I recently had the privilege of speaking to accepted students and their parents who came to The Gunnery for Revisit Days. (We had record-breaking attendance both days, despite a spring snow storm!) When it comes to choosing a school, these campus visits are critically important and can affirm, particularly for students, whether they have found the right fit in the school they have chosen. I’ve modified my talk to fit this space.
To get at the question of how to find that right-fit school, I asked families at our Revisit Days to consider some bigger questions via Yale’s most popular course in history. Not Shakespeare, American history or economics. Psychology 157 – Psychology and the Good Life. How is it possible that one quarter of Yale University’s undergraduates feel the need to take a class on what means to lead a good life? It raises the question: why are we doing all of this in the first place? What is it for?
Our goal as a school is that after spending three or four years here, students will have begun to develop really good, life-giving answers to those questions. If, right now, “getting into a good college” is the best answer they can muster, we believe that there are even better answers, answers that will lead to more than the passing happiness of getting accepted by a particular school.
I believe that the search for the right-fit high school, whether you are a boarding or day student, is really a search for the best community that will help you to begin to ask and answer (at least preliminarily) big questions of life. Then it equips you to pursue your passions along the way as a means to the end of answering those questions – that is the path to a good life, a fulfilling life, a life of peace, of confidence, rather than one of anxiety.
At The Gunnery, we take pride in being a place with a strong group identity that does not pressure students to conform to a simplistic, pre-determined mold. What our founder, Frederick Gunn, cared about, and what we celebrate today, is character – not just doing the right thing, but getting comfortable challenging yourself, and being challenged, secure in the knowledge that the teachers and friends around you believe in you. It is out of that belief, that confidence in you, that we challenge you. Moreover, we believe that the best things in life – the things that bring real joy, not just a passing dopamine jolt – come most often after intense effort, hard work, and self-denial, and typically through working with a team, not individually.
Let’s take an extreme example of this – climbing Mount Everest. I asked the parents and students at Revisit Days if any of them had done this. I knew it was an impressive group, but not surprisingly, no hands went up. So I asked them if we could all agree that the people who stand at the top of that mountain feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction more intense than anything any of us can imagine. Standing 29,000 feet above sea level, six miles in the air, must feel pretty great, right? But I asked if we could also agree that those who accomplish this feat had to train harder, endure more pain, and take more risks than anything most of us have experienced. So we see the relationship in the two – we want that sweet taste of accomplishment, but it requires a commensurate effort and pain along the way.
Why do I bring this up? The example puts a question before the students who come to our school – what is your Everest, or your next Everest, for now? Some have already been through challenges, life challenges or in learning or athletics or the arts, and they have come out on the other end transformed, with a greater sense of what matters in the world and what hard work really looks like. We love that and it’s a big reason we want those students here.
At The Gunnery, we believe we have created, and together we are in the daily process of creating, a character-based learning community designed to help our students, first, to identify their Everests, and second, to achieve those goals, as long as they buy into the process of learning and growing, as challenging and unpredictable as it can sometimes be. For some students, the first thing that comes to mind when they try to think of their Everest is an academic discipline: math, science or history. For others it’s a sport: soccer, crew, football, hockey, baseball, lacrosse. For others, it’s about life and learning: they’ve learned how to learn in ways that other students are only just discovering and they are eager to apply those skills in high school. We have adopted the motto that I hope you’ve seen – Think Fearlessly. Act Thoughtfully – because we think it captures the ethos of this place, Mr. Gunn’s school, and we want our students to add their unique ingredient to it.
We believe that our students will be most likely to flourish if they are surrounded by peers and adult mentors who believe in them, and in whom they trust enough to let them push and challenge them as they chip away at their next Everest, and ask and answer the big questions on the path to a good life.