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 Class of 2018 Valedictorian and Salutatorian Speeches

[Last Saturday we had a lovely Commencement for the St. George’s Independent School Class of 2018. Attached here are speeches from the Valedictorian, Lucas Williamson, and the Salutatorian, Carolyn Lane. Yesterday I posted the two talks from our Baccalauteate Service as well, and on Tuesday I posted my remarks from the CommencementLucas and Carolyn wrote speeches for an audience to hear them, not read them. With that in mind, please excuse any editing errors. JRP]

Lucas Williamson

Valedictorian–Lucas Williamson

Teachers, students, and families of St. George’s Independent School:

Although it may yet be difficult to believe, our final minutes together have finally arrived. Before I begin the speech proper, I strongly encourage you, the members of the Class of 2018, to take some time and look among one another and truly appreciate the presence of your peers – this remarkable group of young men and women will never again be fully assembled. Sure, there will be the occasional alumni event or class reunion down the line, but it is inevitable that many of you will be absent from these. Moments like these are truly precious. I know that I do not speak only for myself when I acknowledge a certain surreal atmosphere hanging low within this tent surrounding us and giving rise to the awesome, yet bitingly ephemeral, sanctity of this very moment in time.

Now, as I have gathered by my own inquiries, the number of people present at this event who are confused as to the true role of a valedictorian is rather astonishing. It is unfortunate that so many of us have learned the definition of the word “valedictorian” as the member of the graduating class with the highest GPA who gets to write some fancy speech to say at his commencement. This is not his entire purpose, nor is it even his most important. However, upon closer examination of the Latin roots behind the word “valedictorian,” his job becomes clear as day. “Valedictorian” can be divided into two parts from which it takes its meaning: “vale” comes from the Latin word vale, which means “goodbye.” (When said to a group of two or more people, it acquires a suffix, becoming valete.) The second stem in “valedictorian” is “dict,” which comes from the latin dictus, meaning “having been spoken.” Thus, a valedictorian is best defined as “one who says goodbye.” Although the honor of this title is traditionally given to the highest-ranked student in the graduating class, my real purpose here today is to say goodbye.

And so, one who is tasked with delivering this honor is met with the following conundrum: how does one say goodbye? How does one speak of such an exhilarating yet tear-jerking moment in time– a single, transitory moment in which one great era ends as another, perhaps even greater era begins– in a manner that both does it’s perplexing nature justice and provides it’s participants with a satisfactory end? These questions have weighed heavily on me for some time now, and I hope to answer them in a manner that makes some sense.

As I prepared this speech, I figured a solid place to begin building my farewell would be that bothersome trial in which many of us have endured much suffering throughout this past year: calculus. I firmly believe that adversity is an excellent teacher, and I would encourage each member in this audience to take that to heart. Now, to the uninitiated, calculus is the mathematical study of change, working with strongly related rates at which various processes happen in order to solve real world problems. Often, in the course of our studies, those of us who deal with calculus must deal with what is happening at single, critical points in time. For example, a typical problem may ask a student to determine the speed of an object at a specific moment given a function that describes its motion. What strikes me about this scenario is that we are looking at unrealistic conditions. There are an infinite number of points that make up a standard continuous function, and they all sort of blend together into this thing called a line. Where does one moment begin, and another moment end? And sure, we can certainly talk about what an object does at any of these specific points (and don’t get me wrong– this is important stuff to talk about), but when would we ever encounter an object frozen in time? We wouldn’t because that is impossible based on our current understanding of the laws of physics.

And that brings us to the following realization: math– calculus, statistics, mathematics as a whole– is fiction. Realistic fiction, perhaps, inspired by the world around us, but fictitious nonetheless. It is a means by which we understand the universe, and a means by which we are able to communicate its inner workings to one another. Math is a language: it is the language with which we speak to reality. Without it, without counting numbers, or standard deviations, or derivatives, we as a species lose touch with the inner machinations of the world. And, just like any other language, we use it to talk about things– things like how many apples there are in that tree, things like how different one score is from another, things like how to describe critical points in time.

And, what is a goodbye but a critical point in time? It’s a moment in which everything changes after which things will never quite be the same again. But, an important point I raised earlier in this discourse is the uncertainty of the discrete existence of such points. Sure, we can approach them by looking forward or backward to them all we want, but a goodbye just happens. Moments are transitory: the past and future seamlessly flow into one another in the present. Again, I pose the following question: where does one moment begin, and another moment end? As the old saying goes, the present is a gift.

