Three Refrains for the Class of 2017: A Commencement Address

Good afternoon! Welcome to all gathered here in support of the St. George’s Independent School’s Class of 2017. This class has on a regular basis made me proud to be a part of this community.

These seniors have earned this day in this place surrounded by this group—surrounded by families, by faculty, by staff, and by friends. They are an accomplished group—it is beyond my ability to delineate every contribution here though suffice to say, the members of this class have impacted our school in positive and lasting ways. They have been scholars, artists, athletes, actors, friends, mistake-makers, victory-winners, supporters, leaders, Saturday-schoolers; they have been members of teams, makers of grades, givers of service, and they have sometimes stayed up most of the night and slept most of the day. They have been part of us, vital parts of the body of this school, their school. Perhaps representative of this, next week many of them will continue to represent St. George’s in state athletic competition in Track, Tennis, Baseball and Soccer. LET ME ASK ANY SENIOR COMPETING NEXT WEEK TO STAND AND BE RECOGNIZED. Clearly, we aren’t quite ready to let go of you yet!

 I too often live in my head—there are always things churning around up here between my ears. And indeed, such was the case as I started to work through what I might tell this class, this memorable class of 2017, before they cross this stage and move ahead to what comes next. I started and restarted and stopped and pondered. I was taking too long, and I was risking falling short of my duty, my last duty, to this group before they join the impressive alumni group of this school.

And then I had a three-campus experience Friday morning that resolved my dilemma. In the first three hours of the day, I shook hands with Memphis campus students and families heading into their awards ceremony, and later I witnessed as teachers on the Germantown campus recognized students for citizenship, and finally, I hurried over to Agape Chapel where I met up with you and read you a story and rehearsed this very ceremony. After all that, I realized that I don’t have something new to say, but I do have a couple of refrains to share—I need a last determined calling out to you, imploring you to stay focused on what is most important. Here is my list: number one, honor others; number two, celebrate other’s accomplishments; number three, remember the simple good.

The Memphis campus students are becoming excellent at shaking hands and making eye contact with me. I think I may have scared some of them earlier in the year when I mentioned in my teacher voice that I would like them to work on this skill, so on Friday as I was greeting them, a number held their eyes particularly wide open to make sure I would note their quality eye-contact, as they stopped long enough to say: “Good morning, Mr. Peters” or as a few say, “Good morning, Mr. Ross Peters.” They are learning that that it is important to greet others well in order to recognize and value, even in that fleeting moment of a hand-shake, the lives of others. This ritual of shaking hands is a way that we honor each other, a way that we name each other, and a way that we humanize each other. A warm greeting, long enough to make eye contact, short enough not to hold up the line, stands for all the ways we honor others.

I missed a good bit of the Germantown Award ceremony in route from the Memphis campus. Hurrying from my car I made it to the Chapel just in time to see the Citizenship Awards. I edged along the outside aisle to find a seat behind Ms. Colgate, who along with Carolyn Wilder Morton, Jane Finney and Pat McGraw is retiring at the end of this school year. LET ME ASK THAT EACH OF THEM STAND TO BE RECOGNIZED. So after taking my seat, I had a perfect view of each teacher greeting and celebrating with the students being recognized. There was a lovely intimacy in this exchange—the teacher handing a certificate to an excited child, the two of them turning together toward the camera to get their picture taken. Beyond the stage there was a joyously full chapel with kids and families, teachers, and staff not simply clapping for those recognized but living within a connection to each other—a kind of communion. It is a beautiful convergence for me that just moments ago we celebrated the accomplishments of four members of our community whose lives within St. George’s were defined by supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of others. So, to the Class of 2017 in whatever life you build, do that, please, do what they and many others have done for you…celebrate and support others.

After ghosting away immediately after the Germantown campus Awards Ceremony, I drove to the Agape Chapel and met you there. I did on the last weekday of your Senior year what I did on one of the very first days of Pre-K for another group when I arrived in 2015—I read you a children’s story. There is so much that is intricate and complex in our world—it is not going to get simpler. That said, it is often the simple things, the things we first heard from the lips of our parents or learned from gentle nudges from our first teachers or even heard in a story read to us as we drifted to sleep at bedtime that offer us the guidance to navigate the world. Those stories tell us to: listen, cooperate, share, forgive, be kind, and love.

