile (although research from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, among others, indicates that, for a variety of reasons, an increasing number of teenagers are now getting their driver’s licenses later). While I’m sure there are important ways in which the parallel breaks down, there is a lot to learn from that comparison. We are very aware of the damage that a young person – or an adult – can do to themselves and to other people if they are not adequately prepared to handle a car. The rules are different in each state, but they all require a licensing process that hinges on a computer-based test and a practical test wherein an expert gauges the user’s ability to navigate different frequently occurring pitfalls and common mistakes. Many of us may have had to take one or both of these tests more than once, and know teenagers today who have had to do the same, as in most cases the standards have risen. Moreover, we should note, a teenager cannot drive a car without both a carefully earned license and proper insurance because we know that even with the training and preparation that goes into the license, there is a chance that they will hurt themselves, the vehicle, or other drivers, and that risk is greater in the first year, when they are simply less experienced. Some families invest serious time and money, for good reason, in driver education courses to prepare teenagers to drive and insurance companies occasionally offer a discount if they know that a person has taken one of these classes. Clearly, preparation and experience are important factors in determining a young driver’s success.

So, what would it look like to create the same process before we put a smartphone in the hands of our beloved teens? I am early in my thought process about this, and as I mentioned, there are probably models for it already to borrow from, but at the least it could require classroom learning and having to pass some sort of written test or interview. It is easy to envision (and perhaps some families already do this) a probationary period during which the student and parent agree to meet weekly to monitor and review together usage statistics from an app like Moment or Apple’s Screen Time, which automatically tracks your screen time as well as which apps you view most often, and can even help you to schedule downtime. Perhaps families could determine ahead of time what a healthy total amount of screen time would look like, and what a healthy breakdown between different types of apps would be, much like financial budgeting, and then compare reality to the ideal and make adjustments accordingly. Only after a student demonstrates that he or she can use the phone appropriately, at least in terms of time allocation, does he or she gain either unfettered access to the device, or permission to use certain apps that require more discernment and wisdom, such as SnapChat or Instagram. Obviously, how teenagers allocate their time between different apps is one thing, but what they actually do with an app, using it for positive reasons versus habitualizing negative social patterns, are different things and require different kinds of conversations and feedback loops. But I have to imagine that some families and schools, especially middle schools where so much of this activity seems to begin, have already developed protocols for this from which we all can learn.

Just as the police have the authority to issue tickets for improper use of a vehicle, incorporating a scale where the response corresponds with the severity of the infraction, perhaps both families and schools can develop more nuanced responses based on different types of infractions, up to and including removing certain apps entirely or revoking a student’s use of his or her phone. I’ve learned recently about schools experimenting with not allowing smartphones on their campuses. While I understand the attraction of such an idea and expect that such a proposal would be implemented thoughtfully, I’m skeptical on the face of it that this is actually the best preparation for life that we can give to students. The reality is that sending your children to boarding school does not mean that they will be separated from their devices but I hope that all of us at boarding schools can think creatively and purposefully about how we can take advantage of our 24/7 learning environment to equip students to use these powerful tools for good rather than unwittingly being used and shaped by them. It’s a life lesson for all of us, and one we can pass on to our children at any age.

Navigating Our Relationship To Risk

I took our kids, ages 12, 10 and seven, to see “Free Solo,” a riveting, beautiful, white-knuckle documentary about the free climber, Alex Honnold, and his attempts to free-climb El Capitan. Just to clarify, the film is about a human being who attempts to climb a 3,000-foot vertical wall of granite with no ropes – just using his hands, feet, fingers and toes to make the climb. My palms get sweaty just writing about it.

The film is an extended meditation on and exploration of risk. As it demonstrates repeatedly, Honnold and his free-climbing peers recognize that a single mistake will likely result in death. There is nearly zero margin for error. As far as risk/reward equations go, it doesn’t get much more absolute on the downside than that. (To underscore the point, at least twice in the film Honnold and other climbers list fellow climbers they’ve known who have died.)

