CH A PE L
TA L K S
Reflections from Head of School Dr. Richard I. Melvoin
BELMONT HILL SCHOOL
C H A PE L
TA L K S
Rick Melvoin delivered his first Chapel Talk on September 9, 1993, the first day of school in his first year as Head of School at Belmont Hill. For the next 25 years, Dr. Melvoin would traditionally deliver three such talks a year: the first day of school, the first day after Winter Break, and the first day after Spring Break. In 2007, the School printed Chapel Talks, a compilation of some of Dr. Melvoin’s most memorable speeches to the boys. Two subsequent volumes were published in 2009 and 2011. As Dr. Melvoin concludes his remarkable 25-year career on the Hill, we present this compilation—which includes the first three volumes, and seven new Chapel Talks—in chronological order, tracing the arc of changing times yet also steadfast values. We hope you will enjoy the wisdom, care, and love of Belmont Hill that exudes from each of Dr. Melvoin’s talks.
b el m ont hill scho o l
CH A PEL
TA L KS
Reflections from Head of School Dr. Richard I. Melvoin
BELMONT HILL SCHOOL
Copyright ÂŠ 2018 by Belmont Hill School All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.
C H A P E L
TA L K S
i ntrod uctio n
When we reflect on what Dr. Melvoin has meant to Belmont Hill during his remarkable 25 years here, the breadth and depth of his contributions are profound indeed. Yet in reading through these Chapel Talks, which span his time on the Hill, we see quite distinctly that what mattered most to our Head of School were the boys of Belmont Hill. Through the years, he delivered so many different kinds of talks: touching words of inspiration, tough words of admonition, thought-provoking words on a range of issues, and powerful words of his belief in the boys. Dr. Melvoin well knows that the lessons our boys need most to learn are often learned outside the classroom: integrity, honor, and a genuine concern for others. Perhaps my favorite line from his Chapel Talks would be: “The most important measure we can have for our students is a measure of their character.” He has spoken variations of these words many times and it is always meaningful. But most importantly, he has demonstrated that very character each and every day of his dedicated service on the Hill. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I offer you this book of Chapel Talks that I believe evokes the essence of Dr. Melvoin’s work over the last 25 years—and of Belmont Hill.
Jon M. Biotti ’87 Chair, Board of Trustees
C H A P E L
TA L K S
â€Śa few days ago I was working on this talk, and I had a sudden fear that you students had no particular idea why the Head of School would inflict these on you on occasion. Those of you who have been around for a while know that I offer these talks three or four times a year. Why? For one thing, I usually give them when we are coming back to school after a holiday. To me, the chance to talk about some ideas of substance may provide a bridge for you between the world you have been in over the last couple of weeks and the School that you return to. But more than that, I hope that I can get you boys thinking from time to time about some larger issues in your life. I have no worries at Belmont Hill about the quality of formal education you receive. Yet I also believe that the most important lessons we teach do not come from formal academic training. Instead, they come in developing the character and values, the habits of mind and habits of heart, that you will take with you when you leave this place. Lastly, I believe that I share with my colleagues on the faculty a belief in the importance of a spiritual dimension in our lives. That spirit does not have to come from organized religion, but it does come from the act of coming together, meeting together, thinking together about issues that are greater than oneâ€™s self.
Richard I. Melvoin
Table of Contents 1
fir st ta lk to students September 9, 1993
m at ter s of ch a r acter September 8, 1994
va lua ble possessions January 2, 1996
how proud should one be? December 1, 1997
h a bits of ch a r acter January 5, 1998
h a bits of the he a rt September 3, 1998
follow your he a rt September 2, 1999
on entitlement March 27, 2000
cr e ating the wor ld a new September 6, 2000
w h atâ€™s not fa ir ? January 3, 2001
ci v ilit y, societ y, communit y April 2, 2001
patr iotism in a ch a nged wor ld January 2, 2002
m a k ing a life April 1, 2002
tough a nd tender September 4, 2002
to me asur e a life January 6, 2003
wa ldo on the hill September 3, 2003
l a beled January 5, 2004
essenti a l questions March 29, 2004
tight lines April 4, 2005
ci v ilit y a nd communit y September 6, 2005
new y e a r’s r esolutions January 3, 2006
gr ace March 26, 2007
gone fishing March 31, 2008
say ing th a nk s January 5, 2010
coach September 1, 2010
pow er outage March 26, 2012
climbing a mounta in September 3, 2013
beyond r ay r ice January 5, 2015
da r k ness a nd light January 4, 2016
home January 3, 2017
to be a good m a n January 2, 2018
studium – fidelitas – prov identi a March 26, 2018
first talk to students September 9, 1993
On behalf of the faculty, I bid you welcome to what I believe is the 70th year in the life of Belmont Hill School. I hope you returning students feel excited about coming back to this place you know so well. For you new students, I hope yesterday’s orientation was helpful; that you feel excitement as well as nervousness; and that you can find your way to first-period class. For all you students, I hope this place feels welcoming as we begin. It certainly has been for Mrs. Melvoin, our two daughters, and me. Since we moved here over the summer, everyone—faculty, staff, trustees, parents—has been kind and supportive. In fact, that welcoming has come from students as well. Last week, I was looking through some correspondence and found a letter written from the School Senate last winter, welcoming me to the School. I thank you students again for that, and I hope that such support continues for everyone here as the new year begins. In that spirit, the nametags which you are all wearing—and which you are required to wear through next week, I might add—represent a new idea but the same enduring principle: This school welcomes all, old and new. There is magic in September. The magic is what keeps so many of us on the faculty in the world of schooling. As you students begin to explore a wider world, considering various careers, you will see that many professions, even some of great prestige, require labor that comes day by day, week by week, month by month. As day bleeds into day, days blur and years disappear. Not so with schooling. School years have a special rhythm—they have a beginning, a middle, an end. We see the seasons of the year here, and we celebrate them. We rest in summer, and we begin anew in September. “Begin anew”—that is a big part of what makes school special. Each of us has— today—the chance to begin anew, to start over. We have what all you Latin scholars doubtless remember as a tabula rasa—a blank slate. In this new year, none of you has gotten any grade below an A so far. None of you has missed a reading assignment or gotten lost in the formulas of a math class. Your athletic team is undefeated. In trying out for a school play, none of you has been cut from the cast. There is another element to beginning anew: Last year is last year. Do you want to show better study habits? You can. Do you want to demonstrate a different attitude
before your teachers? You can. Do you want to act differently with your fellow students? Or try new activities? Again: You can. The year is new—and it is in your hands. Use it well. I want to shift gears here, at least slightly. Since this is my first talk to the full school since becoming its Head of School, it is an important moment for me—and perhaps for you, too. On one level, I feel I owe you a fuller sense of who I am. On another level, although this is not a formal convocation, I believe it is important for us to begin the year as a school by thinking about what we stand for. We are, after all, one school which—as Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard, said at Belmont Hill’s founding—is committed to “working together.”
“I hope this place feels welcoming as we begin. It certainly has been for Mrs. Melvoin, our two daughters, and me.” Since this is our first meeting, I will keep this relatively simple. I want to offer a couple of fundamental ideas about how this place works—and will work—and what we as a faculty, and I as the head of this school, expect of you gentlemen. So, I think I will tell a couple of stories. It was the first month of my first year in college. I was a public high school kid from Chicago, trying to settle in just down the road from here at Harvard. I had a wonderful group of roommates, and we were already fast friends. They came from Monroe, Louisiana, and Toledo, Ohio, and Abington, Massachusetts. I was in the cafeteria line for dinner with yet another roommate, a big, strong athlete from Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Washington. Dinner was roast beef; the piece on his plate was small. “Boy,” said Paul, “did I get Jewed.” “Uh, Paul,” I said, “I wish you wouldn’t use that expression.” “What?” he asked. Then it dawned on him. Paul had not meant anything by the expression; in fact, he had never met a Jew in his life. He was certainly not malicious; in fact, he remains a wonderful friend, and a sweet, gentle man. But the incident certainly opened the eyes of both of us. It is four years later. I have just started my first job, as a teacher at an independent school. A few of us young faculty are out one night, relaxing and telling jokes. I offered one I heard back home, what in my town used to be called a “Polak joke”—
you know, “How many Polaks does it take…”—then I turned and slowly realized that one of my new colleagues was a guy named Burniske. What is the moral of these stories? There are several. First, I, and my faculty colleagues, expect you to treat one another well. We expect you to be sensitive to, and respectful of, others—not just students, but the men and women of the faculty and the staff, as well as the hardworking people in the dining hall, and in housekeeping, and on the maintenance crew, and the driver of your bus. I expect you to use your brain and your heart as well as your tongue. I also remind you that language matters; whether in class, on the fields, or on the paths, you need to think about what you say. Even more important, you need to think carefully about how you treat others. I remind you: We all have “differences.” What is it like to be new? All of us—all of us—were once new here. What is it like to be small? What is it like to be big? What is it like to be Muslim? Or African American? Or Asian American? I remind you that, on a profound level, Belmont Hill School is an experiment. We bring together people who might not otherwise be together. That is part of what can make school exciting—but it works only if we all work to include, and welcome, and understand one another. Another story—a different theme. This past July I was walking around late one afternoon with one of our trustees. The trustee with whom I was strolling noted to me that there were very few signs around here on the buildings—and he said, “We have to fix that.” My reaction was to disagree strongly, if respectfully. I don’t believe we need signs; I don’t think we even want signs. The reason is that I count on each and every one of you to be a living guide to this place. If you see a stranger, I count on you to ask him or her if you can be of help. If you returning students see a new student or new faculty member looking dazed or confused, I expect you to offer help. No, I don’t think we need signs. You students can be far better ambassadors than any plaque will ever be. This offers another level on which I count on you gentlemen to welcome strangers, to respect others. Last story. It has to do with what it means to be part of Belmont Hill. I had one other college roommate, one I didn’t mention before. He is a wonderful man: thoughtful, intelligent, kind, articulate, athletic, gracious. Through our college years, he often talked about how much it meant to be “a Hilly,” a graduate of Belmont Hill. He
talked of the care and support he had received from faculty while he was here. Being part of Belmont Hill was clearly something he carried with him all the time. As we begin this year, I think it is important for all of you students to remember: We faculty care about you—about each of you. No matter who you are or what transpires, we care. I hope that feels good. Yet while being part of Belmont Hill brings a measure of caring, it also adds a different level of expectations. You should know that you always represent Belmont Hill. You represent your teachers, your coaches, your choral conductor; you represent me. At all times and in all places, you are a representative of this school. In coming to Belmont Hill, you have made a choice, a decision, a commitment. Attending this school brings you great benefits; it also brings greater responsibilities. This does not mean that we are a better school or that we are better people than other people. What it does mean, though, is that you carry with you the values of this school. And because we on this faculty care, we expect more. You cannot say, “Aw, but Mr. Goodband, that was on the weekend.” Or, “Geez, Mr. Cressey, how did you know about that?” We will know, and we will care. And, many years from now, like my roommate, I hope you will remember that we did—and do—care. But that is the future. The present is now classes and books and teachers. So, we should get on to that. I send you on to the beginning of this school year with all best wishes. May we all end the year as we begin it: with no grades below A, and all teams undefeated, never cut from a play, no reading assignments missed, and never lost in math. But most important, may we end the year as we begin it, respecting others, treating others well, and acting with a good heart and understanding about this special school. Good luck to all of you.
matters of character September 8, 1994
The MacPherson Room is perhaps my favorite place on this campus. The room feels warm, comfortable. On one wall are carved the words of former Harvard president Charles W. Eliot which mark the founding of this school in 1923, words which center on the concept of “working together…in cooperative goodwill.” Wonderful old student panels from a previous generation surround you in MacPherson. And dominating one wall are photographs. On the right side are photos of former faculty. To the left is a set I often focus on. They are photos of a handful of graduates of this school, graduates who have won the Distinguished Alumni Award from Belmont Hill. Who are these men? Why were they chosen? What might you do with your life to merit a place on that wall someday? I believe these men, these heroes of Belmont Hill’s past, offer us two ideals that lie at the core of this school. But first: Who are all these men? After a year here, I know only about some, yet their stories are all powerful. There is Bob MacPherson himself, a successful businessman who has given tirelessly of his time to make Belmont Hill a better place. Up top on the wall there is the late Kingman Brewster, president of Yale University and later Ambassador to the Court of St. James, the American ambassador to England. Below him is John Knowles, the late head of Massachusetts General Hospital. Close by resides Frank Sayre, a distinguished clergyman, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral. I was excited last fall to see one of my heroes up there: Edmund Morgan, a revered history professor at Yale, internationally recognized as one of our country’s greatest historians ever. Near the bottom of the wall is Bill Cleary, a gold medal winner in ice hockey in the 1960 Olympiad, now the athletic director at Harvard, a man of boundless energy and great spirit who is tireless in doing good work for others. All these men—and several distinguished others—are graduates of Belmont Hill. What binds these men together? The word, I believe, is character. And that, I would argue, is Belmont Hill’s greatest responsibility to you students: to provide an education in character. Or, to put it another way, a full Belmont Hill education must include far more than math and English and Latin. It must be an education which helps each of you students think about how you live your life today, and how you will live your life every day. All that we can teach you from books, all that formal learning, will be hollow if you have not confronted fundamental questions about the kind of person you are, the values you hold, the kind of life you want to lead.
The primacy of character in education is not a new idea. Exactly 150 years ago, in 1844, a minister named George Putnam offered the Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard. Here are some of his words: “In reason and in fact, character goes before scholarship, invests it, includes it. Genius and learning must walk in the train of virtue… . The gifts of intellect, the privileges and acquisitions of scholarship, are worse than lost, unblessed of God and unaccepted of mankind, except as they conspire obediently with their divine teacher, virtue, to furnish forth a man. There is no such thing as education in the true sense of the word, without moral and spiritual culture… . Character is the one central object to which all other things, intellect, knowledge, and skill are incidents, great and essential, but subordinate parts of a far greater whole… .” Perhaps it is easier to hear the more succinct words of a modern theologian. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said it simply: “Intelligence plus character equals a true education.” What is this abstract notion we call character? On one level, it includes fundamental values of right and wrong. Honesty, integrity, a sense of fairness and fair play—all of these are fundamental. Yet there is more. Much of character, I think, comes with the word “respect.” Part is respect for others: not only fellow students but adults, not only faculty but staff. One measure of character is how you treat strangers. Respect for others also includes respect for the ideas of others. When you hear some new or strange notion, whether in class, or at lunch, or perhaps on a bus, how do you react? Respect must also include respect for the property of others. This school tries to create a climate of trust. Last spring, too often that trust was violated in a rash of thefts: calculators, book bags, lacrosse sticks, track shoes. You students can go far in determining the climate of this school based on how you respond to such violations of respect. Respect also can mean respect for oneself. This notion may sound odd, but it is not. It includes taking care of oneself, body and soul; doing one’s best, making the fullest effort; being honest with oneself. And respect includes respect for this institution, this school. If you respect Belmont Hill, you should respect its rules, in both small things and large. Neatness of dress matters; getting to lunch on time is more than a courtesy; so is keeping your hat off inside buildings. We expect you to do your work on a daily basis, respecting the goals
of the teacher. Character, especially when thinking about this school, also involves loyalty. You have many ways to demonstrate that loyalty. You can support your friends in games or plays or concerts. You can help with little things: pitching in for the Oxfam Fast, lending a hand if a faculty or staff person needs help. Further, in that larger sense of respect for this school, you need to remember that you are part of Belmont Hill at all times and in all places. On a trip far away, whether with a team, family, or friends? You represent Belmont Hill. At a party or dance on a Saturday night? You represent Belmont Hill. Matters of character, then, are fundamental to this school. I hope it is clear how important they are to me. I have high standards for each of you students, and I have high expectations for each of you. They may seem awfully high. That does not worry me at all. This, then, is the first of two lessons from those pictures on a wall: the importance of character. But why? Why these high standards? Is it not enough simply to “get through” Belmont Hill? If you get your good education and go on to a good college, isn’t that enough? The portraits in MacPherson say no. With over 2,000 alumni in Belmont Hill’s history, perhaps only two dozen photos appear in MacPherson. The second point they offer is that you should take that good character with you and do something with your life to make the world a better place. Whether you are a Sixth Former coming to the end of his years at Belmont Hill or a First Former just starting in, we will have failed you if you do not take something of Belmont Hill with you when you go. You are all very lucky—indeed, truly privileged—to receive the education this school offers. You have talented, dedicated teachers; a healthy, rigorous program; first-rate facilities; abundant opportunities for learning. You have chances to grow intellectually, as an actor or debater or musician, as an athlete, as a community service volunteer. Yet, as you gain so much from this place, you should also gain a clear sense of responsibility to a wider world, an understanding that you should give something back. Last weekend I had dinner with a pair of brothers who went to a prep school—not Belmont Hill—many years ago. I asked them about what moral lessons they had been taught. They explained that in their old school days, they were taught the concept of noblesse oblige. This was the notion that the wealthy and powerful in society—and they
were attending an essentially wealthy, elite, white male school—had an obligation to help the poor. We at this school today are certainly not of that old aristocracy, and our goal is, I trust, not so patronizing. Yet the opportunity of a Belmont Hill education does make you students elite in at least one sense: You have the chance to receive a truly extraordinary education. By any standards, you have as many options and opportunities at this point in your life as any group of young men could have. The key to this second point, then, is: What will you do with this opportunity? It is not enough simply to make a living. How will you make a life? What more can you— should you—do? The photos in MacPherson offer a range of choices. Some of those men went into business, others to the clergy, some to academe, some to diplomacy. But they are bound together: They all were doing for others. Some did this as their career, some in their time away from the workplace. But they all have given—or are still giving—back to the world. They have served, or are still serving, others. But today is not the day for you to focus on your career path, of course. Today you are greeting friends, getting ready to head to class, preparing to begin school. Your issues are local and immediate, not distant and abstract. So where is the connection? As we close this morning, I want to bring you back to what is immediate and real. The fact is that the way you live your life today will help set the patterns for your entire life. If you start now, even starting small, you will put yourself on the right path. So how do you “live” character? Was the soccer ball still on the line or was it out? Be clear; be honest. When work is hard and there is a temptation to cheat, when it is too easy for mouths to open or eyes to stray: make the right decision. If a group of students is getting on another one, whether the boy is there or not: react. Think carefully about the jokes you tell or the stories you hear. There is no place in this school for words that belittle others. Think also about how you can be involved in service to others. It can be as simple as giving blood during the blood drive. It can be as simple as being a conscientious Big Brother. The goodness of your character can come out even in performing a simple, random act of kindness. There are always ways to help others. So off you go to begin a new school year. Yet, as you go, stop by MacPherson when you get a chance. May you all lead lives, today and every day, that will someday inspire this school to put your photograph on the wall.
valuable possessions January 2, 1996
How many of you remember the story of Homer’s The Odyssey? This is the epic tale of the Greek hero Odysseus and his long struggle to return to his home after the Greeks’ conquest of the Trojans. Odysseus endures many trials along the way home. One occurs when his ship passes by the Island of the Sirens. The Sirens send out cries that are so haunting that all who hear want to stay forever—and are thus trapped. Odysseus’s men have to lash him to the mast of his ship so they can pass safely by. Over the last couple weeks, I felt like the Sirens’ cries were all around me, and that’s what I want to think about with you. And the best way I can do that is tell you a story. Last week, my family and I went down to south Florida for five days to see Mrs. Melvoin’s parents, who now live there. On the last day, we went out for a nice dinner. As we settled in, I could not help but hear the loud voice coming from the next booth. I know this is rude, and I didn’t mean to listen, but the voice was so shrill that I could not help it. I glanced over once or twice. Seated were a well-dressed woman, perhaps in her fifties, and her friend. This restaurant was, by the way, in a nice area—no, to be honest, a “more than nice” area of Florida. This was a town where the homes start at a half-million dollars, a land of fancy cars, a land of fancy country clubs. So why did the conversation grab me? It started with complaints about “the help”: “I can’t tell you how hard it is to get things fixed around here—it took us three years to get our new house built right—they never do anything right down here.” It quickly moved on. “Why did we sell the house up north? We should have kept them both… .” And “I hate it when it’s cold like this (it was 63° and sunny)… . Every year there’s something wrong with the weather… . I won’t spend another winter here.” And “I hate golf—it’s such a stupid sport.” From her friend: “Why don’t you practice?” “Oh, I take lessons, but I never get better.” And “I really don’t like my BMW anymore. I wish I still had my Jaguar.” And “I just found the perfect dress for New Year’s Eve—at 70 percent off ! That means it will only cost about $500… . But my husband is complaining. Can you believe it?... .” While this torrent of complaints spilled over onto us, we hunkered down in our booth. As we glanced embarrassedly at each other, I prayed that no member of my family would ever act like that. And later, as I thought about my family, I also thought about this school, for this too is a family. This terrible materialism, this concern about “things,” made me think: What do we say as a school about material matters? About possessions?
It isn’t easy to avoid “things.” After all, we live in a material world, a world of consumers, and part of what I struggle with during the Christmas and Hanukkah season is how much the advertisements scream at us to buy more, to equate love with gifts and more love with even more gifts. That truly is a “siren call.” Down there in vacation land, the call surrounded us: for big homes, cars, clubs, yachts, jewelry… . Things of course can be nice—but they are only things. When I think about Belmont Hill, the really valuable possessions, the ones this faculty treasure, cannot be held in your hand. Strong and clear moral values, a sense of right and wrong, a student’s character, his reputation—those are what ultimately matter. What kind of human being are you? How do you live your life? At one’s deathbed, at the end of one’s life, no one ever says: “I wish I had made more money” or “I wish I owned more things.” Instead, people say: “I hope I lived a good life. I hope I loved my family, that I was a good son or daughter, a loving brother or sister. I hope I was a trusted friend. Did colleagues at work or peers in my town respect me?” Those are the important questions that measure a life. Where does Belmont Hill fit into this? What values do we give to you? What do we say about material matters? As I pondered this, I got curious, even concerned, and so I reviewed our core texts. What do we say about “valuable possessions”? What I found encouraged me. I thought about the motto on our seal: studium, fidelitas, providentia—study/zeal, loyalty, foresightedness. I thought about the phrase from Eliot that dominates the wall in MacPherson: “working together.” I read through our new mission statement. (You may remember that this fall we went through the process of reaccreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.) That work required the School to draft a new statement of mission. After months of work by faculty and trustees, we crafted a new piece. What heartened me is that none of these—the mission statement, our school motto, our seal—are about money or fame or power. Neither are they about “entitlement”: That notion that, because we attend Belmont Hill, we are entitled to certain things or privileges or deference. In fact, because it represents a fresh view of our goals as a school, let me read you our new mission statement: Belmont Hill’s mission is to educate boys in mind, body, and spirit. Our environment of both challenge and support emphasizes strong moral values, honest effort, and responsibility for oneself and one’s community. Valuing difference, Belmont Hill welcomes
students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. On the common ground of classroom, playing field, or stage, faculty and students forge special bonds, celebrating a shared commitment to the importance of ideals and the highest principles of moral and ethical behavior. Honoring tradition yet alive to innovation, our structured and rigorous program provides clear expectations and consistent encouragement, helping each student set goals and chart his own progress. Ultimately, Belmont Hill helps students develop clear thinking and a lifelong love of learning; become sensitive and responsive to the complexities of modern society; gain the skills, values, and courage to face the future with confidence; and embrace, both at the School and after, a spirit of working together to better the world. As you can see, this is not about possessions. It is about preparation for a life well lived, about strong values, belief in effort, and responsibility to a wider world. To put it in slightly different terms, “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” One of my favorite books is Walden by Henry David Thoreau. As many of you surely know, Thoreau was a 19th-century New Englander, a resident of Concord, who left the comfort of his town and went to live in the woods by Walden Pond for two years and two months. Not only do I still have the copy of Walden that I read in high school, but I also keep it in my office. In the second chapter, titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” Thoreau wrote the following words: “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” In the next paragraph he exhorts the reader: “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” I believe that one of our goals as a school is “to live deliberately.” If, like Thoreau, we can “simplify,” then we can hold ever tight to the genuinely important possessions in life: strong values, good character, honesty, integrity, respect for oneself and for others. These are the possessions that make you not only a good and moral individual, but also a good citizen in a large and complex world. As we pull away, then, from the siren calls that can skew the holidays, and as I turn from the distorted priorities of a stranger in a Palm Beach restaurant, I offer this as a New Year’s resolution for you to consider. May we all remember which “possessions” really matter, and that those we cannot hold in our hands may be the most valuable of all. Best wishes to each of you for a fulfilling new year.
how proud should one be? December 1, 1997
When Mr. Martin led our athletic awards meeting last week, he spoke of his pride in all that you students and faculty achieved this fall. Mr. Gallagher made a special announcement at lunch recently to offer a heartfelt message in which he, too, shared his pride in the School for its accomplishments in recent weeks. I have been feeling much the same thing. We can all feel proud of the School not only for its teams, but also for the two fine fall theater productions…AND for the number of students who achieved Honor Roll for the first quarter…AND for the efforts of so many faculty and students on behalf of our admissions open house…AND for our haunted house…AND for the magnificent new building that houses our study of science…AND…you get the idea. It was quite a fall. Each of us has abundant reasons to feel proud to be part of Belmont Hill. Yet, some of this success, and some of this pride, has made me a little nervous, or at least has made me reflect. What is pride? What does it mean to be proud? Are there limits? We often hear about dealing with failure. How do we deal with success, with good fortune? What is “pride,” anyway? My dictionary suggests that it is a pleasure or satisfaction taken in one’s work, achievements, or possessions. It also can include a sense of one’s own dignity or self-worth. All that sounds healthy, right? But here is what has been tugging at me. Pride also is defined (at least according to my dictionary) as an excessively high opinion of oneself; conceit; arrogance. Taking this further, some of you know that the Book of Proverbs states, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,” a warning if ever there was one. And Christian theology has the sternest warning: Pride is the first of the seven deadly sins. So which is it? Are we encouraged to feel pride, or are we to avoid it, even fear it? The answer may be both. We have plenty of points in our lives when it is entirely healthy to feel pride. I would hope all of us are proud of our country. To be loyal citizens, to believe passionately in the great virtues that America offers—freedom, equality, opportunity, even if they are not always fully realized for all—gives us all a chance to feel deep pride. We often call such pride “patriotism,” a belief which I have always considered most positive. Yet, there are limits. When patriotism becomes jingoism, when blind or excessive love of country becomes an excuse to support one nation’s actions, no matter how irrational or immoral, then trouble arises.
So, too, loyalty to a school. All of us enjoy school pride: It gives us a chance to celebrate our successes, both individual and collective. What a great Wednesday afternoon we had here a couple of weeks ago when virtually the whole school came together for that overtime soccer playoff victory. What great moments we have enjoyed when Dane Benoit, or recently Mr. Bertelsen, or last year Jay Civetti and Kit Hughes, would remind us of what a good place this is. Are there risks here, too, however? Surely. It is one thing for us to declare ourselves a good school; it is quite another for us to declare another school inferior. Positive pride? Excessive arrogance? Although I think we have handled this well for the most part, the line can get murky. In my job, I struggle with this constantly. As you know, I spend a fair amount of time off campus. Whether with alumni or representatives of other schools, I am constantly talking about Belmont Hill. On the one hand, I want to speak proudly of the School and what you students and faculty have accomplished. But how far do I go? Here is a personal confession. I often talk and write about Belmont Hill as a “good” school. I use the word “good” because I like the moral connotation; I want Belmont Hill, most importantly, to be a place of good people. But I won’t use the word “great.” That is not because I do not have strong positive feelings about this place. It’s because declaring one’s school “great” makes me nervous. Again: how much pride?
