Falling as Defining Strength–A Baccalaureate Reflection from Upper School Head, Tom Morris

Tom Morris, his wife Katherine, and their children Grace and Thomas

[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?

Amen.

SGIS–Making Better Sailors

 

Photograph by Alice Crenshaw, St. George’s Independent School Class of 2018


[Below is the text of my part of our first 2018 newsletter. It should hit SGIS mailboxes soon; 
however, one never knows about the mail delivery in our area–it is slow like geologic processes are slow.]

In my most recent chapel talks at each campus, I spoke about the moment that Simon Peter first met Christ on the shores of the Sea of Galilee in the fifth chapter of the Book of Luke. During a single morning, Peter changed the direction of his life, choosing to stop being a fisherman in order to follow Jesus and become a “fisher of men.” Peter’s story was apt for explaining a phrase that I have found myself using recently: “more sailing than driving.” I have made a habit over the last couple of years of describing any situation that will require finesse and an ability to adjust on the fly as “more sailing than driving.” For some reason, almost certainly misguided, I have assumed everyone knows what I mean. In short, Simon Peter made a life decision like a sailor does. He was not following a specific roadmap. He was faced with something he could never have expected that offered a life of greater meaning. So, just as a sailor does when facing a new opportunity, he changed course.

As a girl, my mother grew up sailing each weekend on Fishing Bay around a point from the far larger Chesapeake Bay of Virginia and Maryland. Years later when she tried to pass along her love for sailing to my sister and me, it was clear early on I would not be much of a sailor. At age six or seven, my contribution was to complain about being bored and do my best to avoid being hit in the head by the boom swinging across when we tacked. I liked going fast, but we rarely seemed to go fast. In the moments when the wind faded to a breeze, then diminished to stillness, I wondered why we’d chosen floating in a hot boat rather than some other more entertaining hobby such as capturing bugs on the grassy edge of the narrow bay shoreline or fishing for sharp toothed Blues. During those dead air moments, as we sat waiting for any breeze that might help us move again, I realized that sailors never go straight toward their destination. They take advantage of what the wind gives them—moving closer to but not directly at their destination with each tack. Good sailors know how to make the most of the situation, and importantly they know how to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity—a breeze stiffening off the port bow or the promise of an advantageous wind around the point. With decades (and decades) separating me from my time at Fishing Bay, I have come to see sailing metaphorically, rather than simply as a pastime I never quite understood well enough to see why some people thought it was fun.

Years after my time on Fishing Bay, I watched the America’s Cup with fascination, and it revealed another reason to learn to sail—at least metaphorically. The sailors on those boats knew exactly how to work together toward a greater goal. The defining characteristic of the best boats was the ability of a crew to be stronger because of each other, rather than trying to find success despite each other or trying to be better than each other. St. George’s graduates learn to be part of such crews and they learn how to be skippers of such boats.

I believe that all too often we pretend there is an accurate roadmap for what lies ahead of us in our lives—a sequence of turns along a well-delineated route guaranteed to take us where we need to go. A lot of schools appear to teach their students as if this is true. I believe this is dangerously misleading, and it sells our young people short. The best-laid plans fall away when we are faced with the unexpected. In such moments, we want our kids to be equipped to navigate a new opportunity or challenge. So, what should we want St. George’s Independent School students to learn? To sail. Our students should become good sailors—entrepreneurial ones, ones who are brave enough to make a necessary shift in order to work toward a better world, a more fulfilling life—ones who, like Peter, know how to become part of a group greater than the sum of its parts.

As is so often the case I find that our students find far better, certainly more succinct, ways of making the essential point. Inside this newsletter you will find a Q & A with Sope Adeleye, Head Prefect of the Class of 2016 and currently a sophomore at Harvard. When she was a senior at St. George’s, she told me: “ [At St. George’s] I have learned not what to think but how to think, and not just how to think but how to think with other people.” Sounds like someone who knows how to sail.

Best wishes to all St. George’s sailors in 2018! Happy New Year!