I brought my children to experience this film because I find something admirable, attractive and counter-cultural about this kind of relationship to risk. I wanted them to see that most of us (“us” being anyone in an independent school, and certainly my kids) live the most sheltered, bubble-wrapped lives in history. What we consider risky – whether physically, socially, intellectually or financially – barely registers on the risk Richter scale compared to what these people choose to do, and what most humans throughout history have faced with no choice. And yet we’re the ones experiencing an epidemic of anxiety and depression? What are we getting wrong? I want my kids to develop some perspective about their own lives in context and to begin to ask themselves what they are going to do with and about the incredibly comfortable situation into which they’ve been born.

Obviously, free climbing El Capitan (or any of the other rock faces depicted in the film) is an extreme example. But its extremity is both helpful and instructive.

First, and most starkly, Honnold and other free climbers in the film love life and living in ways we should pay attention to. I would argue that they are more alive – more tuned into what gives life fullness – than most of us.

Second, they seem to live very simple lives (in the best sense) – streamlined, no extraneous stuff and relationships – with clarity of purpose (setting up and executing the next climb). They’re human, as the film makes clear, with complications in relationships, but they’ve stripped life down to essentials in a way I’d like to emulate. (Honnold – unmarried, no kids – takes this to an extreme; he lives in a well-equipped van and wrestles later in the film with more traditional forms of domestic life. I want to see the sequel just to see how this thread plays out.)

Third, they’ve reconciled themselves to the reality of death in a way that leads to freedom. Though this isn’t something we read about a lot in educational philosophy, it made me wonder if we should be finding ways to integrate it into high school more than we do. The ways in which humans in various societies have grappled with the reality that we all die is fascinating and instructive. The primary ways we in the developed west do that today is to figure out how to push off our last breath to the latest possible date as if more of life is unequivocally better. Few of us today can say, “O death, where is your sting?” We spend a lot of energy afraid of the sting rather than finding peace and meaning in the face of it. What is it that Shakespeare knew that allowed him to put these words in Caesar’s mouth:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
(“Julius Caesar,” Act II, Scene II, Line 32)

I want to be more like that than someone who chases the elixir of life. That’s what “Free Solo” depicts – a healthy, balanced relationship to death. It’s instructive to watch Honnold’s approach to his climbing attempt given what I’ve described about his willingness to risk death regularly. You might think he’s a daredevil who thinks he’s untouchable. Far from it. He approaches the climb with scientific precision. He writes detailed notes about each move – each finger hold, hand role, toe placement. He memorizes these steps both on and off the mountain (he practices with a partner using ropes and harnesses multiple times leading up to the attempt). It’s safe to say that I’ve never approached anything as intentionally as Honnold approaches his free solo attempts.

Finally, the film depicts another way in which Honnold lives out the relative peace and clarity of purpose that he’s achieved. He gives away 30 percent of his income (no idea if that’s pre- or post-tax, but it’s ridiculous regardless) to help build solar roofs in impoverished areas. Thirty percent! Who does that? Someone who has found contentment and equipoise – without thinking that those will only come once the bank account reaches a certain level. I wanted my kids to see Honnold’s radical generosity, too.

See the film. As one friend said, see it on as big a screen as you can find. I won’t tell you whether he succeeds or not. Most importantly, ask yourself what you can learn from the main character. I’ll be asking how we can integrate its lessons in the 24/7 boarding school environment. No, I don’t think allowing kids to free climb sheer rock faces is the answer. But we need to do a better job helping them establish a healthy relationship to real, positive risk – which at our school, might involve spending a night in a tent in Connecticut in January, being kind to the kid who ends up on the receiving end of a joke, trying out for the play when you’ve never acted before – and determining what the necessary preconditions are to making that happen.

How Do You Prioritize Your Time?

At a School Meeting this month, Monte Blaustein, who teaches sciences and is the director of our engineering program, known on campus as IDEAS, spoke to students and faculty about how people prioritize their time. So many of us lead busy, overscheduled lives and we know it’s important to take care of certain basic needs, such as nutrition, sleep, school or work, exercise and staying connected with family and friends. However, it’s worth taking a moment to think about Mr. Blaustein’s question: What is important to you? Being more thoughtful about what is important to us can help us to prioritize the people, work, events, activities, commitments and tasks that compete for our time and attention. What follows is an excerpt from his speech.

