2015 Convocation Address

We held Convocation on Friday evening, September 11.  Here is a transcript of my address.  Please visit our YouTube page to view the entire ceremony.

Good Evening.  Let us start with a moment of silence for 9/11—example of history interrupting

Welcome. The start of the school year is always an exciting time, sometimes a nerve-wracking time, but always filled with hope and promise. I know it’s also filled with a lot of activity and that many of you, now that you’re dressed nicely, have had a nice meal, and are sitting still, will begin to get sleepy soon, so hang with me for a few minutes.

I want to begin with a question–I was a little chagrined that Mr. Low shared the same question with the new upperclassmen last night, but perhaps it’s a good sign that I’m not the only one asking it. The question is “Why are you here?” You can ask that a lot of different ways, with the emphasis in different places–I want to emphasize the “why”. You can ask that about life in general–why do I exist?–but for now I’d like to focus it on your time at The Gunnery.

You may have a lot of good answers in mind: to get into a good college, to learn, because my parents made me, to act, sing, paint or play a particular sport.

I suspect that few of you instinctively went to an answer that went much beyond yourself–an answer that pointed to the fact that you are joining a community, that you are becoming an important part of a larger whole. I’ll get back to this, but I know that when I arrived at boarding school, many moons ago, I didn’t have an answer to that question. Maybe I would have referred to college but not much more than that and, instead, I allowed survival instincts and pursuit of the path of least resistance to guide me, often without very promising results. I certainly didn’t give much thought to the community that I’d entered. So back to your answers–if you didn’t think about the fact you are now part of a larger whole–both this student body and a history that stretches back to 1850–there’s nothing wrong with that–to focus on ourselves is a natural human tendency–but it doesn’t change the fact that you are now “I” in the midst of “we”–what you do here, what you choose to do here, matters not just to yourself but it matters for the rest of us. So that begs the question, what kind of we–what kind of school–do you want us to be and to become? We are known as a tightly-knit, family-like environment–that only happens if you choose to contribute to it. And that means that there are certain things we do–introduce ourselves to people we don’t know, show kindness and grace and compassion and patience to the dorm mate who makes the annoying comment. I was so pleased on Wednesday night to see at least two cases of returning students inviting new students they didn’t know to join their table at dinner. This is where the idea of character comes from–character in the traditional sense. David Brooks, in his most recent book, The Road to Character, points out in his last chapter, entitled “The Big Me”, that we are in the midst of attempts to redefine character:  It is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, and self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely. It is instead used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity…” David Brooks thinks that redefining character in these terms is a bad thing–that doing so is a symptom of the self-centeredness and utilitarianism of our society. I agree. More importantly, our founder, Frederick Gunn, created this school first and foremost to the end that students would develop character.

One of The Gunnery’s earliest alumni was a man named Clarence Deming Class of 1866‘66. He wrote two chapters of Mr. Gunn’s biography, including Chapter IV, entitled “Mr. Gunn As the School-Master”. Listen to what Clarence Deming said was Mr. Gunn’s reason for all of us being here: “Mr. Gunn’s central objects were [manhood], moral courage, physique, and that grandest of human traits expressed by that word character. Without these he conceived that the [student’s] maturer life would be like a house set on a flimsy base, easy to be wrecked at the first blast of the world’s temptations.” [Repeat for emphasis.]

So just as you are now a big part of “we”, “We” are a place where character matters, where it is a necessary precondition to, an essential ingredient for, our community’s flourishing–where your yes is yes and your no is no–so that means that if you don’t finish an assignment on time, just be honest, don’t make up a story; tell the truth, even when it hurts. On the positive side, be proactively kind. Stand up for what you believe in. Show respect to your peers and teachers. Obey the school rules–they aren’t in place to limit you–they are in place to provide some common-sense, clear, mutually agreed upon structure within which you can experiment, try new things. Deming described Mr. Gunn’s ideal of school life as “a scheme of self-control rooted in the personal conscience of the [student], and least felt because least exerted…The scholars” [that’s you] “were to [Mr. Gunn] embryo citizens, interested in the weal [common good] of the school community, and each charged, as an individual, with the duty of conserving it. Mutual confidence was the common ground on which met master and pupil, the ruler and the ruled.” Each of us, in this conception, shares responsibility for the well being of our school–of your school, of Mr. Gunn’s school.

And this mutual confidence–which is to say, that the adults have confidence in our students and our students exercise confidence in their teachers–is particularly at the heart of what happens in our classrooms, stages, labs, studios, fields, rinks, and on the lake. Let me describe this confidence more fully–it is essential to what we would call today a belief in a “growth mindset”–the sense that “students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence”–and, I would add, that teachers believe this about themselves and about students. In our school’s upcoming strategic plan, we state that explicitly, “What does distinguish the school’s educational approach today is that faculty and staff at The Gunnery aspire to a growth mindset, believing intelligence and character are not fixed and that there is no limit to what one can learn or develop. Students who want to learn can achieve extraordinary growth at The Gunnery.”