“What does it mean to be proud? Are there limits? We often hear about dealing with failure. How do we deal with success, with good fortune?” Moving from nation and school, even at an individual level these questions arise. Am I allowed to feel proud of the “A” I just got on a paper? Can I share my good news with my friends? How can I be proud of getting the lead in the play, or the leadership post in an extracurricular activity, without acting like a jerk? There is an expression that many of us have heard frequently: One may feel “justifiably proud” of having accomplished something. Do I have to justify my pride? Here’s another reason I struggle with this notion of pride. As I watch some of the most accomplished people in our society, they often come across as arrogant or
disdainful of others. Not surprisingly, some of the clearest examples come from the world of sports. In fact, two prime examples come from basketball. Today, “The Man” is Michael Jordan; a few years ago, it was Larry Bird. Both of these guys spent years dissing their opponents; both are legendary trash talkers. Both carry themselves in a way that says that they are simply better than anyone else. The hard realization I came to after years of watching Bird was that he needed to have a certain measure of arrogance to perform as well as he did; he needed to believe he was better than anyone else on the court. I think this may be true for any elite athlete. The margin of talent among these athletes is so thin that they cannot afford to be kind or gracious. So, how does that translate to you guys? Given the School’s values, does it seem right for a team or an individual to walk onto a court or field or mat or slope or track and expect to win? Actually, that measure of confidence, of positive feeling, may help. This is hardly limited to athletics, by the way. Let me offer another personal story. I remember watching a friend who was a long-time Head of School. He had been running his school for years with confidence and clear direction; he worked hard, and he was very successful. It really shocked me, then, when an observer labeled this headmaster arrogant. Too much pride? Too openly manifest? I was not sure. If it seems, then, that pride may be a two-edged sword, how do we move forward? Are we allowed to be proud? My answer is absolutely yes. I would hope you would be able to celebrate appropriately what you have achieved. Indeed, I think that is only human. We would be in a sad state of affairs if we could not take joy in what we have accomplished in life. In fact, we can even fail and still feel proud of our efforts. Not everyone can make the team or get the lead in the play or become the president of the club or ace the exam…that is part of life. But if you have made a good, honest effort, you should be able to keep your head up high. Still, there are things to watch out for, and I think Belmont Hill offers good guidelines. In fact, part of why I wanted to come to this school stems from the values I had heard about and have found evident since I arrived. I think they come directly from the faculty and staff, and you guys pick them up all the time. When Mr. Martin mentioned last week that we have the finest fields in the league, that did not
happen by accident. Mr. Tarbell and his crew do not talk about those fields; they simply work on them. When I wake up in the morning and look out over to the Morse Building at 6:00 or 6:15, I almost always see Mr. Bradley’s classroom lights on, often Mr. Prenatt’s office lights too. They do not talk about this stuff; they just do it. Another reason why I think Belmont Hill works well is that you students generally do not, and I hope will not, bring a sense of entitlement. I have sometimes met students, and parents and faculty, from other schools who believe that, based on who they are or what school they are from, they are entitled to certain privileges. Perhaps they are proud of their school and what it affords, but such affect comes across to me as pure haughtiness. We can be proud of our school; we can acknowledge that it provides certain opportunities. But opportunities are to be earned. You guys want a snack bar? You keep it clean; that is not someone else’s job. Indeed, I would hope you would be proud precisely of the fact that it is your job. So, too, with wealth or position. Many people in our society confuse monetary wealth with human value: In other words, the richer you are, the better you are. I would remind all of you students that the wealth your family has—the car you may own, the place you live—are all accidents of birth. Maybe your parents, or their parents, or even their grandparents, made some of what you have possible, but you did not. Again, I am not telling you that you should not feel proud of your school, or your family, or what you have, but I do want you to think carefully about how you have come to these places. Two final, critical points. First, much of what I have offered today has to do with the actual feeling of pride, yet a great deal also has to do with how that pride is manifested; in other words, how you show it. Here, too, I go back to athletics, not only as a good metaphor, but also because this school will engage in over 700 athletic contests during the year. This will give all of us frequent occasions to think about how we show our pride not only to each other, but also to opponents, officials, and strangers—people we do not know who will measure us by our actions. I am continually impressed as I watch Belmont Hill teams. Do, and should, we celebrate when we succeed? Definitely. But what I appreciate is that we celebrate our own successes, not another team’s failures or weaknesses. It strikes me that our teams,
led by our faculty, keep matters in perspective. In fact, keep watching your coaches: They are exemplary role models. Perhaps another way of saying this is that if you know what you have accomplished, then you do not have to proclaim it to others. Or one other way to express it: If you stand by your deeds, your actions, then you may not need so many words. Actions do, indeed, speak louder than words. Finally, I want to remind you that this school is first and foremost concerned about educating young men who will be good people. That is ultimately what matters. All this talk about pride has come out of a “nice problem,” if you will, of dealing with successes. However, none of those make you a better person. Let me repeat that: Success does not make you a better person. And remember, the converse is true as well. Failure is no sign of badness, either. Most of us fail; no, all of us fail. And if you measure yourself only by your accomplishments, and then you fail, whether here or in college or after—then you are in trouble if you do not remember that human value comes from much more. As we move into winter, I hope each of you has individual successes to be proud of. I also hope we can be proud of our school, proud of “working together,” proud of making a good school even better. I hope you take pride in the successes and accomplishments of your friends, in and out of the classroom. My hope this morning, though, is that each of us reflects on that not-always-clear line between pride that is healthy and pride that can be, at least in theological terms, a sin. It is not an easy line to draw, but it is surely an important one to remember.
habits of character January 5, 1998
You may recall that at the opening of school in September I talked to you about honesty: the importance of telling the truth. In that talk I suggested that sometimes in our society we do not always tell the truth—and that can be acceptable. For example, sometimes we do not tell the truth out of compassion: We are not completely honest in evaluating someone’s performance on the athletic field, or in a play, or on a paper. Sometimes people do not tell the truth out of some social convention: “He’s not here right now—can I have him call you back?” or “Sure, I’d like to get together sometime… .” Honesty can get shaved a little, and at times this seems acceptable. As you prepare for exams, though, I want to strip away some of those shades of gray for you. I want to talk about academic honesty, and I want to be as clear as possible. All of you Upper School or Third Form students who have been in Ethics with me have heard me say at the beginning of that course, “I want to make your lives more complicated.” That is not the case here. In fact, when it comes to academic honesty, I could not be clearer. In fact, I will even make it absolute. Academic dishonesty— cheating—has no place anywhere, at anytime, in any situation, at Belmont Hill or wherever your academic path next takes you. Why am I being so strident here? Does Belmont Hill have a special problem with cheating? As far as I can tell, the answer is “No.” From time to time individual students make mistakes, we deal with them as a school, and we move on. As you have heard me say before, good people sometimes do make mistakes. That would be true at any school, no matter how good. So why the need to come down so hard on this subject this morning, when we are all returning in good spirits from a nice vacation? We live in a society where too many people cheat. Adults cheat on their taxes; some even brag about it. Adults break contracts—and then claim it is okay because “everyone else” does it. Students cheat, too. Last fall, a big scam broke open when it was revealed that some East Coast students were conspiring with others on the West Coast to cheat on standardized tests like the SATs. As I understand it, Easterners would go into the test, copy down some answers, get out early, and call them out west, across the three-hour difference, before the West Coasters went into the exam. And I do not want to allow you to think this took place in a separate universe. One test scam was based at Columbia
University, an Ivy League college, where one of the main perpetrators was a student who is a graduate of an ISL school. Last year a cheating incident on an AP test took place involving another student from another ISL school. For those of you who still think all this is a long way from Belmont Hill, I gently note to you Sixth Formers that next year, in college—or, to be honest, even now—you will have abundant opportunities to purchase term papers, either over the internet or by phone or mail. Different companies have different operations. You can buy stock papers—they have a backlog on subjects like Andrew Jackson and The Bank War or the literary style of James Joyce—or, if you are willing to pay enough money (I understand that the going rate is $25 per page), they can custom-write a paper for you on the subject of your choice. Cheating in college can certainly take place around exams, too. The last few years have brought painful revelations at two schools that are renowned for their academic power and integrity: MIT and the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Both these schools, dedicated to academic excellence, had cases where significant numbers of students banded together to cheat on exams. I have seen this lunacy take place at the high school level as well. When I was working in the Harvard admissions office, I used to be the lead reader for students applying from the San Diego area. One year we had to confront a situation where several outstanding students from one high school, including several applicants to Harvard, had gotten their hands on a key to a faculty room and had regularly been ripping off copies of the tests of a particularly difficult physics teacher. We learned of this when the story hit the local papers and a concerned alum sent us the clippings. It is probably worth noting that none of the applicants involved in the cheating case were admitted, at least to Harvard. What drives students to cheat? You know the answers as well as I. Pressure—pressure to succeed; fear of failure; competitive zeal; ambition; sometimes laziness. There are no secrets here. In some ways this school is a party to many of those forces. This is a high-powered academic place. We are demanding. Between your teachers, your parents, and your own aspirations, there are sometimes huge pressures that come down on you. In fact, there is a perverse sense that students who cheat at least care enough about their results to take action, even if the action is wrong.
But that is why I want to push further with you gentlemen on this subject this morning. No matter what the motivation, no matter what the circumstances, the act of cheating is always, always wrong. I offer that on a moral basis, to be sure. But I also want you to understand it from a practical basis as well. If I could spare you anything that is easily avoidable in your young lives, it would be the pain of a discipline case. You can close your eyes for a few seconds if you want to on this one, either to imagine it or to avoid the pain. I do not want any of you to have to go before a group of teachers and peer students to have to describe what you did. Perhaps even more painful, I do not want you to have to tell your parents. The worst times for me as Head of School, a job I love, come when I have to meet with boys and their parents, to talk about what has gone wrong and why, sometimes, a boy will not be allowed back to school. That is the intensely practical part of my message this morning. Although several of you have heard me say this before, I offer one other intensely practical reason for not cheating. I truly believe in the message that rings through Robert Penn Warren’s brilliant novel of politics, All the King’s Men: The truth will always come out. The more I am in this world, the more true that has become. Sooner or later, one way or another, the truth comes out. Still, my larger message today is not practical; it is ethical. It has to do with doing right. I remind you of what I offered in September. For all the differences among you students—differences in background, religion, ethnicity, wealth—you are all equal in the most important possession you have: your character. For the rest of your lives—and I do not care what career you land in or how much money you make—your character will remain your most important possession. Don’t squander it. Is it ever really worth risking your reputation for a grade? I close this morning with what I hope will prove a fresh and helpful way to think about all this. I ask each of you students to think about good character as the product of good habits. It seems to me that we all get into habits: how we eat, how we dress, how we do our work, how we approach each day. I want you to practice— and remember always—good habits of character as well. In the quiet of this chapel, still several days away from next tests or final exams, I want you to be absolutely clear about who you are and what you believe in. In a sense, I want you to practice
the plays before the other team gets here. You can picture yourself. Here’s the game situation; here is what I would do. Here’s the direct kick from this spot; the thirdand-long; the pack that surges at the one-mile mark. Or if theater is your milieu, here is what I would do if he drops the line, or someone forgets to make an entrance on time. For you Upper Schoolers who drive, taking a page from SADD: Here is what I know I would do—I must do—if I see someone drunk getting into a car. You set up the situations now; you know how you need to react. So too for academic honesty. For all that we are as a school, what endures are lessons of character. As we aspire to be a good school, in its fullest sense, so do we on the faculty want you students to be absolutely clear on what we expect from you in the realm of academic honesty. Yes, we expect you to work hard; yes, we want you to be creative, thoughtful, active, engaged learners. And yes, we expect you to be honest. If we can be clear about what we stand for as a school, then we can help you be clear about what you will stand for, not only at Belmont Hill, but for the rest of your life. As we launch into 1998, then, I hope among your New Year’s resolutions will be to strive to include absolute academic honesty in your good habits of character.
habits of the heart September 3, 1998
As many of you know, today begins a special year in the life of Belmont Hill School— our 75th anniversary celebration. Thus, I am particularly pleased to welcome all of you this morning. Yesterday, I had a chance to greet the 101 new boys who officially become part of our school today. I extend that welcome again, and I count on all of you returning students to make this welcome a good and genuine one. This happened to me twice this summer; it has happened before. The first time this summer I was in Perth, Australia, attending a conference on boys’ schools. The second time I was at a meeting in downtown Boston. “You’re the head of Belmont Hill? That’s a great school.” I heard this phrase—“a great school”—and I felt a little embarrassed. Both times I tried a response like “Well, we’re very fortunate” or “Well, we are always working to get better.” But I shied away from the label of “greatness,” and have been trying to figure out why. First of all, I’m not sure that greatness in any fashion is ours to proclaim. If someone thinks we’re doing a good job, that’s fine, but it strikes me as arrogant for us to claim this ourselves. Yet, more than that, one thing I learned from this faculty when I first came here is that this school has a strong and characteristic modesty. We let our actions speak for themselves; we do not have to talk about them. When I talk about our school, then, I do not talk about greatness—but I do talk about “goodness.” And that is what I want to talk about with you students today. I would rather talk about us as a “good” school than a “great” school. The heart of that comes in the concept of goodness. I do not want us to be a good school as opposed to a bad one; I want us to be a good school in the full sense of moral goodness. In other words, I want you boys to be thinking about the ethical good in your lives, the lives you lead at Belmont Hill as well as outside. We live in a world that is often murky about rules, about what is good and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. Belmont Hill is a school that for its 75 years has been unusually clear about what it is and what it stands for. As we go into this anniversary year, then, I thought it would be valuable, both to new and to returning students, to understand who and what we are, and what that has to do with “goodness.” As I talk about these few fundamental ideas, I want to introduce to you a phrase from one of my favorite writers, a 19th-century French philosopher named Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville came to this country in the 1830s and spent a decade
studying the culture of its people. In thinking about the society that Americans were building, Tocqueville wrote about “habits of the heart.” Part of why Belmont Hill matters so much to us on the faculty is that we want you to learn and develop and commit yourselves to good “habits of the heart.”
“But if you can embrace the moral goodness of this school— if you can develop well these habits of the heart—then your goodness may allow you greatness in the future.” First is honesty: full, direct, and clear. In a world of bad habits, we want you to develop a habit of honesty, to make it a natural part of your life. This has been a tough summer for all of us as American citizens. We have had to live with the specter of a president acknowledging that he did not tell us the truth. In fact, he lied to us, as a nation, as well as to his family. As a nation, we do not seem to know quite what to do with this. Some people have tried to separate the president’s job from his private life. In other words, so long as you do your job well, we won’t worry about the other stuff. Others have taken a different tack: Well, lots of people lie. My point in raising this is not to politicize the School or this talk. But it is to say that neither of these excuses will work here. We will not let you separate your “job” as a student from your private life. We believe in you as a whole person, and that means that all that you do matters and holds together. Second, we believe strongly in personal responsibility. It doesn’t matter that a number of other people might do something wrong. Our focus is on you. We want you to take responsibility for your actions. We want you to develop a habit of the heart, a habit of honesty, so that you should not even have to think about being honest. That should be simply what you do. Is that hard? Sometimes, of course it is. But in the long run, not really. Honesty will always serve you well. A second habit of the heart comes in the way you treat others. We want you always to treat others with respect: faculty, students, staff, people you know, and people you don’t know. All people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. An example for you new boys: You will see that we do not have signposts all over the School directing people to different buildings. When I first came here, one of our trustees said that this was a great omission and he was ready personally to pay for
getting a set of signs installed. I asked him not to. I said that our students are the best ambassadors we can have. If people come on the campus who look lost, I said, I know that each student would be willing to ask them if they needed help and to take them, personally, to the place they were seeking. I count on you boys to carry on that habit of the heart. As you think about how you treat others, so, too, do I want you to think carefully about another part of our mission. One sentence from our mission statement reads, “Valuing difference, Belmont Hill welcomes students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences.” You 422 students come from over 50 different cities and towns, from 120 different schools, from a range of backgrounds that differ by religion and race and ethnicity and wealth and privilege. This school brings you together with a purpose: to learn about one another and learn from one another. We want you to be good citizens not only of your town and of this school, but also of the world. The world is a complex place. It does not look like Belmont, or Boston, or the United States. In fact, I recently read the following: If we could shrink the Earth’s population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look like this: There would be 57 Asians; 21 Europeans; 14 from the Western Hemisphere including North and South America; and 8 from Africa. Fifty-one would be female and 49 would be male. Seventy would be non-white, while 30 would be white. Sixty-six would be non-Christian and 33 Christian. We have a lot to learn about the rest of the world. One place we can start is in this school. I urge you not only to value difference, but also to embrace difference. What else makes this a good school? As returning students know, I want you to remember the power of language. In a school, in an academic institution, words are the coin of the realm, both written and spoken. We want you to learn words well, in this language and in other languages. But remember that words have power; words can be weapons. As writer Kate Gibbons has said, “You can’t ever just throw words out. They have to land somewhere.” We need humor in our lives, but I want you to be careful not to use words at the expense of others. I also have a very low tolerance for profanity—and if you are wondering what is profane, I keep my rule simple: You may use any language that your grandmother would approve of.
By contrast, if you want to know how to get me angry quickly, you should know that I have no tolerance for racial or ethnic or religious or sexual slurs. At this school, I want you boys to be especially careful about language concerning gender. As a boys’ school, too, I want you to know that there is no place at this school for slurs concerning sexuality or homosexuality. All people, at this school and on this earth, deserve to be treated with respect. If you don’t understand what it is to be Muslim, or Jewish, or black, or Hispanic, or homosexual, this is a chance not to slur, but to learn. I worry a little that this talk is turning into a litany of what you cannot do. Let me make sure you know what great things you can do. I think we are lucky to be at this school, for I believe that at this school you boys can celebrate great freedom and camaraderie. At this good boys’ school, I want you to recognize that you can be both tough and tender, both strong and thoughtful. You can play hard and be a gentleman, be competitive and a good sport. We have varsity hockey players who sing in the B-Flats, soccer players who are talented actors, students who live to skate, students who live to paint, students who live to study. Each is valued. This school affords you a remarkably wide array of possibilities. I urge you to create or to maintain the habit of celebrating the richness and complexity of all the things you can be. And it is here that I want to close. I, and the faculty, have great hopes for each and every one of you boys. You each have great talent, great potential. Whether you are in the first or the last year of your Belmont Hill education, a gift has been given to you. With that gift, I offer this challenge: Do something great with your life. You and I may not yet know what that may be. But if you can embrace the moral goodness of this school—if you can develop well these habits of the heart—then your goodness may allow you greatness in the future. To close where I began, then, perhaps it is in the accumulated goodness of all you students, in the habits of your hearts, that people rightly will see greatness in our school. Best wishes for a great year.
follow your heart September 2, 1999
It’s late July. I am sitting in a small plane, lifting out of Casper, Wyoming. For at least 15 summers now I have spent time fly fishing for trout out west. It is a wonderfully restorative activity for me. My wife calls it my form of meditation, a time of re-centering. This summer I had a couple of great weeks in Idaho and Montana: camping, enjoying the company of friends and family, catching lots of fish. Yet the last 24 hours were the most extraordinary. I came out of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana and headed to Casper, Wyoming, to see an alumnus of Belmont Hill. Crawford Gordon—“please call me Crow”—is a member of Belmont Hill’s Class of 1935. Growing up in Lincoln, Crow loved being outdoors. He was not large or particularly athletic; he was not a brilliant student at Belmont Hill. In fact, he told me, because his Belmont Hill grades were not high enough, he did not receive his diploma with his class—a not uncommon event at an earlier Belmont Hill. Instead, only after a successful first semester in college did then-headmaster Mr. Morse award him his diploma. But Crow loved the West. In fact, he and a Belmont Hill friend, Ed Morgan—slight of build, unathletic, very smart—used to talk about cowboys and saddles and the western United States. Crow was full of fun as well. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this, but he confessed that on more than one rainy day when sports were called off, he headed down to Harvard Square, and then by “T” to the old Scollay Square, where he claims he checked out certain burlesque halls. He said it was great fun—until one time he ran into a faculty member there. Why this story? After graduating from Harvard, serving as a driver during World War II (Crow had broken a kneecap riding a horse and could not serve in combat), and trying some work in investment banking, Crow Gordon headed west. In 1947 he established the Gordon Ranch on what people in Wyoming call “the front range,” the Big Horn Mountains that begin the upheaval of land that becomes the Rocky Mountains. Now, 52 years later, he continues to run the Gordon Ranch: hundreds of head of cattle, thousands of acres. Even at 81 years old, he literally runs the ranch. I went with him the morning I was there to see him start the day with his ranch hands at 7:30 a.m., sitting around the bunkhouse, sipping coffee, telling stories, planning the work of the day. Asked later about the dangers in ranching, he told a story of how one time his horse stepped in a hole, how he tried to roll off as the horse went down, and how the horse stepped on his face. Some stitches, a little trip to the hospital, some
surgery: These things happen. Of course, the hospital was 50 miles away. And this took place just four years ago—when he was 77 years old. So here is this Belmont Hill alumnus, now 81 years old, still riding, still running his cattle ranch, still having fun. He looks out over his beautiful land: down to the fields he cultivates—hay, oats, and alfalfa for the cattle—down to the beautiful river that runs through his property (which also holds some beautiful brook trout!), up onto the hills where his cattle graze, up into the Big Horn Mountains that ring his spread. He has made a great life out of doing something he always loved. His Belmont Hill friend Ed Morgan? The small, unathletic, very bright, bookish friend? He went on to become the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, one of the two greatest living historians of early America in the world today. He too has spent his life doing what he loves. Now I am back at Belmont Hill. It is late summer. I have sat on the stairs by the sundial, looking out over Belmont Hill’s beautiful fields with Joe Pearlman. Joe too is a Belmont Hill alumnus, though a much younger one: Class of 1995, 60 years after Crow Gordon. Joe did not have an easy time of it academically here at Belmont Hill. In fact, I remember the year-end faculty meetings in my first year as head, where several teachers despaired of whether Belmont Hill was the right place for Joe. But Joe had a passion too. His was not horses and the outdoors like Crow Gordon; Joe’s was acting. And Joe was, even at Belmont Hill, already a brilliant actor. He could be funny; he could be serious. One spring we asked him to do a monologue at a trustees’ meeting, and he had the adults in tears. So Joe came back for a visit this summer, and we talked about his next steps. After four years at New York University, Joe headed over to London in June to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He was one of only two Americans given the opportunity to audition for this intensive program in graduate training. In the end, neither American got a position. But Joe consoled himself by traveling around Europe for a few weeks with his girlfriend. Now Joe too is heading west. Unlike Crow Gordon, Joe is heading to Los Angeles. He might do stage work, or film, or television; he does not yet know. But he knows he is an actor. All his classmates from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU are staying in New York; Joe is the only one trying Los Angeles. But he feels it’s right, so he is ready to go.
These stories this morning are not just about Belmont Hill alumni; they are about you. As we begin the school year, I want you too to follow your heart. Find something—or perhaps many things—that you love to do, and do them as well as you can. That “something” might be football or cross-country or soccer, or it might be acting or singing or playing an instrument. It might come in woodworking, or it might come in helping others through community service. It might be purely academic: the love of reading or writing poetry, or experimenting in science or becoming fluent in a foreign language. But I want you to find something you love to do. Adults often ask me how Belmont Hill works, or whether it might be the right school for their son. This is what I tell them. Belmont Hill is filled, as we begin the new school year, with over 400 bright, talented boys. They—you—have different interests and different passions. In fact, part of what makes this place exciting is that you have such different interests among you. When Belmont Hill works for a student, it is because the student has committed to the School: He has found those areas of passion and has pursued them. One big job of this faculty, the men and women who surround you boys this morning, is to help you pursue those interests to the best of your ability. By contrast, the time when Belmont Hill does not work well for students is when they are not engaged. There is a second half to this equation. To make Belmont Hill work for you, you need not only to find something you care about, but also to go after it. No one becomes a good scholar of Latin without taking the time to learn all that vocabulary and those forms of declension and conjugation. No runner succeeds in cross-country who doesn’t put in his miles. David Silverman, Belmont Hill Class of 1997, did not become a world champion in high school debate without practice. Sam Gorstein, Belmont Hill Class of 1997, did not become a Westinghouse Science National Semifinalist without spending long hours in the lab. Belmont Hill’s most recent all-American athlete, Will MacColl, Class of 1999, spent endless hours with his lacrosse stick, and endless hours rehabbing his knee after surgery a year ago. Belmont Hill offers countless examples of excellence, examples of people who have followed their heart, followed their passion, and made the effort to make
their dreams come true. As we start this new school year, I urge you to grab this place, to make it work for you. We each get to where we want to be at different paces. Some of you know just what you want to do with your life here; my guess is that most of you have no clear idea. That’s just fine. But keep searching for where you might want to be. As this new year begins, be willing to try something new. Be willing to take a risk, or at least a good risk. If you want to try acting, don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t do it. If you want to be a fine student and star athlete and sing in the B-Flats, go for it. Don’t limit yourself. One of my favorite stories of a Belmont Hill alumnus comes from Bill Cleary, Class of 1952. Those of you who were here last spring will remember that Mr. Cleary was a gold medal winner in hockey in the 1960 winter Olympics. He also coached Harvard’s hockey team to a national championship in 1989. As Harvard’s athletic director today, Mr. Cleary remains an avid athlete and fan of athletics. Yet he also has told me more than once that while he was at Belmont Hill, he was also proud of his role as a member of the glee club. Belmont Hill is not about “either/or.” This is not a school where you have to choose between being a student and an athlete, or an athlete versus an actor. This is a school where you can do everything, and we encourage you to try. So open up your mind and your heart as the new year begins. You may not end up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming or in an acting studio in Los Angeles, but the steps that you have the courage to take now may lead you down a path that will reward you for your entire life. You attend a school that is extraordinary in the possibilities it gives to its students. Take advantage of them.
on entitlement March 27, 2000
The story I want to tell you this morning begins in athletics, but it is about much more than athletics. On March 9, just before we broke for vacation, the School held a dinner to honor Mr. Martin’s 500th victory as varsity hockey coach as well as the whole tradition of 76 years of Belmont Hill hockey. It was a special night for the School. Part of what made it special came in hearing the stories of older alumni about their days here. In the old days, before Zambonis existed, all of the students, and many faculty, would grab shovels and clear the ice; the School was truly “working together.” So too, according to lore, would the whole school go out and weed the rink area on the lower level late every fall in preparation for the outdoor hockey season. Now we flash forward some 50 years, a whole half-century, to today. The School’s terrific work crew has spent the vacation converting the Claflin Rink so that you boys will have facilities for the spring. They have done a remarkable job, and we all need to thank them for their efforts. Next fall, the School—virtually all of you here except for the Sixth Form—will move into as good an athletic facility as any secondary school has in this country. But I am glad that we do not get to move in yet. I do not mind that the spring facilities will not be perfect. I even hope they will prove problematic at times. Why? Because seeing what we don’t have, even in the short run, offers an important reminder of all that we do have. Or, to ask you a more philosophical question: How do we accept and use all the wonderful new facilities the School has gained in recent years without losing the School’s core values? When I arrived at this school seven years ago, one of my first goals was to try to understand Belmont Hill School’s culture, its core. At the heart of Belmont Hill throughout its 76 years, I believe, has been a profound work ethic. This has never been a fancy school. This school has from its beginning depended on faculty who work hard and students who follow suit. That is not to say that students and teachers did not have fun, but it is to say that the School was founded on—depended on— people, not facilities, not buildings. In fact, there has long been great pride among many faculty in “making do.” In other words, teachers don’t need elaborate facilities to provide good teaching. Doc Wacht and Mrs. Sweeney don’t need fancy labs to get you excited about science; Mr. Martellini’s or Mr. Sherman’s or Mr. Greene’s gifts with students in math can come out in any room. The magic of theater does not come from a stage or lights; it comes from what Mr. MacLean and Mrs. Hamilton
create along with you students. In fact, I know that some of our coaches have even taken pride in building great teams without great facilities. I cannot imagine you wrestlers did not think about that as you left your unventilated closet to do battle with other teams with better facilities who might not be as tough as you. That culture is a vital part of what I saw when I came to the School, part of its past and, I hope, part of its future. After all, Plato taught under the shade of a tree. The essence of teaching lies between students and their teachers—nothing more. Yet part of creating the best possible school includes providing good and appropriate facilities. The School has done that steadily over the years, and those improvements continue. Just in the six years that our Sixth Formers have been here, we have seen expansion and renovation of this chapel, the creation of our whole technology infrastructure, and the modernization and doubling in size of our Science Center. Now we move toward our new Athletic Center—and I confess that it makes me a little nervous. It makes me nervous because no one here, neither teachers nor students, is “entitled” to a new athletic center. Instead, we are simply lucky: lucky because other people—not those of us in this room, but other people—have believed in the School, felt that they wanted to support it, and have contributed to it. They have sacrificed, and we reap the benefits. How, you may ask, can the Head of School be nervous about this project? Faculty and trustees have been planning it for years; it is well designed; it is being well built; it will be a great boon for the School. All that is true, but my nervousness comes from two main ideas, and these ideas transcend anything to do with athletics. The first is that I hope you students realize that what is important in life is not material; it is personal and spiritual. You can have the best athletic facility in the world—or the biggest house or the nicest car—and still have a life that is hollow. Without family or friends, all the money in the world is not going to make you very happy. Without a sense of purpose in life, without some direction, no material possessions are going to make you content. Who cares, ultimately, what kind of watch or what brand of clothes you wear? So too with schools. There are schools out there that have vastly more resources than Belmont Hill: more money, more elegant buildings, more fields, more hightech labs, more elaborate theaters. But our classes or teams or theater productions
depend on people—you students and your faculty—far more than any facility. For all of you students, whether in First Form or Sixth Form: Don’t ever delude yourselves into thinking that mere possessions equal happiness or fulfillment. So that’s one reason I find myself a little nervous about our new athletic facility. But the other is even greater. It is, in fact, the greatest danger I see in this or any independent school. It is the danger of entitlement. Entitlement is a trap and let me define the entitlement trap for you. Its essence is simple: Because you have things, you think you are entitled to them, that you deserve them. In fact, for you students that is almost always not true. Most of you are simply fortunate to have what you have. You were born into it; you did not earn it; with some exceptions among you older students particularly, you probably did not work for it. Let me give you some examples. For you students who come from families where you have been given a car or use of a car, I offer a challenge: I do not think you are “entitled” to a car. Rather, I think you are simply fortunate that your family could help you. And this is not a rap only on students whose families are better off. The challenge is there even for students who are at Belmont Hill on financial aid. Again, you are not entitled to that aid: It is not some God-given right. Rather, people have made that possible: donors over the years, alumni, parents. Indeed, my guess is that not one of you students here today is paying fully for your education at Belmont Hill. Others are making that possible. You are not “entitled” to a Belmont Hill education: It has come about thanks to the efforts of you and others. I want to be careful here. I want to make sure that you understand that I am not accusing any of you of anything. It is not your decision that you come from wealth, or from a middle-class background, or even from poverty: Those are just facts. Those things are not good or bad: They just are. But it is important to remember how lucky each of us in this chapel is for what we have been given. Remember: It’s not the having that makes someone entitled; it’s the attitude one brings—the “I deserve it” or “You owe me” approach. Perhaps the only thing we are entitled to in life is to be treated with respect and dignity. So, to be at Belmont Hill, each of you students is, frankly, fortunate. Yes, you have studied hard, and you have earned your spot here. My strong sense is that most of you do not act entitled. Rather, I trust you don’t take your intelligence or talents for granted and instead are grateful, appreciate
your gifts, and show it by using them. But you do not pay the School’s tuition; your parents do. This may help explain to you Upper School students why I got so upset at a lunch back in February. Do you remember? Yes, I realize that the Dining Room folks ran a little short of food that day, but I expect you students to be ever grateful for what you have, for others have provided it for you. How many times have you left the lunch room here—or any table—hungry? I am sure that some of you are wondering what all this Calvinist theology has to do with spring athletics. Hopefully you have figured it out by now. As I said at the start of this talk, I am actually a little bit glad that things won’t be perfect around our athletic facilities this spring. Why? Because I think it will be good for all of us to realize that seeing what we don’t have, even for a short time, is a good reminder of what we do have. In other words, it is hard to know what you have if you have never been without it. I admit that I feel a bit badly for the Sixth Form, for these guys will come to the new athletic facility only as alumni. But for everyone else here: Next fall you students will know what existed before, what you gave up this spring, and what you have for the future. By contrast, I worry about our new students, both next year and beyond, for they will have no idea of what existed before, no appreciation of what we have been given as a school. All of us in this room have a great deal to be thankful for: most importantly food, clothing, shelter, support. If we remember the important things, a little matter like school athletic facilities is not very important anyway. If we can remember how much we all have, and, even more importantly, if we can appreciate it, then I believe we are going in the right direction. Entitlement can indeed be a trap. It is my hope for all of you, as we begin the spring, that you will remember these core values of Belmont Hill—working hard, working together, making do, sacrificing for the greater good—and that those values can guide you not only this spring in our makeshift facilities, not only next fall in our new ones, but also throughout your life.
creating the world anew September 6, 2000
Last week the faculty heard from a Harvard professor who showed a remarkable ability to take complicated ideas and make them simple and clear. This morning I want to follow Professor Light’s lead and try to leave you with a few simple but important ideas about how Belmont Hill works, how I expect it to work, and how I want it to work for you. Whether you are a new student or an old one, I hope these ideas will help you begin the year well. I start by thinking about the faculty. There are many reasons why teachers teach. I believe good teachers teach because they love the chance to work with young people. Good teachers are also idealists, men and women who believe in making the world better, and working with you gives us that chance. The other part is that, unlike most lines of work, each year teachers get to create the world anew. Every September we get a fresh start. Our energy is restored, our spirits are high, and our hopes are high as well. All this is true for you students as well. Whether you are in the First Form or the Sixth Form, you have a chance to create your world anew. Do you want to be a more successful student? You can change your study habits, or how you use your free time, or how you take advantage of X block: All that is up to you. Do you want to try a new sport, or write for the paper, or audition for a play? All paths are open. So there is my first simple idea for you. You begin the year with a fresh start. It is up to you to decide what you want the year to be and who you want to be. Second point, and a related one: Belmont Hill is not a “zero-sum game.” Do you know what a zero-sum game is? Let me give you an example from sports. In soccer, you can win 1-0 or 5-4, but in a track meet, there are only a certain number of points. There are points for three places in each event plus the relays, and that provides a set number of points. Every point your team gets takes one away from the other team. Belmont Hill is not a zero-sum game. Your success does not take away from that of another student, and his success does not take away your opportunities. Ten percent of you can make honor roll—or 40 percent. That is up to each of you individually and all of you together. Yes, only one of you can start as quarterback or get the lead in the play, but there are other positions and other opportunities and other parts— and everyone can share in the success of a team or a production. Is Belmont Hill competitive? You bet. You 433 boys are all bright and talented. You would not have
been admitted here if you did not have considerable skills, and most of you have honed those by working hard. But I want you to focus on competing not against others but against yourself. Don’t worry about how others are doing; don’t worry about their grades. Instead, I urge you to focus on yourself. If you do the best you can, you will be fine, and no one here will ever ask more of you than your best. So remember point number two: Belmont Hill is not a zero-sum game. It is a place where each of you can win. Point number 3: As I start my eighth year here, I think I am starting to figure out how Belmont Hill works. I believe the dynamic of the place goes like this: What you put into the School determines what you get out of it. Each of you will take your own path through Belmont Hill. For some it will be purely academic: for you the life of the mind will form the essence of your journey. Others may find great passion in athletics, or theater, or music, or community service, or a whole host of other activities. Some of you may choose two areas to pursue; some may choose five. The choice is yours. Our job on the faculty is to help you find those areas of passion and to support you as best we can. But the essential part of the journey lies within you. The more you put into the place the more you will get out of it. That is as true in the First Form as it is in the Sixth. Those are three truths, simple truths, of how this place works. Yet there is also a structure to the place, and I want to talk about that for a couple minutes as well. What about the rules? As some of you know, I spent the first 14 years of my teaching career at Deerfield Academy. Deerfield’s story was written largely by a headmaster named Frank L. Boyden. Mr. Boyden came to the School as a 22-yearold headmaster in 1902 and he left in 1968 after 66 years as head. His is a record that will probably never be broken, and along the way he built a great school. I mention Mr. Boyden because in his years at Deerfield he never had a rulebook. That seems unimaginable in our present litigious age; maybe even Mr. Boyden would have relented by now. But I like imagining a school without a handbook. What would we do? Would you know what to do? I think you would. I know what Mr. Boyden said: You boys know right from wrong. You have a moral compass, and I believe it points to true north. Besides, if anything arose that you weren’t sure about, you could always ask a faculty member or a trusted friend.
