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.