If you go into a class, rehearsal or practice with the attitude of “what do I need to do to improve?” and your teacher, director, coach does the same, there are few limits to what you/we can achieve. This presumes engagement and investment, both of which are easier to summon tonight, on Day One, and much harder on Day Thirty. This is one reason why we place so much importance on the Academic Merit system–the four “dimensions of learning” that your classroom teachers will assess and that we believe are the necessary ingredients for learning and growth. The four are

  • Effort & Responsibility, broken into Preparedness, Completion, Participation, and Organization;
  • Collaboration, which includes the obvious Working in Groups but also the less obvious and at least as important Listening;
  • Self-Awareness–that you recognize accurately your own strengths and weaknesses and seek extra help when needed;
  • and Attitudes–displaying conscientiousness, curiosity, and grit.

That’s a lot! But these should serve as a starting point for you as a student and, I would argue, should be more important and weightier to you than the grades you get on individual assignments. We believe that if you do these things well–Effort & Responsibility, Collaboration, Self-Awareness, and Attitudes–you will be putting yourself in a position to grow in tremendous ways and the grades will follow. More importantly, applying these behaviors and approaches will position you for success beyond the classroom and regardless of what comes at you.

We believe that these behaviors, appropriately applied, will integrate with the four goals we have for all students in The Gunnery–what we call The Commons. Last year, we worked across the faculty to identify the characteristics and habits that we would like every Gunnery student to develop over their time here. We call these “The Commons” because, like a commons–a quad, a dining hall, a dorm common room, that is, shared space that we all have shared responsibility for–like a commons, these habits of mind are not the domain of a particular academic department or of a certain course. Instead, we hope that every course you take here will nurture in you the development of these traits–and we hope that you will aspire to them yourselves.

  • Intellectual Curiosity: The willingness to understand one’s own learning style and the learning process in general, to seek the ability to teach oneself, and to develop those habits essential to a life of learning.
  • Respect and Collaboration: The ability and willingness to challenge one’s own perspective, to see, acknowledge, and appreciate the ideas of others, and to incorporate differing perspectives into one’s own growing perspective.
  • Effective Communication: The ability to formulate one’s own ideas, having listened to and considered a variety of perspectives, and to express them clearly, effectively, and confidently.
  • Context: The ability to understand and analyze historical, cultural, aesthetic, ethical, spiritual, political and intellectual context, as well as the context of a specific academic discipline, that frames a course of study.
  • Connections: The ability to recognize and analyze patterns within and between disciplines.
  • [Fun: Mr. Gunn said it is our responsibility as teachers to make sure that school is fun.]

These are goals for your intellectual life, to be sure, but they extend beyond the classroom. I urge you to reflect on them and to make them your own. Or, if not, then at least develop your own goals and share them with your advisor.

I arrived at boarding school like nothing more than a lump of clay–and a stayed that way for most of my first two years. As I walked along the Shepaug last week thinking about this year and thinking back to my first year at boarding school, a different image came to mind, no less promising–I was like a person in a canoe set in a river who chose not to pick up the paddle at my feet. Can you imagine what that would be like? I couldn’t have answered the question “Why am I here?” I certainly didn’t know what it meant to develop a life of the mind or moral character. I was socially and academically insecure so I stuck to sports and I was kind of a jerk socially, at least to kids who I was ahead of on the social ladder, and there weren’t many behind me. I failed both my winter and spring geometry exams, having never failed anything before in my life, mainly because I didn’t make myself study. My academic merit score would have been in the toilet–and rightly so. For all intents and purposes, I wasted my first two years at boarding school. Finally, I started to wake up, both academically and morally, both because of events surrounding me and because of adults at the school giving me individual attention and calling me to something better, something higher.

I only began to find my place my junior year and I distinctly remember lining up for graduation, looking around and being surprised that it was time to leave–I had finally gotten the hang of things–and now I have to leave?! I could have gotten the hang of things a lot earlier if I’d engaged. It’s not an unusual story but I want–and our faculty want–so much more for each one of you, whether you are here one year or four. I could have gotten so much more out of my four years at boarding school and I want that for you. Academic Merit, The Commons, and so much in our student handbook–including what we call the Social Honor Code on pages 13-14–these are a road map, they are points on the horizon. I want us to be a school that doesn’t have a social ladder–can we do that? And I want each of you, regardless of whether you are a confident student or not, to internalize a growth mindset and to take advantage of the belief your teachers and advisors have in you and resources like the Center for Academic Support.