We live within a culture defined to a large degree by the priority of “getting what’s mine”, as in “I am determined to get what’s mine.” The class of 2017 does not need to learn but rather they need to remember Dr. King’s counter-point to that potentially corrosive cultural characteristic. I discussed this topic in our MLK Chapel early this year. He said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” I said in January and echo today that, “this question should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.” Seniors, you felt this push shaking hands, you felt it as you developed your sense of community. It is in the end a push toward something really simple, but not at all easy. It is the challenge of our lives.

Godspeed Class of 2017! Thank you.

Above: the 2016-2017 St. George’s Independent School Prefects

Above: new graduates celebrating in front of the SGIS Agape Chapel

All Little Children, Love One Another: An Easter Chapel Reflection

[I spoke yesterday at the Easter Service for the sixth through twelfth grades at St. George’s Independent School. As students walked in, we projected a scroll of pictures from an event Tuesday where a number of our students and faculty joined with CityCurrent and Samaritan’s Feet to provide new shoes for children in need in Memphis. It was a remarkable event held at the St. George’s Bunkhouse that included foot washing. Such an event happening during Holy Week is particularly poignant given its parallel to the story of Christ washing his disciples’ feet and then announcing his commandment  “to love one another.” I have included today’s scripture from John below, and my talk follow it.] 

John 13: 12-17 and 31-35 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Good afternoon!

Besides being a central reading of the Easter Season, today’s scripture is particularly relevant to a number of our students who spent Tuesday of this week at the St. George’s Bunkhouse. In case you are unaware of the work of the St. George’s Institute of Citizenship, City Current, and Samaritan’s Feet, I wanted you to see this:

[At this point I showed a highlight video of the event featured on the CityCurrent Webpage.]

I’d love to have everyone, students and faculty alike who played any role in this remarkable event to stand and be recognized.

In reflecting on today’s scripture, I am reminded that there is so much that is difficult and challenging in the Bible. In the Old Testament, academically referred to as the Hebrew Bible, we navigate ancient stories that leave us searching to draw consistent conclusions about meaning. In the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we have examples placed before us that confound us, that raise a bar high enough regarding who we should be that we struggle to imagine clearing it. The Bible is not an easy read.

The complexity of it is particularly poignant in the season of Easter when we face the defining narrative of the Christian faith, the culmination of a story set in motion thirty-three years earlier in a manger in Bethlehem.

Interestingly, we know the end of Jesus’s story even before the story of his birth begins, and in the Christian calendar we reenact the entire story annually. Christ’s nativity and his death on the cross were thirty-three years apart in history, but for us just over three months separate them. In December he is an infant, in April he hangs painfully on the cross on Golgotha. It happens fast and presents us with a kind of spiritual whiplash. We focus on the ending in Jerusalem when the beginning is still relatively fresh in our memory. So, as we reprise, as we retell, the familiar story, we seek clarity, meaning, and solace. What we find, however, is often ripe with complexity, elusive in meaning, and full of discomfort. For me this discomfort boils down to this: as we come to understand and accept Christ’s divinity, we have to face our own human weakness. As we face the truth of his life and death, we have to confront our failings. Such an experience is hard, but it is essential. You can’t go around it, above or below it—you have to go through it. Not easy. The good news is this: you don’t have to go through it on your own.

Many of you will remember that Jesus’s disciples often refer to him as teacher. Fortunately, Jesus is a hall of fame teacher. The best teachers are able not only to set a bar for us higher than we can imagine reaching, but they can provide us with the tools to clear it. Just yesterday I watched the First-Grade Animal Play—how many of you remember being in the first-grade Animal Play? In addition to lots of family members of first graders, the audience included the kindergartners. To them, the first graders probably seemed impossibly knowledgeable. Some of the kindergartners were likely in awe of the first graders who each had their lines memorized and spoke clearly and confidently.