What is important to you?  What should be important to you? Every year the amount of stuff we try to fit into each day is increasing, but the number of hours available to do these things is not.  The only option is to try and figure out what is important to you, what will make you happy – today and in the future – and what are the things you really care about.  We need to prioritize our lives, to decide what are the things that are most important to us, and then don’t worry as much about the small things. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but you should sweat the big stuff. If you know which is which you will be happier and more successful.

  • Classes – like it or not you need to learn things that you don’t already know, and until we figure out a better way, for now learning occurs in a classroom – real or virtual – and involves practicing what you learned so that it stays in your brain – we call that homework or studying.
  • Games – most of us play a sport, create works of art, act in a play or musical, or take part in one of the myriad of other things that we do for fun.  Yes, some of you may go on to make this your career, but for most people it is something we do just because we enjoy it and like spending time doing it – and just like homework, practice, practice, practice is the way you get better.
  • Eating – we do it because our bodies require nourishment – no option there.  Of course some of us enjoy a good meal, and it creates a great opportunity to relax with friends and chill for a while.
  • Social media is also a part of our lives.  I love this word. Being “social” is a good thing – humans love to be with others, to interact, and yes to connect with each other.  “Media” – this is how social is often done these days, and that is fine. How else would you get to see what your friends who don’t live close to you are doing everyday?  It is a great way to keep in touch with family and those who are not part of your everyday life.

There is one thing I have not talked about, and it is very important: Each of us needs to be aware of how others are feeling.  It is really easy to congratulate someone for getting a goal, a good grade, being selected for some position or role. We know they are happy and we respond without thinking about it. It is equally important to watch out for your friends when they are not having a good day.  They may have received a bad grade, did something that caused the team to lose the game, received bad news from home, had a fight with someone, or maybe they are just feeling sick or lonely. Letting someone know you care about them, that you sympathize with their problem, that you are sorry about what happened, and that you understand – that can be hard sometimes, but it is so very important.  Sometimes it means helping in some small way, such as getting that person a glass of water or picking up what they dropped. Sometimes it means just sitting there quietly while they tell their story, and listening to what they say.

Sometimes it means getting help from another student or an adult, especially if that bad day morphs into a second or third bad day. The most important thing is to make sure the person is not ignored and that you are sincerely trying to be caring. When you see that someone is down, think about them above yourself, and go out of your way to be kind.

I am not going to tell you what should be important for you.  Everyone has their own priorities, their own goals and objectives, and their own passions. Think about what is really important to you, what will make you happy today and tomorrow. Spend your time doing what is important to you, and keep that in mind when you prioritize your time.

Practicing Character through the Intentional Use of Language

The Gunnery celebrated the opening of a new school year – our 169th – at Convocation on Friday, September 7.  This event is a reminder that, as students and educators, we are all part of something historic, a place that has been added on to by each successive student body, and now that’s us. It’s both a responsibility and an opportunity.

I find it helpful at this time of year to remind ourselves of what we say we are trying to do here, to remind ourselves of our mission. You may be vaguely familiar with it but allow me to share it here as a point of orientation:

In 1850 Frederick Gunn established a school based on the belief that strength of character was the goal of education. Today, The Gunnery rests on the four cornerstones of character: scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility. Character is forged in a cohesive, diverse community informed by a challenging college preparatory curriculum, a broad range of athletic, artistic and social activities and a faculty of scholars and committed educators dedicated to the intellectual and ethical development of every student. A Gunnery graduate is a broadly educated, socially responsible citizen with tested beliefs, strength of character and the courage to act on convictions.

We are here to help our students grow in strength of character – in scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility. I think you can agree that it’s a good goal, a goal of real substance. Our founder, Mr. Gunn, believed strongly that even as we pursue this mission and help students grow in strength of character, this whole endeavor of school should also be fun. So, allow me to try to provide just a few examples of how the pursuit of character could actually be fun  – and what growing in character looks like.