Of course we do have a handbook, and it often serves to guide us well. I hope you and your parents have looked it over, for it contains many important rules and guidelines. Still, the most important guidelines require only one page. In fact, it is the front page of the handbook. We read this over as a full faculty last week, and as a way of starting the year, I want to read it to you. It is the School’s mission statement, its statement of purpose. As several faculty members said at our meetings last week, if we can follow our own mission statement, then we will do well as a school. Statement of Purpose Belmont Hill’s mission is to educate boys in mind, body, and spirit. Our environment of both challenge and support emphasizes strong moral values, honest effort, and responsibility for oneself and one’s community. Valuing difference, Belmont Hill welcomes students from a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. Through shared commitment to the playing field, studio, and stage, students and teachers forge special bonds. Respecting tradition yet alive to innovation, our structured and rigorous program provides students with clear expectations and consistent encouragement, a framework for growth that honors creativity, teamwork, and competition. Belmont Hill helps students to develop clear thinking and a lifelong love of learning; become sensitive and responsive to the complexities of modern society; gain the skills, values, and courage to face the future with confidence; and embrace, both now and in later life, a spirit of working together to better the world. Powerful ideas: I count on you to embrace them. Or if a whole mission statement sounds too complicated, let me tell you what a friend of mine, a fellow head, said as summary: “Work hard, play fair, be kind.” All of us can remember that. I promise to follow Professor Light’s dictum and keep my ideas simple, so here are my last ones. They come in moving from rules to expectations and hopes. Rules are easy. We know what they are. We know when people have followed or broken them, and we can respond from there. Expectations or hopes or dreams are more elusive, but they may be more important. So let me tell you what I want this place to be.
In profound ways, Belmont Hill is an experiment. We are not a school composed of students who live in a particular neighborhood. Instead, we consciously bring people together. You 433 students come from over 60 different cities and towns, from 130 different schools, from a vast array of backgrounds—in race, religion, ethnicity, wealth, family background. We bring you together to live together, to learn about and from one another; I also remind you that “working together” remains the School’s motto. In that way, we mirror to some degree the experiment that is the United States. America has often been called a nation of immigrants, for this country was built by people who came from different places, backgrounds, and experiences and who together forged a great nation. We draw strength from our diversity—or at least we can draw strength. But that is up to you. An article in The Boston Globe last week pointed out that the majority of students in the Boston Public Schools are now non-white: they are African American, Latino, Asian American. While we do not have the same diversity as the Boston Public Schools, we have students who are remarkably diverse not only in backgrounds but also in interests and talents and experiences. Our differences are a fact. I believe they are part of our strength. But that is up to you. As you begin this school year, I urge you not merely to accept or to tolerate difference but also to embrace it, to learn from one another, to respect one another no matter how different. It is easy to fall in with old friends: people who live near you, think like you, look or act like you. But if you do only that, you will be missing a vital part of what your education can be. I urge you to reach out, to make new friends, to talk with and learn from and appreciate people who are different. In that regard, especially in the public forums that we have, I want you to think carefully about the power of words. For you older boys, school leaders in particular, speaking to the School or to fellow students represents a great opportunity and a real responsibility. We on the faculty want you to have public voices, to speak: in school forums, at pep rallies, in theater scenes at School Meeting, in cheering at and supporting friends and your school. This fall, as we close in on the 2000 elections, we expect to have students on this stage talking about the upcoming election. What I want you to remember is that speaking in public gives you a powerful and fragile forum. Use it wisely.
More than that, even in your private speech, even with small circles of friends, I want, I hope, I expect you to think carefully about your words. Words have power; words can injure. Make no mistake about it: Words are actions, and as you new students will hear from me many times in your Belmont Hill career, you need to take responsibility for your actions. Understand that there is no place at Belmont Hill for language which is cruel to others, whether individuals or groups. Understand that this faculty will have no tolerance for sexist or racist or homophobic language. Why do I—why do we on the faculty—care so much about language? Because we care so much about you. We want you to be good students, certainly, but more than that, we want you to be good people. Academics are our first priority, but character remains our highest priority. We expect you to live well, at Belmont Hill and away from Belmont Hill. We expect you, as our mission statement says, to become good citizens. If we all remember that closing ideal of our mission statement, to “embrace…a spirit of working together to better the world,” then we will have a good year and a good school. That is my wish, my hope, my expectation for you and for us all. In this special place, we can make the world anew; we can make the world better. Each of you is a vital part of that. Now let’s do it.
what’s not fair? January 3, 2001
My grandmother passed away last summer at the age of 96. Last week when my family gathered for a few days in Chicago, where she had lived her whole life, we shared memories of her and items that she had left for each of us: children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It triggered for me a memory of a gift that she had given me when I was a little boy, a bookmark with a saying upon it. Thirty years later, she had embroidered that same saying on framed pieces for each of our two daughters, her great-grandchildren. The constancy of that vision made me think more about her last week. Perhaps you have heard the saying, actually a prayer written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It reads, “Dear God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I have been thinking a great deal about the wisdom of those words, especially because they contrast so sharply from some very different words I keep hearing. “That’s not fair!” is a phrase we hear all the time in our society. “Life is so unfair” is another variation. The extension of these is often something like: “I’m such a victim.” I want to think with you for a few minutes this morning about how fair life is—or is not—and perhaps how fair life is supposed to be. Certainly this theme—life not being fair—courses through our society. Before Christmas, I watched a kid throw a tantrum in the Cambridgeside Galleria when Radio Shack did not have a PlayStation 2 for him. “Life’s not fair,” he wailed. Adults are prone to this as well. I had a rather painful conversation with a friend back in Chicago who lamented the downward slide of his stock market investments this year. I empathized with his bad luck, but I struggled when he proclaimed the unfairness of it all. Certainly here at school you students face disappointments all the time which may lead to such claims. When you have worked so hard on a paper, and the grade is disappointing…when you have trained hard and still not made a team… when you have auditioned well and not gotten the part in the play… . In all these cases, disappointment is understandable. So is a search to find fault, with yourself or others. And so too do we sometimes claim that things are simply “not fair.” But here’s a hard fact: Life is not always going to seem fair. Even more, life simply is not always going to be fair, and part of growing up is learning to accept that. You still need to work hard, to strive, but not every result is going to be happy. Whether
you are in the First Form or the Sixth Form, this can be tough. After all, you have a measure of who you are, or who you think you are, and every time you put yourself on the line you test that against what others think you are. All you First Formers and other new students come into Belmont Hill with excellent records from other places. Gaining admission to a selective school like Belmont Hill only confirms that you must be pretty good. Then the grades are disappointing, or your place on the team is not what you expected, and life can seem unfair. Sixth Formers who have known nothing but success at Belmont Hill sometimes run into the cold reality of college admissions. Suddenly your best, which has been very good indeed, is not good enough for a particular college. It is hard not to resist claiming that something is not fair. Part of what makes this difficult is that we on the faculty, the adults of Belmont Hill, set up the possibility of great disappointment. A dilemma of any small school is that, in having a faculty that works so hard to know you and support you, we hope to make each of you feel good about your accomplishments. That is mostly good, but it can lead to a myopic view of the world. Yes, we have outstanding students, but so do other high schools, private and public. Yes, we have a top scholar-athlete like Michael McCarthy—and several others—who are very bright and talented. But remember: There are 25,000 high schools in the United States; every one has a valedictorian, a “best” student. Harvard had 400 students apply last year who had perfect 1600s on their SATs. Only half got in. And the further we go in life, the more these “reality checks” continue. Coming out of a big public high school in the Midwest 30 years ago, people told me I must be pretty good to get admitted to Harvard. My biggest problem was that I started to believe them; so when first-semester grades came out, and I was looking at Bs and Cs for the first time, something sure seemed unfair. The graduate schools we don’t get into, the jobs we don’t get…it is sometimes hard not to claim that things are unfair. But as we begin this new year, I want to offer three challenges against this claim of the occasional unfairness of it all. The first is basic: Each of us needs to accept that parts of life are subjective. What makes a good paper? Who makes the better candidate for an office here at school? Who is the best actor? The best goalie? Who is best suited for a job? All of these require a certain amount of human input, and so
long as human beings are making decisions, they will never be completely objective or seem completely fair. But that is how the world works, and one of our tasks here is to get you ready to live in the world. A second reality is the fact that we each need to keep perspective, for there are always others who are smarter, stronger, better. We are lucky to be at this small school, to be part of a community where students are known and, I hope, honored for who they are. Indeed, that is part of what makes this a community and not merely a school. But there is a much bigger world out there—much bigger, tougher, more impersonal—and we all need to remember that what we accomplish here may loom less large in the larger world. Yet my third idea brings us back to Belmont Hill and how I hope it works for you. My third point is to remember the difference between what is unfair and what is disappointing. It’s okay to be disappointed, in the classroom or in athletics or theater or music or anywhere else, especially if you feel you have tried your best. But remember that disappointment does not mean that things are unfair. In addition, I challenge you also to ask yourself a hard question. Have you done your best? How do you know? Are you sure? One of the faculty’s goals here at Belmont Hill is to take you to the next level, to push you, to challenge you to do things better than you thought you could, or perhaps even to get you to do things that you did not believe you ever could do. No one gets a free ride into Belmont Hill, and no one gets a free ride once he is here. As Head of School, I want that level of challenge to continue here, for it will certainly continue after you leave Belmont Hill: in college, or graduate school, or in your work or profession. To be challenged is to risk disappointment. But disappointment is not the same as unfairness. In fact, to keep everything in perspective, to think about life being unfair, all we need to do is step off this hill and visit other places, other schools. You want to talk about life being unfair? Go into some of the high schools in the City of Boston. Look at dropout rates, truancy, violence, weapons checks, lack of books, lack of basic materials. Do you remember when Mr. Belle, a Belmont Hill past parent and the principal of Dorchester High School, visited us at our Cum Laude ceremony last year? Let’s remember the obstacles that the boys and girls of some schools, who may be just as bright and talented and eager as any of you, face every day that they go to
school. Or, just to remember how fortunate we are, imagine the looks and reactions of kids who come from any number of schools, public and private, who now enter the Jordan Athletic Center and see the facility that we get to use every day. Imagine their reactions to what is fair or unfair. Or take the recent report from the National Advanced Placement program which, while cheering the growth of its program nationwide, acknowledges that 40 percent of secondary schools in this country still have no AP courses. Belmont Hill has, by my last count, 14. Or take a fascinating, disturbing fact recently released by people who do research on SAT testing. It turns out that the highest percentage of students in the country who are granted extra time on their SAT testing, which means those students diagnosed with learning issues, comes from Fairfield County, Connecticut, arguably the richest county in the country. Understand that students only get waivers for their SATs when they have doctors who will attest to their disability. Understand that getting tested costs money. Understand that there is a direct correlation between SAT scores and family income. Then let’s talk about what’s fair. Or if we really want to talk about what’s fair or unfair in life, I ask you to think this morning about one of our own, about our faculty colleague Dr. Stearns. While some of you students do not know Dr. Stearns, I trust that most of you do. She is a bright, vibrant, talented, 48-year-old member of our English Department who has a husband and two children, who has lived a good and ethical life, who has always taken good care of herself physically—and who, out of the blue, this past fall was diagnosed with cancer. We all hope and pray that her treatments go well, and we count on her returning to Belmont Hill next year. But if we want to talk about what is fair… . If sometimes we see that life is unfair, particularly if we see that sometimes it is also unjust, that does not mean we have to accept what has happened. As I think about goals for you students, I cannot imagine a greater goal than to try to make things fairer or more just in our society. A couple weeks away from honoring the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, what greater goal could we have than to fight for justice in this country? A month after hearing the words of Kevin Jennings here in this chapel, challenging us to think about rights and opportunities for all men and women in our society, there too I hope that each of us has the courage to fight for what is fair and just and right.
Within this school, day by day, I hope we are a fair and ethical place. Like you students, I trust teachers always to be fair, and you boys are lucky to live in a community that, while not perfect, is always striving to keep these values in front of us. While we have our ups and downs, I am buoyed by one of Dr. Thompson’s assessments of Belmont Hill, that this school has as high a degree of internal consistency, of fairness, as any of the many schools where he has consulted. Is life always fair? The answer is “No.” Life is complicated; life is subjective; sometimes fate or chance brings painful results in our lives. Fundamentally, life is not designed to be perfectly fair; perhaps that is the tough lesson we all need to remember. Part of that comes because life is always changing. One can go back to the Romans to remember that Heraclitus wrote two millennia ago that “nothing is permanent except change.” Those of you who have read your Bible may recall from the Old Testament Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream: “Be prepared, for seven lean years will follow seven fat years.” Still, as we contemplate the uncertainties of life, I hope you remember that whoever rolled the dice for you gave you some pretty good numbers. For all of us together in this meetinghouse, whatever cosmic force that brought us together has treated us well in many ways. As the new year begins, I urge you to appreciate what you have, to work hard, to accept defeats or limitations or disappointments with grace, to put them in context. Ultimately, we all need to remember that life is not always fair: that you don’t control it, that we teachers at Belmont Hill do not, that your parents cannot. Thus, as you head into this new year, perhaps those words my grandmother stitched so carefully for her great-grandchildren are worth remembering: “Dear God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
civility, society, community April 2, 2001
There was another fatal shooting at another school last month. As we were dodging snowstorms and winter doldrums, a 15-year-old boy at Santana High School, outside San Diego, shot up a school, killing two students and wounding 13. We have seen a flurry of responses back here in Massachusetts. Many of them take the form of “get tough” policies. Governor Cellucci has proposed, according to a recent Boston Globe article, “mandatory incarceration of a student who brings a weapon to school.” On a different level, it is clear that school authorities are taking all threats, whether serious or not, far more seriously. The Globe of Sunday, March 18, just after you took off for spring break, reported that a McCall Middle School sixth grader in Winchester told a classmate that he wanted to shoot him. The boy did not have a gun, but authorities did not want to take a chance. This 11-year-old was read his rights by police, “evaluated by a psychiatrist, suspended for three days, and ordered to seek counseling.” That same article reports recent suspension of two students in Sharon for “making gun threats,” the arrest of an 18-year-old at Gloucester High School for writing a “note threatening a Columbine-scale massacre,” a 10-year-old for threatening to “shoot his entire class.” How do we react to this news? One step—one which I urge on each of you—is to make sure that if you, as a student or teacher, ever hear anything from a student which scares you or which suggests that a fellow student might threaten violence, then you get in touch immediately with a teacher or trusted adult. One of the tragedies of the Santana shooting is that the boy had told friends, and at least one adult, that he was going to shoot people at school. Those people did not respond— and they will have to carry that decision with them for the rest of their lives. Yet my focus this morning is not so much on how we as a school or a society respond to threats; it is more on the forces that lead students to make these threats. It is on the social forces in this school, and other schools. I want to talk with you this morning about issues of civility, social cruelty, and community. As I think you all know, we are fortunate as a school to have Dr. Thompson as our consulting psychologist. He helps many of us, students and teachers alike, think about problems or issues in our individual or collective lives. What you may not know is that Dr. Thompson is also a nationally renowned speaker about boys and issues about all children. His two recent books, Raising Cain and Speaking of
Boys, have become national bestsellers, and he is finishing a new book entitled Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children. I had a chance to read some of the draft manuscript of that forthcoming book over vacation. It is fascinating. Dr. Thompson writes about how children form into social groups, how various roles repeat themselves in every group. There are always battles for who is going to be on top, who is popular, who is “in” and who is “out,” who is cool, who is funny, whose jokes people laugh at, and whose people do not. For those of us who do not like cliques or labels or seeing kids left out, this may not be pleasant, but it is real. Dr. Thompson writes, “The idea of a status hierarchy among children, in which some kids dominate others, is deeply offensive to many people… . As one mother furiously asked me, ‘Why can’t all the children in this school be at the same level?’ The answer is that a status hierarchy exists in every classroom in every school in the land.” We all go through this; yes, all your teachers did. Just in case you are wondering if Heads of School are immune, I can still remember when my eighth grade class took its spring trip to Washington, D.C. The cool boys in my junior high school had formed two “gangs”—the “Brothers” and the “Friends”—and I still remember them lording it over everyone on the bus. Needless to say, I was in neither gang of cool guys. I think I survived it well enough…but, 35 years later, I also still remember it. The reason I raise all this is that I am concerned not only about the shootings and threats in our land today but also about the forces that lead to them. The boys—and they have been almost all boys—who have perpetrated the shootings in recent years have all been outcasts, boys picked on, certainly not the cool guys. You remember, I trust, that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two killers at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, targeted specific victims, including some of the jocks who had teased them—the outsiders, the marginalized kids with different clothes and different music—so painfully and so much. Now it turns out that, according to Eileen McNamara’s March 18 article in the Globe, “it was the dominant preppie crowd that froze out the skate-boarding gunman”—the recent 15-year-old killer in California. So I think about you guys and about this school. How far are we from Santana… or Columbine…or Winchester or Gloucester? How painful is the trip for some of you? How much of your schooling and your social experience here can be
categorized in the normal rough-and-tumble of adolescence, yet how much might our school environment be making it worse than it should be, than it has to be? To use Dr. Thompson’s searing phrase, how much “social cruelty” is being inflicted at Belmont Hill? As some faculty have heard me say, I think the single most important factor in understanding a school is not curriculum, or activities or facilities or even gender— being coed versus single sex. To me it is size. We try to keep this place small: big enough to have a rich and varied program, to be sure, but small enough that we can know each other, that we can be—to use our school’s motto—“working together,” that we can be not merely a school but a community. But if we are going to truly be a community, then we need to act as a community, and that means we have to recognize social cruelty when we see it and move to eliminate it. It does not mean that you students will not have groups within your Forms, that you will not have a social hierarchy. As Dr. Thompson has written, we could not stop that even if we wanted to. That is part of life, and part of your challenge as an adolescent is to figure out who you are, how you fit in—and want to fit in—among peers, how you will choose your friends, how you will make your way in the world. That is not easy, and any adult who writes that adolescence is the greatest time of your life is delusional: There are tough times for everyone. But we can still do better in building our own community, our own “civil society.” To start with, all of us know what it means to be “civil.” At the very least, I expect that each of you students treats everyone here—students, faculty, staff, strangers, but most especially fellow students—with courtesy and respect. That is a fundamental expectation that I have for you in being “civilized,” part of a “civilization” if you will, certainly a necessity for us to have any pretense of community. But it is not enough to be “civil.” You need to do more. You need to be open—to new people and new ideas. You need to be willing to listen to others, even if they aren’t your friends or even if you don’t like their ideas. You need to listen and to act with an open heart. I do not mean that you have to love everyone—but, at the risk of making you uncomfortable, that is not a bad idea, and it is certainly a fundamental Christian ideal, coming straight from Jesus, as I recall.
If you can approach others with an open mind and an open heart, all kinds of good things happen. You find the good in others; you learn to respect others more; you can reach out and help others. Every one of you students, if you think about it, knows that there are “in” guys and “out” guys within your Form. Why not get past labels and reach out to those who are sometimes on the outside? This is a challenge to every one of you, from First Form to Sixth. And you all have cases you know about. In a story that goes to the faculty as much as you students, I was talking last month with an advisor in the Middle School about our Wednesday walk-through lunches and the interest some people have in having even more of these. One of this teacher’s primary concerns about having more of these lunches is that boys who are alone or isolated or outcast could face even more meals alone. No one wants to be alone: You students have influence over how your Form works. You Sixth Formers heard from Mr. Prenatt just before vacation about the opportunity in front of you this spring: to spend these last Belmont Hill weeks with your classmates, to get to know them better, to appreciate them more, to draw together as a Form, not merely a group of factions or cliques. Some of you seniors were part of a painful, rather ugly incident last month involving one of your classmates. Now is the time to mend that, to grow up, to see that you are all in this together. Several of you on teams will see these issues play out in the weeks ahead. Play these issues, as well as your games, well. If we are going to reach our goal as a school, to create a civil community, we also need to think about language and some important larger social issues. Last December we heard Kevin Jennings give a powerful talk about accepting and respecting difference among others. While his talk focused on homosexuality, it was about far more: In talking about growing up gay in rural North Carolina, he wove a personal story that was also about blacks and whites living together, about his illiterate mother, about religious intolerance. In other words, he made us think about our American society and its complexity: about race and class and gender, and most importantly about dealing with difference. Respecting difference, even embracing it, marks a huge part of building a community. You may recall that, in preparation for that morning, Mr. Jennings also asked us all, students and faculty alike, to fill out a survey about language and attitudes here at school. In February the faculty reviewed these findings. In some ways they were encouraging. The survey showed that most people in this school do not use racist
language and do not tolerate it from others. I hope that is true and that we continue to move forward in this way. I trust—hope, expect—that is true for issues of gender as well. But when it came to homophobic language and attitudes, we as a school showed ourselves to be in a different place, with widespread use of antigay language and widespread toleration of it. That lessens, weakens our entire community. That needs to stop. As a faculty I think we are clear. It is time as a student body, and thus as a full school community, that we become equally clear. In a world where we have openly gay members of Congress, where two weeks ago the city of Paris elected an openly gay mayor, in a school where we talk in our Honor Code about respect for others and valuing difference, we need to walk the talk. You students should understand that I have asked the faculty to move strongly on this issue, to confront it, and I count on you students to step up as well. For all this, though, I also want to offer what might sound like a surprise. To have a healthy school community, to maintain civility, I think we also have to make sure that we can disagree, argue, debate. As part of your education at Belmont Hill, I trust that you are getting ample chances to think for yourself, to interpret readings or data or information, to put your own ideas together. That is part of a good education, and part of learning to think for yourself means that you have your own ideas, including the notion that not all ideas are equally good. Whether the issue is whether the United States should have fought in Vietnam, or affirmative action is a good policy, or abortion is moral, or homosexuality is sinful, or boys really are like those portrayed in Lord of the Flies, I hope you have, or develop, opinions—and that you feel free to express them. In here, in public forums, some faculty have shown us a way. Two years ago you may remember that Mr. Fleming offered a passionate and respectful challenge when the former Olympic team physician, Dr. Leach, spoke about the dangers of creatine and andro. Just last December Mr. Ambielli offered his heartfelt and respectful response to Mr. Jennings. Such freedom of expression is a critical element of a “civil” society. We have got to be free to express our ideas, to disagree—so long as we can do so in a manner that respects the views of others. An old friend of mine, a veteran head of three schools, recently put it this way. “Civility” cannot be just good manners. Some issues get messy. Some issues will not get to closure. But you can be noisy and still respectful. Respect does not mean silence.
Why do I emphasize these issues? Why are they so important to me? I want them to be equally important to you. I think they are fundamental both to your life at Belmont Hill and your life after. Why are these important for life here at Belmont Hill? For me, this goes back to my ideal of living within a true school community. I spoke a few minutes ago about the primary importance of size in defining a school. At our school, we can get to know just about everyone. We meet together, frequently, something that doesn’t happen at lots of places. We know what is happening among us: who is upbeat and who is depressed, who has achieved, who has fallen, who is ill, whose family might be having difficulties. That is a great and vital part of this school. But it can also be fragile, and if we want to live as a school community, then we need to make sure that we include everyone within it. The other reason I care so much about this matter of living “civilly,” in a “civil” manner, within “civilization,” is that you boys need to remember the world in which you live. It is not primarily white and rich and suburban. Instead, it is vastly more complex. Did you read recently about the 2000 census and the surge of the Latino population in this country? In 2001, the Latino and African American populations are roughly equal in size in our country, and both continue to grow. Did you read about the rapid rise in population of Asian Americans, that they, for example, represent the majority of students at the University of California’s flagship campus in Berkeley? Do you realize that the majority of the U.S. population will, in your lifetimes, be non-white? That the majority of the world’s population is nonChristian? We have a choice in our society: to fight against the future or to embrace it. I think the choice is clear. And if we are going to live in this exciting, complex world, it is also time to live mindfully within our little world atop this Hill as well. As we go forward into what I hope is a wonderful spring for the School, I ask that you think about what it means for you—and for us all—to aspire to a goal of civility, in its broadest definition, to make sure that by word and deed we move from the dangers of social cruelty to the goal of a true school community. There are some things in the world we cannot control; this we can.
patriotism in a changed world January 2, 2002
It has been 111 days since September 11th. Parts of September still haunt me. I remember the horror of standing in front of the TV that was set up in MacPherson, watching the second plane hit the second tower, again and again. Even today, when I travel down Storrow Drive, my stomach tightens as I look up to the Prudential Center and the Hancock Tower, making sure they are intact. I have flown again, several times now over several thousand miles. But the landscape is different. As we came together as a school on that terrible morning four months ago, so do we now begin a new year together. As we start 2002 with new hopes, we cannot forget what happened in 2001. For me this morning, this talk offers a chance to reflect back on our changed landscape and to look ahead at what the new year may bring. Our daily lives, our daily rhythm here at school, may not have changed too much in the last four months, but our society certainly has. Let me ask a not-so-simple question: Are we a nation at war? That may depend on whom you ask. It was hard to turn on the television over the last two weeks and not see tributes to our soldiers overseas. This country has had men and women overseas in positions of risk for as long as most of us have been alive, but the stakes seem higher and more immediate today. Are we at war? Imagine the country before September 11th. How many flags did you see? Imagine our casual approach to travel before September 11th. Now remember those conversations with people who today are afraid to fly. I had one such conversation over vacation with an older relative. Her fear lay not so much in getting on a plane; she figures that security is reasonably sound at this point. But what would happen, she asked, if she were far away and another attack came? How could she get home? And she expressed these worries before that recent overseas flight narrowly averted a new terrorist disaster. Are we at war? Several hundred people in this country have been detained, apparently without the full due process that is expected in our society, or at least in our society during peacetime. Yet we also look at a nation that, except for a relatively small number of incidents early on, has shown not only toleration for people of different backgrounds and faiths but seems even to have embraced more fully the pluralism that characterizes America.
Are we at war? I resisted that question when our president declared us at war soon after the September 11th attacks. But then I went to New York City. On October 11th, precisely one month after the attacks, I had a meeting to attend in New York. I took the US Airways shuttle—no problems in the airport, although it was strange to see soldiers and guns—and got myself to Times Square. I had a couple hours to spare before the dinner I was to attend uptown. So I jumped on the subway, went downtown as far as the line would then go, down to 14th Street, came up to the street and started walking. In midtown Manhattan where I began, life was full. But lower Manhattan was different. As I got closer to Ground Zero, I started seeing firefighters and police officers and workers everywhere. Within a few blocks I saw hand-painted signs on storefronts: “Reopening soon” or “We’re back in business,” or “Support us.” Walking past bus stops I saw dozens of handmade posters seeking people who were still missing. I kept walking, I got still closer, and now there was a faint, acrid smell in the air. I could not get to the actual site—the police had closed it off three or four city blocks away. But I stood quietly, as did many others, and looked from the barricade up to a hole in the sky. I could see a fire hose throwing water on the still-burning ruin. At dusk, with most buildings in the area lighted up, the blackened shells of other buildings stood in sharp relief. Are we a nation at war? The people in lower Manhattan on that day certainly were. Are we a nation at war? One more perspective. Last summer Mrs. Melvoin and I attended the International Boys’ Schools Conference in London. The morning after the Conference ended, we visited the Imperial War Museum. That museum has a famous exhibit about the Battle of Britain. For those of you who don’t know, the Battle of Britain was a bombing campaign by Germany in 1940, early in World War II, where Hitler tried not only to destroy but to demoralize London. Every night there was a blackout. Every night German air raids sent people into shelters or subway stations for protection. Every morning the citizens arose to see new sections of their city destroyed. Are we a nation at war? As a historian, part of what is so powerful for me about the attacks on September 11th is that they took place on American soil. If you think back through American history, that is something that has almost never happened. No foreign troops have stood on our soil, I believe, since the War of 1812. World War I never touched us. World War II began for the United States at Pearl Harbor—an island, an American territory thousands of miles from the
mainland—but it never came to our shores. Korea? Vietnam? Thus, part of what we have been feeling since September 11th, I believe, has to do with a vulnerability this nation has not experienced before. War has always been different for the United States than for the nations of Europe, which have literally served as battlegrounds. Although our experience does not begin to compare with what Londoners faced in the Battle of Britain, much less what France experienced under occupation, for example, September 11th has made us a little less different in that painful regard. As American society is different, so too is our world today different. Why do people fight wars? On what grounds? For what gains? A century ago wars seemed most often fought for conquest, for land, for materials. Is terrorism the new face of war in the 21st century? After September 11th, our country has needed to examine in new ways who our friends are and who our enemies are. American foreign policy has been transformed in the last four months. Who could have imagined 10 years ago that Russia would offer to aid the United States in a conflict in the Middle East? Who could imagine that Iran, only 20 years after the Ayatollah held Americans hostage for over a year, would offer a friendly hand? In a presidential administration that had seemed focused on keeping the United States isolated and independent as the world’s only superpower, who could have imagined the number of ties that President Bush would seek with so many nations? Yet amidst these new ties between nations, old and historic questions re-emerge. To what degree should morality have a role in foreign policy? Yes, we decry the actions of the Taliban, but its actions were the same before Osama bin Laden and September 11th. What has changed? On a different tack, can one see our current conflict as a religious war? Has the United States fought religious wars before? As I think back on our history, I think the answer is “No.” And while this is a war against terrorists, not against a religion, this current conflict has made us think more about religious differences. The simultaneous and frightening escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only makes these questions more urgent. Social critic Studs Terkel once characterized World War II as “the last good war,” because at least it provided for Americans a clear sense of good and evil, of right and wrong. Those lines became less clear in Vietnam. What do they mean now in the tortured Middle East?