[At the end of this week, my wife, daughter and I will head to Richmond, Virginia to help celebrate my mother’s eightieth birthday. In the piece above I mention my mother as a sailor who spent much of her youth on the water pulling everything from the wind it would give her. To my thinking now looking back over so many years, she was a sailor the way a good musician is a musician–at some point such people forget the science, and they move on by feel. On the water she learned to trust herself, as well as work with others; she learned to be brave enough to ride on the full strength of a powerful tail wind, as well as patient enough to sit out still air. My mother has needed all that learning in her life, and she has deployed it in a way that has showed me to aspire to as much myself. Her intelligence, grace, kindness, humility, passion, work ethic, and even her “don’t tread on me” approach to multiple cancer battles together serve as an excellent buoy for which any of us might rightly sail. ] 

My mother holds me (Summer 1965)

Snow Day (!) and an MLK Talk that didn’t happen

The author with Mic on a Memphis-style snow day

After being lobbied by everyone–including my daughter who was superstitiously flushing ice cubes down the toilet (apparently taking this action ensures a snow day), I made the decision to close school for a snow day today just before 5:00 a.m. this morning. It was not a hard call—ice was building up and more icy, snowy weather was on the way. Right now in fact, I am looking out the window at hard snow blowing quickly by. Such decisions are not easy—every school head seems to have stories about such a decision going wrong. When bad winter weather comes calling, a snow day can be an easy win though—everyone, most everyone, loves a snow day.

While the Snow Day (!) decision was not difficult, it meant I would not to be able to give a talk I had been planning for some time to mark Martin Luther King Day (given that we have a day of service on Monday, my talk was set for today). St. George’s Independent School draws from around fifty zip codes, and we have students of a wide array of economic, geographic, and racial backgrounds. I believe the Martin Luther King holiday is not only a remarkably important date on our national calendar, it is a particularly important one for our school. Given the fractious socio-political environment in which we find ourselves nationally, this date has even greater significance. That said, it is not easy to stand in front of a large and very diverse group of thoughtful and inquisitive young people and speak any message of meaning in the face of an environment where our national dialogue has devolved into profanity and name calling, ad hominem attacks and school yard posturing. Have no doubt—our kids are paying attention.

Have no doubt—our kids are paying attention.

They hear us yelling back in anger at the television news; they notice us feeling more and more powerless against the rip tide of national bi-furcation.

So today I was going to speak about Zacchaeus, a Jericho tax-collector Jesus calls toward a different life path and James Brown, who after initially doubting Martin Luther King’s non-violent approach became a man who helped calm the water in Boston in the aftermath of King’s assassination. I had the music all queued up (I have linked the songs I was going to play as kids entered and departed below—it was going to be loud and awesome!).

I will admit, however, that I was reconsidering the content of my talk based on current news, which I am certain have disquieted many in our school community. As a result, I started to think about revising my plan. Not to recognize and name the real issues of cultural division in our nation fails our kids. The problem: I don’t know how to do it well.

With that in mind I scanned what I had written for bits and pieces that might be particularly relevant. Here is what I found (please forgive the lack of cohesiveness):

  • We have just finished a year where so much news was stuffed into every day that it seemed to be more of a decade than a year. If you say you kept up, you are either superhuman, dangerously sleep-deprived, or a liar. No one could read enough, watch enough, reflect and analyze enough to make sense of it all.
  • We tend to look at current events and our current specific moment in history as if we invented complexity, that everyone that lived before us lived in simpler times. I do not believe this is true—I believe it is convenient. It is a convenient way to find comfort in imagining the past—almost any part of it—was somehow better, easier, simpler.
  • While we can’t avoid crucibles in history, we can determine who we as individuals will be as we traverse them.
  • James Brown and Simon Peter and Ross Peters and each of you are deeply flawed, at least somewhat broken, and yet we can each make decisions to try to make the world a better place, to try to help a broken world heal.

I am ambivalent about missing my opportunity to speak today. Obviously, there will be other chances, other moments to have the microphone when the weather is not likely to intervene; however, I hate to miss any opportunity to call our students to hold themselves to a higher mark than is represented in blockbuster stories and screaming headlines ticking across the bottom of our television screens.

“I hate to miss any opportunity to call our students to hold themselves to a higher mark than is represented in blockbuster stories and screaming headlines ticking across the bottom of our television screens. “

Perhaps the best answer to my quandary about what to say to our students is best handled through action, not words. On Monday, our students and families will have a number of opportunities to participate in community service. Maybe it is time to stop simply reflecting on and analyzing what ails us and get to work. For now check out the Godfather of Soul, James Brown:

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