One year from now those same kindergartners will be in the same play and will be as beautifully prepared as this year’s group. What makes the difference? Teachers. Teachers who point the way forward step by step. For our first-graders they learned the songs a bit at a time from Ms. Colgate, and even as they were performing she was still there facing them, mouthing the words. Additionally, they worked with their classroom teachers learning their lines until they arrived yesterday ready to go, ready to teach their audience what they had learned.

We are each like first graders at the feet of a great teacher. I am and you are. No matter your own specific faith background or where you are eon your own spiritual path, I believe we are all seeing a great teacher in action in the scripture today. Think about what he does:

  • First, he demonstrates the action he wishes for his students to take. By washing the disciples’ feet, he illustrates a lesson about taking care of others…all others. He lives out a challenge to the hierarchical structure of society where only those lower would wash the feet of those higher.
  • He names the learning he wants them to take away—he doesn’t hide it when he explicitly says, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” No mystery there.
  • He reiterates his call to action when he says: For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” He makes it clear that he is demanding that each of the disciples emulate him.

Perhaps the fact that he calls the disciples, each of them fully grown men, “little children” inspired my reference to first graders because it seems important that Jesus is highlighting that we are children of God in need of a teacher. And Jesus isn’t done with his lesson yet, because like the rarest of teachers having brought his students through one challenging lesson, he points to the next and greater lesson and demand. Hear it again: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Here he takes it up another notch and adds the commandment of the new covenant, which is for us to love one another as Christ loved. In the final act of this teacher he prepares his students for life after him when he says, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” He is teaching right up to the moment he must let go, and he is leaving them with his greatest gift—the gift and the teaching of the Easter Season. That gift delivered long ago continues to be delivered today as if brand new—just take a look at what happened at the Bunkhouse on Tuesday. On that day and in that place, many of our students rose to the essential lesson Jesus left us—to love one another.

Amen.

Because it was raining for the SGIS/CityCurrent/Samaritan’s Feet event, they had to figure out an alternative activity so our students created a questionnaire that asked the children about basic needs, such as food, clothing, school supplies. Purely out of their initiative, they did a needs assessment survey with the hope that it will drive further programming.

Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture #tbt

In November of 2011 I wrote “Stretching the Rubber Band on a Progress Culture.” As the second installment of Ross All Over the Map #throwbackthursday, this one comes back to mind for me quite often as I reflect on how schools can become best equipped to move forward strategically. The rubber band metaphor has held up for me as a way to conceptualizing healthy progress in an institution.

On the knobs to the medicine cabinet, poised to make the nose dive into the toilet if my hand knocks them on the way to the aspirin…on the coffee table peeking out from under the magazines and books…on the floor under the couch…in the corner of the kitchen counter grouped in the eddy where keys and purses and ball caps wind up, RUBBER BANDS, specifically hair bands, are all over my house. 

Since they play no practical purpose in my own life, I tend to think about them metaphorically.  This is the sort of thing English teachers do when faced with a reality. My daughter—a hair-banded whirlwind of activity—often reminds me, giggling as she speaks, that I am bald. Strangely enough, when she does this, I both love her more and have a fleeting desire to sell her to the circus.

So…how can rubber bands help us understand what a Progress Culture will look like in a school?

Some school communities/school cultures seem surrounded by walls.  Membership is predicated upon sharing a tightly defined set of static customs and expectations—they are built for continuity.  I think of the Cardinals that meet in order to choose a new pope upon the passing of the Catholic Church’s leader. This gathering has changed little if at all over the last few hundred years—clearly one of the ways it defines its success is by the extent to which it has not changed its operation.  Schools that share some of these characteristics experience change glacially if they experience it at all.

The opposite of a walled community/culture is one that can quickly disappear within the larger cultural context in which it exists.  It is loosely organized and the factors that drive it are as fickle as wind.  Not only does it not have walls, but the bonds it encourages are likely to be so loose as to be easily broken. For a school, the idea of quickly disappearing is hard to envision; however, schools that seem to reinvent themselves according to the whim of constituents are numerous.