If we examine this relationship logically, then if all goodbyes must be said in the present, then goodbyes must be gifts too. Sure, they might be bittersweet gifts (or not, depending on who you’re saying goodbye to), but in the best case scenario, they provide us with an obligatory end to a finite era that accentuates the sentimental value of the memories we have forged while enabling new growth to occur. By their very nature, all ends are themselves beginnings. As a testament to the truth of this fact, many traditions from across the world recognize this relationship between ends and beginnings in their own way. In his Tao Te Ching, the elderly wiseman Lao Tzu writes of a fundamental balance of opposites to the universe known to the Chinese as the Tao and to many Americans as the Yin-Yang, and there are few concepts that demonstrate this balance as that of a farewell. In Buddhism, there is this idea of dependent origination where all physical phenomena simultaneously arise from their respective opposites, and it is clear that beginnings cannot exist without ends. And, in Christianity, there is a notion of death leading to life anew, just as the end of our time at St. George’s must lead to the birth of our new lives in the adult world.

So, how does one say goodbye? My approach to answering this question is hopefully accomplished by this speech– to remind the person to whom you’re bidding farewell that a goodbye is paradoxically little different from all other moments in time while unspeakably sacred as a gateway from one age to the next age. All things must come to an end (such is the nature of our universe), but all ends must lead to new beginnings. And, perhaps most importantly of all, I’d emphasize our shared pasts as something time can never take away from us: for as long as we live in good health, we will never forget our memories we have created together at this school, and as long as the universe exists, it can never undo the effects of the actions we have taken here. But, my time speaking to you all is almost up now as are our years at St. George’s. Members of the Class of 2018, fellow academics, athletes, and artists; friends… men and women, the hour of our ascension into the world at large is at hand. Do good out there. Valete.

Carolyn Lane

Salutatorian–Carolyn Lane

To Mr. Peters, the St. George’s board, and distinguished members of the faculty, it is an honor to stand before our acclaimed alumni, family members, and friends gathered here. But most of all, it is an honor to be here with you, class of 2018.

14 years ago, you all opened your arms and dragged me through the doors of the Germantown Campus, as excited as ever to be welcoming a new student, even one who had masqueraded as a Briarcrest Saint for a year. That year, we jumped all over the school, shouting incoherent phrases and wishing we would be chosen to sleep in Mrs. Foreman’s fort during nap time. Some of us brought animals to show-n-tell, and many more broke out the building blocks during free time, eventually connecting enough to wrap from the wall of one classroom and into the teachers’ secret workroom. At that age, we learned that the best rewards were ice cream sandwiches and that being a little crazy is okay. We learned to be ourselves, as being anything but was not even option.

Six years later, we – with 10 or so new additions to the mix – moved from the hallway where we’d spent 3rd and 4th grade learning multiplication and voraciously reading to reach AR goals to the stand-alone 5th-grade rooms across the sidewalk. It was there where we received the first hint of what life would be like here at the Collierville campus. At the conclusion of each class period, we would pick up what hadto have been 1,000 pounds of books and trudge up the ramp from Ms. Petite’s room to Ms. Tate’s and Ms. McWaters rooms. Of course with our class being who it was, there were always a few who would take a shortcut and leap over the metal railway separating the classrooms; some cleared it their first try while others may have become friends with the ground a few times before mastering the skill. Soon after, our learning environments changed from those on campus to the caves of Cumberland Caverns. It was on the Cave Trip that we learned to spelunk through the caverns’ natural tunnels, army crawl through its low corridors, and slide down the muddy terrain of Bubblegum Alley. The caverns were where some of us learned that bringing a portable air mattress on a class trip was a recipe for disaster, as throughout the night all the mattresses magically came unscrewed and everyone woke up lying on the cavern’s jagged surface. At that age, we learned that Mrs. Tate’s humdinger project could quickly become the bane of a fifth grader’s existence and to enjoy our elementary-school moments while we could.

Five years later, our focuses shifted as we entered sophomore year and began to understand that our futures were starting to unfold. We joined clubs, played on sports team, and starred in musicals. We rode the Wagon Wheel all the way to state, where our football players earned a state championship ring, and after that amazing win, the whole grade celebrated the entire ride back to Memphis. We learned to accomplish our goals and to try our hardest to be the best versions of ourselves. We had students join the journalism staff and recognize that being a storyteller is just as important as being a storymaker. We traveled to Heifer Ranch, where we learned that Luke Georgi could still make a fantastic meal with only rice, carrots, and the spices Ellie Franklin smuggled in from her house. We figured out that there is so much in this world for which we have to be grateful and that we must always take advantage of the opportunity going to a school as amazing as St. George’s gives us. We learned to blossom where planted and to never doubt our incredible gifts, as they had begun to shape us into the people we would become.

Fast forward two years as we all began our final year at St. George’s, utterly unaware of how fast the time would fly. Those first couple of weeks, we opened our arms to the two newest members of our class and helped them find a place within our family. We applied to colleges in what felt – for some of us – to be a never ending cycle, only made worse by the endless “what college are you going to” questions we received to which our reply was more often “I don’t know” than anything else. This year, we learned to step out of our comfort zones with three new water polo players, five new soccer players, and two new thespians joining our teams and drama troupe for the first time. We learned to reach for the stars, to push ourselves even if we don’t succeed the first time, and to enjoy the time we have left.