As we look back on the extraordinary events of the last four months, so do we look ahead as well. What will 2002 bring? I offer three alliterative points of hope for the new year. The first point is pluralism. This country took a huge hit four months ago, and in our anger and our fear many wanted to lash out, to find and attack enemies. Some wanted the enemy to be the people of a region, the Middle East. Others wanted the enemy to be religion, the religion of Islam. It is to this nation’s credit that tolerance and respect for others have remained firm. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman reported last week that there is in fact more sympathy or empathy today for Muslims than there was before September 11th. I believe that much of that is rooted in our past, in our separation of state and religion, in the fact that we are indeed a “nation of nations.” This country has drawn strength from its diversity throughout its history. We need to maintain the strength and idealism that pluralism brings. If pluralism offers one hope for the year ahead, a second hope comes in our policies. Terrorism has no place in this country or in this world—but we need to strive not only to fight terrorism but also to understand terrorism and its sources. What led Osama and Al Qaeda on this terrible path? What should American foreign policy be in this region of the world? In the days after the attacks, some asked the question: Why do others hate the United States? We need to ask that question—and learn from it. I am not sure that most of you students—that most of us adults—understand how powerful the United States really is in the world. But we should try. What did we learn of Afghanistan in the last four months—that the average annual income is almost $400? Might not that poverty lead to strong religious beliefs or hatred of an unspeakably wealthy United States? For even our friends in the world at times resent our economic power. I remember vividly a moment from a trip to the Middle East nine years ago. My family spent three weeks in Israel—a wonderful, energizing journey. But there we were in Tel Aviv. Billboards were full of ads for Levis and McDonald’s. Nike was everywhere; little guys all wore Chicago Bulls jerseys with the number “23.” Our tour bus drove past a fleet of motorbikes with matching signs on the back—they were delivery vehicles for Domino’s Pizza. Surveying all this, our younger daughter asked what all these American signs were doing in Israel. “That,” our tour guide said, “is what is called ‘cultural imperialism.’”
When one adds military might to economic power, as with American troops in Saudi Arabia, close to Mecca, close to their “sacred space,” is it any wonder that some would resent our presence, our power, as well as our freedom and our way of life? Our government needs to consider carefully the consequences of strength and our actions. Thus, I hope the new year brings continuing examination of American foreign policies. What else is in store for 2002? If pluralism and policies represent two benchmarks, the third that I hope will continue is our surge of patriotism. This country is acting in some significantly different ways than it was four months ago. Some of it is seen in the symbols people display: the flags we fly, the pins on lapels. Did you know that the biggest selling logo cap this fall was not a sports team: It was FDNY, the Fire Department of New York. In a year where Barry Bonds defied the baseball gods with his record-breaking season, our heroes became firefighters and police officers and the citizens on that flight above Pennsylvania. In that spirit, I close with a challenge to you. That challenge is to think about what patriotism most fully, most deeply, means. I do not believe it is enough to wave a flag or sing a patriotic song; those are only symbols—important symbols, but only symbols. By contrast, I think patriotism is about citizenship. What does it mean to be a good citizen? At one level, I think patriotism starts with knowledge of how our country works and what its pressing issues and controversies are. Thus, one hope I have for you in the year ahead is that you become more aware of the policies of our government, at home and abroad. I also think patriotic duty involves service, and sometimes sacrifice. I believe patriotism includes the need for all of us to protect liberty at home as well as abroad. I hope patriotism for some of you students will mean service to country. That service can come as a local elected official, or a soldier, or a civil servant, or a member of the foreign service. You can be a teacher—whether at a Belmont Hill or in the cities that desperately need good teachers. You can be a doctor—who also serves the needy in a clinic. You can be a lawyer—who also gives time as a public defender. You can be an academic—and learn about other cultures. Heaven knows how distressing it was this fall when we discovered how few Americans could speak the languages of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq when we needed such expertise and understanding of the world. When Mr. Hobert or other teachers speak of preventive diplomacy, they are not just whistling in the wind. To
be good American citizens, we need people who are good world citizens: people who are ready to learn about other cultures, live them, make the world smaller and better. My greatest wish for you and for us all in this new year is a world of peace. But peace will not come without the efforts of many, and I hope that you think about what it means to be patrioticâ€”at age 13 or 18 or 28 or throughout your life. We cannot bring back the lives of the more than 3,200 people who perished on September 11th, but we can make their legacy something to be proud of. So keep learning and building from that fateful day. Best wishes to you all for a peaceful new year.
making a life April 1, 2002
I start this morning with holiday wishes. This has been a week of holidays—of “holy days”—for many of us. Yesterday, of course, was Easter—the most holy of days at the center of Christianity, a day that takes Christians from the grief of Christ’s death to the glory and celebration of his resurrection. For those of us who are Jews, this is also the week of Passover—and the ties to Christianity are extensive, for as most of you know, Jesus’ last supper was, of course, the Passover Seder. For those who are not familiar with the holiday, Passover celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the beginning of the journey that would take Moses and the Jews through 40 years in the desert, the time at Mount Sinai where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. As many of you know, the Passover meal is rich in symbols. For example, the Matzo, or unleavened bread (the cracker-like bread you will see at lunch for the next few days until the weeklong observance ends), symbolizes the flat bread that the Jews made as they hurried to leave Egypt, since they didn’t have time to let their bread rise for fear that Pharaoh would change his mind and not let them leave. Yet, the Passover symbol that struck me hardest this year is the closing prayer of the Seder meal. It is a prayer that Jews have said for thousands of years: an expression of hope that we may meet “next year in Jerusalem.” That prayer is particularly poignant for Jews—for all of us—today because of the crisis in the Middle East. It doesn’t matter what religion or nationality you are to worry about the cycle of violence that has been escalating in the Middle East. Suicide bombers, the deaths of innocent civilians, armed tanks streaming through villages and towns…it is a horrifying situation. Part of what is so scary is that the situation seems to be worsening daily…and no one knows how to stop it. One of the luxuries of vacation for me is the chance to read the newspaper. Last Friday, and for several days over the last two weeks, that has meant reading The New York Times. An editorial on Friday asked, in despair, who will help settle the Mideast crisis? We need people to solve the complex problems of the Middle East: Israeli security and Palestinian rights. We need people who are smart, dedicated, courageous, well educated, idealistic. And, amidst all the despair, I thought: why not some of you students?
Thinking about newspapers leads me to thinking about a different story that emerged in these last couple of weeks. I am not sure how many of you saw it, for it came just as we were going on spring break, but on March 14 a man named Tom Winship died. Mr. Winship was the former editor of The Boston Globe, who ran the newspaper for 19 years, from 1965 until his retirement in 1984. What you may not know is that Tom Winship was a Belmont Hill boy, Class of 1938. Winship took a sleepy, local paper and turned it into a regional, even a national, force. Under his active leadership, the Globe took on issues of importance, from the remnants of McCarthyism to decaying neighborhoods to Boston’s acute and painful problems of racial segregation. By the time he stepped down as editor, his paper had won 12 Pulitzer Prizes. Here was an alumnus with passion and vision and purpose. I had a chance to meet with a couple of younger alumni in the last couple of weeks as well. Although they come from different graduating classes, and one is black and one is white, their stories are striking in their similarity. Both come from strong, supportive families. One is married; one has a girlfriend. Anyhow, their stories go like this: Belmont Hill prepared me well, college was fine, and now I am out in the business world. (One works in finance; the other works for ESPN, by the way.) I am making good money, I have a nice place to live, I drive a nice car. But when I get to the end of the day, I wonder what I have accomplished. Isn’t there supposed to be more? Yeah, I suppose I could get an even nicer car…but so what? Then what? More broadly: What am I going to do with my life that might give it more meaning? More purpose? There is, of course, no single answer to this question—but the question is well worth asking. Even though you students are now more likely focused on doing well at Belmont Hill as an end in itself, or perhaps on getting to college as a next step, it is not too early to think about what you want to do with your life. I urge you to realize that it is never too early to consider what would make you happy—and to me that means asking what kind of work would give your life purpose and meaning and satisfaction. One thing I promise you is that making money is not the answer. Surely, there is nothing wrong with being financially secure, but that is not enough. Ask those two young graduates about it. After a while, who cares what car you drive? It still is simply giving you a ride somewhere. And who cares how many
rooms you have in your house? You can only be in one at a time. By contrast: What is of lasting value in this world? What do I want you to consider? I cannot tell you that there is a single vocation that will give your life meaning—but I will propose a theme, a vision for each of you. The vision is, simply, to do something to make the world better. What does that mean for our two young alumni? Well, I met with each of them because they both want to go into teaching. It may be in public school, it may be in private school— but they want to work with young people. Of course, they—and all of you—have 55 pretty good role models here in this chapel. You might ask your teachers sometime why they have chosen this life—what options they considered or tried along the way. Given that there are plenty of ways to make more money and work fewer hours, why choose teaching?
“What am I going to do with my life that might give it more meaning? More purpose?” Of course, we can’t ask Tom Winship why he stayed in the newspaper world; his death two weeks ago robs us of that opportunity. But we may now understand more of why his picture hangs on the wall in MacPherson as one of Belmont Hill’s Distinguished Alumni Award recipients. One thing his obituary mentioned, though, was how much he relished his work, how much pleasure he took from pushing ideas around and challenging others to do their best in their work. How does that tie into the current Mideast crisis? We may not have any Belmont Hill alumni working in the State Department, trying to help resolve the Middle East crisis—but I wish we did. Still, there are so many ways that the region needs help. We need diplomats who appreciate the differences among nations, languages, religions, and cultures; scholars who can help us understand the complexities of the region; economists who can help the Palestinians out of their misery; politicians who can rise above parochial interests to achieve lasting change. Much of this may seem distant right now, yet when I think about how Belmont Hill students now go off to study in France or Spain or Beijing, or study abroad while in college, I am encouraged that many of you are gaining a global vision. When I think about the 20 of you who have just come back from a week of giving service to others on an
Indian reservation in Arizona, I am encouraged—and not just because you have done good for a week of your lives, but because you may be establishing patterns that will carry you through a whole lifetime of purpose. Even from the lovely oasis that is this school, you are starting to see how differently so many people in the world now live, and how great their needs are. There are so many ways to give your life meaning and purpose—the world needs plenty of help. Some of you may choose a career that could bring you great wealth. That may be fine—but the question for me is: What would you do with it? Andrew Carnegie, one of the world’s wealthiest men, kept only a fraction of his fortune for himself and his family. He once said that “the kept dollar is a stinking fish”—and he gave most of his money away, founding a university, building libraries, creating an endowment for world peace. Whatever you may think of Bill Gates and his mindboggling fortune, the fact is that his foundation gives away something like $40 million every year. It may surprise you, but this nation’s Founding Fathers— revolutionaries that they were—were generally men of property and education, members of the elite—yet men who felt that with that wealth and education and stature came a responsibility to lead, to risk all for a noble purpose. I don’t know which of you boys is going to help our nation, or your town or your church or your local soccer program or your school. But I do know that our world needs plenty of help. I also know that by considering ways to help the world, you also give meaning to your own life. As far as I know, we only get one chance to live this life. Even today, then, whether you are preparing to head for college next year or are just starting to figure out the First Form, you can be thinking about how you want to live in the world—and how you want to give your own life meaning and purpose. I realize that on an early morning at the start of the spring these questions do not and should not consume you—not yet. But they are questions worth holding on to as you go through Belmont Hill and begin to consider your place in the world. Now let’s go enjoy a good spring here at school—yet let’s make it one that also embraces these same values, ideals, and larger goals, even while here at school.
tough and tender September 4, 2002
On behalf of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, and the staff, it is a great pleasure to welcome you students as we begin the 80th year in the life of Belmont Hill School. It was on a September morning in 1923 that Dr. Howe and a faculty of four welcomed the 43 boys in grades three through nine who together formed the first Belmont Hill School. All of us who gather here this morning are thus part of a long and proud tradition. At many schools, the first day is filled with grim reminders of school rules and policies. I’m not sure that’s a great way to begin: a morning full of “do this” and “don’t do that.” Instead, as returning students know, I try to use our school meetings to talk about something that matters, something larger. So I want to talk to you this morning about you. Specifically, I want to talk about boys: what it is to be a boy, what it means to be a boy at Belmont Hill, what it means to be a boy in our society, and what it means, I believe, to be a man. You may not be aware of it, but you guys are a hot topic in American society these days. For one thing, our media has portrayed over the last several years that there is a real crisis for boys in our society. A lot of this came out of the horrifying attack at Columbine High School in Colorado about four years ago. And that was not the only such attack that took place around that time. Many people focused on the fact that all of the attackers were male. In fact, several major books have been written in the last five to ten years about boys: what is wonderful about boys, but often what is difficult about being a boy. Belmont Hill has been a center for some important research in this area. A Harvard Medical School professor named William Pollack wrote a book called Real Boys, based in part on research conducted here at Belmont Hill. Even closer to home, Michael Thompson, who is our school counselor and is with us every Thursday, wrote a national bestseller called Raising Cain. There is huge concern that boys really are in crisis. The facts are sobering: School dropout rates are higher for boys than girls, academic achievement is lower, fewer are going to college, more have learning issues, more are involved in discipline, there are even more suicides. It is a serious issue in our society. So what, indeed, does it mean to be a boy—or a man—today, in our society? Are there certain ways that you are supposed to act? Certain things you’re supposed to do, or not do? How are you supposed to act around girls or women? How are you supposed to act around other guys? What kind of language are you supposed to use if you are a “real boy”?
Last June, seven of us on the faculty went down to New York for a four-day international conference about boys. We heard talks from a series of nationally and internationally acclaimed speakers: Anna Quindlen, a columnist for The New York Times; Carol Gilligan, a renowned researcher on girls and, now, boys; Peter Gomes, a professor of morals and ethics from Harvard; and even our own Dr. Thompson. These people offered a number of insights into what it means to be a boy, and a man, in our society. My goal for these few minutes this morning is to offer some ideas of what I think it means for you.
“So what, indeed, does it mean to be a boy—or a man— today, in our society? Are there certain ways that you are supposed to act?” The most important single point I can make for you gentlemen is to recognize that there is no single way to be male: There is no one path. My hope for you, at Belmont Hill and beyond, is that you can be or do anything. Some boys at this school are real scholars. They love to read, and talk, and think. That is a wonderful and fulfilling path. Lots of you boys—not all, but lots—love sports, and sports can offer a wonderful way to grow. Others of you may choose a path through theater, or journalism, or community service, or the arts. Many of you combine many of these interests or add others. My point is that there is no particular path through Belmont Hill which is right—except the one you make right for you. It is the job of the faculty—this very good faculty—to support you in whatever healthy and constructive ways you grow. I love working in boys’ schools. This is the 24th year that I have had the pleasure of doing so. When I think back over my years at Belmont Hill, and at Deerfield Academy before that (when it was still all boys), some of my happiest memories have come in seeing the different paths that boys take. One of my all-time favorite moments at Deerfield came when I was directing the spring musical, that year a show called Damn Yankees. (sounds appropriate these days, eh?). About 50 senior boys participated in the play, which was rewarding and fun in itself. But a particularly happy moment came when Michael Smith, a three-sport captain—football,
basketball, baseball—the football coach’s son, participated in the musical: sang and even danced his way across the stage in the spring of his senior year. I know I look with pride today at the boys here at Belmont Hill in the B-Flats who are fine singers but so much more. We have almost always had at least one or two members of the varsity hockey team, and many other athletes and multitalented boys, singing in the B-Flats. That suggests something of what I think you can be and what a boys’ school can be. I remember one of my favorite students from the dorm we ran back at Deerfield. A pretty good track and cross-country runner, and a solid student, he loved to cook. By the time he had finished Williams College—for he was a pretty good student as well—he had spent a semester studying at the Cordon Bleu, a famous cooking school in London. Today, he and his wife and children live in the Berkshires, where he is the head chef for arguably the most famous restaurant in that region. So my first point for you is that you can be a boy and be anything. But let me try this on a different level. What are the characteristics of being male that dominate our society? What are you supposed to be like? Are you supposed to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger? What are you supposed to do when you listen to Eminem and he launches another attack on women? What values should you hold? My vision is that you can be both tough and tender. Tough and tender: What does that mean? I think that many of the traits which we think of as particularly male are admirable. To be strong, courageous, loyal: Those are good values. Many people think that men are supposed to be stoic: to bear pain, to handle adversity with quiet dignity. That, too, sounds like a healthy virtue, although I do not think that stoicism means that you deny having feelings or sometimes showing them. Boys are also known to have great energy, to enjoy play and games and sport. Boys and men are often protective of others, willing to take risks on behalf of others. If we go back to medieval times, there are great positive lessons in the legends of knights and acts of chivalry (an archaic idea today). These can all be good and noble virtues. They are certainly not exclusively male—many women exhibit these good characteristics as well—but they often are identified as particularly male.
Boys together in a group can be wonderful. Certain people worry about boys or men becoming tribal, but the healthy part of guys being strong and loyal and caring about one another is wonderful to see. I think it is part of what makes our school, and many boys’ schools, work so well. I always enjoy watching boys together. Boys tend to be more physical and less verbal than girls. I see you guys goofing around in the library corridor and, so long as it is reasonably under control, I don’t worry about you. It always amazes me: The way boys show affection for each other is by hitting each other, or wrestling, or using up what some call “boy energy.” I admire the shared commitment I see in boys together: on the field, or in the locker room, or the theater, or the Glee Club, or the Panel room, and even at times the classroom. I think that competition—the open, healthy competition we often see among boys—can often drive boys to do better than they could have done on their own. Is there a danger of boys together, a danger on this “tough” side? Of course there is. Boys together sometimes dare themselves into doing some pretty stupid things, and you need to be smart. Boys at their worst sometimes engage in bullying—and that is something that this school will not tolerate for an instant. There is no place at this school for stronger boys picking on those weaker, or isolating or humiliating them—and I count on all of you to make sure that does not happen. But if we think about the good side of being tough—strong, courageous, protective, loyal—then there is a side of quintessential maleness that we can embrace. Yet the other part of being fully male, at least to me, is that you be not only tough, but also tender. To be the boy we want in this school, to be the man we want— we need—in our society, there also needs to be a different side—and it is a side inside all of you. As good young men, you need to be thoughtful, well mannered, courteous, caring, compassionate, humane. And I know you are. Boys may not show this in the same way as girls—and that is a place where our society often gets confused—but it is certainly part of being a man. It is probably a valid stereotype that women, in general, tend to talk more than men; most men live more by their actions. But the actions I have seen from Belmont Hill boys speak volumes. When Mrs. Corbett, our chemistry teacher, died some five or six years ago, the boys of Belmont Hill came to her memorial service, ringing the perimeter of the church, in silent, respectful tribute. Last year, when the parent of one of our boys died tragically and suddenly, his classmates all joined together not only to support the boy,
but also to attend his father’s funeral. They didn’t have to say anything: They acted. Two years ago, one of our senior football captains, a boy who would usually not want to be accused of being sensitive, was, in spite of his attempts to be tough, also very tender in his own way. In fact, he became so concerned about one of his teammates, due to a family situation, that he sought out Dr. Thompson and dragged his buddy in to make sure his friend got the care he needed. There was a great ad campaign a few years ago that at least the faculty will remember. I think it was actually some beer campaign, but at the heart of it was a set of foolish situations where the guy, mawkishly sentimental, ended up calling out, “I love you, man!” Guys are often not comfortable using words like that—but the ad gave everybody license to use that phrase. It was fascinating to watch men gain a way, mostly through humor, to publicly use the word “love.” In the end, to be fully male, to be fully a man, means to be fully human. It means that you can be both tough and tender. It means that you can play football, knock a guy down—and also pick him up. It means also that you can choose not to be a football player—or an athlete at all. It means that you can be a fine student who loves to learn and also an athlete and also a singer or an actor. It means that you can be strong and stoic—but it also means that you keep an open heart. Does keeping an open heart, or being kind, mean you are less a man? Our society sometimes terribly distorts this, and guys sometimes get trapped into thinking that kindness or emotion or feeling denotes weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth: It is men of real strength who acknowledge feelings and have this capacity for compassion. As I said at the beginning of this talk, some schools start the year by listing out all the rules that students need to follow. The first school catalog of Belmont Hill, published in 1923, had a very simple way to approach this. It read, in part, “The School requires of every boy conduct befitting a gentleman.” Perhaps we don’t need any more direction than that. I, and the faculty, expect each of you boys to be a gentleman: to treat one another and all people you meet with respect and courtesy. We want you boys to become good men: men of strength and courage and honor. Yet, as Dr. Howe’s words indicate, we also want you to be gentle men: men who can be not only strong and courageous, but also thoughtful and caring and compassionate. As usual, Shakespeare offers good words of benediction for this morning,
echoing Dr. Howe—or perhaps it was Dr. Howe echoing Shakespeare. As all Second Form English veterans doubtless recall, when Brutus dies at the end of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony praises him, calling him “the noblest Roman of them all…His life was gentle, and the elements [tough and tender] so mix’d in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’” In the end, then, to be a boy or a man is to be human, to be humane. As we begin this year, then, I urge you to think about what it means to be both tough and tender, and to strive always to approach the world with an open heart. Best wishes for a great start.
to measure a life January 6, 2003
In those busy December days before the holidays began, Sixth Formers were receiving lots of news from colleges. This is another strong Sixth Form at Belmont Hill, and all of us were pleased that so many seniors received good news. Not everyone got the news they hoped for, and I am heartened that you students as well as faculty were supportive of boys who may have been disappointed. But in thinking about those who received good news before the holidays, I started thinking. Am I proud of you? Am I happy for you? The answer to both these questions is yes, certainly. But is college admissions our measure of you? Certainly not. In fact, heretical as it may sound, as far as I am concerned the choice of the college you attend is really not all that important. Far more important are choices you will make about your career, and far more important than those are the choices you will make about the life you will lead. My measure for you, now and in the future, when you are 17 and when you are 77, is whether yours will have been a life that was well and fully lived. The question is, of course, how do you measure that? How do you measure your life? This morning I want to tell you stories about the lives that four men have chosen. All of these stories have ties to Belmont Hill. The men are of different ages, and they come from different eras. But they share the path they each chose. When we got to vacation two weeks ago, I found myself still thinking about Josh Levy. You may remember Mr. Levy. He spoke here at school in early December. A member of the Class of 1983 along with faculty members Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Kaplan, Josh Levy has been on a great path since Belmont Hill: Brown University, Georgetown Law School, then the law firm of Ropes & Gray, one of the most prestigious in the country. You may also remember, though, that Mr. Levy no longer works for Ropes & Gray. He left that firm, and left behind a lot of money, to go work for the federal government. When he and I were speaking after his talk here, I pressed him on why he made the change. In characteristic understatement, he simply said that â€œsomething was missingâ€? from his life. What was it? A chance to serve, a chance to achieve greater good: That was the essence of Mr. Levyâ€™s decision to work as an Assistant United States Attorney. Mr. Levy further explained that his decision, while costing him a lot of money, allows him to work for the good guys, battle the bad guys, and also to have more time for his wife and young children. A life well and fully lived? It seems that Mr. Levy is on that path.
In the same week that we heard Mr. Levy speak, I had dinner with an old friend. A couple of faculty may know Tom Cleveland—or, to give his full name, Thomas Grover Cleveland, direct descendant of a former president of the United States (and for you U.S. history trivia buffs, you may recall that Grover Cleveland is famous because he is the only president in American history to be elected twice but in noncontinuous terms; he was, thus, our 22nd and 24th president). An Episcopal minister, Tom spent many years as chaplain, ethics teacher, and football coach at Milton Academy. I know Milton is one of our rivals, but if you knew Tom Cleveland, you would want him on your faculty too. In any event, Tom is now 75 years old and retired to Tamworth, New Hampshire, where his family has lived for generations. But what does it mean to be retired? I asked Tom how his fall had been. “Well,” he said, “I was really pleased—we had about 20 people out on a street corner last week.” I asked him why he had people on a street comer in rural New Hampshire. He said, “Because someone needs to protest this war movement.” I asked him what he was talking about. He then explained that, at least in his view, the current drive toward war with Iraq is dangerous—he actually said “crazy”—and because he felt so strongly he was organizing an antiwar protest. The first Sunday morning that he and a couple colleagues stood with placards out on a country road in Tamworth, New Hampshire, they had four or five people. The second week there were 20. Tom was looking forward to seeing how it all might evolve. What else did he do this fall? I asked. Well, at age 75 he also ran for the New Hampshire Legislature. He didn’t win—no Democrat has been elected from his district since 1856—but he was willing to take a stab at the electoral process, and in fact he did better than any Democratic candidate in decades. A life well and fully lived? This is a man who served as an Episcopal priest in rural Alaska for nine years, with a wife and four children, in a house without electricity or running water. This is a man who today, at age 75, saws and splits all of his own wood and heats his house entirely from it. Even at age 75, one’s life adventures can continue; one can grow. The point is not Mr. Cleveland’s political views; the point is that he was and is willing to act on his beliefs. A third story. All of you know that Mitt Romney was just inaugurated as governor of Massachusetts. What you may not know is that Mr. Romney is the father of five sons, all of whom attended Belmont Hill. He is our neighbor, with his home just
down Marsh Street from the Jordan Athletic Center. He is also a former member of our Board of Trustees. Having talked about a Democrat, we now talk about a Republican. But here too the issue is not Mr. Romneyâ€™s politics. Rather, it is to remember that here is a man who has been enormously successful in business, who left that behind so that he could serve the public. He did it when he left Bain Capital to go work on the Salt Lake City Olympics. What we sometimes forget is how great a risk Mr. Romney took when he went out there. Two years before the games were scheduled to begin, they were in shambles: in debt, disorganized, and sullied with corruption. Mr. Romney turned all of that around. He did not have to take that highly visible, highly public, highly risky job. But he did it, and from all accounts he did it magnificently. Then he came back to Massachusetts to run for governor. Some people focus on the fact that he spent millions of his own dollars in pursuit of the governorship. My point to you is that he did not have to run for governor at all. Here is a man who has been extremely successful, who does not have to work another day in his life, and yet chose to expose himself and his family to public scrutiny and shifting political winds in order to have the privilege of taking over the governorship at a time when the Massachusetts state economy is near crisis. What measures must he be choosing for his life? Those are three contemporary stories: a man in his 30s, a man in his 70s, a man in his 50s. At all three stages of life we see people making conscious decisions about their careers and about their lives. But, lest you think this is only a 21st-century phenomenon, let me give you a story that is 250 years old. I cannot claim that Ben Franklin has close ties to Belmont Hill; in fact, as many of you may remember, Franklin left Boston as a young boy and spent most of his life and career in Philadelphia. But I have recently been reading a new biography of Franklin written by Edmund S. Morgan, a Belmont Hill alumnus from the Class of 1935. As many of you have heard me say before, Professor Morgan is one of my heroes, a great scholar of early American history and a former professor at Yale. He wrote this new book, Iâ€™ll have you know, at the age of 85: an extraordinary lesson for all of us in living fully. But my focus is not on Professor Morgan but on Franklin himself. As Morgan describes him, Franklin had a highly successful and lucrative career in Philadelphia as a printer, publisher, and businessman. By the 1740s, when he was still relatively young, Franklin was rich. And then he too made a conscious shift to public service. In 1750, at the age of 46,
he wrote in a letter, when his life was over, “I would rather have it said,” he wrote his mother, “ ‘He lived usefully,’ than, ‘He died rich.’ ” Two years later in his famous Poor Richard’s Almanack, he added a couple lines of verse praising those who “dedicate their high talents to the public”: Talents and Will to the same Person giv’n The Man ennobled doth an Hero rise, Fame and his Virtues lift him to the Skies. You may know the rest of Ben Franklin’s life. Already an internationally renowned scientist by 1750, Franklin then was elected to the Philadelphia Assembly for many years thereafter, served as an agent for several colonies in England in the 1760s and 1770s, came home to help write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and represented the young United States in France as ambassador in the 1770s and 1780s. A remarkably talented man, full of energy and ideas, Franklin made service to the public his highest calling over the second half of his long and distinguished life. So there you have it: four stories of four men, each with some tie to Belmont Hill, who are bound in a particular way. All made conscious decisions to change their lives in the name of public service. Yet I think the calculus of these men’s lives becomes more complicated. You may have also picked up the fact that all came either from wealth or acquired wealth, or at least financial security, before making their changes. I am not sure this is accidental. After all, the Founding Fathers of our nation were overwhelmingly men of means. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson reluctantly left behind large landed estates to serve their new country. Our own John Adams of Massachusetts, although not the same kind of landed gentry, was still a successful lawyer in Boston when he headed to Philadelphia to join the Continental Congress. Yes, our nation has stories of people who have come from poverty to greatness and public service, with Abraham Lincoln as a prime example. Yet some of the greatest presidents of the 20th century came from wealth and privilege. Teddy Roosevelt was certainly one; Franklin Delano Roosevelt attended Groton before Harvard; John F. Kennedy went to Choate. Thus this call to service, including from schools like ours, is not new. In fact, this tradition of service has strong New England roots. The Puritans who founded Massachusetts expected that those who were better off would lead. Some of
this is simply logical: Those who have been successful have shown the drive and intelligence to earn leadership. They also might have more time, more freedom, to serve. Yet another theme, and one that I hope you have heard before and will hear again at this school, is that “from those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Thomas Jefferson wrote of this in a complementary fashion. He claimed that American society had a “natural aristocracy,” an aristocracy not of wealth but of talent. People who were capable would rise naturally, largely through education. In truth, Jefferson’s definition would, I believe, embrace all of you here this morning by dint of your talents and the education you are receiving. Does this mean that only wealthy or successful or well-educated people should go into government? Of course not. Our city, state, nation, world need intelligent, caring people who can see the greater good no matter who they are or where they come from. Besides, wealth is a relative term anyway, and I urge you never to spend your life getting hung up on trying to make yourself wealthy: It will only skew your values and sense of ultimate purpose. My point is that the opportunity to serve, to look beyond yourself, is open to you all. But I close by returning to these four men and the paths they chose. What about all this public service? Does one have to save the world, or be a governor or president, to serve a public purpose? Of course not. Two of our four men became national, even international figures, yet two have made a difference on a more local level. Each one of you in this room has now or will have the capacity to serve during your lifetime. You can serve your nation or the world, or your state or your town. You can serve through government or you can serve through community activities. You can devote 80 hours a week or eight, or one or two, and still serve. Remember, the heart of this talk emanated from one simple question: How do you measure your life to make sure it is well and fully lived? The particulars of the path will be up to you. You 420 students will take 420 different paths. My hope for you, as we begin this new year, is that you remain ever conscious of the fact that you are indeed on a path, the path of your life. May it be one that, by your measure, is indeed one well and fully lived. That journey continues today, for it has already begun. Mark it well.
