[What follows is a letter going in mailboxes today to the families of St. George’s Independent School. All of the pictures are from our Memphis and Germantown campuses Book Parades.]
Thanksgiving and Christmas come so close together that just as soon as our attention turns fully to the first, we have to turn it immediately to the next. Holiday whiplash.The close proximity of the two highlights of the year confounds school calendars and creates a wind-sprint in Episcopal schools in particular as we strain to fit in every Christmas Pageant, gift exchange, Choral concert, and rigorous exam into a space barely, just barely, able to contain it all without bursting at the seam right through the New Year and into January. With that in mind, for this newsletter I have sought a topic that might serve both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I recently joined Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, and Germantown campus Assistant Chaplains, Kim Finch and Carrie Carpenter, in Atlanta for the National Association of Episcopal SchoolsConference. While there were a number of highlights, and we each learned a great deal, several speakers stood out for me—Ketch Secor, member of Old Crow Medicine Show (and writer and lead singer of “Wagon-Wheel”) who spoke about his father—a legendary Episcopal School Head; Becca Stevens, Founder of Thistle Farms, who gave a deeply engaging talk about the work of Thistle Farms; and the Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, who during a celebration of Communion, delivered a homily as powerful as any I have ever heard. (You may remember Bishop Curry as the Celebrant from the Royal Wedding in May). His words challenged and comforted in equal doses, and I gave him, and indeed to Becca and Ketch as well, my full and undivided attention.When I give someone such rapt attention, I tend to turn square to them. Like a tennis player prepared to return a vicious serve, I find that my shoulders become parallel to the speaker. I am fully present for them, and the rest of the world melts away in much the same way it does when I am engrossed in a book. Just before Thanksgiving Break, I went to the Germantown campus Book Character Parade, and I was reminded of the amazing space of complete and joyful engagement a book can provide children and indeed all of us. We become so dialed-in that we can become a bit vulnerable—ever sneak up on someone lost in reading? At the NAES Conference, I entered a similar space of deep engagement, and I was fortunate to share it with fantastic colleagues from St. George’s and from around the country. Thankfully, no one snuck up on me—or I would have jumped from my seat.Often—far too often—we tend to skate so lightly across the surface of experience that we risk missing the full import of what is happening around us. We risk becoming people who only read the headlines of our lives. Given the hope and possibility that has been delivered to us, represented in the nativity we celebrate December 25th, this sort of experience skating is not good enough for us—most saliently, it is not good enough for the education of our children. At St. George’s we want more for and expect more of our kids.So what does this have to do with Thanksgiving and Christmas? A lot. Our Chapel theme for November is gratitude, and only when we are fully present, when we are open to both the wonders of and challenges of the world around us are we in position to appreciate creation and our role within it. Though it is a good idea to share greetings of the season no matter your faith tradition, it is not the saying of such things as “Happy Thanksgiving” or of “Merry Christmas” that defines our gratitude–it is instead in our thankful presence for the season and for the years that encase it. Gratitude is requisite for both the celebration of Thanksgiving and of Christmas, and indeed all the days of our lives.
I am grateful for St. George’s each day, and I hope you will continue to join us in helping your children be fully present for all this school has to offer. My New Year’s wish will be that we lead by example in teaching them to square up to it all, for in doing so, they will be able to live their gratitude and their appreciation for the lives we share.
St. George’s Independent School Head Chaplain, Jessica Abell, recently asked two questions during a homily at the Germantown campus: “How many of you have Alexa at home? And, what do you ask her? The first question elicited a multitude of raised hands, and the second question included answers such as: “I ask her the answer to math problems.” “I ask her how to spell things.” “I ask her to tell me funny jokes/to read me stories/to teach me dinosaur facts.” How interesting. One student said Alexa can also order things…Yikes!
