Staying Square and Holiday Whiplash: Grateful Presence for the Season

[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 Schools Conference. 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.

The Increasing Relevance of Great Schools in a Technology-Driven World

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.

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)