waldo on the hill September 3, 2003
A couple weeks ago I was writing a letter to our alumni, the almost 3,000 graduates of Belmont Hill, about the new school year ahead. As I wrote to them, I realized that part of what I love about working in schools is that every year we get a fresh start. I know that for you students, that probably sounds like no big deal. After all, your life, whether through 11 or 12 or 17 or 18 years, has been defined by a school calendar. Yet for those of us on the faculty and staff who are older and who have friends who work in other places, the rhythm of a school year is special. Most of our friends work 48 or 50 weeks a year. Their jobs simply keep going; their businesses or professions keep going. The rhythm of the seasons may be part of their private lives, but it is usually not part of their working lives. Schools are different. Every September we have the chance to come back refreshed, renewed, restored. The slate has been wiped clean. Each of us, students and teachers alike, can begin new courses, sports, activities, even friendships. We can come in with new goals. We can create the world anew. In that spirit, my challenge to you this morning, as we begin a new year, is to ask yourself two questions: Who am I as I start the new year? Who do I want to be? Who am I as I start the new year? Who do I want to be? Those are formidable questions, but to help you answer them, this morning I offer a few ideas from a famous philosopher whose life we are celebrating this year. The year 2003 has brought the 200th birthday of the famous American writer and Concord resident Ralph Waldo Emerson. The celebration has been going on for months, with lectures and programs and people in period dress roaming the town. At least three new major books about Emerson have been published. Emerson is not merely a local hero; his work is being freshly studied around the world. But why? Why should people get so excited about a writer from two centuries ago? More important this morning, what does Emerson have to say about our questions: who I am and who do I want to be? Rather than read about Emerson, I thought I might read a little of him. So recently I went back to an essay that I first read my junior year in high school—the same one you Sixth Formers probably read last year in English 15 and you Fifth Formers will this fall—his most famous essay, called “Self-Reliance.” Now I remember why Emerson can get students excited and why he makes older people nervous. The wonderful part
about Emerson is that if you take his ideas seriously, they open your mind in remarkable, exciting, powerful ways. Rather than try to interpret Emerson, then, I want you simply to hear his words. So, as you think about who you want to be, listen to some of his ideas. “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius… . A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages (I think that means your teachers)… . Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string… . Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members… . Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist… . Nothing is at last what the people think… . A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines… . To be great is to be misunderstood… . The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks… . I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency… . I must be myself.” Strong stuff, eh? Whether in First Form or Sixth Form, I hope you could hear the power of these ideas. And you can probably understand why Emerson made people nervous. In truth, he still does. In one of those bicentennial articles about Emerson this year, The New York Times charged him with creating “a more pernicious, and currently thriving, philosophy, of American individualism run amok—call it American self-absorption.” In The New Yorker, no less a critic than John Updike noted that The Times blames “Emerson’s gospel of self-reliance” for “the Republican tax cut, tilted toward the rich, and the Administration’s us-first, go-it-alone foreign policy, not to mention the financial rapacity of Enron and Tyco executives and Wall Street mis-advisers.” But without politicizing this, I would suggest that Emerson is counting on man’s goodness—yours and mine—to free us, to think and act in positive ways. How courageous of Emerson, I say, to offer these brave words to us all, to encourage us to challenge convention and authority, to uphold what we truly believe in. Yet I also wonder: What role does Emerson have here on this campus, at this school? For much of this school’s heritage comes not from a few miles to the west, from Emerson and the 19th century, but instead from a few miles east, to John
Winthrop and a school whose motto is not about individualism but instead is “working together.” Here is Emerson, railing against conformity—and here we all sit in chapel, following a tight daily schedule, wearing jacket and tie, required to sit together, eat together, yes, live and work together. You students—and, yes, we on the faculty—give up a great deal to be part of this school community, a community much like the one John Winthrop envisioned when he came to Massachusetts Bay in 1630. Do we at Belmont Hill give up too much? Are we weakened, even diminished, by our conformity? I don’t believe so. In fact, I think in important ways we are strengthened by our community, our shared values, our shared sense of purpose. Two centuries before Emerson could write about the freedom of self-reliant individualism, John Winthrop was encouraging people to create a community in the “howling wilderness,” in the new world. His most famous essay, which I know some of you have read or at least heard of, was called “A Model of Christian Charity,” where he exhorted the new settlers of Massachusetts to be “as a city upon a hill”—in other words, an example to the rest of the world. How would these new settlers do that? Winthrop’s view was “to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to have mercy, to walk humbly with our God… . To do this,” he went on, “we must be knit together in this work as one man.” Two famous Americans, each offering their famous words less than 10 miles from where we now sit. From 1630, we are charged with being “knit together as one.” Two centuries later, in the 1830s, Emerson urges each of us to “trust thyself.” Which is the right path almost two centuries beyond that, here in 2003? And, most important for each of you boys, remain the questions that I ask you to think about this morning: Who am I? Who do I want to be? My proposal for you this morning and for this year, indeed my hope, is that you do not have to choose one or the other, neither all Winthrop nor all Emerson. Instead, I urge you to embrace both. Is that possible? I think it is. Whether in your first year at this school or your last, you have chosen a school that believes strongly in working together, in sharing goals, times of joy, times of sadness: in being a community. People give up things when they decide to join a community, certainly one as strong and purposeful as this one. You do conform to certain rules and expectations; you give up certain freedoms.
Yet in giving up certain freedoms, you gain others. Not only are you free to try out different ideas in and around this school, but I trust that your teachers encourage you to do so. As a veteran teacher myself, I promise you that teachers relish having students who are alert and alive to ideas, who are thinking actively and are challenging and inquiring. So take Emerson’s vision and courage into the classroom. But take it outside your studies as well. This is a school that offers a wealth of opportunities beyond the classroom, and the freedom to choose, to explore what you want to do, is in your hands. We have a wonderful athletics program, and I know that many of you relish your time there. But so too do we have a marvelous program in theater, and a strong and growing one in music, and impressive newspapers, and inspiring community service…and the list goes on. And if there is something you want to do that we do not offer, you should initiate it. The point is to actively find your own path, to make your own way in this school and in the world. And it is up to you. Emerson reminds us, “Discontent is the want [lack] of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will… . Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire.” Remember, Emerson continues, man “has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” Thus, as we begin this new school year, I encourage you to embrace the School community and standards that are Belmont Hill—but never to be afraid, as Emerson urges us, to explore who you are and who you want to be. Certainly for you boys in the Upper School, but also for you Middle Schoolers and even for you new students, remember that this school exists to help you explore more of the world and who you want to be within it. So I encourage you to a great start in this school year, in part by remembering both Winthrop and Waldo. Who am I? Who do I want to be? The answers lie within you: Make sure you find them and follow them.
labeled January 5, 2004
I want to talk to you this morning about labels. In the aftermath of the holiday season, that is easy to do. New clothes from Abercrombie or Gap, or Urban Outfitters or Sears—we react to each label. New athletic gear—Nike or Reebok? Outdoor wear— L.L.Bean or North Face? In our media-driven, label-driven world, each name can take on a particular meaning for each of us. I confess that, as someone who spends a lot of time outdoors camping and hiking and fishing, my family regards me as somewhat of a gearhead. I always like getting new equipment from Patagonia—or I did until my younger daughter termed it “Pata-Gucci” and started getting on my case for buying a label. Our older daughter gave us another example of the craziness last week. A teacher herself, she received a holiday gift of a handbag from one of her students. Simple, black, nylon, it looked like nothing special to me—until she flashed the Prada label at me, which I gather raised its value—or at least raised its cost—outrageously. And as veterans of my Ethics class have heard me say, the labeling that goes on as part of advertising for beer and alcohol is endless. Budweiser, Miller Lite, Coors Lite? Those labels have meaning to anyone who watches television, or at least watches football, even if they have little to do with the quality of the actual beverage. Beer, cars, skis…talk about labels designed for adolescent males: You boys are prime targets. So labels are all around us, influencing what we buy, what we wear, what we eat. And labels go further. As you have heard me say before, I, and my faculty colleagues, have no patience for students labeling other students. Some labels are simply destructive. Certainly ethnic and racial and religious labels are unacceptable; so too is calling someone “gay” as a term of derision. Overall, I think you boys know and understand this. Yet even more innocuous labels can be limiting and most unhelpful. If you call someone a jock, does that mean that he—or she—cannot also be a good student? I know that our younger daughter, also a teacher and always quite athletic, gets incredibly frustrated when someone asks her about the teams she is coaching—but not about the classes she is teaching. As she points out, labeling someone limits both the labeler and the one labeled. If you see someone as only a label, you don’t see what may be behind the person, nor can that person break out of the trap. Even our schools get labeled. You students have heard the labels, the shorthand summaries, that get put on Belmont Hill, or BB&N, or RL. Some are positive, and some are not. Some are probably inevitable. After all, we all need to find ways to make
sense of our world, and having labels, or quick-summary ways to understand schools, or clothes, makes sense at one level. But it can be frustrating if people do not take the time to get beyond the label and really look—at a school, or an article, or a person. One goal I have for this school is that all of you students gain some greater media literacy before you leave here. In other words, I would like for you to be able to look critically at an advertisement or a television show or a newspaper. To be good citizens, you need to be critically aware of how the different media—print and electronic— operate, and this is a goal that transcends particular academic departments. But my goal today is different. I want to think with you this morning about one particular kind of labeling. As we move into an exciting month for the School that will culminate on February 9th with our Mock Democratic Convention, I want you to think a bit about political labels. If you are too much of a sissy to stand up for your own country…you could easily leave the country and go somewhere else, like Canada. All you liberals arguing about this and that… . Although I am not against having protests, it is what these protests stand for that is disgusting… . These people are not protesting the war, a serious issue, but are seeing the protests as an opportunity to pathetically attack the president because he isn’t a Democrat…I hate you wannabe hippies… . For every one of you liberals that don’t support the war or Bush there are 10 that do support him… .Those people…are good Americans and true patriots… . Less than nine months ago our nation was poised on the edge of war. It was a scary time, an emotional time, a politically charged time. People all over our country, and all over our world, took to the streets and the airwaves, asserting their views. Belmont Hill was no exception. Indeed, the four pieces I just read to you came from Belmont Hill students who placed their ideas on to our World Issues email forum. I don’t want to launch a debate today about the rightness of American action in Iraq. Rather, I want to focus you on the language of that debate. If we are going to have a successful Mock Democratic Convention, we need to be able to talk about ideas. Thus we need to know how to use language—complex, sometimes
emotional language—and not just slap labels on ideas…or people. And let me tell you why I am so concerned. My concerns for you students are rooted in my great hopes for you. As I think about the future of our country and our world, I hope that some of you Belmont Hill students will take positions of leadership. Heaven knows this world needs good leadership. And this small school has a distinguished history in that regard. Our alumni include at least one U.S. Congressman and one current member of the Massachusetts General Court. The Distinguished Alumni Award recipients whose photos we look upon in the MacPherson Room include a former United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James in Great Britain and the publisher of the Boston Globe. These are people who have affected our world, and perhaps someday you will join their ranks. But people do not get to positions of leadership without hard work, and politics and journalism require hard work. One of the keys, either to running for Congress or to having a successful Mock Convention, is understanding language and how to use it carefully and effectively. And this is where I worry particularly about labeling. I did not read you those four quotes from students because I agreed or disagreed with their political positions. What I worried about in those statements was the amount of labeling going on. What does it mean to be patriotic? Is calling someone a “liberal” an accusation? If so, what is the person being accused of? And what, then, is a “conservative?” Can you divide Democrats and Republicans easily? Are all Democrats alike? Northern and Southern? Can you have liberal and conservative Democrats or Republicans? As someone who taught American history for 20 years, I get pretty passionate about some of these issues, so you’ll have to forgive me if a little of this emerges as a history talk. But I cannot help getting excited, for American political history is so wonderfully complex. For example, let me ask you a seemingly simple question: What do Republicans stand for? If you go to the 1950s and 1960s, you might say that the Republicans stood for big business and that the Democrats were championing civil rights issues. Yet it is Abraham Lincoln—a Republican—who, a century before, led his party and freed the slaves. And wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, who a century ago spearheaded the Progressive Era and led a movement of government activism? Or take the Democrats for a moment. Today they are often portrayed as the party of big government—yet one of their heroes, 19th-century Democrat Andrew Jackson, was a great champion of limited government.
Or let me go back to fundamental questions of liberalism and conservatism. Indeed, as we embark on this month of political activity, we need some common ground, some common understanding of what fundamental terms mean. So…what does “liberal” mean? Seeking some objective source, I went to my handy Oxford English Pocket Dictionary and saw that “liberal” refers first to “the general broadening of the mind”—a reference to the liberal arts education that all of you receive here at Belmont Hill. But in political terms? The dictionary suggests that “liberal” means “favoring moderate political and social reform.” What does “moderate” reform mean? Does it mean, for example, the efforts on behalf of civil rights for African Americans or equal rights for women that mark major changes of the last half-century? Are these only “liberal” reforms? I cannot imagine that any of us today would either object to these reforms or regard them as particularly liberal. What, by contrast, is “conservative?” The Oxford dictionary suggests that a conservative is “adverse to rapid change” and “tending to conserve”…as well as “moderate, avoiding extremes.” So both liberals and conservatives may be seen as “moderate?” And conservatives do not oppose change but only “rapid change”? Hmmm…once you start taking these questions seriously, they begin to get a little complicated. Now, I do not want to suggest for a second that there are no differences between people whose views are considered liberal versus conservative. My understanding of political theory holds that liberalism tends to have as a goal the extension of individual freedoms, while conservatism tends to be more protective of traditions, customs, and the existing economic, political, and social order. There is also a huge world of discussion that centers around the degree to which government should be used to protect or extend individual freedoms or the existing social order. But the heart of today’s talk is not about political theory; it is still about labeling. My challenge to you is to get past labeling—pigeonholing—reducing people or ideas to sound bites and to consider what issues matter to you and what candidates believe in. Over the next month, both our nation and our school will have a chance to think carefully about candidates and about issues as the Democratic Party prepares to find a presidential candidate to run against President Bush. We will have a Democratic convention here only because the Democrats are the party out of power. Yet no matter which party we role-play, there are big, important issues worth discussing. In the last two years, since 9/11, the Bush administration has suggested that we now face
a new era of foreign affairs, with new enemies that require new forms of policy and action. Is that where this country should be going? These are huge issues to consider. Or: How do we keep our economy strong? Should we cut taxes or raise them? Add tariffs or reduce them? Or: Which social policies are important for us as a nation? How do you, as an individual, as an American citizen, feel about Social Security or affirmative action? What about the government’s role in abortion or gay rights? Or: How much—and how—should the federal government protect the environment? Can environmental protection actually hurt our country, or at least our economy? Not only are there great issues to consider, there are also questions about the candidates, eight men and one woman at this point, who are running for president. How do we choose? Which candidate best represents your views? Even this question has layers. Is there one single issue that is so important for you that it becomes the litmus test for your support? Or…do you hope to find a candidate who endorses all, or at least most, of the positions you most believe in? Or might you follow the 18th-century British politician Edmund Burke, who suggested that you should seek a candidate whose background and character give you the most confidence that he, or she, can best lead the nation? These are great questions that we get to explore. Not all of you will be captivated by them, but I hope some of them will capture you. Indeed, I doubt that many of you will be engaged in government or politics for your career—but I hope that some of you might. For the rest of us, as good citizens I hope we all can become better aware of issues and better able to discuss them. Will we label each other? Of course we will, at least some of the time, and I trust we can do that in good spirit and in good humor. At some level, politics is all about cornering and labeling the other guys so that you can look better, and I cannot imagine we will go through the next month without having some people being accused of being unpatriotic or communist, or crazy or dangerous or hippies. But I hope we can do that with good humor—and, more importantly, I hope we can recognize both the meaning and the danger that labels present. February 9th and the days leading up to it present great opportunities for this school. We can learn about candidates, about issues; we can have some fun; we can get a day away from classes, away from business as usual. I hope we can also resist the quick fix of labels as we think together about the best path for our nation’s future.
essential questions March 29, 2004
About a year ago, as spring was looming and we were working on plans for the addition and renovation of the Morse Building, we focused on the design of the common space—and realized we had a great opportunity. In the design of that upstairs area, we recognized that we had a space on the wall that surrounded the upstairs where we could install wooden panels and could write something, could say something. The question that then occupied me and several others in the weeks ahead was: What should we say? Why did this opportunity mean so much to me? I have puzzled about that for a while. Three responses come to mind. First, after 10 years in this position as Head of School, I had visited many schools and had seen that several have inscriptions that mark their schools. Why not Belmont Hill? Second, perhaps like many of you boys as you envision carving your own panel, I started thinking about what it means to leave something on the walls of the School. I was not going to decide by myself—by the time we were done, I had spoken with colleagues, friends, family, and members of the Board of Trustees—but the idea of placing something on a wall, that sense of permanence, meant something. Yet, last and most important, I saw this as a chance for the School to offer something to you on a daily basis. Maybe you would not contemplate the words every day, but perhaps they would on occasion provide a chance for reflection. So forward we went. An open strip of wood above the commons…the excitement for me may have been somewhat like what happens when Mr. Morange or Mr. Zamore puts before him a blank canvas to paint: The possibilities are endless. What might we do? Perhaps we might surround the commons with the names of famous people: writers, artists, scientists, world leaders, inventors, people whose lives or actions we admire. Another possibility was to put a piece of Belmont Hill there: the School’s mission statement or the Honor Code or some other watchwords. Or what about a famous quote? I started with Larry Lucchino’s comment about the Yankees as the “evil empire,” but thought that might be a bit, well, parochial. Perhaps whimsical, but more in keeping with the School’s purposes, I thought of a quote from Mark Twain that a goal for us all might be to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”—but I was not sure that would fly, either. Perhaps it would serve as a good reminder to place the Golden Rule in the commons for all to see: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” One school I know and respect has
in its auditorium the first line of a famous hymn, one sung for many years here at Belmont Hill: “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” Or: What might literature yield? Turning to Shakespeare brought me to words that are among my favorites in all of the English language and that make me think of you boys every time I hear them. They come from a speech in his play Henry V. As Henry prepares his men to meet the French army in battle, he celebrates their bonds, their spirit, and their deeds with these words: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers… .” It is a magnificent speech, and, in fact, we have now incorporated it into the Baccalaureate service that takes place the night before Commencement. But we kept pondering…and then my thinking shifted. Instead of names or quotes or statements—answers if you will—why not questions? At the heart of your Belmont Hill education are—or I hope are—imbedded questions. Here are just a few. What values will you carry with you as you leave here? How will you lead your life? How will you treat others? How will you decide what to do with your life, with your career? How will you measure “success” in your life? Thinking of this last one, I hope it will not be by how rich you are—at least not unless you measure carefully what it means to be rich. Do you mean rich in dollars? Anyone can do that. But what about in family? In friends? In efforts to make the world better? I certainly do not oppose material success…but I offer yet another question: Would you prefer to be less wealthy and happy or wealthy and miserable? So all of these questions got me churning. What might be some “essential questions” to carve into the walls of the Morse Building? Faculty certainly recognize the phrase “essential questions,” for we are in the midst of a two-year process of “mapping” our curriculum, including the chance to figure out what the Big Questions are within each of our academic courses. For example, an art class might ask “What is beauty?”…or a biology class might discuss the implications of mapping the human genome on future medical research…or an American history class might ask how the concept of equality has evolved in the United States over the last two centuries. But I hoped the essential questions we might find for Morse would loom even broader than those of any single discipline. So, after lots of searching and discussion,
there emerged the three questions that now surround you when you are in the commons. The words are ascribed to Hillel, a Jewish philosopher, teacher, and scholar who lived in Jerusalem at about the same time as Jesus. Importantly, I believe they resonate for anyone of any background. I want to think about them now, with you. How do they affect me personally? How might they appeal to you? What do they ask of each of us? What do they ask us to consider? “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” When I saw this first question, I almost stopped reading. I really struggled with this question, for I thought it offered an excuse for greed, for ego, for rampant materialism. But then it made me stop and think. We need to remember that we do need to care for ourselves, that it is vital that we care for ourselves. Besides, Hillel’s vision is not that we must give ourselves only to ourselves—but that we cannot always count on others.
“At the heart of your Belmont Hill education are—or I hope are—imbedded questions.” Yet Hillel’s three questions comprise a set, and the first question is quickly confronted by the second: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” If life is all about me, what kind of life is it? What meaning will my life have if I cannot look beyond myself? Indeed, the very wording of the question is telling. “If I am only for myself,” it asks, then not “who” but “what” am I? Does this imply that if one is only for oneself, it makes one less than human? Thus do these two questions put us all on a quest for balance. How do we find the right path for our lives? Hillel suggests that it lies somewhere between “if not for myself ” and “if only for myself.” Then there is that third question: “If not now, when?” This has many uses, I know. Back in December, shortly after the words went up, Mr. Prenatt reminded me of their versatility. Hearkening back to that rather large snowstorm and the fact that we were one of the rare schools that met that Monday, I believe that one or more of you Sixth Formers looked up in the commons and, pondering the lost snow day, declared, “If not now, when?” Fair enough.
Yet there may be other times when we each might ask this question: What might “If not now, when?” mean? When I first read it, I took it as a call to action. Maybe it is the challenge to try out for a play, to submit writing to the literary magazine, to join the Glee Club…for if you don’t try these things now, when might you get the chance? Maybe the challenge is even greater: the risks and rewards that beckon from CITYterm or The Mountain School or School Year Abroad? Or maybe the call to action embraces a larger social and political arena. After all, the time for justice and righteousness is always now; it cannot be postponed to a more convenient time. Sometimes we need to get past our own comfort, our own complacency, to act. Still, if one stares at this question long enough, one can probe it in a different way. Maybe “not now” is a good reminder of the need for patience, for forbearance. Maybe there is a different or better time to send the letter or the email written in anger…to hold off on the conversation that may be too filled with emotion. Maybe sometimes the answer to “not now” is even “never.” Again, the question invites a multitude of responses. So, there are three essential questions for us. They are “essential” because they ask us about our own essence, our core. And they are good questions because they defy easy answers. As you pass through Morse, now and in the future, or even well after you have left this place, I hope you will pause from time to time and check in with these three questions. We will not all arrive at the same answers, and our own answers may change from time to time in our lives. But I promise that you will live a fuller and richer life for asking these questions. So: keep asking.
tight lines April 4, 2005
You may recall that the last talk I gave to you, just before break, was rather somber. This one is, blessedly, a little different, for it is spring—and for me, thinking about spring means thinking about summer, and thinking about summer means thinking about fishing. I love to fish, most especially to fly fish for trout, most especially at and around my family’s cabin in Last Chance, Idaho (yup, that’s its real name), a little settlement, less than a town, not far from West Yellowstone, Wyoming. But I can’t think about fishing without thinking about my dad. Yes, even Heads of School have fathers. I know I am my father’s son. We share a love of music (if at times, perhaps like some of you, of different artists and at different volumes); similar political views; a drive for social justice; a commitment to Judaism; a belief in community activism. And we certainly share a love of the outdoors. My dad was our scoutmaster. Not only did my brother Jeff and I learn a few outdoor skills while in scouting, but dad also took the family camping, including my mom and younger sister. Our summer vacations were invariably spent in the “north woods” of Wisconsin, staying in simple cabins, playing outside… . And fishing. When we were little, dad would take us boys out in a rowboat. We would bait hooks with worms, attach red-and-white plastic bobbers to our lines, and bring in perch and bluegill from the lake. Then dad discovered fly fishing, and we three all got hooked. Sitting in a boat on a lake evolved to standing in a river, casting in a stream. Fly fishing is beautiful, peaceful, graceful—all those things you may have seen in the film A River Runs Through It or on some outdoor TV show. It also can be hard, and frustrating as hell. But mostly it is fun. As my brother and I went from boyhood into adolescence, we kept fishing and camping with dad, but the trips now went more into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where dad had discovered new rivers and new fishing buddies. I don’t remember catching many fish, but we still had a great time. I remember vividly one late-night vision of the northern lights in full splendor, absolutely awesome, something I have not seen anywhere since. We also made regular pilgrimages to the fishing camp of a man named John Voelker, a former Michigan Supreme Court judge, better known to the world as Robert Traver, author of the book (later the popular film) Anatomy of a Murder, who would mix his fishing with cribbage and with his own, special old-fashioneds. I confess that one of our most memorable trips with Voelker came when he took us off road in his ancient, beat-up
Jeep to new water…but before we could fish he pulled down the gate of the Jeep so that he could prepare proper libation for everyone. I think it was 11 in the morning; I was in college; I confess that I am not sure I was quite 21. I do not remember laughing more, and I cannot tell you if we caught any fish. But we were fishing, and we had fun. And life was good. Voelker showed us a lot—and so, of course, was my father showing us a lot. They were spinning together a literary world, a world of adults, and also a world of nature that was to be protected. Beyond the fun, I gained a zealous commitment to conservation: the need to protect what is in nature, to camp or fish or live respectfully in the woods, in the world, the recognition that the biggest enemy of nature is man. And we kept on fishing, enjoying these marvelous, elusive creatures called trout. Under his pen name of Robert Traver, Voelker offered his “Testament of a Fisherman,” perhaps the most famous explanation ever written for why people fish: I fish because I love to; because I love the environs where trout are found, which are invariably beautiful, and hate the environs where crowds of people are found, which are invariably ugly; because of all the television commercials, cocktail parties, and assorted social posturing I thus escape; because, in a world where most men seem to spend their lives doing things they hate, my fishing is at once an endless source of delight and an act of small rebellion; because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility and endless patience; because I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don’t want to waste the trip; because mercifully there are no telephones on trout waters; because only in the woods can I find solitude without loneliness; because bourbon out of an old tin cup always tastes better out there; because maybe one day I will catch a mermaid; and, finally, not because I regard fishing as so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant—and not nearly so much fun. We sometimes understand the path of our life only when we look back. I look back to summers in high school and college, working in day camps, ultimately running a day camp just for boys, studying educational history in college—and my 32 years of work in education, 24 at boys’ schools, all makes sense.
My love of fishing? That now makes sense too. As a boy, that was where dad took us. Through high school and college, fishing offered the chance to be with my dad and my brother. And yet there also came the emerging joy—my joy—in being outdoors. When Mrs. Melvoin and I went on our honeymoon, we went hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Looking back, thinking about our recent sabbatical trekking in Nepal and New Zealand, that too makes perfect sense. Over time, my dad’s love of fishing took him to explore the rivers of the West, and my journey went west as well. Twenty years ago he and my mom—but mostly dad, to be honest—bought a little cabin on the bank of a great fishing river, and my brother and I have made that part of our lives ever since. In the last 10 or 12 years—as it happens, ever since I took this job—I have developed an even deeper passion for fishing. As I have gotten older, I have begun to appreciate and understand its subtleties. When does it make sense to use a three-weight instead of a five-weight rod, or to overload the rod with a heavier line? Should I go after that fish with an upstream or a downstream float? Use a roll or a tuck cast? How do I mend the line to get a better drift? What are the intricacies of “matching the hatch”: finding the right fly, the right imitation insect in size, shape, and color that could fool the fish? And all of this contemplation comes with great seriousness, all with one purpose: to try to outwit a creature with a brain the size of a pea—and then, by the way, not to kill or keep the fish but to put it back in the water, alive for itself and perhaps for another angler, another day. Why do I love it? As Traver wrote, “I love where fish are.” What can be better than standing in a clear river, letting water wash over and around you, surrounded by woods and mountains? I have visited some spectacular places in the world because I have gone there to fish. I have camped in high mountain meadows; seen grizzlies on the rise above; watched moose watching us from just across the river; watched a bison meander down toward the river, toward us as we fished, slowly crossing the river just 30 or 40 feet downstream. Yet I also love to fish because it is simultaneously active and meditative. Fishing centers me in the moment. When I fish, I am completely engaged, focused on what I am doing, living fully. And I love to fish because it challenges me to use both my wits and whatever physical skills I have. Catching a trout can be a huge challenge. I have tried to seduce a fish for well over an hour, trying one technique after another, one different fly after another, never gotten him—and come out smiling, have enjoyed the challenge. Sometimes the fish wins.
And yes, I love to fish because I am so often doing it with my dad and my brother. Are my brother and I competitive? Let me put it this way: We are 17 months apart. We don’t fight like we did when we were little; we are fiercely loyal to each other; we enjoy skiing and tennis and soccer and the Red Sox and Patriots together. At this point I often get referred to as “Jeff Melvoin’s brother” since a lot of people know his work on television (he is executive producer of the show Alias right now—and yes, he says that Jennifer Garner is terrific to work with)—and I actually take great pleasure in that kind of introduction. Are we rivals when we fish? No…I am happy to see my brother catch a big fish…no, really… . Competition with my father? At age 53? Hmmm. We always want our parents’ love and respect, no matter how old we are. As adolescents, as young adults, even as aging adults we push to become independent—but we never really are, or want to be, entirely. So what fishing moments endure? I’ll offer only two. Three summers ago my father and I took a day trip into Yellowstone National Park, driving into the northeast quadrant (the Park, by the way, is larger than Rhode Island) to hit one of our favorite rivers. There, on Soda Butte Creek, I was fishing upstream of dad and, well, things clicked. I was taking good fish after good fish, and after a while dad worked his way toward my stretch of the river. “Hey dad, come on over here. There is a great pod of rainbows and cutthroats, and they are rising [that means coming to the surface to eat bugs on the water] to a little 16 PMD’s (a tiny yellow fly).” So dad switched flies, came over, and starting nailing them. A declaration of independence? Perhaps, at some level. Competition? A little…but not really. More a new stage of sharing something we both love, for its own sake—not quite as equals, but not quite as father teaching son anymore, either. And then there was New Zealand this past fall. In some ways I wish I could have fished there with my dad and brother, but in many ways I felt ready to do this on my own. A test of my fishing skill? Of my independence? I am not sure—but I can say that I did pass the test: I had the most unbelievable fishing of my life. (In fact, if you ever want to stop by my office, I will gladly show you a shot of this monster rainbow trout that was at least as big as my leg… .) So then, having fished alone, what did I do? As soon as we got back to Christchurch, I emailed photos to, of course, my dad and brother. Were they thrilled for me? Stunned would be more like
it. And how did they show their love and support? When we flew home to Chicago in time for the holidays, Jeff had posted on the wall of the garage a large print of me holding the fish…except that he had done a little work on the image with Adobe Photoshop and my giant trout was now the size of a guppy… . My dad turned 76 this winter. Last summer, for his 75th, Jeff and I took him— where else?—fishing and camping, on a five-day float trip down the Smith River in Montana. With guides and good food, this trip was a little more plush than the trips we used to take, but the essence remained the same. We were together, and we were fishing. As a faculty we talk about helping you students to find and pursue areas of passion at Belmont Hill: academic, athletic, artistic, extracurricular. But many of you have passions and interests and activities that we never see. I urge you to keep them— and if they happen to bring you time together with your dad, or your mom, or a sibling, I urge you to stay with them. The passions your dad or mom might have could become yours as well. Yet even more important could be the ties that bind a parent to a child—and that is a precious gift indeed. As fishermen say to wish someone good luck, I offer you “tight lines”—good luck— for a good and healthy spring, one where you get to pursue your passions as well.
civility and community September 6, 2005
I am a reasonably avid reader of newspapers; like many of you, I am keenly interested in what is going on in the world each day. Reading papers this summer made me think that this is not a pretty time to be growing up—or, necessarily, to be an adult. I am not talking just about world or national issues per se. Rather, I am worried that there is a frightening tone in our land today, a lack of respect for the views of others, a pulling away from the center, an intolerance, a mean-spiritedness. This comes out in different ways. I am not sure that there could be a much more distinguished, well-qualified Supreme Court nominee than John Roberts—yet his candidacy has been besieged from both the left and the right at times in grossly unfair ways. Thinking further about national politics, we need go back only to last spring to remember the ugly controversy that arose over threats to the centuries-old and time-honored practice of using a filibuster to challenge proposed legislation in the Senate. Now the accusations are rising about who is responsible for Katrina, who is to blame, who should be fired. Internationally, the horrors in London—two rounds of attacks on the public transportation system, the killings of dozens of innocent civilians—bespeak an extremism that is frightening for those who would like to think that the world is becoming more, not less, civilized. On the highways of Los Angeles, and in other places around the United States as well, certain motorists have turned their frustrations into various forms of road rage—from threats and chases to using their cars as weapons to force others off the road to actual shootings. A recent Boston Globe article described how impatient drivers now cut into or through funeral processions on the roads, something that would have been inconceivable not long ago. Meanwhile, talk radio—a product of only the last decade or two— screams at us about this idiot or that outrage; concepts like kindness or compassion or patience seem not to exist. What does this have to do with Belmont Hill? I start with an essential part of what makes Belmont Hill special. We pride ourselves on living as a community: a group of young people and adults who have dedicated themselves to a shared purpose, a shared set of ideals, a shared way of living. As adults on the faculty and staff, we make certain decisions—at times, certain sacrifices— because we believe in this work and this way of life. You boys and your families do
the same thing. As a student at Belmont Hill, you give up certain freedoms that you would have at other schools. You wear jacket-and-tie; you are required to sit at lunch with us adults and with all your fellow students, not just your close friends; you come to school meetings like this one instead of having more free time. But we all do this because we gain so much from being a community: caring about each other, sharing in one another’s successes and failures, sharing certain defining events, sharing in a set of values that guides how a group of people can live and work together. And, of course, “working together” is a distinctive motto for this school, one quite different from the watchwords of other places.