While the walled school community/cultures denies the existence of the tide, the wall-less community/culture is washed up and washed away by it. In a school with a Progress Culture, I see a third option. We need to create a school culture that is held together by a rubber band.

In order for progress to occur in a school, the strategic resolve, the entrepreneurial thinking of a faculty member, or the initiative of a student must be allowed to get ahead of the institution temporarily. Having participated in conversations at several schools about what language we will write that will describe the truth of the school and the aspirations of the school simultaneously, I have found that the tension between what a school is and what it desires to become is prerequisite to any lasting steps forward. To be a Progress Culture, we need vision, faculty members and students to get ahead of us, but not so far out in front that the bond that holds the community together is broken.

A Strategic Plan, a vision statement, an individual, or a small group can stretch the rubber band away from the larger group.  As it stretches, tension builds.  In the context of a school, that tension comes out in the form of hard questions—what does this mean for me? Will this diminish the desired outcomes of the school? Who will not choose to stick around to see how all this turns out?  How will this affect what we already do well?  Once the tension in this rubber band reaches a certain point the groups have to pull back together.

But which side will move first and where will the two sides meet? These are the questions that determine institutional resolve.  If the people and ideas that got out ahead of the culture/community must do all the moving back, the school will have a difficult time being believable the next time it invites community members to stretch the rubber band, and the right next steps forward will be missed.  If the established community/culture does all the moving forward, there is risk that the school will lose things of substantial value in their move to reduce the tension in our rubber band.

The good news is that when both sides engage this process thoughtfully and earnestly, a school can take great strides forward, while not sacrificing what should never change.

Differentiating Traditions From Bad Habits #tbt

In 2011 while working at The Westminster Schools, I wrote a piece titled, “Differentiating Traditions and Bad Habits.” I was reminded of it this week as I have been spending some time during our Spring Break near the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, which also happens to be my alma mater, as well as the seat of some wonderful, often eccentric, traditions. Some of the traditions are in fact atavisms in the world of higher education–for accomplished students the wearing of academic gowns fits this bill, for instance. Sewanee is steeped in tradition and, like all institutions, it has been hampered by bad habits masking as traditions.

In independent schools, we are susceptible to the dangers of confusing the two as well. Virtually every school, no matter its history or position, faces challenges in this arena. With this in mind, I am posting my first #tbt blog post from 2011 below:

differentiating traditions from bad habits

I have been thinking today about the difference between traditions and bad habits in schools. It can be so difficult to distinguish between the two that we don’t even try to untangle them from the larger cultural fabric of the school.  But we must try to do exactly that. It may be helpful to think of it this way: imagine that every school has a ledger that marks the long-term debt of bad habit against the revenue of tradition.  My fear is that an audit of that ledger in many of our institutions might reveal that bad habits are costing us more than we choose to recognize.

We are drawn to bad habits—they can be seductive, and we often provide them cover by calling them traditions. Bad habits give institutions practice in the arts of rationalization and self-deception. While traditions bring us together in ways that allow us to reveal our individual best as well as the best of the institution to which we are attached, bad habits are more likely to bring us together in a co-dependence that allows us to repeat myths back and forth to the point we think they represent truth itself.

As we engage the conversation in my school regarding how to become a sustainable Progress Culture, it is necessary to identify the real traditions and thus be ready to preserve them against all comers. It is equally important, however, to spot the bad habits masquerading as traditions. Sometimes what we call traditions are really only atavisms stifling our thinking. And dangerously, in order to preserve such bad habits, we siphon resources—financial resources, as well as resources of good will—away from innovation.

Perhaps the worst of our bad habits in schools is our tendency to tell ourselves what we can’t do (or what our constituents will never accept) even when we believe there may be better way forward than the way we have always done things. In so doing we limit our influence, and we diminish our ability to lead.  Conversely, if we work diligently to break this bad habit and drive it out of the school, we will extend our influence, and we will increase our ability to lead.