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.”