“We pride ourselves on living as a community: a group of young people and adults who have dedicated themselves to a shared purpose, a shared set of ideals, a shared way of living.” So yes, when one comes to Belmont Hill, one makes a commitment to a certain— and, I believe, special—kind of place. Now, what does that have to do with Supreme Court nominees and road rage? In my mind: quite a lot, for I fear our American society is losing a measure of civility, a key to a healthy, civil society. In that context, one of the great challenges for us at this school is to find a delicate balance: a balance between the shared values and beliefs that come from being part of a small community and the free and open exchange of ideas that must be part of a vibrant academic institution. I just said a mouthful; let me slow down and explain. One of the risks that comes from living in a small community is that a free exchange of ideas sometimes is muted. If you are at a big school, or a big college or university, there is such a range of people that one expects a range of different or dissenting or unpopular ideas. But at a smaller school like ours, such different voices sometimes seem louder, more strident. Thus, we have to watch out to make sure that all members of our community, students and adults alike, can feel free to express their ideas. This is true in talking about all kinds of issues, from Supreme Court nominees to
the Iraq war, from understanding Islam to understanding what happened to make Katrina such a disaster…or to whether you like our governor, or believe in gay marriage or intelligent design, or like the new salad bar at lunch, or even like the Yankees instead of the Red Sox (okay, I admit, that is a hard one). But the point is: In a small community like ours, we need to make sure that all voices have a chance to be heard. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we build this community intentionally to bring together people who have different ideas. As you boys look around you at your fellow students, you might remember that you come from 60 different cities and towns, from close to 120 different schools, from different backgrounds in race and religion and ethnicity and culture. And you come, of course, with different ideas as well. We did not bring you together to agree all the time: That would make this a dull place and, besides, that is not how the world works. Part of what makes Belmont Hill different from your local public school is precisely this diversity—and we need not just to notice it, but also to honor and celebrate it. If you have not thought about it before, please understand that a huge part of your education here comes from learning not merely from your teachers, but also from one another. Different ideas, different views, should be a big part of your classroom experience as well. When you look at those Harkness tables in so many classrooms, I want you to understand that their presence is no accident. Those oval tables make a statement about a certain kind of education, a certain kind of learning. They place the teacher not in the front of the room, but in the middle of a conversation, one person among many. And a conversation, of course, means that all the people at the table have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to participate. Your ideas are vital to making the class work. This does not mean that there are not sometimes right answers in class. If you are conjugating a verb, there are correct forms to know; if you are doing a math problem, usually there is one right answer. But there are often different ways to arrive at right answers in math, and there are different valid views of the causes of the Civil War or the merits of socialism or the meaning of a poem. And I promise you that even, or perhaps especially, after teaching Moby Dick for 30 years, Mr. Stewart would be excited—not upset—to hear some new interpretation of a favorite passage, even as Mr. Fleming would enjoy seeing a new way to do a geometry proof, or Mr. Martin would like to hear a fresh approach to a Latin translation. So,
understand that we want you to think actively, to think for yourself, to have the courage of your convictions: These are marks of success in a Belmont Hill education, and I would be sad if you left here without these. Yet, one piece is still missing here. I hope you students understand how important and even exciting it is to have your own ideas and the chances to present them. But what of dissent? What happens if you disagree with a fellow student, in or out of class, or with a teacher? The last key to the delicate balance we seek in this Belmont Hill community lies in how to disagree. There is a big difference between saying “I respectfully disagree” and “You moron.” Let me go back to our Harkness tables. When you participate in class, I urge you to think about putting not yourself but your ideas on that table. Thus, when people want to disagree, they are disagreeing with the idea—not with you personally. We all need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. To achieve real freedom of ideas, so precious in any academic community, we all need to strive to keep our ears and our minds open. Indeed, to be able to disagree, we need to know how to listen: to keep an open mind, to hear out different points of view to figure out where another person is coming from. I urge you to use this Harkness table analogy outside of class as well as in. We all need to be able to disagree, even vehemently at times, over issues we believe in strongly— but we also need to make sure that this comes in a spirit of mutual respect. And, lastly: a little patience, a little forbearance, and not a little dose of humor—all these make us humane, help us work through disagreement. Surely, we can challenge each other’s ideas and still laugh with one another—not at one another. Free expression and respectful dissent in a place that makes it safe to try out ideas and opinions: These are at the heart of our community, vital parts of what make Belmont Hill special. As we begin this new year, I urge you to hold fast to the ideals of community and civility, even as we cherish the free and open and welcome exchange of ideas that must mark any great academic institution.
new year’s resolutions January 3, 2006
Welcome back. I hope that each of you—students, faculty, and staff—enjoyed wonderful holidays. As you may have heard, some people managed to turn even the celebration of this year’s holidays into a controversy, largely on the question of whether we can wish each other “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or must rely on some other generic greeting. I figure that by the time the Facultones had finished their seasonal damage, we had done enough to celebrate and smile about all faiths and traditions. Even simply holding on to the pagan rituals of this season, I hope you were able to fight off the cold and dark of the bleak midwinter and that you had happy and restful holidays. We all have our holiday traditions, of course, and the older I get, the more I appreciate them. For me, “home for the holidays” means going back to Chicago where Mrs. Melvoin and I grew up, back to the ancestral home, indeed back to stay in the room that has been mine since I was 14. Perhaps some of you students get dragged to your parents’ or grandparents’ homes for these annual rites as well. To me, the most important part of the holidays involves being with family. Ping-Pong tournaments in the basement, street hockey tournaments in the driveway, watching the Bears on television—all of this comes in the rhythm of the season. Along with seeing family comes seeing friends. Mrs. Melvoin and I are lucky enough to still have a close circle of friends that we went to high school with. Every year we gather with those friends, and their spouses, and now their children, marveling at how children have grown, marveling at how we have managed to stay young, reflecting on jobs, politics…but mostly savoring the chance to be back together. A few years ago we pulled out some old school pictures and came to realize that I and my two closest friends from high school had also been in kindergarten together. Old friends really are the best friends. Religion is also part of the holiday season, of course. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is actually not a major holiday. As such, it is celebrated at home, not at temple. But it tells another remarkable tale from Jewish history. Over the last half-century or so it has become part of the rhythm of the holiday season, at least in America. Most of you, I would guess, celebrate Christmas at church as well as at home, and I expect you are building your own memories of important traditions: the holiness of the mass or service, the beauty of the music, the spirit of a holy day. Holiday traditions, at least with my family, often center around food. You boys may not fully appreciate this yet, but I promise you that when you go away for college, or when you move away from home, certain foods may take on mythic importance.
How great to receive a call a few days before we left for Chicago from my mom, now in her 70s, who asked if there were any special foods I would like, and then to arrive home knowing that my favorite cookies were sitting in the pantry, freshly baked. Special seasons bring special meals, and whether it is Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or another special day, there are aromas and flavors that are part of the festival. And, slightly more secular but no less important, no trip home to Chicago is complete without a visit to Stash’s for a jumbo char dog and some cheese fries. New Year’s brings its own traditions. For many years we have rung in the new year at our cabin in Waterford, Maine. We have a group of close friends that gathers on New Year’s Eve to enjoy good food, friendship, and often some silly games. One of our traditions is that we go on “Waterford time.” This means—and I realize it is an admission of old age—that we set our clocks ahead two hours and then celebrate the new year at a reasonably civilized time. We do that in part because our tradition continues the next morning when we get up early enough to hike to the top of Hawk Mountain and see the sunrise, a few minutes after seven, welcoming in the new year. Then it’s home for blueberry pancakes or, if the weather is favorable, an early drive to the slopes for some good skiing before anybody else wakes up. New Year’s brings one other hallowed tradition, and that is the creation of New Year’s resolutions. Ah yes, resolutions…I think they fall in about three main categories. One category involves vows to lose weight, start to exercise, and renew devotion to personal fitness and health. A second is to be kind, or kinder, to others. A third often seems to be to travel more or to have more adventures in the new year. These resolutions seem to last about a week—or maybe about an hour; in any event, they certainly do not seem to be year-long commitments. In truth, I do not ever remember people checking up on their resolutions at the year’s end or even being able to remember what they were. Why do they disappear so quickly? Fundamentally, I am not sure how real a commitment people make to their resolutions. Do we really want to change? A resolution requires an act of real resolve, after all, and perhaps this is just another of those rituals of the season that often loses meaning. But are resolutions worth making? Is there any value to creating them? There might be. A New Year’s resolution might come out of a time of reflection, a chance to look back over the year just ended. Do I want to change? Am I capable of changing?
As we begin this new year maybe these last questions deserve a positive answer. Are we each capable of change? In the strongest possible terms, my answer is yes. As some of you know, I am a great fan of that sage of Concord, the 19th-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson had a particularly American view of the world, and in it came a strong belief in our ability to change. Whether at age 13 or 18, at 23 or 43 or 63, we all do have—we all must have—the power to change. Emerson spoke of it as “the never-ending task of self-improvement.” Certainly some of his vision of self-improvement was spiritual, in that self-improvement brought one closer to God. Yet he wrote more broadly that we each can achieve “the infinite enlargement of the heart with the power of growth.” Emerson wrote a famous essay on self-reliance, and this is much different than the modern notion of self-esteem. Emerson called on each of us to look within ourselves, to understand ourselves better. In fact, the critic Michael Knox Beran summarized Emerson by noting that “self-knowledge is the key to self-improvement and self-realization.” In other words, if we want to better ourselves, we need to understand ourselves better. That calls for time for reflection, for contemplation of who we are and who we want to be. That kind of thinking is not always easy. It is much easier to say, “This is who I am—take it or leave it.” Especially for us as adults, it is easier to say, “I have lived my life in this way for a long time—you can’t expect me to change now.” Yet Emerson would say, “But of course you can still change—we all have the capacity to change—we all need to keep looking within ourselves and thinking about who we are and who we want to be.” In that spirit, as we begin the new year, if you have not yet made any New Year’s resolutions, or even if you have, I encourage you to take some time for reflection. Who do I want to be in the new year? How might I want to be different? We each have capacity to change; what we each need is, first, the willingness to look deep within ourselves and, second, the resolve to make real change in the year ahead. After all, that is what a resolution is about: an act of resolve. Resolutions do not have to be dramatic, but if they come with real thought and real purpose, they can make a real difference. As Emerson and his Concord neighbor Henry David Thoreau would remind us, an unexamined life is not worth living. As we prepare to dive into this new year, then, I encourage each of us to find time for reflection, for greater self-knowledge, and, yes, for great resolution for the year ahead.
grace March 26, 2007
A few weeks ago, I called up an old friend of mine who heads a school. This man was a successful teacher, coach, and administrator in his old school and thought he would try his hand at running a school. It is a small school, kindergarten through eighth grade, not in New England. It is a school that, frankly, is not in very good shape; in fact, it is much shakier than my friend had been led to believe when he took the job. I care a lot about this friend of mine; when I last saw him, he looked exhausted. After hearing of these challenges, these problems, I asked simply, “So how are you?” “Well,” he said, “I am finding new opportunities to practice grace.” Practice grace? What an odd comment. Yet, this also struck me as a remarkable response, and it has gotten me thinking over these last weeks. What did he mean by “practice grace”? What is grace, anyway? Pulling out my trusty Oxford English Pocket Dictionary, I encountered a word that is marvelously complex. I do not mean to play word games with you this morning, but I am fascinated by this word and the many meanings it has. What did my friend mean? Perhaps he was seeking a year’s grace: in other words, a delay on payroll problems granted as a favor. He certainly was not talking about grace as a blessing before a meal, although we might think about why we “say grace” every day. There is a religious meaning for grace as well, as many of you know. One dictionary definition of grace is “the unmerited favor of God.” If we live in a state of grace, if we live by God’s grace, perhaps that means that we live because God favors us and grants us life and health. How often have we heard the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I”—an acknowledgment of our good fortune. The well-known hymn “Amazing Grace” suggests that God can bring us to a special spiritual place: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” My friend is very religious, so it may be that he is hoping that God will bless him and protect him. Still, one’s sense of grace does not have to depend on religion or on God. In one of his typically and deceptively simple poems, “Dust of Snow,” Robert Frost suggests
that we can find grace even in a tiny moment in nature, if we will allow it: The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued. There are other meanings of grace, however, that come closer to home for my friend and for you boys. The dictionary’s first definition of grace is “elegant movement, poise, balance, or manner.” We have all seen graceful dancers or graceful athletes. Their movement, their poise is indeed special: They are “full of grace.” Yet, you might find one more meaning even closer to home: the concept of grace as “courteous goodwill.” What makes for a special manner? When does one see such particular and courteous goodwill? I would offer to you this morning that this kind of grace is all around you—and that it is a virtue to embrace. I start with you Sixth Formers. Over the last couple of weeks—and over the last several months—part of your time has been consumed by dealing with the realities of college admissions. Most of the letters from colleges have now been sent out. Many of you have received abundant good news, while others have faced some acute disappointment. While all of us on the faculty, and your families as well, have wanted only the best for you, college is not a gift that we can bestow upon you, and so we know that some disappointment is inevitable. But I would suggest that how you handle this is important, and I encourage you to handle it with grace. It is difficult to congratulate someone who has received good news when your own news might be disappointing, but that measure of grace is to be admired. On the other hand, it is also important to be compassionate, to demonstrate that “courteous goodwill” when you are the person with good results and you know that a friend may be hurting. This challenge and this opportunity are not limited to seniors and colleges, of course. No matter what Form you are in, when you boys engage in competitive athletics, you face a similar challenge. It sometimes seems easy to win—and the challenge may lie in winning with grace: treating opponents and officials in the right manner, that is,
with grace. Losing also happens: In fact, while we lose track of this sometimes at this school, I gently remind you that, if you can leave out tie games, 100 percent of the results of contests end in losses for 50 percent of the competitors. Losing as well as winning is part of life. When you lose, are you able to lose with grace: with poise, balance, and goodwill? Or if you do not get the part you wanted in the play? Or if you do not get the position you hoped for on The Bell or The Panel? As adults, we face these same issues. What happens when you don’t get the promotion you sought? How do you react when you don’t get the new job for which you applied? Thus, this notion of grace actually is quite rich and complex and, if we allow it, it can be around us all the time. I encourage you to think about the place of grace in your life. I encourage you to accept results with tranquility and with graciousness toward others. Whom does grace help? It can help others, and it can help you. A few more thoughts before I close. One of the characteristics I have most admired in men and women I have known over the years is another form of grace: what is called “grace under pressure.” It can be relatively easy to be gracious when you are winning, when you are successful. The real challenge, it seems to me, comes when tensions are high, when pressures are great, when it is easy, or easier, to yell at your friend, or your parent, or your teacher, or the referee, or an opposing player. But if you can keep your head, your balance, that certain elegance of manner, when the pressure is on, then you will have attained a virtuous end.
“Whom does grace help? It can help others, and it can help you.” The dictionary claims that the word grace comes from the Latin gratus, meaning pleasing, acceptable, agreeable, welcome, thankful, worthy. As we say grace each day at lunch, I hope we remember to be thankful for what we have. As we consider how we live with others, I hope we can remember the courteous goodwill, the poise, and the balance that make us good people, indeed, people of good character. And my friend? I am not sure how his story will end: He really does face tough challenges. But his spirit is undiminished, and so, too, his generosity of spirit—his grace. I have to believe that this will carry him through this tough patch. May he, and may we all, have a bright spring, one full of moments of joy and, yes, moments of grace.
gone fishing March 31, 2008
This morning I want to tell you a story, a personal story. It is a story about fathers and sons; it is a story about brothers as well. On one level it provides a reminder that even Heads of Schools are sons; even 56-year-olds have siblings. On a different level, I hope it gives each of you boys a chance to think of your own lives as sons and as brothers. “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” So begins Norman Maclean’s famous novella A River Runs Through It. Perhaps some of you have seen the movie, starring a young Brad Pitt. In any event, those words capture an essential part of my family, for fishing—specifically fly fishing for trout—has helped define my family for almost my entire life. When I was little, my dad would take my younger brother Jeff and me in a rowboat out on a lake, using worms and bobbers, then spinning reels and lures, to catch pan fish: perch, bluegill, bass. But by the time we were teenagers, Dad had graduated to fly fishing, and so had we. Teenage trips from our home in Chicago took us north to Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for camping and fishing and life in the outdoors. My father may have been a lawyer by day, but he was truly a fisherman at heart. In time, Dad’s passion for fly fishing drew him out west, and for almost 25 years we have had a little cabin on the Henry’s Fork, a fabled trout stream on the back side of the Tetons, near Yellowstone National Park. Getting out there for at least a week or two each summer has become a ritual for me: a chance to fish certainly, yet also a chance to be with my parents and, hopefully, my brother and sister and other members of the family. The easy, natural, annual rhythm of all this changed late last winter when my father was diagnosed with an advanced case of gastroesophageal cancer. Suddenly, he had to face squarely his own mortality. As you boys know, of course, nobody lives forever. As a friend once put it, “No one gets out alive.” Getting confronted with such a serious diagnosis would push anyone at any age to think hard about his or her life: what has transpired and what lies ahead. Looking back, my father concluded that he had been lucky for most of his 78 years. He has been healthy and active; he has a close-knit family and some great friends; he had a successful career; he has traveled extensively. In other words, he could look back on the life he had led without regrets. Still, he now faced the uncertainty of
what lay ahead. He wasn’t worried about more exotic travel. Instead, he wanted to make sure that we, as a family, could gather for at least one more Passover Seder, an important spring family and religious tradition, and he wanted to get to his beloved cabin in Idaho last summer. As he started into his chemotherapy and it seemed to help, he had a good spring and summer and looked to new goals: a Thanksgiving together, a next Christmas holiday. Then, late last summer he declared, “You know, I have always wanted to take my sons fly fishing…in New Zealand.” Fly fishing? That sounded fine. But in New Zealand, halfway around the world? That sounded crazy—but it also sounded great to my brother and me. Besides, Dad had a goal, and doctors will tell you that people who are ill often live longer when they have goals in mind. When could such a journey take place? Knowing the seasons are reversed down there, and knowing that time was finite, last fall we plotted that perhaps in March, during school break, we could get away. So the plan was hatched. Recognizing the uncertainty of this actually happening, we moved ahead with flight reservations, though we added trip insurance as well. Dad lined up guides, found places to stay. Late last fall another step: A new duffel bag arrived with “NZ 2008” monogrammed into it. Finally, on March 14, the day we let out for spring break, I caught a plane for San Francisco, met up with my father and brother, and boarded Air New Zealand flight #7 for the 12-hour journey across the Pacific to Auckland, on the North Island of New Zealand, followed by one more flight to Nelson on South Island. And we went fishing. The trip went remarkably well, as well as we could have hoped for or imagined. For those of you who love the outdoors, New Zealand may be the most beautiful place on earth. The country, about the size of England, has only four million people—and 40 million sheep. The South Island in particular is a playland, with gorgeous mountains, sometimes called the Southern Alps, dominating the island, magnificent rivers, forests, great skiing, hiking, adventures. This is the land where bungee jumping was invented. This is where people go jet boating, and zorbing. This is the land where Lord of the Rings was filmed. And this is the land of legendary fly fishing, a place known as “brown trout heaven,” with rivers of magical, exotic names: the Motueka, the Wairau, Acheron, Inangahua. Every morning we got up by seven, grabbed breakfast, and headed for new waters. We fished every day for the eight days we were there. The fishing can be technical and quite difficult, for while the trout are large, they are not numerous and, in the gin-clear waters, while we could see them, they could see us and were thus often skittish. But we had a great
time, even if we weren’t landing that many fish, wading beautiful rivers in the bright sunshine of New Zealand’s early autumn. And yes, we did catch some fish. In fact, the high point of the week came on the second-to-last day. Dad had struggled a bit with his fishing. Although he caught a few fish in the first morning we were on the river, he hadn’t landed any good fish, and now the trip was nearing an end. But on that seventh morning, in a run of the Little Grey River that we now call Hugo’s Pool, everything came together. If you can think about a trip like the arc of a good story, we got to the high point as my dad landed five good fish from the same run over the course of a couple hours, with the other four of us—my brother and me and the two guides—all there to witness. Dad’s strength and energy are not what they used to be: Being 79 years old and having absorbed almost a year of chemo, that was no surprise. But when a fish took his fly, you could see his energy surge as he fought the fish into the net. He sat back down into the portable chair that the guides had carried along the river for him—and then he rose again to catch another fish, and another, and yet another, while we all took photos and cheered. My dad has always thrived in front of an audience, whether fishing or practicing law. He never had a better one than on that morning. My dad didn’t fish the last day. Even though we went to one more beautiful river, he was tired, and his body told him to back off. His shoulder felt weak, his ankles were swollen, he began to move a bit more like a 79-year-old man with cancer. But that previous morning he had shed some of those years and shed his disease, and he was a father with his sons, doing what he loved in a place he had dreamed about. I have thought a lot about my father and my brother and our trip since we got back last Tuesday. Pure joy still wells up in me as I look at the pictures that capture some of our adventures. Part of me is thrilled simply that we were able to pull off the trip, that Dad’s health held out. But this is more than a family story. There are, I think, some real life lessons worth pondering here. One is simply to live life fully, without regrets. If there are trips to be taken, adventures to be had: Take them. Life is short, and life is uncertain. None of us wants to grow old and regret the things we didn’t do. My wife, who is an experienced counselor, has gotten into the habit of advising our adult daughters to “take good risks.” I like the sentiment behind that: not that we should do things that are stupid, but that we shouldn’t be afraid to take risks when they are good ones. So first: no regrets.
Yet along with that, we don’t need Jack Nicholson’s latest movie to create our own “bucket list.” I’m sure that some of you have seen this new movie where Nicholson and Morgan Freeman make a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” As you boys become men, as you go through life and pick up responsibilities, as you build a career and devote time to it, I hope you can balance a good sense of responsibility—for your family and friends, for your work—with keeping that list of things you want to do while you can. As we go through life, all of us come to realize that who we are and how we have lived are a lot more important than what riches or possessions we have accumulated. So build that list and follow through on it—again, no regrets. Another issue this trip made me ponder is whether it was an extravagance, whether it was over the top. Was it expensive? Yes, to be candid, it was: One cannot fly halfway around the world without incurring some costs. But was it extravagant? Excessive? As I look back on it, I would categorize it more as a necessity than an extravagance. After all, as the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you.” I know my brother and I wouldn’t trade the trip for anything in the world, and this is something that we each will have as long as we live: a rich inheritance indeed. And then there is the matter of taking a trip like this with one’s siblings, one’s brother or sister, or brothers or sisters. When we were young, my brother and I were ultra-competitive. We battled over everything, from the last piece of bacon at breakfast to our parents’ attention. In lots of ways, I had it easy, for I was the older brother and the classic first child: straight arrow, hardworking, successful in school, all that stuff. Jeff had to put up with being my younger brother for quite a while. That has reversed over the years, in ways that we both smile about now, for he has achieved real fame, including an Emmy Award, in his career as a television writer and producer. It’s not that the rivalry ever goes away entirely—for the record, I did catch the biggest fish, although I admit he may have caught a couple more fish than I—but the larger point is this: He is the only brother I will ever have. Sibling rivalry is normal, and there’s nothing wrong with or unusual about occasional battles with one’s brother or sister. But family is precious, and how lucky we were that we were able to take this trip together with our father, carving out memories and binding our family more closely together for another generation.
All trips, like all stories, have to come to an end. Following the arc of this story, the arc that crested on Dad’s magical morning of fishing, we had to leave behind the majestic waters and mountains of New Zealand. Late afternoon sun glinted off the Maruia River that last day as we broke down our fly rods, packed up the trucks, and headed back to Nelson. By the next day we were strapped into our seats, 10,000 miles back to Boston. Soon Jeff was back in Los Angeles, meeting with studio executives about a possible new television show; Dad was back in Chicago undergoing a fresh round of chemo; and I was back in the office, looking out at the fields here at school, brooding over the backlog of emails that I had avoided for 10 days. But the trip remains. I will always hold fast to memories of my father that morning, the sheer joy of watching him do something he has always loved. Yet the story remains more than one about fishing. It remains the story of a father and his sons, a story of brothers, a reminder of how special and precious and fragile those moments can be. We don’t always know when these moments will come. They may come with one’s father or with one’s mother. They may come with an uncle or an aunt, a brother or a sister. They may come to you early in life or only later. However your family is constituted, whenever the moments may come, I urge you to seize them. Life is short and uncertain: We all need to grab, or even create, the moments that matter. As we now head into spring, and well beyond, I urge you: Live them fully.
saying thanks January 5, 2010
How many of you have been writing thank-you notes in the days since Christmas or Hanukkah? Or, more broadly, how many of you were supposed to get thank-you notes finished before you returned to school? My mother was always a stickler for doing them. She made it clear that if someone was thoughtful enough to give me a gift, I needed to acknowledge it with a note. Besides, it represented good manners, and my mom was—still is—clear about the importance of such courtesies. As I labored over my own thank-you notes last week, I thought back to a record we used to play when I was growing up. Now, I realize that some of you have no idea what a record is…but back in the dark ages of the mid-20th century, our family used to play records all the time: classical music when my dad was around, but also a lot of Broadway musicals, some Frank Sinatra, some humor— Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, Carl Reiner, and Mel Brooks—and also a man named Danny Kaye. Danny Kaye was a gifted actor/singer/humorist who starred on Broadway. He also performed a lot for kids and was legendary when I was growing up for his songs of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. He also had an album that we listened to all the time when we were little called Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water. Anyhow, the song that got stuck back in my head last week was one about writing thank-you notes called, logically enough, “The Thank You Letter.” In Kaye’s great little-kid voice he labored, “Dear Aunt Sally…Now what do I say?...Well, thank you very much for the…underwear…I always love…underwear… .” I’ll spare you the rest, but you get the idea. Anyhow. While many of us may not love writing thank-you notes, I have been thinking a lot about the act of saying thank you, what we might more broadly call the idea of gratitude. Part of this stems from my strong belief that every one of us gathered in this chapel needs to slow down from time to time, to reflect on how much we have been given, to acknowledge how fortunate we are. And to me it does not matter if you come from the wealthiest family in the Belmont Hill community or the least wealthy, if you are a senior who got into the college of his dreams or if you are a senior who got denied—indeed, I am not sure which of you is more fortunate, though that is a different story. Every one of us who is in this meetinghouse has been given extraordinary gifts—of education, of opportunity, of community—and we would be terribly shortsighted if we did not reflect on this, acknowledge this.
But what does it mean to “acknowledge” this? In the regular weekly services of Jewish tradition, there is a set of short prayers that comes early in the service where one thanks God for daily miracles, one after another: sight, strength, food, shelter, even the miracle of awakening each day, perhaps a dozen separate prayers. Then at the end, after this whole list, one thanks God for fulfilling all of one’s needs. On the one hand, this seems redundant or unnecessary, for one has already thanked God for so much. Or it might seem in error: Maybe we think that there are needs unmet. And yet, perhaps that last prayer is saying that whatever I have—whatever God provides—is all I really need. How much should we be grateful for, and how often? My belief is that one can never be too grateful. For a moment, I want to ponder this act of prayer, for the act of offering a prayer of thanks means that when we say thank you, we say thank you to God. This whole concept of prayer, of invoking a higher being, a force infinitely greater than ourselves, has vast power. As you know, this school welcomes students of all faiths, and when and how and even if you choose to pray is a personal matter. As you think about all that you have, though, I urge you to consider carefully the role of prayer, and forces greater than you, in your life. But today I want to focus on our relations with others, for usually when we express gratitude, it means that we are thanking someone else. Well, that’s obvious, you might say—that’s what thanks are all about. Yet there is more here to consider. Many of you have heard me cite the words of John Grady, an alumnus, trustee, and great friend of this school, who continually reminds us that “gratitude unexpressed is not gratitude at all.” I love Mr. Grady’s reminder. He makes us realize that the act of feeling thankful, while important, may not be enough. There are often people we need to thank, and those people deserve to hear these thanks. Here I want you to delve still deeper, for at its core, the act of expressing thanks means that we are not alone in this world. It means that you are thinking of others, are aware of others, have moved beyond yourself. When you thank someone, you honor that person’s actions, thereby making him or her feel more valued, something we all need. Giving thanks also helps to lower the risk of entitlement—a trap I
always worry about with adolescents, who sometimes do not recognize how little in the world they are entitled to and how much others have provided for them. Expressing thanks makes us more alive to others, more human, more humane. It also helps us remember that there are so many others in the world who have so much less. I recognize that not all of us are verbal—saying thanks does not roll equally easily off of everyone’s tongues. In fact, we can express thanks in different ways. Some do it with actions; some might come with a shift in your heart, in the way you treat others; some might come more easily by writing than by speaking. All of these are valid. Still, most of us can readily follow Mr. Grady’s dictum, for it is not hard to say thank you; in fact, the more one does it, as a good habit, the easier it gets. And here I come to the nugget of a story that got me started on this whole talk today. It comes as a great compliment to all of you students and to Belmont Hill. It is a story from this fall, and it is a story that told me in a new way that we have something special here that I hope we can keep. So here is the story, really quite simple but also profound. Earlier this year we had a group of visitors from another school in a different part of the country. The particulars do no matter; what matters is that they came into my office at the end of their day-long visit with a vivid image that they could not get out of their minds. They reported that as they observed the School, attending many different classes, they kept finding, to their wonder, that at the end of each class several boys would say “thank you” to their teacher. This happened in Middle School classes and Upper School; it happened early in the day and late; it happened with different teachers and in different subjects. In other words, it was—is—part of our school. What you boys may not realize is how unusual that is. This is, after all, a fastmoving school of 440 boys full of energy, busy getting from class to class, busy with friends, busy with adolescence. But somehow you boys have woven into the texture of the School the notion that you are being given something special, something that matters, something that warrants saying thank you.