In my experience as a student, I didn’t have Alexa to provide such information. I remember arguing with a classmate early in middle school about who had more major championships to his name, Rod Laver or Ken Rosewall. We could not resolve such a dispute quickly. We needed a library or an authority on the topic, perhaps our tennis coach. As a result, we just argued in such situations, at times seemingly endlessly. It was not unheard of for similar disagreements to end at last with grass stains and bruises. Today’s students get to move quickly past finding out the right answer to questions far harder than the Laver or Rosewall question and toward more important challenges. How is what I know important? What else do we need to know? Where is the most reliable source of information that might help us? What do we now do as a result of what we now know? How do we communicate what we have learned?The brand of middle school disagreements I participated in are virtually extinct today. Of course, the quick accessibility of facts is not a news bulletin in 2018, but understanding its impact, its challenges and opportunities, occupies those of us working with students. As educators, we might feel tempted to feel a bit obsolete in a world where asking a question often takes longer than it takes to provide the answer. However, the teachers at St. George’s, teachers willing to take advantage of what we know about how kids learn best, have never been more necessary for young people, for we are moving into a time when the primacy of content delivery is waning, and the role of teaching skills, such as collaboration and synthesizing disparate pieces of data are ascending. It is not good enough to know something (though students must also know things); they must know what to do with what they know, how to make meaning from it, and how to work with others to create shared understanding and purpose. They also have to learn how to disagree, how to compromise, and how to stand their ground. And increasingly, we must help student become accomplished at discriminating what is true in a bottomless sea of falsehoods. Against a backdrop of national debates that are too often devoid of quality thinking or requisite facts, the work of our school is taking on a greater importance. I am reminded daily at St. George’s that the best learning experiences happen when our students are connected to each other through the work of a great teacher. In such an atmosphere, students have the appropriate space to work together, to disagree and to agree, and to find common ground.
Indeed, becoming educated is not a solitary act, and it does not have just one beneficiary. The education our students work toward at our school is a gift to them individually, yes, but it is also a gift to the families they will be a part of, the professions they will occupy, and the communities within which they will live and serve. Choosing St. George’s and partnering positively with the school to educate these remarkable kids has a ripple effect that will undoubtedly last a life-time. In short, as parents our choice of and partnership with the school is among the greatest individual gifts we can give our children, and it is far, far more as well—such an education has the power not only to transform the trajectory of the lives of our individual children, but also the power to transform the neighborhoods, cities, and nation they will inhabit.At St. George’s we are busy providing experiences that go far beyond simply content. Whether our kids are making soap and lip balm through the second-grade bee project or they are testing water in our Collierville wetlands with University of Memphis researchers, our students are allowed to go deeper into learning than memorizing facts and content. As advanced as the technology Alexa and Siri represents is, it is equally as limited. Students need a great school like ours to make learning experiences more engaging and more collaborative, thus allowing us to prepare them to thrive in the lives they will lead.
I have been struggling to write a message for the upcoming newsletter for St. George’s Independent School. Sometimes this sort of writing comes to me very quickly. More often, however, the final piece is the result of a painful process of starting and stopping, of inventing and disregarding, of editing and finally letting go. This week’s effort has followed this arduous path.
Compounding my struggle has been the SAIS (Southern Association of Independent Schools) Conference in Charleston, which ended on Tuesday. As always, I learned a lot, and I found some of my current thinking reinforced and found some challenged. One issue that echoed throughout the conference was the ongoing threat to civil discourse, that is, dialogue intended to enhance understanding, in our country and world. Schools are struggling to remain hubs for civil discourse as such dialogues are corroding at every level of society. Role models seem harder and harder to find. The onus for solving this problem rests on all of us–on those of us in leadership roles and/or in positions to care for and educate young people more heavily, and we are falling far short daily. Our kids are watching.
We tend to blame technology or the absence of civil discourse, and we tend to blame whomever we perceive as the opposition, the media, politicians, humanists, scientists, and anyone not from where we might be from. Valuing civility, however, necessitates looking honestly at ourselves. In an attempt to resort my thinking on this topic, I am reposting past blog entries that bear on civility and civil discourse. What I include here is not exhaustive–I could stretch to include more, as I have been thinking and writing about this topic over a number of years now.