As you can hear in the earlier description of The Gunnery in the 1860s, in Mr. Gunn’s own words, as well as in this strategic planning process–I aspire, we aspire, to these things as a school not just so that our immediate school community will grow stronger and not just because we hope it will set you up to succeed in the next step, as you look at colleges, but even more so because our world today desperately needs young women and men of character. If we return to Deming’s quotation “Mr. Gunn’s central objects were [manhood], moral courage, physique, and that grandest of human traits expressed by that word character. Without these he conceived that the [student’s] maturer life would be like a house set on a flimsy base, easy to be wrecked at the first blast of the world’s temptations.” You can hear in there the phrase “that grandest of human traits expressed by that word “character”. Deming doesn’t define character and Mr. Gunn didn’t either, but its fundamental ingredients include, at least, wisdom and courage. When you look at headlines and trends of the last three months and the moral and ethical pool in which we all tread right now–sexual assault on college campuses, the trouble students at peer boarding schools have had learning to develop healthy, safe sexual relationships; legalized marijuana, super easy access to pornography and a broad culture of objectifying women and men sexually–wisdom is more necessary than ever to figure out which way is up, what is right, as is the courage to follow those instincts. Think about these summer headlines:

  • The murder of 9 African Americans on June 17 at  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina
  • And the continued stories from various parts of the country of violence against African Americans by police often in impoverished, predominantly black urban neighborhoods
  • US Women’s Soccer Team Wins World Cup
  • The start of the 2016 presidential election cycle–Hillary Clinton’s emails and Donald Trump
  • The New Hampshire court trial in August of a former student from one of our peer boarding schools
  • Stock market gains and drops around the world, particularly in China
  • The Iran Nuclear Deal
  • Continued advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria
  • Syrian refugee crises
  • Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate
  • Continued tension between Vladimir Putin of Russia and most of the west
  • Ongoing water crisis in California
  • Taylor Swift concert
  • Serena Williams on cusp of first grand slam in tennis in 25 years
  • An article about the dating app, Tinder, that just about every adult I know over 35 read in dismay even though I know that for many teenagers and young adults an app that basically exists to make hooking up more efficient is not that surprising or problematic
  • The 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
  • The Red Sox are in last place, the Yankees will make the playoffs and the Mets are in first place by 7 games at near the middle of September

How are we supposed to respond to news like this? Some are cause for clear moral outrage. Others are more ambiguous. Some require action, others reflection–some just awareness. My deep hope for you is that, as a result of your time here, you learn to think about literature and poetry, math and biology, world languages, history–but that you learn to think even more broadly–as a citizen of our school, of your country and of our world. To do so requires that you develop wisdom now–at least start on the path–and, in some cases, develop the courage to act on your carefully considered convictions.

So when you look at events unfolding around you, whether those events are on campus, in your home communities, around the United States or around the world, we hope you will bring these ways of thinking and of being to bear–we hope you will apply them. Don’t be like me–that passive lump of clay. Or, to return to the image of sitting in a canoe on a river–don’t just allow yourself to be carried along by the current. We want to equip you to develop the instinct to pick up the paddle, to step out of the currents of life and to ask yourself if you want to go where the river is taking you, or if, instead, you’d like to go against the current or observe it from the shore.

I want to pause here to share my personal conviction that we are all lab rats going through a great, and sometimes horrifying, experiment –namely the personal and social consequence of the merging of technology and human nature in the form of smart phones and dating and social media apps. There is so much promise and there are so many signs of impending disaster. We are only just beginning to understand the consequences of a screen-based society and we need to be students of our times. The inventors of the steam engine and the automobile didn’t ask how their technologies would reshape society. We probably wouldn’t undo those advances but we certainly could have been more deliberate about the ways we allowed the things we created to act back on us and on culture. Though I don’t know what this looks like yet, I want our school to be great at helping students think about the technology at our finger tips and learn to use it wisely–with discernment and prudence. Yes, you can post mean things anonymously. Yes, you can retweet rude or offensive 140 character quips before your prefrontal cortex has time to catch up. But we want you to develop the habit of reflection–to pause and ask, “Is this really what’s best–for me, for the person I’m writing this about, for our community?” I want us to develop the habit of asking the question, “Just because I am able to do this, should I?” That’s one of the most powerful questions we can ask individually and about the intersection of technology and society in general–just because we can, should we? Because the same social media technology that we use to tear down another person and tear apart our communities and friendships has been used to bring down dictatorial governments and organize relief efforts at scenes of natural disaster, when used with wisdom and a whole lot of courage. Isn’t that better? Isn’t that higher? That’s available to you.

[Pause]

The writer, professor and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, wrote, “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what it is right. It is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.” To return to our original question–why are you here? Wisdom. Practice. Noticing. “Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right–practicing what is right–and noticing what happens–noticing–when that practice succeeds and when it fails.” Note the assumption that there are times when your practice will fail. [You think you want the answer to “Why am I here?” to be obvious and the path ahead of you straight and clear. But the path you are on will twist and turn, it will rise and fall and have moments of darkness and light. That is where you will find meaning and purpose in life–richness and fullness–if you have eyes to see.] Embrace this–help make this a safe place to practice, to succeed, and to fail–and, ultimately, a safe place to develop wisdom and courage. What kind of school do you want this to be–this year and in the future? Make it that–it’s your school. You should have exceedingly high expectations for yourself and for your school–we have them of you and for us. I look forward eagerly to seeing how each and every one of you will contribute to fulfilling the purpose for which Frederick and Abigail Gunn started this great school in the first place 166 years ago.

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