Please understand that this does not happen with every boy in every class every day—nor should it. I am not trying to impose on you an act that might be hollow; rather, I am reflecting on some deeper understanding that many of you boys have about what happens here between you and your teachers every day. As we begin this new year, I hope this whole idea of being thankful and expressing gratitude is something you can carry forward, not only here at school but in all you do. Your parents, even sometimes your siblings, deserve thanks. So do the maintenance guys who keep this school running; so does the cashier at Ma Magoo’s. Some of this is more challenging in today’s world. Our pace of life is faster than before, more technological, less personal. I don’t know—perhaps I am just showing my age—but I wonder if an email thank you has meaning as full as a penned note. I watch how fast you guys text; last week Mrs. Melvoin’s eighth- and tenth-grade nieces said that they figure they each do about 300 text messages a day. I watch people on their cell phones at restaurants and shudder; I watch my buddy back in Chicago live on his crackberry, unable not to check on it even amidst a reunion of old friends; I cringe when I consider the idea of letting people use cell phones on airplanes. The pace just keeps quickening. But expressing thanks is not hard, and it does not depend on technology, and it does not take much time. And it should not be false: No one needs empty thanks any more than you need unwarranted shots of self-esteem from the faculty if you have not earned them. But gratitude, real gratitude, brings out a spiritual dimension of our lives. It gets us beyond ourselves; it reminds us of how much we need others; it gives us a chance to remember how much we have been given. In all those ways, as we move from the holiday season into the new year, I hope we can strengthen bonds even more among students, faculty, and staff here at school, and family and friends at home, as we enhance this most human dimension of our daily lives. Nothing could be simpler; little can be more important.
coach September 1, 2010
Last June, just after we ended the school year, a curious Sports Illustrated arrived in the mail. The magazine chose to honor on its cover a 99-year-old man who had just passed away. Yes, it is true that John Wooden was a talented basketball coach. His teams at UCLA won a record 10 NCAA titles in the 1960s and 70s. But Wooden had been retired for a lot longer than several of our teachers have been alive and, after all, he was only a college coach. In starting the new year, I realize that all of you, students and teachers alike, are anxious to get going. We gather in this chapel for many good reasons this morning: We want to start together as a school community; we want to welcome new students and teachers; we want to remember that we are one school, all of us together, dedicated, as our school motto says, to “working together.” But how do we work together? That is where John Wooden has something to say to all of us this morning. In his tribute to Mr. Wooden, Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff wrote, “Wooden regarded the classroom and the gym as serving essentially the same purpose.” A great coach? Wooden was a great teacher. This morning I want to switch around that image. I know that all of our coaches in athletics do an outstanding job of teaching: teaching techniques and tactics in their particular sports, teaching good values, teaching good life lessons. In fact, I think athletics is so successful at Belmont Hill because we have teachers who understand that lessons of the day can be taught in the afternoons as well as in the mornings. Still, I want to flip this and talk today about your teachers, your classroom teachers, as coaches, academic coaches, coaches in the classroom. Our society often conjures up very different images for people who are teachers versus those who are coaches. More often than not, coaches are portrayed in strikingly positive terms. Coaches inspire; coaches get the best out of their players; coaches challenge and make demands. Coaches are good guys (yes, historically men) who at least in the movies help make boys into fine men. Think Hoosiers or Remember the Titans or Friday Night Lights. On the other hand, teachers often get short shrift. Yes, there are the inspiring teachers in Dead Poets Society or in The Emperor’s Club, but teachers are often seen as out of touch, failing to understand the real needs and issues and lives of young people (think Breakfast Club). Teaching often is seen as adversarial: the teacher who beats down his or her students with tough or unfair tests, the teacher who imposes senseless discipline, the teacher who makes it clear that school is an “us versus them” world.
But at this school, as we start this new year, I want you boys to consider the notion that your teachers are in fact coaches in the classroom, and that positive metaphor can carry you a long way in becoming a successful student. When you think about your teacher as coaching you, that suggests that she or he is helping you get better at what you do. It means that this is a person who shares your goals. After all, if you are successful as an athlete, everyone on your team succeeds. If you get better, your team gets better. When you get better, everyone shares in that success. So too, when you are prepared, active, engaged in class, everyone does better and your teachers have succeeded. That does not mean that having a teacher coaching you in your academics is going to make life easy. After all, it takes work to get better at anything. In his recent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become really expert in anything. Whether the violin or computer programming or swimming, real achievement requires real commitment. In your classes this year, you are going to get challenged, perhaps daily, perhaps five times each day. Sometimes you are going to do things that you don’t particularly love to do. But as you trust a coach to plan a workout that will make you a better athlete, so can you think of a teacher giving you homework that can make you a better student: a better writer, more fluent in a language or adept at analysis or in a lab or in a studio. Sometimes you will be asked to do things you don’t think you can do. That is the mark of any good teacher or coach: to help you move to new levels, to help you see what is possible. Good teachers seek commitment, dedication, drive, desire to excel, personal best. They try to meet you where you are—and to take you forward. If good coaching is good teaching and vice versa, of course this is not limited to academic disciplines or athletics. A good director in theater is teaching all the time. Directors are always “coaching” their actors, and the success of a play depends on the entire ensemble—the entire team—of actors working together. So too does the conductor of a musical ensemble depend on each individual to play his part— literally—to make good music. People play different instruments, different notes, sometimes at different tempos. Success cannot come without everyone working together, getting on the same page—the same kinds of goals that coaches have with their teams.
Yes, the academic classroom is different; each of you boys gets judged for much of your work on your individual efforts and performance. We do have group projects, probably now more than ever before, and there we count on you to work effectively in teams. But the reality is that academically you are doing a lot of your important work on your own. At the end of the day, the teacher cannot do your work any more than a coach can play for you or a director can act for you. For all that, though, the heart of my words this morning comes in thinking in fresh ways about the relationship that you as a student have with your teacher. At this school the relationship between teacher and students is not cold and adversarial. A teacher’s job is to challenge, to lead, and sometimes challenges can be hard. But if you remember that your success is the teacher’s success, that you are working toward a common purpose, then your understanding of your teachers is enhanced. We do not just have teachers here. Far more important, we have men and women dedicated to working with you to help you learn. Understanding the common purpose that all of us in this chapel share helps us understand what can be special about this place. Please remember that these men and women came to this profession because they love what they teach, be it Latin or science, math or art, English or history or modern language—but also because they want to share their knowledge, their skills, their love of learning with you. And most important: They love working with kids—with you. They enjoy different classrooms—the stage and studio, the lab and boathouse, the concert hall and court as well as the Harkness table. But as was said about John Wooden, they coach young men toward shared success even as they teach the knowledge and skills and values that are the hallmark of this good school. Best wishes to all of you, students and teachers alike, as we begin this new year, as our school has said since its beginning in 1923, “working together.”
power outage March 26, 2012
It’s the Fourth of July, 2011. I am in Last Chance, Idaho, close to Yellowstone National Park and on the back side of the Grand Tetons, fly fishing with my dad, my brother, my college roommate from Louisiana, and former Belmont Hill headmaster and close friend Chris Wadsworth. It’s our last full day of fishing, and under a bright sun we have been wading a lower stretch of the Henry’s Fork. We have not seen a lot of rising fish, but we have seen an amazing mayfly hatch and have enjoyed good company and the remarkable scenery—and I even managed to catch a good fish that day. Now, as we head back to town—essentially three fly shops, two bars, one convenience store, and a gas station—we pull into TroutHunter, a fly shop that doubles as a restaurant, for their Fourth of July pig roast. We sit out back, on their porch at the edge of the river, enjoy the food…and watch the sky darken—no, blacken. Out west, you can watch storms as they come—it really is big sky country. Through a “V” in the mountains, we look to the west as the storm approaches. The winds pick up, the temperature starts to drop, and soon we all push inside, for huge rain and wind are blowing everything around. In fact, within minutes the rain is mixed with hail. Soon, not surprisingly, the lights go out. We are inside, dry and warm. Yes, the power is out, but someone will fix it. And it is that “someone will fix it” that I want to talk about today. Last July we were on vacation; we were in no hurry; we fish for fun—indeed, we practice what is called “catch and release”—we do not fish for food or survival. But what if we did? Or what if we needed power because we had work to do? What would we do then if the power went out? Our daily lives are full of unconscious dependency, of expectations that things will work. What happens when you or your parents are driving and your car breaks down? Most of us have to depend on others for assistance. Even if we face something as simple as a flat tire, what happens? I heard someone recently brag that he can fix a tire with one finger: He dials AAA. The reality is that many people are unable, or unwilling, to change a tire. What do many of us do if we are hungry? We call for takeout or order food in or microwave something from the freezer. I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with these solutions, but I would suggest that our world has changed in some profound ways in the last 50 or so years, and those changes push us to think about what skills may be important. You younger students have never lived in a world without a GPS. How do you find your way to a new destination? Plug in the address and follow the computer’s instructions. Yet I am
struck by how many people cannot read a map. Go back to changing a tire. Some of you know that I do a fair amount of bicycling these days. In some big rides, I have been surprised that even experienced bikers who get a flat do not know how to change a tire: They wait on the side of the road for a support team, or at least someone willing to help. I freely admit that I live this too. Mrs. Melvoin and I own a cabin on a little lake in Waterford, Maine. When we need to take some trees down, we ask a local man to help us. In fact, Daniel Drew not only takes the trees, but he helps us identify which ones are healthy, which might in time fall or threaten the house, and he has the kind of skill with a chainsaw that enables him to drop a tree precisely where it needs to fall. Dan Drew never finished high school; he was a father by age 17. But he knows more about trees, and animals—he also traps and skins and cures hides in the winter—and how to care for bats in the attic, and…well, you get the picture. It is humbling to realize how much he knows that I know so little of. Or here at school, imagine how many trades Mr. Young knows, as he handles repairs, plans projects, fixes roofs, boilers, windows, plumbing, electrical…knowledge he takes for granted that not one of us in this chapel has. Some of these observations tie into work that several faculty are engaged in right now, as we ask what a 21st-century education needs to include. As you carry a smartphone, you are holding a computer that is faster and more powerful than any that was aboard the Apollo spaceship that landed on the moon. How does that serve you— how should it serve you—and what are its limits? What do you do if your phone goes dead? How dependent are you? As Sixth Formers know, the faculty has created a new second-semester program for seniors called TYSK, or “Things You Should Know.” Making a list of possible skills has provided us on the faculty with an intriguing challenge. What should boys know before they leave Belmont Hill? Change a tire? Boil an egg? Make a meal? What about using basic tools, both power tools and even simple hand tools? Do you know how to properly drive a nail? Does it matter? What about fixing a leaky toilet? Balancing a checkbook? Dealing with credit card debt? Several observers of today’s society have noted that we have become more a consumerand service-based society. In some ways, the equation is simple: We buy things and others fix or provide them. How do we live best in that world? At one level, we need to think about which skills really are important, and between what you learn from your family and what you learn at school, make sure you have essential skills, whichever
those may be. Yet on a broader scale, I think our challenge may be to provide some skills but perhaps even more, certain values or human qualities that will allow you to work in a world that continues to change rapidly. Do you have the mental agility, the nimbleness of mind, to deal with new challenges in new situations? Do you have the perseverance to work through problems that may be difficult? Do you have the willingness to try, a spirit of adventure? Do you have the communication skills, whether oral or written, to effectively present questions and pose solutions? In some areas, I hope you strive to be able to handle certain tasks simply for the satisfaction that can come. I know that some of you go away to summer camp. Whether you are learning to swim or paddle a canoe or backpack, I love the fact that you are learning skills that bring you closer to nature and farther from the appliances and advantages and trappings—traps—of civilization. Our society today has given us amazing gifts—in food, recreation, communication, transportation, and travel. But those gifts come at a cost. We become less independent, perhaps less able to survive. Or at the very least, we may need to redefine survival in today’s world. Back to skills. I do not know how many of you have built a model airplane or changed the oil in a car or framed a picture. But I urge you to think about the satisfaction that comes from doing any of that. So, too, can there be great satisfaction from setting out on an outdoor adventure that strips you down to you and the outdoors, where you have to depend on yourself and your own wits and skills. Some of us older faculty remember well a classic book of the 1970s by Robert Pirsig called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig got on his bike and traveled across the country, on his own odyssey, one that involved exploration of philosophy and family. Yet I keep coming back to the actual work he did on his motorcycle. Pirsig said, “The real cycle you are working on is a cycle called yourself.” As we enjoy the advantages of a modern society, we have tools, and toys, and equipment the likes of which mankind has never seen and could hardly imagine. Yet amidst all that, I urge you to think about what skills and qualities you want to have. It is tempting to let someone else always fix things. Yet in doing so, we give away a certain amount of power. No, none of us could have handled that power outage back in Idaho when the lines went down and the storm roared. Yet each of us can consider what essential skills and values we want to have if we are to maintain not only our own survival, but also our independence in this world.
climbing a mountain September 3, 2013
I cannot tell you exactly when or why I got the somewhat lamebrained idea that Mrs. Melvoin and I should try to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. But on July 15, the midpoint of the summer, there we were at Logan Airport, getting ready to board a Delta/KLM flight to Amsterdam, with a connecting flight to Tanzania in East Africa. Why Kilimanjaro? Well, we have loved to hike during our almost 40 years of marriage; in fact, we spent our honeymoon hiking in the Canadian Rockies. And yes, we both recently faced significant birthdays—as you get older, those are the ones that end in zero—and so we were thinking about challenges we could still take on. And yes, one result of having one of those birthdays with a zero is that one starts to think about whether this might be the last chance to do something like this. And yes, I still like challenges, particularly athletic ones. We also know a couple of Belmont Hill students and parents who have climbed Kili in recent years and told us how exciting it was. Yet beyond all that, there is also the romance of climbing Kili that began when I first read Hemingway’s collection of short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Even beyond that were recent news stories that the glaciers atop the mountain are retreating and within a few years there may be no more snow up there. So maybe we should try to see them. Still, amidst the training and preparation and gear lists, we did not know—could not know—entirely what we were facing. But as we got on the plane, we were committed to this adventure, so off we went. At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro stands as the highest mountain in Africa, and that of course provides great allure. It is a mountain that dominates the region of East Africa; in fact, scientists tell us that it changes and creates weather not only for Africa, but even beyond. In terms of climbing, it is not a mountain that requires technical skills—we needed no ropes or axes or pitons—but it is certainly demanding. Not only is there a challenge of climbing almost four miles above sea level, but the lack of oxygen at that altitude creates a level of uncertainty for any climber. No matter how fit a person is, one never knows what the impact of altitude will be. For that reason, one has to be careful about high-altitude sickness, which can be serious and even fatal. Mrs. Melvoin and I had climbed as high as 14,000 feet in the past and had no problems, so we were hopeful. But uncertainty was part of the climb. Still, we were working with a travel company with whom we had climbed before, 10 years earlier, and we were confident they would take good care of us.
There are many different routes up Kili. As we read about in the guidebooks, we were taking a long route up—some 52 miles of hiking—but also over a longer period of time—an eight-day ascent, versus many people’s four or five or six days, and then a two-day descent. We were hopeful that the extra couple of days going up would help us acclimatize well and deal with altitude challenges. Twenty-one hours after leaving Boston we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport outside Arusha in Tanzania. Our first evening brought us to a tent camp on the flanks of Mount Meru, a neighboring mountain, and we spent the first 24 hours at 6,500 feet, getting used to altitude and recovering from jet lag, with just a gentle day hike to begin our labors. Then a three-hour drive took us to the base of Kilimanjaro, and we were on our way. We pulled our gear out of the Toyota Land Cruiser at a little above 7,000 feet, signed in for the trek—a requirement of climbing within this national park—and were on our way. The first day we were in the forests that mark the lower reaches of this massive mountain, hearing and seeing Colombo and blue monkeys, and spent our first night on the mountain at 9,000 feet at what was called forest camp. By the second day we had climbed out of the forest and into a zone of heather, approaching the Shira Plateau at 11,500 feet. By day three we had climbed to 13,100 feet and left vegetation behind. Now we were essentially in the volcanic rock and scree of this dormant volcano, a rather bleak landscape that would be with us for the next five days. We finally had come clear of the lower reaches and could see the peak of this massive mountain, which was stunning and magnificent—and daunting. Now we could see what was ahead. The Shira Plateau gave way to the Moir Campground at 13,100 feet, then to the lava tower at 15,100 feet, then to arrow glacier: 16,000 feet, two days to go—and the toughest day looming. In taking the Lemosho/Shira route, we knew what was coming. This is the longest and most picturesque route up Kili, but the second-to-last day before hitting the summit requires climbers to ascend what is called the western breach. We would be climbing 2,800 feet, from 16,000 to 18,800, in a span of only two miles, and all of this at high altitude. This day required that we be up by 4 a.m. and climbing by 5 a.m., for one needed to climb the breach when it was still cold and the rocks were frozen. This would, of course, reduce the chance of rockslides. Rockslides? It turns out that in 2006 three climbers were killed on this route by a rockslide. Our guide somewhat disdainfully pointed out that those men were climbing at the wrong time of day, when it was too late and too warm, but it still gave us some
cause for concern. But at this point, of course, we had no choice, so with helmets and headlamps at 5 a.m. we headed out for what would be close to eight hours of climbing through both loose rock and also some “bouldering,” where we would have to stash our hiking poles and climb by hand as well as feet up the rock face. It was a long morning, a long day, but the reward was great: up with the glaciers at 18,800 feet with only a 600-foot climb the next morning to summit the mountain. After some rest and an effort to choke down some food and liquid—staying hydrated is critical at altitude, and we put in as many electrolytes as we could stand—we were ready to summit. The next morning we had another 4 a.m. wake-up and 5 a.m. departure. Climbing through scree and rock one more day, at 6:40 a.m, as the sun rose we reached Uhuru, the highest point on Kibo, the highest part of Kilimanjaro. The pictures show the joy—and also the relief.
“I, and the members of this faculty, want you to challenge yourself, to push yourself; that is part of what makes this school special and what drives it forward.” We stayed on top of the mountain for perhaps 20 or 30 minutes. Then the guides needed to get us moving down: to get more oxygen in our lungs but also because the rapid day-and-a-half descent requires more energy and time. By lunch we had slid down to 15,000 feet; by dinner we were on the edge of the forest again at 10,000 feet. One more weary night in our tents on the mountain, and then next morning we went down the last 4,000 feet. The descent really did a number on our quads—it was hard to walk for a couple days—but as we came out at about 6,000 feet the weariness was more than balanced by the sense of accomplishment. We had climbed Kilimanjaro. But while Mrs. Melvoin and I are proud of what we accomplished, I want to double back on this trip because I want to reflect with you a little more on what goes into such a climb. Because—and this is what I hope you will take from this talk—the fact is that we did not climb alone. As you start into this new school year, each of you will be setting goals and establishing challenges. Some of them will be steep challenges. I, and the members of this faculty, want you to challenge yourself, to push yourself; that is part of what makes this school special and what drives it forward. But I also want you to be mindful of how you take on such challenges and who is with you along the way.
So let me take you back to this trek. Yes, Mrs. Melvoin and I climbed, but we did not do it alone. First and most important, we had two extraordinary teachers, or perhaps you would call them coaches: our guides who led the expedition. Samia is 47 years old and reports that he has climbed Kilimanjaro 381 times—we were to be the 382nd summit. He started as a porter, but has moved up, going to school, going to university, learning the flora and fauna and geology, learning advanced medical techniques, learning the mountain intimately. Boniface, the assistant trip leader, is much younger but comes out of a similar background. He just received his university degree and he too brings expertise. As we climbed, and particularly as we got to the higher elevations, they determined the pace of the climb, the way we would approach different challenges each day. They taught us how to hike differently at altitude—literally how to walk and even step in different ways to adjust to altitude and the scree. They knew the routes up the mountain. They knew how many layers of clothing we would need. They also knew which medical advice to give: what medicine we should take if needed, how often to ingest liquid, and how much each time. And Samia and Boniface had a huge team with them. One cannot climb a mountain without a team of workers. We, our leaders, and the other hikers had a group of 30 porters carrying food, tents, medical supplies; carrying the stove for cooking; carrying the fuel for the stove. Obviously one cannot climb a mountain without food and shelter. Thanks to the porters, we had good tents and plentiful food. Thanks to these teammates, we were able to carry just our daypacks as we climbed. And when we needed even more help—Mrs. Melvoin had back spasms through much of the last four days—they helped out by offloading her pack and carrying it for her. Climbing a mountain also requires the backup of a bigger organization that ensures good practices, good equipment, good support. We traveled under the auspices of Wilderness Travel, an American company that partners with a Tanzanian-based outfit called African Expeditions. Those groups worked together to make sure that our equipment was first rate, that we had adequate food, and that we had the support we needed. People have asked what was the biggest challenge in climbing the mountain. I have come to believe that it requires an unusual amount of stamina, both physical and mental, for spending eight days in a tent on a mountain with nothing else around— no amenities, increasing fatigue and dirt and strain, can be difficult. But we also
had fellow climbers who eased the journey. We had never met them before we got off the plane in Tanzania, but the other couple, in their 50s from Philadelphia—he a research scientist and she a high school chemistry teacher—enhanced the trip as we gave one another mutual support, exchanged stories of grandchildren, talked our way through the difficult moments. They became our teammates, our friends. And beyond all that, Mrs. Melvoin and I even had a benefactor, an anonymous friend who helped underwrite the costs of this trip: a selfless and incredibly generous gesture that eased the journey. So yes, the two of us summited Kilimanjaro, but we hardly did it alone. Thus I hope you think about the climb you have this year, whether in First Form or Sixth. I hope you think about your challenges, yet also your support. Like Mrs. Melvoin and me, you will have great teachers and coaches to help you through: real leaders who are experts and who care about you. You will have plentiful food thanks to Belmont Hill’s kitchen staff. You will have shelter and facilities, thanks to Mr. Young and his team who put this place together and make it run. You will have expert medical care. We may not check your pulse and oxygen intake every day, as Boniface did on Kili, but you know you have the medical care you need. And you have fellow climbers: classmates, teammates, friends. You may not have met some of them ever before, but you, too, can bond amidst the challenges ahead. If you need help along the way, you know you can ask, and people will help. Maybe that comes in helping to carry a pack if the load gets heavy; maybe it comes from OASS, our Office of Academic Support Services, or our counseling team—but people are here to help. And, as Mrs. Melvoin and I received some financial aid to help ease our travel, so do many of you and your families receive good support for the path ahead. I hope you are looking forward to the year ahead, including new challenges. Challenges can be good for all of us. I believe that life should include challenges, for you can explore your limits, whether in science class or on the athletic field or on the stage or in the music building—that is part of what this good school can provide. I hope you go into this new year and these new challenges with confidence. You should be confident, for you can achieve your goals. Yet as you go after them, just remember that while you have ultimate responsibility and opportunity for achievement, you do not climb alone.
beyond ray rice January 5, 2015
I love working at a boys’ school, at this boys’ school—a school for boys. In fact, I have done this work for 36 years: 14 years at Deerfield Academy and now 22 here at Belmont Hill. Looking back, I even spent several summers in high school and college working at a day camp—Camp Cuamba for Boys: I guess I knew something even then. In any event, I love what you students bring every day—your energy and drive. I love watching you grow individually and watching you grow together, watching each Form emerge over the years, watching us grow as a school. I love the freedom and ease that can come from having boys together in a classroom, on a team, in the B-Flats, in the Goodband Commons, at a lunch table. I love the pride that you take in your school and the spirit that you bring. With a remarkable faculty also dedicated to the mission, we share something special. Yet we live in a world of boys and girls, of men and women, and one of our responsibilities as a good school is to prepare you to live well in the world after Belmont Hill, the world beyond Belmont Hill. That can take some adjustment, or at least require some careful thought. But this is a vital issue for us because we live today in a country, in a culture, where there is huge concern about how men treat women, and this needs to be our issue as well. Last August, as the story was still breaking, a parent asked me what the School was going to do about Ray Rice. How many of you have seen the video of the former NFL star knocking out his fiancée in the elevator? It is horrifying; I cannot imagine anyone with a different opinion. Yet the Ray Rice story is caught up in so many themes that it can’t stop spinning. It is about violence and football; about professional sports and celebrity; about our legal process; most recently about not only the reaction of the perpetrator, but also that of the victim. There is a reason people keep talking about Ray Rice. But the fall brought much more. It brought the story of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and claims of a rape case that may have been suppressed. It brought allegations of gang rape at a fraternity at the University of Virginia that have roiled that campus. It has brought allegations from the federal government against over 50 colleges and universities that they have not sufficiently addressed issues of sexual assault. It has brought national discussion of how men treat women: of what is legal, what is ethical, what is right.
As I have thought about how to address these issues of domestic violence and sexual assault here, at a boys’ school, part of the challenge for me comes in finding a way to talk about these issues in a way that you will listen to and that you can hear. Here’s the dilemma—see if you share it with me in some ways. Sometimes I find myself getting defensive when I tell someone that I work at a boys’ school; sometimes I feel that people want me to apologize for that, or at least explain it, as if working with only boys is wrong or that working at a boys’ school means I am not sensitive to women’s issues or issues of gender. I am guessing that you sometimes have feelings like that too. So I don’t want to talk in a way that makes you feel defensive or sounds preachy. Yet our society has a long way to go before men and women are treated equally, fairly, and ethically, and that makes it worth talking about these issues. I recognize that these issues may be a bit abstract for some of you boys in the Middle School. On the other hand, for many of you older students, and surely for most of you by the Sixth Form, these issues are real—and by next fall they will be immediate. In fact, I will wager that every one of you Sixth Formers next fall will be at a dorm or advisor or college freshmen meeting where you will hear a great deal about campus rules and expectations regarding sexual activity and sexual assault. No college campus can or should ignore issues of date rape and sexual assault; no college can or should avoid talking about drug and alcohol use and how those are tied to student behavior. Then again, I know from talking with some of you Third Formers in Ethics class that lots of you know about these issues already. And the issues will not go away. This past fall, the California legislature debated a law about how to establish on college campuses when “no means no” and “yes means yes”—a law about students needing explicit permission to take steps in a physical relationship. That may not be romantic, but it says something about the level of concern in our society. What lies behind these concerns? Why are they so important for us here today, even beyond the sensationalism of these cases? Let me suggest two approaches. First, we need to talk about these issues because we as a society have a lot of work to do on matters of gender: on how men and women are viewed in our society, how they are treated, how the media portrays them, how expectations for both men and women get formed. Here’s an idea that I want to share with you that has long shaped my thinking about our roles in society. A generation ago, Wellesley Professor Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., Associate
Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, wrote that some people in our society have unconscious advantages over others. She wrote about how white people have them over blacks; she also suggested that men have them over women: that in terms of gender, men carry with them an “invisible knapsack” in which they carry, unconsciously, all sorts of male privilege. Men move with ease through American society in a way that women don’t but, McIntosh suggested, men don’t even realize it. Men earn more money for identical jobs than women; are bigger and stronger physically; dominate corporate CEO and board positions; dominate the halls of government; leave to spouses the bulk of childcare. None of this makes men bad or evil—that is not the point. But men often have privilege that they don’t recognize: It is simply their life, their world…our world.
“…will you be not a bystander but an upstander—someone willing to ‘stand up’ for what is right?” How does this relate to you? This inequality often occurs in male relationships with women. As you know just from watching TV or perhaps from playing certain video games, there are parts of our culture that glorify male-dominated sex and violence; there are parts that objectify women—in other words, make women into objects. I was struggling to understand how men get these dangerous messages and recently met with an Ethics teacher from Bentley University. Professor Clark suggested that there are a number of forms of what she called “moral disengagement” that allow men or even encourage men to act in ways we know are wrong. For example, one might excuse one’s own bad behavior by saying “Everyone does it” or “Well, others have done worse” or “It’s no big deal.” Another form of moral disengagement is to blame the victim: “Well, she deserved it” or “She shouldn’t have been drinking or wearing that short dress.” And if you doubt whether women are objectified in our society, just check out TV ads for beer that link alcohol and women and sex and sports: It’s a potent cocktail. These are all dangerous patterns of behavior, and we need to be aware of them so that we can avoid them, even if some are painfully in the mainstream of our culture.