Close readers will notice that I drew each of the reposts here from the late summer and fall of 2016–another election year. This was not my original intent (I really just did a word search of ROSS ALL OVER THE MAP), but it is appropriate. Hearing the bitterness of the 2016 election season, I wanted to make sure the school where I work and have a child was naming the values most important to us. I find myself in a similar position this election season.
[We sent the following letter out to the St. George’s Independent School Community this morning. While it is relevant specifically to SGIS, I believe it also has some relevance to all schools on this eve of the 2016-2017 school year.]
We are gearing up for a great year at SGIS. As I write, the new lacrosse wall is going up; teams are sweating it out on the courts, fields, and in the weight room; rewiring is complete to allow for more pottery wheels in the art room at Collierville; and teachers are making preparations for their courses. I am sitting in my Collierville campus office, having recently returned from vacation in the North Carolina mountains, and I am feeling the familiar anticipation of the first day of school. Now with a year at St. George’s under my belt, I believe more powerfully than ever that this is a special place doing important work for all the children who join us.
While this summer for the Peters family has been replete with chances to reconnect with friends and family, and we have enjoyed opportunities to spend some time on familiar ground in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, my enjoyment of the summer has been tempered not only by tragic news in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Nice, but also by our national struggle to remember that we share more in common than that which separates us.
As I think about the troubling momentum of our recent headlines, Psalm 133 seems relevant. Its first verse —“Behold how good and pleasant it is/for God’s people to dwell together in unity”— is particularly evocative for me as its first three words, Ecce Quam Bonum, provide the Latin motto of my undergraduate school, and it has become a habit of many of my Sewanee friends to sign cards and emails to other graduates with the letters EQB. The rest of the Psalm points out that “dwelling together in unity” places us closer to God and is indeed a gift from God.
Placed in relief by the frightening events of this summer, Psalm 133 reveals that we have a rare opportunity in this school, and rather than warn you against the dangers of squandering it, I would like for us to think about how we might strengthen the ties that bind us. I believe we can use that strength to serve and to lead students so that they might become servant leaders in communities that will always have poignant need for them. I do not know the future, but I do know that, whatever way it tilts and spins in the days, months, and years ahead, the world will need such people as St. George’s strives to graduate (SGIS Portrait of a Graduate).It will need them not only to meet the world’s gaze but also to engage it with strength, empathy, determination, and integrity. It will need them, not only to recognize the issues that may divide us, but also to know how to engage people who see the way forward differently than we do.
After this long preface I have an ask for all of us – teachers, parents, friends and students: make a commitment to civility and to civil discourse within our school community. Please make this commitment even as we witness its opposite day in and day out in media, in political campaigns, on athletic field sidelines, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat threads. We cannot ask young people to be civil, much less to value civility and civil dialogue if we are not able to meet the standard ourselves.
The most highly charged issues of our time are alive in the conversations our students are having with and without us every day. We know that they are watching us carefully. Interestingly, even when as parents we believe our kids are not listening to us or valuing our opinions, there is no source of insight they trust more than us. They are listening to what we say and how we say it. They are using us to formulate their opinions and to calibrate their character. They are testing boundaries in order to find the lines within which they will operate as adults. In our national dialog we are struggling to post appropriate boundary markers for young people regarding civility, so in our community, the SGIS community, we have an obligation to be counter-cultural.
Preparing students, our children, for the “real world” does not mean emulating its worst characteristics. The best preparation for young people includes setting a far higher bar so that they grow into the very people who are ready to help raise standards above the lowest common denominator. At SGIS, the call to be counter-cultural in this area is not new; however, the immediacy of its relevance has never been more clear. St. George’s has always sought to bring people together, and our three-campus model drawing from over fifty zip codes is a testament to both our faith that we can navigate the spaces that separate us and our determination that we must. I request that all members of our school community deepen our commitment to civility even as the world around us may seem determined to undermine the effort. Civility involves acts of will and thus reflects our character both as individuals and as a group.
So as we begin a new school year, one with such promise for all of us, I will strive to keep Psalm 133’s call in the front of my mind: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity.”