I want to use Red Sox fans as my example. My Aunt Liz (and most of Mrs. Becker’s family, for that matter) is a Red Sox fan. I saw her the other night and she said, “I’m sorry your Yankees are having a tough season.”

Now, I want to unpack that seemingly innocuous comment and then connect it to how we live together at school and live out the growth of character. First of all, the statement is untrue. The Yankees are not having a tough season. Many other teams in Major League Baseball would be very happy to be having the season the Yankees are having. But, yes, the Red Sox are having an awesome season – a gloat-worthy season. Kudos to them.

But more important than the inaccuracy of the comment is what Aunt Liz meant by it. We all know that she did not actually mean “I’m sorry.” She’s not sorry. So right there, Aunt Liz is using language, knowingly or not, to provoke a response. She’s not trying to make me feel better, even though the words she used might make you think that. She’s trying to squeeze lemon juice in the open wound of being in second place to the hated rival. It is an intentionally unkind comment. This is what Red Sox fans do.

Now, this – what I’ve just done – is an example of me using the power that I have – the power of access to a microphone, of a prominent place from which to speak – to try to inject some fun into the conversation about what character looks like in action, somewhat at the expense of Red Sox fans and my Aunt Liz. Obviously, I’m not particularly concerned with who is your favorite sports team and how you behave as a fan. But here at The Gunnery, we do care, a lot, about whether our students use language intentionally in other contexts and situations.

How we use language – the words we say out loud and what we type, especially with our thumbs – is one of the primary ways that we live out character, especially integrity, respect and responsibility. We live in incredibly charged, divided times. The examples we get on television and social media of how to use language are, for the most part, terrible. Television and social media rarely have the patience or interest in language used well, for positive, productive purposes. And this is where what we try to do here, at Mr. Gunn’s school, flies in the face of what we see outside of this place. What we value here is very obviously not what the world around us values. That creates a tension, but it’s a tension from which we can learn.

What would it look like, and sound like, if we committed to using language not to provoke or divide but positively, to learn from one another, to inquire rather than badger, to build up rather than tear down? This takes practice, courage, and the willingness to learn new habits and buck social norms but I know our students are all capable of it and most of them already do it at least some of the time.

We want our students to advocate for their ideas passionately. We don’t want them to be afraid to say what’s on their minds. But we do want and expect them to say it respectfully. And we expect them to listen to one another respectfully. Can you hear how countercultural this is at this particular moment? Do you think it’s possible? I do. Do you think they can do it? I do.

An example of how this worked out practically, here on campus, is the effort that a few students made two years ago to create the Gray Party – not gray like mushy nothingness lacking color, but gray as in most of the best answers to challenges that our world faces exist not in the black or white extremes of one party or another, but in the middle ground – the difficult-to-navigate middle ground. It takes courage and patience to stay there and work through the pluses and minuses of different answers.

We don’t promise any of our students that they have a right not to be made uncomfortable by something that another student or faculty member may say. I can’t emphasize this enough. But the flip side of that coin is that here you also don’t have a right to say, write, or do things that are intended to be inflammatory or harassing.

This is a very high standard to set and even harder to live out. It requires all of us to allow each other to make mistakes and learn from them, to practice extending grace and forgiveness to one another at times, to consider others before we consider ourselves. We are inviting our students to live differently, not for the sake of it or out of fear of confrontation, but because it’s better, more fulfilling, and will bring out and nurture the best of them. We want this to be a place of real learning and that implies robust disagreement and debate, even having feelings hurt at times, but only if you can say in your heart and your head that you actually meant to be respectful, to care about the other person, and to learn. Those, among other things, are our standards at this school.

I listened to an interview recently with a writer, thinker, theologian, and former pastor who I’ve long admired named Eugene Peterson. He thinks a lot about using language well. He said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use. We start out using them and they end up using us.” My hope and prayer for all of us this year is that as we practice character and grow in scholarship, integrity, respect and responsibility, that we use language intentionally, with care and even love, even though that’s a very unusual thing to do in 2018. Through doing that, we will make this school, our school, a place that would make Mr. Gunn very proud.