But I suggested there are two ways to approach this question of how we as boys and men deal with girls and women in our lives as well as in our society. In some ways, the second path is simple. In fact, it is tied to fundamental goals we have for each of you boys at this school. If someone ever asks me what the heart of our mission is at Belmont Hill, I say it is not about college; it is not about grades or achievements; it is not really about activities at all. My goal for each of you boys is that you become an ethical, thoughtful, independent young man. What does it mean to be ethical? You all know the answer to that. You know that there are fundamental issues of right and wrong in the world. When it comes to dealing with other people, male or female, you know that you treat others well and with respect. You also know that you need to think before you act, and that actions have consequences. Thoughtful? Again, you know what it means to be thoughtful. Yet in the case of dealing with girls and women, I urge you to make sure you think before you act, think before the moment. The more thinking we do before a situation arises, the better chance we have to come out in the right place. When it comes to how you treat girls and women, how you establish relationships with them, such thoughtfulness will serve you well. I am not talking about opening doors or paying for a date, though those are valid questions to think through as well. But do you respect fully the ideas of another person who is female? Her wishes or interests? Her needs? Do you treat a person with the respect that you would want? Finally, I suggested a goal the School has for you is that you become not only ethical and thoughtful, but also independent. Each of you is becoming more independent, day by day and certainly year by year. Whether in six months or six years, you will leave Belmont Hill and your home and go out into the world. You will bring with you a set of values, a set of beliefs. They may be based on what your parents have taught you, or your teachers, or your school, but you will own them. What happens when you are away at college—or even at a gathering now—and some guys start talking about doing something stupid, or wrong, or simply are talking in sexist or demeaning ways? How will you act? If you see a guy hitting on a drunk girl, or with access to date rape drugs, will you have the independence, the strength, to call him out? Thinking of both the extraordinary talk from Holocaust survivor Rena Finder last September, or perhaps from the aftermath of Ferguson and Staten Island last month, will you be not a bystander but an upstander—someone willing to “stand up” for what is right? When
you have left the safety of college and are on your own, how will you act if someone at work, whether personally or professionally, proposes or does something sexist or misogynistic? Will you have the independence and will to do what you know is right? Whether now or in college or beyond, most of you will spend much of your lives with women, both in work and most likely with a life partner. How will you treat girls now and women later? Who is the person you want them to know? When framed this way, questions about Ray Rice or Jameis Winston are not difficult. We may get swept up in matters of celebrity and fame, of sports and society, but domestic violence is always wrong; sexual assault is always wrong. Most of us, of course, spend most of our time amidst simpler issues of living. But whether you are here or in a coed setting, with other guys or with girls or women, your compass should still point true north. At a time when our society is asking important questions about how women should be treated, I count on you to be the ethical, thoughtful, independent person who knows the right pathâ€”and stands up to pursue it.
darkness and light January 4, 2016
First, I hope you had a good holiday break, full of joy and meaning, renewal and good health. I don’t know which of those is most important, but the longer I live, the more important each one becomes. So truly: Joy, holy days of meaning, renewal, good health—may they mark the start of the new year for us all. As I reflected on the holiday season, I started to think about the bonds between the holidays—spiritual, cultural, and seasonal. In the realm of religion, Christmas, of course, celebrates the birth of Jesus, a holy beginning, a time of hope, with services often marked by candlelight. Hanukkah, a celebration of freedom for Jews, is also observed by the lighting of candles: In fact, the holiday is known as the Festival of Lights. So too is Kwanzaa marked by lighting a set of seven candles, each with its own distinct meaning. Even observance of the winter solstice on December 21st, the shortest day of the year, brings a seasonal and secular celebration, a time to push against the darkness. In these ways I have been thinking about how, at this time of year, we strive to move from darkness to light, for it strikes me that there is too much darkness in the world right now. In truth, it is not an easy or comfortable time in our country or in the world. Last week’s newspapers and magazines featured year-end reviews that were solemn, sobering, sad, and scary. The last quarter of the year brought darkness in Paris and in San Bernardino; much of the Middle East remains convulsed in war; and in our own country, we have seen agonizing racial strife of a kind that many of us hoped had ended a generation ago. We are also seeing a growing gap between the rich and poor in our country, a level of inequality that may be without precedent. Much of this leads to fear, which is a darkness of its own. Some leads to anger and hatred, emotions that mirror the resurgent Star Wars image of a darker side in each of us, emotions that take us far from our best selves. How do we look to a new year in the face of such dark and difficult matters? If one of the purposes for each of us on this earth is to make the world a little better— which I firmly believe it is—how do we do that? One of the mantras that I learned growing up in the 1960s and 1970s was to “think globally and act locally.” So I want to begin with you today by thinking globally and close by seeing how we might act locally. As I have been thinking about our world today, one searing issue for me that is both global and national is immigration. Not only that, but immigration is both a real and immediate issue and a symbolic one. In fact, how we view this issue may provide a good barometer for how we, as individuals, measure darkness and light.
How does immigration help us think about the world? On a global stage, we are currently witnessing the largest movement of refugees—immigrants from the Middle East into Europe, and beyond—since World War II. It is frightening to see the impact of war in the Middle East: the destabilization of several nations; the insurgencies and daily killings in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Libya; the impact on Lebanon and Jordan—sovereign nations all. In the four years of civil war in Syria, there have been between 140,000 and 340,000 deaths; as of March 2015, almost four million people had fled the country, and that in a nation of fewer than 11 million. In recent months, stories have appeared daily about the plight of those refugees trying to get out of the Middle East, the harrowing journeys many have taken. Just this past weekend The New York Times, in two different stories, chronicled the particular challenges of women to survive these journeys, even as many European nations struggle to take in these immigrants, and several change their laws to establish restrictions. So far, the United States has pledged a limited commitment to bringing in Syrian refugees. Since we are the nation of the Statue of Liberty, with the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed at its base—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—perhaps we wonder why the American response is not greater. Yet, as we shift our focus closer to home, issues of immigration get tied to another grim part of our world today: to issues of terror, and from there to issues of fear and darkness, and also to questions of who we are as a nation and who we are as individuals. Thus, as we look back with horror on the attacks in Paris and in San Bernardino, I want you to consider the nature of these acts. I ask you to consider these as acts not of war, but of terror. Terrorism is not a military act. The country is not at war per se and has not been attacked by another sovereign nation. Instead terrorism is a political act: designed to strike fear and perhaps change how a nation comports itself. In this respect, even 9/11 was a terrorist act, not a wartime military act. And it worked. Although our nation was not threatened with an enemy takeover or a large-scale military conflict, we lost not only lives and property that day, but also a measure of security and a measure of innocence. Today, 15 years past 2001, Americans’ daily lives have been inalterably changed. I know it startles many students to realize that before 9/11 there was, for example, no airport security of any significance: The Transportation Security Administration did not exist; there were no lines or screenings to go through; no one took off their shoes or removed metal from their pockets. You simply went to the airport, checked in, dropped off your baggage, strolled to your
gate, and took off. But back to the larger point: Terrorism is designed to, indeed, strike fear in people and have an impact politically, not necessarily militarily. Did it work in Paris and in San Bernardino? To provide an American perspective, an article from The Boston Globe last week reported that in our nation of roughly 310 million, 19 people died in the two terrorist acts that took place in the United States last year; during that same period 10,000 Americans were shot to death and 30,000 died in car accidents. Still, terrorism is a powerful weapon and has been around for a long time. World War I began not with a military act but with an act of terrorism: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, which set off a chain of events that led to war. But our focus is today, in Paris and in San Bernardino. Why am I focusing on these acts? Because these terrorist acts are leading to heated discussion over limits to immigration. In this country, the battle over immigration was already taking place in the political realm, including calls to not merely limit immigration but reverse it: to expel illegal immigrants from the country, a proposal that would affect, in particular, some seven million immigrants from Mexico and Latin America now in the United States. As I expect you know, one presidential candidate recently called for a ban of Muslims from immigrating to the United States: an extraordinary proposal in a nation that was founded on freedom of religion that has sent a chill among law-abiding citizens now in this country because of their faith. To me, these calls to limit immigration or evict current residents cut at the very heart of our nation, for we are in fact “a nation of immigrants.” All of us—all of our families—were once immigrants. Actually, the only exceptions are Native Americans—American Indians. You will remember that the Latin on American currency reads E Pluribus Unum—from many, one. Several historians over the years have called the United States “the first new nation.” What does that mean? It refers to a nation ruled not by kings but by “demos”—the people; it refers to a system of government that established individual rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It established a revolutionary doctrine that all men are created equal, and while it took another 75 years to establish that doctrine for all men, black and white, and another 65 years to establish even voting rights for women, the arc of our nation has been toward greater equality and the preservation of our freedoms. This is not to say that immigration has not had its ups and downs through our nation’s history. In response to a rising tide of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe a century ago, Congress slowed the rate at which these
“less desirable” foreigners could enter our country. The Second World War saw the internment of over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, a dark period for which our government 40 years later apologized and offered reparations. Thinking globally, but acting locally, how does immigration tie into our world at Belmont Hill? First of all, if we are a nation of immigrants, so too are we a school of immigrants. After all, each of our families came from somewhere. In fact, it is from that diversity, that richness, that we can draw strength. Actually, one more issue in front of our nation right now—specifically, in front of the Supreme Court— has ties to Belmont Hill and all schools: whether colleges should be allowed to consider race when making admissions decisions. As this case moves forward, I hope the Court will ask itself whether there is purpose in diversity. For this school, and for all schools and colleges, I believe there is. We seek a more diverse school because we learn from one another, because we can be stronger when we understand our differences, when we can embrace those differences, whether racial, religious, ethnic, or socioeconomic, differences of interests or passions, when we live that national motto of E Pluribus Unum. In that spirit, acting locally, I am going to ask you to take a small leap of faith with me. For the next two minutes, I want you to turn to your neighbor and start to learn his story, even as he learns yours. Where are he and his family from? How and when did they come to this country? What can you learn, even in just a minute or two, that you did not know before? As we emerge from the holiday season, I hope that we all can move from darkness toward light. Some of this movement will happen naturally in the change of the seasons, but the greater emergence from darkness comes in the greater understanding of others. As terrible as it is, much terrorism comes from hatred borne of deprivation, ignorance, fear, darkness, scarcity, as well as, for some, fanaticism. The more we can bend the arc of the world toward opportunity and freedom, and away from these darker forces, the better chance we have to make the world better. Knowing that our families were all immigrants at one time, let us be especially mindful of the needs of today’s immigrants. After all, who are we as a country if we don’t live by our values? Bringing this even closer to home, to each of us, who are we as individuals in the values we hold and in the way we live each day? Knowing that the days of the new year will get longer, let us all find ways to make them brighter as well.
home January 3, 2017
It was good to head home for the holidays. I know that may sound a bit odd. After all, your Head of School is now in his 60s, the father of two, the grandfather of four, and I have lived here at Belmont Hill for the last 24 years. But still, I went home for the holidays. I did not go home because it is a place that is warm and sunny or offers great vacation activities. Home is Chicago—specifically Highland Park, a suburb about 20 miles north of the city. But home is where my 86-year-old mother still lives, in a house that she and my Dad built in 1965, some 51 years ago. We moved in during my freshman year in high school, and even though I have not lived there since I graduated, it is still home. Mrs. Melvoin and I did not go home just to see my Mom. Mrs. Melvoin’s family still lives in the Chicago area as well. Our two daughters and their husbands and children also came to Chicago; as did my brother and his family; as did our nephew, a college senior, whose mother—my sister—passed away last June after a five-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). With 15 of us more or less under one roof, the house was full. But it was much more than a house for the week we were together: It was home. Our son-in-law, Ryan, set up the electric train for his three-year-old son, Hunter, to play with, a set my father had bought years ago. We went down into the basement for rounds of Ping-Pong, as our oldest grandson, Ben, now eight, starts to learn the game that the older three generations have played down there—with occasionally gashed walls and ceilings—for the last half-century. We also cleared the snow off the driveway so that Ben could get introduced to street hockey, another time-honored family tradition. The generations have shifted, but the intensity remains, and you hockey guys will be pleased to know that by the time we left, Ben was working on his tip-ins from in front of the net. There are indoor board games, too: occasional bouts of Yahtzee and, particularly, a family card game called “Oh Hell” that regularly gives people a chance to get furious at other family members. Food is home, too—or perhaps I should say that home is food. I am sure each of us has particular favorites or traditions when at home, or perhaps when at the home of relatives or grandparents. My Mom baked some of my favorite pecan puffs for me, which was great. Even greater was her admonition that no one else in the family was allowed to eat “my” pecan puffs. But there are also favorite deli foods that never taste quite so good as when we are home: fresh bagels, good rye bread and pickles, corned beef and pastrami, whitefish salad. I am sure some of this stuff sounds appalling to you, but it is stuff we lovingly grew up on, and I bet you
have your favorites as well. And it would not be a trip home without a pilgrimage to Michael’s for grilled char dogs, outsized kosher hot dogs—and particularly the cheese fries. Ah, holiday cholesterol. Games, activities, foods—there are also things, objects, that make home “home.” That pewter teapot I brought back from a trip during college to England? Where did Mom and Dad find that awful painting that has been in the dining room forever? Do you remember filling the bird feeders? And pictures. Pictures everywhere. Photos through the generations. What are we going to do with the more than 30 photo albums that Dad so lovingly compiled over the years? But aren’t they fun to look through now? And yes, home is conversation around the dinner table with all of us gathered. Given the passions of the last year, we needed to declare a politics-free zone more than once, even among people who had the same points of view. On the other hand, no one in Chicago got tired of talking about the Cubs. We also toasted and remembered family members no longer with us, especially my Dad and my sister. So what is this thing called home? Ultimately, at least for me, it has two dimensions. First, home is family. The truth is we each come from different families: large and small, extended and immediate. Some of us in this chapel have extended families where all live in close proximity. That was my world growing up, where my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles and cousins lived within 10 miles of one another. I had no idea what a gift that was. Now our family is in Los Angeles and New York, Boston and Chicago and Denver. It takes a lot more work to get everyone together. Some of you have family members who live on different continents, who live a world away. Some of us have two-parent families, some have single-parent households. Interestingly, a Pew Research Center study showed that as of 2014, the minority of families in the United States—just 46 percent—have two parents in a first marriage. By contrast, 26 percent of families have a single parent. Thus, when family comes together that group can be small or large. But it is still family, with its own dynamics, its own joys and tensions, and its own range of generations. Yet, if home is family, it also is often defined by a sense of place. Here, too, we know that among the almost 500 of us gathered in this chapel, we have very different places we might call home. Some of you have lived in the same apartment or house your entire life. Others have moved several times; some of you have lived in a single town; others have moved between towns, states, even countries.
Home: My guess is that you boys won’t fully know what home means, what that sense of place may be, until you move away. After all, we are all at different stages in our lives right now. Who you First Formers are, as you just start to contemplate this idea, is different from Sixth Formers, who are starting to recognize that in six or eight months they will be graduates of this School, heading out to college and into the world. The world also looks different from the vantage points of different members of the faculty. Last year Mr. Martin celebrated his 50th Belmont Hill Reunion; Mr. Debling, only some five years removed from secondary school, used his vacation for a visit home to England for the holidays. What does home feel like to Dr. Davis, newly returned from her maternity leave, or Mr. Doar or Mr. Curran or Mr. O’Leary, all with infant children now changing their homes and sense of home? For all this, home matters. After all, we each come from our own forebears and from somewhere. Whether looking back one generation or two or three or more, we each have family and places that are part of our lives, that frame our lives. They give us roots, identity, a sense of self. I find it fascinating to watch our two daughters contemplate home. They were born and grew up on the campus of Deerfield Academy, a boarding school where Mrs. Melvoin and I worked. We then spent five years living in Wayland, and for the last 24 years we have lived here at Belmont Hill. We continue to love this place and have had many good family gatherings here over the years, and even a wedding in this chapel. Yet, if you ask our daughters where home is, they still point to Chicago, to their grandparents’ home, to a place where family has gathered since they were born, where traditions and family come together. On our last night together this year, what we called our Christmakah dinner on December 25th, my nephew, Ben, asked if this would be the last time the whole family would gather around the table. We don’t know. After all, Mom is 86 years old, and it is a lot of house to take care of. Perhaps she will move to a smaller place in time. Besides, having everyone fly in from so many places is not simple. And, after all, there are warmer places to visit in December than Chicago. But not spend the holidays at home with the family? I hope Mom is not ready to move, not ready to say farewell to our home—at least not quite yet.
to be a good man January 2, 2018
Last October 5th, The New York Times broke a story that detailed allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein, a highly successful and powerful Hollywood movie producer. On October 23rd, The New Yorker reporter Ronan Farrow wrote a lengthy piece that detailed more allegations against Weinstein. Farrow reported that 13 women had told him that Weinstein had “sexually harassed or assaulted them.” Further, he wrote, “Sixteen former and current executives and assistants at Weinstein’s companies told me that they witnessed or had knowledge of unwanted sexual advances and touching at events associated with Weinstein’s films and in the workplace. They and others described a pattern of professional meetings that were little more than thin pretexts for sexual advances on young actresses and models.” Farrow continues, “Virtually all of the people I spoke with told me that they were frightened of retaliation.” But, he added, “it’s likely that the women who spoke to me have recently felt increasingly emboldened to talk about their experiences because of the way the world has changed regarding issues of sex and power. Their disclosures follow in the wake of stories alleging sexual misconduct by public figures, including Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and Bill Cosby.” In the weeks that have followed these articles, a dam has broken. As I expect most of you know, revelation has followed revelation. A distinguished senior Democratic congressman from Detroit, a Democratic senator from Minnesota who was once a star on Saturday Night Live, a Republican congressman from Texas, a Republican senatorial candidate from Alabama—their political careers have ended. Sportscasters, athletes, celebrities—comedian Louis C.K., longtime Today Show anchor Matt Lauer—all have faced new levels of scrutiny or outright accusations. Over the last three weeks, some companies canceled or toned down dramatically their holiday parties, fearing bad behavior. Allegations against former President Clinton have again come to the fore, as have allegations against President Trump. How far will the waters spread from this broken dam? They are not receding yet— and that is a good thing. As a nation we need to take seriously issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment. And we need to talk about these issues at Belmont Hill as well. These issues affect all of us: men and women, students and adults, rich and poor, black and white, straight and gay. (Let’s remember that one of the recent revelations here in Massachusetts came when a gay man with important political ties assaulted other gay men, apparently trying to trade influence for sexual favors.)
As adults here at school, those of us on the faculty and staff need to have this conversation, for we need to make sure that every member of the community feels comfortable and safe and supported while working at this school. Fortunately, I think we have a healthy work environment here, but we need to ask the question, and the men here need to listen carefully to our women colleagues to ensure that we are the place we want to be. But even as adults in the world are thinking about these issues, so do I want to focus on you students and your actions and values, now and through Belmont Hill and when you go off to college and when you head out into the world of work. In thinking about you and how you behave with girls and women, it is our responsibility as faculty to discuss these issues with you; indeed, at a boys’ school, our responsibility is all the greater. I know that none of you boys would ever want to be accused of going to a boys’ school because it was a place that allowed or welcomed sexism or misogyny. Instead, we want and need to be a school that makes a special effort to address these issues in a forthright way. Still, I want to be careful here. I don’t want to put you on the defensive; I am not accusing any of you boys here at school of any particular attitudes or actions. As you know, I have great faith in every one of you. Part of that faith comes in the goal that I, and this faculty, have for you: that we want you to become good men. To me, the definition of a good man begins with respect for others. Yet part of what is toxic, at least in some parts of American culture, is a cult of masculinity that objectifies women: that degrades women by making them simply objects of men’s desires, and if we are going to think about what it means to be a good man, we need to understand more deeply what women often face in society. In that regard, I read a recent story from a writer named Tyler Zimmer that portrays the attitude that some men have in dealing with women. Here are Zimmer’s words: “While bent over locking up my bike in Chicago a few years ago, I heard the all too familiar sound of a wolf whistle. I turned around to get a look at the jerks accosting some woman on the street, only to realize I was the one who was being catcalled. A man passing by from behind had seen my long curly hair and tight jeans and had mistaken me for a woman. When I turned around to face him, he was shocked and started apologizing profusely. In so many words, he was saying, ‘This is an unacceptable way to behave toward a man,’ and we both knew, if I were a woman, there would be no apology. This is the double standard at the heart of masculinity: [Some] men are taught to regularly say and do things to women that they would never say or do to other men.”
What some women face in the business or professional world is shocking. Here’s a story from a business executive named Sallie Krawcheck that appeared in the December 3rd New York Times: “My first job out of college in the late 1980s was at Salomon Brothers, a trading house of cigar smoking, expletive spewing strivers. One day, I leaned over a colleague’s desk to work on a spreadsheet and heard loud laughter from behind me; one of the guys was pretending to perform a sex act on me. Almost every day, I found a xerox copy of male genitalia on my desk… . In the 1990s, I changed firms and was now a mid-level professional. The harassment shifted: Instead I had to rebuff a client, a chief executive, who asked me to join him—‘just you, no need to bring the rest of the team’—in his hotel room at 11:00 p.m. to go over some numbers. One company rescinded a job offer upon learning I had a baby at home.” When we hear stories like this, I trust that all of us are horrified. One does not treat other people this way. Part of what I worry about for you boys is the culture in which you live. You know which actions are right and which are wrong; you know the actions that you would never engage in here at this school. But what happens in a different setting? What happens when guys start making sexist comments, or start catcalling girls—is it funny? You might think it is, but… . Hearing some of these horror stories about how women have been treated in the workplace makes it clear that this national conversation is needed. Surely we need as a society to put an end to women facing sexual assault. We also need to recognize, as in the Harvey Weinstein case, that some actions that are about sex are also about power. But either way, let’s remember that sexual assault is a criminal action, something that I hope none of you would ever imagine doing. And yet there is a big difference between sexual assault and boorish or piggish or sexist behavior— let’s call it sexual misconduct. This too is part of the debate that has emerged in recent weeks. Matt Damon wrote, as cited in a recent editorial by Boston Globe reporter Joan Vennochi, that “there is a big difference between patting someone on the rear and rape or child molestation.” Damon followed that by stating that “both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated.” Damon was challenged on this by several women, including some who argued that men should simply be silent at this stage of the conversation: that men do not understand how women feel. Yet Vennochi suggests
that “the ongoing conversations between men and women are among the most positive outcomes of this cultural reckoning.” I agree. Again, as boys and men in this boys’ school, we need to talk—with women on the faculty, with girls we know, with mothers and sisters. And we need to keep our minds open. This national conversation needs to be not simply about sexual assault but should include all issues of how men treat women, how boys treat girls. Part of why this is difficult is that as men, especially if we are trying to be good and thoughtful men, we sometimes simply don’t know what the right thing is to do. Should I hold the door for a girl or a woman? Is that polite, gentlemanly, even chivalrous? Or am I impugning a woman’s strength and independence? If you go out with a girl, or as adults if one goes out with a woman, is it appropriate to pay for dinner? Is it okay for you to tell a girl she looks pretty? That she has on a lovely dress? Would you tell a guy if he is looking good? You might very well, and this would be fine for many guys and girls. But if you compliment a girl, are you saying that her value comes from her appearance? I am not trying to take away our opportunities to compliment or be nice to one another, including people of the opposite sex. But this can be a bit trickier than at first glance. Even getting down to daily social interaction, is it okay to flirt with a girl? I think it is—I think that is part of a healthy social life—but one needs to be sensitive to the issues at hand. Figuring out the right thing to say or do gets even more challenging as you go off to college. I will comfortably offer a large wager with all you Sixth Form boys that by the end of your first week in college next fall, you will have heard from your proctor or dorm resident or freshman dean or some authority at college a stern warning about sexual assault. And with good reason: Date rape is a serious, potentially criminal issue, especially if individuals who are engaging in sex do not have a clear idea of what is acceptable to the other person. I recognize that for you younger students, this issue may sound distant; yet for at least some of you older boys, the issue is real now. And if you engage in sexual activity, you cannot tell a girl how to feel after the fact; you need to be careful and respectful before you ever get to that point. Sometimes, when issues like this get too complicated for me, I try to simplify them so that I can find a good path forward. In some ways, the issues of sexual
assault and harassment are immensely complicated, yet in other ways they are simple. One of the things I wish for you in your life is that you have a fulfilling, meaningful relationship with a partner who wants to share her, or his, life with you. In my experience, that relationship will be strong and meaningful if it is based on friendship and partnership and respect. Is love part of that? I surely hope so. Is a healthy sexual relationship part of that? For most people it is. But what endures in a strong relationship is not the sex; it is the respectful partnershipâ€”a life, if you will, of working together. Thus, this becomes as good a time as any to remind you about what I, and my faculty colleagues, care about most for you. At a time when many seniors have recently heard college news, I remind you that what matters to us is not where you go to college. Instead, it centers on the kind of life you are going to lead, the way you treat others, the good you do in the world, what kind of husband or partner or father you will be. Much of that has to do with the world you will live inâ€”that is, a world of women and men. In a school that rightly celebrates boys, we need always to remember that. Again, I hope you are hearing loud and clear that I, and my colleagues, have great faith in you and great hopes for every one of you. To be a good man, the best man you can be, means that you strive to be a good partner, friend, coworker, and teammate with all. And this is really not so hard. What is essential is simple. You already treat other people with respect based on their race, or their religion, or their sexual orientation. So do you need to treat them with respect based on gender. These issues are endlessly complicated with their ties to dating, work relationships, marriage, family, simple physical attraction. Too often our society makes it harder with the media images and advertising and objectification of women. Thus I will try one final way to simplify this and hope it might work. If you think about a girl you are meeting, or when you watch others interacting with a girl, how would you feel about the treatment of that girl if she were your sister? If you hear about mistreatment of women in the workplace, how do you react if that woman could be your mother? Our society has some work to do, and both men and women need to lead the way. I hope you will be among those good men who not only act well but also lead well.
Studium – Fidelitas – Providentia March 26, 2018
If you were going to start a school, what would be its motto? For me and my colleagues on the faculty, and maybe for you, the idea of starting a school could be tantalizing to contemplate. What name would you choose for your new school? What would be its mission? Who would hire the faculty, create the program, develop the courses, find the location? Who would recruit the first group of students, and what would you look for? For you boys who want to find a way to make the world a better place, building a school could be truly gratifying, possibly a worthy life’s work. For those of you with entrepreneurial spirit, the idea of starting any new venture could be exhilarating. But back to my first question. What should be the school’s motto? What phrase or two or three words might you choose? As the oldest college in the country, founded in 1636, Harvard selected just one word: Veritas, or truth. Almost 65 years later, in 1701, Yale offered a slight variation with Lux et Veritas—light and truth. Two hundred twenty-two years later, the founders of Belmont Hill faced their choice, their opportunity. As you know, they selected three Latin words. The decision to use Latin in itself made a statement. But I want today to think with you about the three words the founders chose, both individually and as they work together. In my opening talk of the school year back in August, I urged you boys to consider the word studium, which you may recall means study, yet also means eagerness, enthusiasm, spirit, zeal, passion, diligence. It is easy to understand why Belmont Hill’s founding fathers wanted these qualities in their students. The energy, spirit, and effort that you boys bring to the classroom is a critical part of what makes this school work each day. No matter what your level of talent or ability, each of you can bring these attributes, these gifts, to your academics, as well as to your sports or acting or music or community service or other activities. Are there limits to studium? Of course there are. One can have great enthusiasm and spirit, yet it is important to listen to others. Some students are just as thoughtful, committed, and talented as any, but are more quiet. In the public arena, zeal can become dangerous when fed by a demagogue or an angry mob. But as a virtue, we certainly applaud studium at Belmont Hill, and I have long admired the energy and spirit you boys give to the School.
But our school’s founders didn’t choose just one word; they chose three. The second is fidelitas, which means loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness. This too is a great virtue, and it strikes me that it is a particularly powerful one at this school. Loyalty to one another, to teachers, to Belmont Hill: All of that animates this school’s spirit. Plenty of you boys have heard, perhaps ad nauseam, about the extraordinary loyalty of Belmont Hill alumni. Many graduates stay in close touch with classmates, not just throughout their college years but also throughout their lives. Belmont Hill guys are famous for helping each other explore opportunities in the workforce; many alumni by their generosity to this school help provide the facilities and resources that we get to enjoy every day. Loyalty, and a drive to help others, can also lead to acts of courage. Are there downsides, dangers to fidelitas? Again, like studium, there are limits. Faithfulness can be a great virtue, yet blind faith brings great risk. Do you always support a friend, even if he is doing something wrong? In the public sector, as someone who grew up with many in this country believing that we were fighting an unjust, immoral war in Vietnam, we confronted the notion of “my country, right or wrong.” Is the government always right? And if you believe it is wrong, do you have an obligation to speak up, to act? You can even go back to our country’s Founding Fathers. We know them now as heroes, but weren’t they in rebellion, breaking the law, defying the authorities? On a more personal level, we sometimes face conflicting loyalties. What happens when two friends of yours are at odds with each other? Do you take sides? If so, how and why? What happens when your loyalty to a friend or classmate or teammate runs into a school or team rule? What happens when a friend threatens to break a law? As important a virtue as it can be, loyalty also gets tested. On to the third word that marks our school seal. Providentia means foresight: the ability to look past the moment, to take a broad view, a long-term view. It challenges us to get beyond the immediate moment, to look ahead. It can be simple: planning out the time needed to get ready for an exam, or studying Latin vocabulary a few words at a time so that the accumulation does not become overwhelming. It means putting in the time in the weight room that will pay off on the playing field. For musicians, it means spending hours in the practice room on scales or technique,
knowing that the work will be rewarded in the recital or concert down the road. As a broader vision, in the civil rights movement it meant making sure one kept one’s “eyes on the prize”—remembering the big goals, the big picture, remembering that one does not usually fulfill great dreams without great effort over a long period of time. So—three words on a school seal. Yet there is something else about that seal that is worth thinking about, for the words are set in a circle. There is no hierarchy of words; there is no order to them. Rather, they work together—another virtue of this school that we all hold on to tightly. Passion and loyalty and foresight spin together throughout our days, hopefully providing some kind of balance for each of us. They are not perfect words: No word can be perfect for all people all the time, and each has its limits. Zeal and loyalty, especially together, can become dangerous. Enthusiasm can run over quieter souls who are deep thinkers. Even foresight, taken to an extreme, brings with it the risk of lost spontaneity and joy. I had a friend who chose a career path that made him miserable. He said he was following it because he could make a lot of money—which was true—and that his plan was to work hard enough and long enough to make a pile of money so he could stop and then do something he enjoyed, or perhaps do nothing at all. He may have been farsighted in his plan, but I shuddered as I saw the emptiness of his life. He got stuck in the trap that once he made “enough” money he would stop—but he has not stopped yet. But perhaps no virtue is ever completely pure; no school motto can ever be perfect. Those of you who have survived Ethics class with me may remember a question I sometimes ask about whether there are ethical absolutes—values that are always right or wrong. As a matter of integrity, should one always tell the truth? Of course—except maybe not when someone asks you about the new piece of clothing that he or she just bought and is very proud of, or the effort that one made on stage or on a playing field that you just witnessed. How about “Thou shalt not kill”? Of course this too is always right…except when it is not, when there is a matter of self-defense, or in warfare where men and women are sometimes declared heroes for killing the enemy. The point is that we can and should take any big ideas, any words that matter, and think about them carefully. We have three good words that mark this school. We may emphasize different words on different days. Words and values get tested. We get tested—in as simple a way as trying to keep enthusiasm and spirits up when you get a low grade or get cut from a team.
But that’s the point: How do we react when we get tested? How can these three words serve us as we go forward? Back to our school seal. When you look at it, perhaps later today or later this spring or later in life, I hope you can keep those three words circling around you, for the virtues of enthusiasm and diligence, faithfulness and loyalty, foresight and prudence can take you far in this world. Yet, in the middle of the seal, let us also remember, is the sextant, the navigational tool that guides one’s journey on sometimes stormy seas. Maybe that sextant is the School. If so, let’s remember that it is not a simple tool. It is not easy to use at first; it takes practice and skill, but it can set you on the right path. As we start into the spring, my wish for you is that you keep these words, these symbols, in your mind and in your heart through the busy weeks ahead, through all your time at Belmont Hill and, indeed, long after you leave this place. After all, most of your life will not be spent at this school, but that sextant was set in place to serve as your guide. May you carry these words and these symbols—indeed, this seal—with you for a good spring and, more importantly, for a good life beyond.
DR . R ICH A R D I. M E LVOI N h ead of scho o l 1993–2017
Richard I. Melvoin is the 8th Head of Belmont Hill School, beginning his 25-year tenure in 1993. A 1973 graduate of Harvard College, with a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Michigan, he began his career at Deerfield Academy as a history teacher, coach of soccer and track, theater director, and, in time, chair of the History Department and Dean of Studies. Dr. Melvoin returned to Harvard in 1988, where he spent five years as Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid and as a Lecturer in History and Literature. During his tenure at Belmont Hill School, he has served the greater educational community in several ways, including as board president of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition, president of The Headmasters Association, member of the Board of Overseers at Harvard, and board member at the Winsor School, the Haverford School, and the Epiphany School, as well as The Steppingstone Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves. Dr. Melvoin and his wife, Bunny, also a lifelong educator, have two daughters—both in the “family business” of education—and four remarkable grandchildren.
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Reflections from Head of School Dr. Richard I. Melvoin