Take responsibility for personal behavior, attitude, and actions
Promote civility through everyday interactions
Listen fully and attentively to the speaker, seeking to understand them
Practice non-violence, using words to inspire change
Our Mission: St. George’s Independent School is an Episcopal school dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values.
Good Morning! Good FIRST morning of the 2016-2017 school year.
Before sharing a couple of thoughts with you, I want to give a shout-out to the Class of 2017. I couldn’t more excited about the creativity and leadership of this group of seniors. I would also like to offer a round of applause to our prefects who have been hard at work preparing for the year ahead.
On Saturday evening, most of the Class of 2017 joined Mr. Gibson, Mr. Morris, Mr. Gorham, Ms. Hardy, and I at the St. George’s Bunkhouse in order to socialize, to eat Central BBQ, and to see our new space—it is awesome(!). Our time together was a chance to reconnect, or better for our purposes this morning, to remind them that they are interconnected as they prepare for the challenge and excitement of their final year at St. George’s as students.
I have long admired the 20th century thinker and novelist Aldous Huxley. For years I taught his novel Brave New World. In the novel Huxley imagines a society that has had human connectedness and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. As a result of prioritizing comfort and stability over everything else, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us. Additionally, many of the challenges we see in our world are absent, but to the reader’s increasing horror so are love, relationships, and caring. In the final work of his career, entitled Island, Huxley offered advice that to my ear seems perfectly timed for us. In the novel he implores: “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”
With Huxley’s thought in mind, I spoke for a couple of minutes to the Seniors on Saturday evening. I talked to them about their role as leaders of the school, and I spoke about the idea that we are each part of the St. George’s ecosystem. As you likely learned or will soon learn in biology class an ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources and residents of a place or area. St. George’s human ecosystem includes three campuses; it includes faculty, staff; it includes infants who are less than a year old and members of the Class of 2017; it also includes alumni, trustees, and families. Here is the key idea of my remarks this morning: our job, OUR job, is to make the St. George’s ecosystem as healthy as we possibly can. Indeed, a substantial part of the lives that I wish for each of you after your time at St. George’s is that you make all the ecosystems of which you are a member healthier and more sustainable. I am thinking of your colleges and universities and later, your cities and neighborhoods, for they are ecosystems as well.
I also took some time in my comments to our Seniors to expand our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. In fact, if someone says that someone else is their neighbor, we naturally assume that they live very close to each other. However, I would like us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. I would like for us to include people with whom we disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor, and I would like for us to be among the people who strive to be good neighbors. At St. George’s we are going to name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor SG901, for as much as any school, if not more than any school, we are deeply connected—we are neighbors—to all of our area code.
In the letter I emailed you recently I made an ask for civility within the St. George’s community. For me playing a healthy part in our ecosystem, being a good neighbor, and committing to civility and to civil discourse are all intertwined—in fact, to my way of thinking they are essentially the same thing. Striving to make the parts of the world we touch healthier, kinder, more humane is the same thing as striving to be a good neighbor, and the same thing as striving for civility in our interactions with others.
This is not just my ask, however. In the Gospel today—a reading from Matthew we call the Beatitudes—Christ identifies “Peacekeepers” as the Children of God. By telling us that the peacekeeper is blessed he is calling us to be Peacekeepers. That should be us; that must be us. Peacekeepers embody the characteristics of a good neighbor, and they make human ecosystems stronger.
Every part of an ecosystem impacts the way the system as a whole functions. What part will you play in St. George’s ecosystem this year?
It is an honor to have you all here. Let’s make it a great year! Amen.
It seems everybody is playing it. They are playing it in politics, in media, around water-coolers, after church on Sunday, in school hallways, on social media post comment threads, in post-game interviews, in the stands at High School (or Middle School or Elementary School) athletic events. Bombasticball.
Bom-bas’tic-ball, n. a game played with sharpened tongues where combatants duel by hurling high-sounding, turgid prose (the “ball”) back and forth to try to gain points. Players prepare for matches by rehearsing in front of others they perceive as like-minded in an exercise called “preaching to the choir.” Such competitions are given to hyperbole, red-herrings, non-sequiturs, hasty generalizations and other logical fallacies. The dominant player, often winning as a result of volume and/or deployment of a strategy called “Filibluster” *, receives a brief feeling of righteousness, which can lead to the creation of dependency on the game. In short, one might begin by playing it and end up being played by it.
