A Commencement Reflection on Gratitude: The Bargain of a Lifetime

[I gave the following talk during Commencement at St. George’s Independent School on Saturday, May 18, 2019.]

Good morning! Welcome to our celebration of the Commencement of the Class of 2019. The faculty, staff, and I are grateful to share this moment with you and with your families and friends. A special welcome to the recently installed fourth Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee, Phoebe Roaf. It is an honor and pleasure to have you here. I like that your presence today will become part of our story as a school. Also welcome to former Head of School, Rick Ferguson and his wife, Elizabeth—by the way saying that Rick was simply Head of School is like saying that Houdini did some nice little card tricks. And also special welcome to Norris and Lauren McGeehee—I am so glad you recognize your membership in and kinship with the families of the class of 2019, we certainly do.

Seniors, you have been on a long road to get here…and today surrounded by friends and family you complete this leg of your journey and you head toward what is next—great places, new people, new challenges. Just for a moment though let’s look back before you sprint off. While you have had myriad successes as individuals and as a class, you have also faced losses and struggles and disappointments. On your best days you have faced both these successes and losses with grace. However, not all days are our best days. I often say about students (and teachers, and staff, and Heads of School) that they are each incomplete sentences—in other words we are never quite fully who we might become. We each have work to do. As you prepare to leave us I’d like to focus just for a few minutes on an ingredient I believe is necessary to do that work, to complete our sentence. Gratitude. Gratitude for all the gifts of this life is at the core of our ability to move through the mountaintops and the valleys of our lives with improving grace.

I was in a conversation with early childhood teacher, Beth Lawo, recently that at its core had to do with gratitude. I believe she and I had each independently reached a conclusion that science has increasingly backed up—that gratitude is not only spiritually beneficial, but it is also physically beneficial to our overall health. … A couple of weeks after our conversation where we each had sat in chairs designed for the little people who usually populate her PreK classroom, she gave me a copy of a gratitude Journal—a place where I might write down things that I am grateful for.  She inspired me to speak to you on this topic today.

The title of the journal is long…here it is… Okay Fine, I’m Grateful: A journal to catapult me from my default position of griping and negativity to the long-resisted stance of counting my blessings, because it turns out that focusing on the positive actually might be better for my mind, body, and spirit, in no small part because unhappiness is the gap between expectations and reality, so even though this whole gratitude thing feels like a bandwagon on the woo-woo train, the fact is that deep down I’m ready to start looking for the roses rather than the thorns, and if you absolutely force me to admit it, I will say that in all actually I do have very much to be grateful for.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence attempts to capture the benefits of Gratitude:

“More than any other personality trait, gratitude is strongly linked to mental health and life satisfaction. Grateful people experience more joy, love, and enthusiasm, and they enjoy protection from destructive emotions like envy, greed, and bitterness. Gratitude also reduces lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, and it helps people entangled with those and other problems to heal and find closure. It can give you a deep and steadfast trust that goodness exists, even in the face of uncertainty or suffering. Not only is gratitude a warm and uplifting way to feel, it benefits the body as well. People who experience gratitude cope better with stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health, including lower blood pressure and better immune function. Unlike other positive emotions like hope and happiness, gratitude is inherently relational: it reaches past the person experiencing it and into the social realm. It is gratitude in large measure that inspires people to acts of kindness, since it’s natural to respond to gifts with heartfelt gifts of your own. And that strengthens your bonds with other people. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy. Grateful people are rated by others as more helpful, outgoing, optimistic, and trustworthy.”

St. George’s Independent School community this should be us—it should be all of us, and it certainly should be you, members of the Class of 2019.

As students at St. George’s you have learned to be analytical—you have analyzed math problems, literary texts, historical events, scientific challenges, and even game film after tough losses or great victories. As I see you here ready to graduate and ready to get on to what is next, ready to “commence,” I am not worried about whether or not you have learned to analyze things—you have, I know you have. I am, however, particularly interested in whether you have learned to be grateful. Gratitude is at the entryway of life paths that allow us to help make a better world—it allows us to recognize and appreciate what is good and want to play a part in creating more of it. Thus, gratitude is vital to understand and participate in things greater than ourselves alone.

As the Head of this school on this beautiful day, under this lovely tent with this large, happy group gathered here, I am grateful for many things, most obviously for the lives our Seniors have shared with us, but most importantly, for the lives of leadership and service they will lead in the years and decades to come. This class has already been hard at work in ways that indicate a willingness to put gratitude into action.

We can see expressions of gratitude through the service of Kaitlyn Bowman, who as 2019 Miss Memphis Iris Teen, visited schools across the Midsouth reading to children. Or through Tyler Wilson who has been an active volunteer with Best Buddies and the Special Olympics swim meet. Or though Laura Beard serving on the Memphis Youth Council and seeking to find ways to address the opioid crisis. Or though Alexis Bourdeau tutoring 2nd and 3rd graders weekly at Streets Ministries. Or though Attison Womack working with Room In The Inn and hosting a Room In The Inn night at the St. George’s Bunkhouse for homeless women. Or through Andrew Joyner volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse. Or though Mimi Young, Jensen Lewis, Katie Mullinix and Angie Heger committing themselves to imagine and lead toward a better world through their work as Bridge Builders. The class of 2019 is loaded with so many people making similar contributions that the students I mentioned are not at all unique within this class but instead they are representative of this class.

In my life at our school, I get to see the whole sweep of the St. George’s community—from Memphis and Germantown through Collierville, and as a result I am reminded every day of the stunning commitment our community of families make to St. George’s students and to our school. I witness the overwhelming nature of this truth most poignantly at the end of the year when we gather for so many performances and celebrations and ceremonies. This has led me to this conclusion: I believe our families do this in largest part out of gratitude for each of your lives and out of hope for what you will become. The fact that you are here, that you have been at St. George’s is evidence of gratitude and hope.

Members of the Class of 2019, what you have accomplished is impressive, but you didn’t do all this on your own—you have been carpooled, shepherded, corrected, celebrated, and challenged; you have been humbled, and you have been raised up. Your families have sacrificed for and loved you at every turn. Our school’s gratitude for your families runs deep and, in many cases, goes back many years. For a number of families, our specific gratitude goes back to when you were still small children wobbling uncertainly and sleepily down the hallways at Memphis and Germantown. Your families not only supported you but they have supported the school in remarkable ways—they have volunteered at book fairs, they have supported auctions and supported capital projects. They have served on the PA; they have provided us with guidance, and they have asked for our help. In short, they have made us a better school, and I am grateful because a school is an incomplete sentence too, one made up of a cohort of people seeking earnestly to do the best it can for the students it serves.

Expressing gratitude and taking action based on it may be the secret to completing our individual sentences, the secret to reaching our potential as children of God because it leads us to reach beyond ourselves and move toward lives of meaning and of contribution.

Class of 2019, my prayer for you is inspired by a couple of key lines from our school prayer. I pray that you will strive “to see [God’s] presence in those who are around [you] and that you will serve God and express gratitude through service to others as well as to things greater than yourself alone. Think of it this way: you can live longer, healthier, and happier if you count your blessings and seek to improve the lives of others—this sounds like the bargain of a lifetime to me.

All best, Class of 2019. And Godspeed. Thank you.

The author with Fourth Episcopal Bishop of West Tennessee, Phoebe Roaf; Rector of Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, John Leach; and St. George’s Independent School Chaplain, Jessica Abell

 

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.