The risks of too much bombasticball in a competitive regimen include spiritual corrosion, misplaced priorities, isolation from viewpoints that might inform a thoughtful revision of an opinion, and pride (not the good kind).
*Fili-blus-ter, n. ineffective loud, aggressive, or indignant talk such as a prolonged speech that obstructs progress toward real solutions but may indeed be the positive difference-maker in games of bombasticball.
At the end of this post I have included an excerpt from my email to faculty and staff today, as well as a “Prayer for Civil Debate”, which I wrote for an assembly in which students debated key issues during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. While relevant then, the prayer almost seems quaint now given the extreme vitriol of this election season. The topic of civility has been on my mind for many months and indeed it was the topic of my letter (“An Ask for Civility”) to the St. George’s Independent School community in advance of this school year.
As Head of an independent school, an Episcopal school, I am not called to or inclined to support one party over another or one candidate over another publicly. However, I do believe I am called and educators everywhere are called to announce that we can and must seek a higher bar for discourse in our country. This Presidential campaign has created appalling moments, many of them. It is not business as usual and it is not OK. If we enter into debates (not simply the debates we see on television and social media, but any place where people debate charged topics) with only intent to speak, we will never hear, and we will find ourselves shouting. At some point in such an environment, the desire to win at any cost comes to dwarf the desire to tell the truth and to find the best answers to the challenges that face us.
We speak often of character education in our schools. We have appropriately high expectations regarding how to engage other people and how to be a part of a community together. I love the character education aspect of our work because fundamentally I believe that civility, humility, and kindness must be present to balance our passions, beliefs, and opinions. Our emphasis on this balance is vital and relevant in part because history teaches over and over again that it is never an easy thing to achieve AND very little can be accomplished without it.
Our nation has a long and mixed history of success in challenging debates. In the end, however, we have survived because our debates, at times after long enmity, have led to a recognition that we can and must be stronger as a result of each other rather than corroded by presence of each other. In the end we have been our best as a nation when we have been as willing to learn as we are to speak, teach or preach. Too many voices, loud shouting voices, have been telling us recently that it is weakness to seek or try to engage in thoughtful dialogue. If it is a weakness, then the great statesmen and women of history, and specifically our national history, were weak. To assert this is as obscene as it is untrue.
AN EXCERPT FROM MY FRIDAY EMAIL TO FACULTY AND STAFF: I found myself wincing, not for the first time, last night reviewing the headlines. If you are like me, you are feeling election stress. While the existence of this stress is not unprecedented in general, it is unprecedented in degree this year–it has been a deeply bruising campaign season.
Given all this, it is vital to remember our important role with the young people in our charge even when those around us are dropping their guard. All the simple things good teachers do, regardless of the age of the students in the room, make a difference at a time when we know adults are not the only ones feeling stress. Kids feel it in powerful, often unspoken and hidden ways. So..for our students, please remember… Whenever we greet them, laugh with them, connect with them, are kind to them, we are naming them as God’s children, and we are affirming their place in the SGIS community. The value of this part of our work cannot be overestimated.
PRAYER FOR CIVIL DEBATE
Dear Lord, during this season of negative TV ad buys, sniping bumper stickers, relentless media cycles, righteous indignation, overly abundant and overly heated cheap shots, AND during this time of strong feelings, earnest conversations, party platforms, red, white, and blue yard signs, and intelligent debates…
Please help us to remember you and help us to keep an eye on the issues that transcend the political issues of the day. In these moments when we are pushed to delineate what separates us, to name where we disagree, help us to keep an eye on what connects us and what unites us, and let us honor you through the way we honor each other—particularly in those moments when we disagree with each other. Help us to keep an eye on what is bigger than the moment, and give us ears to hear even when we are perhaps looking far more to use our lips to speak.
As we barrel toward the November election, let us, in the words of the psalmist, seek to make the “words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.” AMEN
[Tom Morris, the Upper School Director at St. George’s Independent School is leaving after many years to take a key position at Wyoming Seminary. They are lucky to get him. We send him there with all best wishes–we know he’ll be great! Today’s post includes his reflection from our Baccalaureate Service last Friday evening. You can find the two student speeches from that evening HERE. You can also find the Valedictorian Speech and Salutatorian speeches from Saturday’s Commencement HERE. Finally, my reflection from Commencement is HERE.]
From Tom Morris, Upper School Director at SGIS:
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians was written to the small Christian Church he founded in Corinth, and came in response to challenges within that community. With his letter, Paul was attempting unify the Corinthian church by reminding them of the core principles that bound them together as Christians.
As noted Tuesday night at rehearsal for this event, there are three threads that weave their way through the most embarrassing moments your class has had over the years. Those threads are illustrative and are worth some thought.
Thread number one involves some sort of fall. Falling over people, falling over friends who have already fallen, falling up stairs, or falling down stairs – the Class of 2018 knows how to fall.
The second thread involves mistakes in front of large groups. Whether that mistake is singing the wrong words to a song, winging a speech, or nearly fainting in front of an audience, the Class of 2018 knows how to go big or go home.
The third thread is middle school. Enough said.
I’d suggest, however, that each thread of embarrassment actually represents a core, defining strength of the Class of 2018.
Falling is unpleasant for both the faller and the fallen upon, yet the frequency with which it appeared among your most embarrassing moments reveals your resilience. Much of what the future will bring you depends on your ability to bounce back from a failure or disappointment. And, as you take on increasingly meaningful responsibilities, or when life throws you an unexpected challenge, you will be able to rely on the resilience you have cultivated in your time at St. George’s.
If you had not taken the healthy risk to be on stage, no one would have noticed your departure from the script. But the point is, you took that healthy risk. The willingness and courage to do so is another great strength of this class. Your many successes over the years would not have happened had you not chosen to take the right risk. You chose to engage in a pursuit and chose to succeed. Doing so cannot happen without the willingness to push into discomfort.
And, while middle school may not be understood as a strength for all of you, the degree to which you continued to learn and grew from that experience is a strength. Over your time here at St. George’s, you have never stopped learning and growing as thinkers, servant leaders, artists, athletes, and citizens.
You have grown in an environment that encourages, facilitates, and rewards taking healthy risks. You have grown in an environment that views impact with guardrails, sometimes repeated impact with guardrails, among its most valuable and precious teaching moments. As you move from St. George’s to the next phase of your life, the inherent rewards and pitfalls associated with risk taking become magnified in ways you do not yet fully understand. The implications of decisions made over the coming years can play out over a lifetime, thus your resilience, your willingness to lean into learning, and your comfort taking healthy risks will serve you well.
With this in mind, and with the knowledge that the school’s ability to actively inform and guide your growth is almost at its end, the following questions seem appropriate:
What role will love play in your life? Will you love possessions and vanity, or will you work to embody the depth of love Paul notes in our reading?
What will drive your decision making? Impulse, or ethical, reflective, moral thought and consideration?
Will your decisions be driven by a desire to please others, or by self-respect and an appreciation of your self-worth?
Do you know what is truly right for yourself, and for others? Do you have the courage to stand up for it, regardless of the cost?
What role will your faith play in informing your curiosity and boundary pushing?
As you move through different phases in your life, will you leave your surroundings better than when you arrived?
Will you choose to be around people who may lead you to bad decisions, and leave you to deal with the consequences alone?
Knowing that growth and achievement is forged in adversity and challenge, will you choose to continue growing, or will you take the path of least resistance? What are the implications of that choice?
Will your innate strengths allow you to be defined by the problems you solve, or those you create?
Will you have the courage to be truly honest with yourself and others? What do you risk by not being honest?
What have you made of your parents’ investment toward your St. George’s education? Were you respectful of their commitment and their sacrifice on your behalf? If not, what does college hold for you? How do you honor those sacrifices moving forward?