But regardless of how much I have been preparing for college these past four years, here I am standing before you, 14 years after first walking through these doors, having absolutely no idea how to tell you goodbye or how to move on from the school or the people that made me who I am today. You taught me how to love, how to fight, how to win, and how to cry. You taught me that everything doesn’t have to be perfect all the time and that not being okay is perfectly fine. You taught me to love myself not in spite of my flaws but because them. You taught me to be me, and it’s for that that I can never thank you enough.

So as we begin to move on from our time here at St. George’s, I want you all to take what you have learned here and soar. Go be world-renowned scientists, Michelin star chefs, Tony-winning Broadway actresses, millionaire CEOs, world-changing political correspondents, pulitzer-prize-winning journalists, and everything I know we as a class have prepared each other to be.

As I close out this speech and say my final farewell to the incredible friends and family I have made here, I only have one more request. As my dad reminded me when I began writing this speech, it’s been scientifically proven that valedictorians and salutatorians typically don’thave the most successful careers of their class, so to any and all future millionaires out there, remember, donations to the Carolyn Lane fund are always appreciated.

But from the bottom of my heart, thank you for being such an amazing class and family to me over these years; I truly will never forget each and every one of you. Thank you.

Taking PROGRESS CULTURE and TWO, FIVE, TEN into the World

I read a blog post from Tracie Mastronicola, Academic Dean at  San Francisco Friends School, over the weekend. Having worked with a small group of faculty members at SFFS over a couple of days in early February regarding creating a process by which they might redesign their daily schedule, I was particularly interested to read her piece entitled, “‘Committing to The Air’: An update on our scheduling process”. It is a lovely piece–one I hope you will read. I love the metaphor in the title. It led me to reflect on my visits to a couple of extraordinarily different, but equally fascinating, schools with whom I had the privilege to spend some time over the last months.

Perhaps once or twice a year I work with leaders and faculty members at independent schools to help them frame out a process for change. Usually these conversations have had to do with daily schedule reinvention; however, while daily schedule change may be the end, I am most interested in the means–a smarter process to hold the ambition of complex schools striving to make impactful change. [At the end of this post I will include a small sampling of links to posts addressing aspects of this topic].

In the last six months I have worked with two schools–Punahou School in Honolulu and San Francisco Friends School. Both experiences have been remarkable and invigorating, and importantly, they each have informed my reflection on my school, St. George’s Independent School where we have used the same framework, and in some cases aspects of it, to guide our key conversations.

I am left with this conclusion: if we are to be able to move our schools with enough finesse and thoughtfulness, as well as move them at a pace that will:

  • preserve the elements of a school and its culture that should never change,
  • allow us to keep up with our evolving understanding of how kids best learn, 
  • and allow us to remain steadfast in a global socio-political environment undergoing stunning progress, as well as unprecedented strains and failures,

we must be willing to change the means by which we try to accomplish change processes.

I do not make the claim that the specific process I help schools work with is the only way to do this; however, it is the way I have found to be most helpful in not only arriving at a great answer for a step forward, but ensuring that a school community is healthier at the end of the process than it was leading into the process. As opposed to the terrible habit of process corrosion that often occurs when large institutions engage a change process, the approach to which I subscribe places becoming healthier as a culture at the center. In fact, becoming healthier as an institutional culture should always be the invisible number THREE of the TWO, FIVE, TEN, meaning it should be one of the non-negotiables in any significant change process.

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture

The Role of Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture 

Foreshadowing Progress in a School Culture

Differentiating Traditions from Bad Habits

Two, Five, Ten: Guidelines for Establishing the Priorities of a Change Initiative 

Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited 

The Heads’ Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time: An Idea Revisited Through a New Example

           #TBT: Several things I have written for the blog have remained timely in my work as a leader in an independent school. Perhaps none remains as useful as the what I have reposted here for #TBT this week. My thinking about pilot programs remains central to how I believe we can move a large complex institutions forward, while minimizing risk and maximizing potential benefit. The post came back to mind for me this week, as I have been in a couple of conversations with very thoughtful students about the role of service-learning in our school. Without going into the detail, I have been left feeling strongly that schools have largely attempted the impossible by placing service near the center of our claims for the value of the education we provide, while we have not committed either the time or the space to support those claims.
           In short, what is important in a school is what you can find in the actual program, not in what we simply tell students is important. While St. George’s has been doing many things right, it is time to do better. This is where piloting ideas will serve us well. Next school year we will pilot an idea in our schedule that will more fully reflect the priority on service and character education we hold dear in our school. Interestingly, because of our daily schedule, put in place for the 2016-2017 school year, we now have flexibility we didn’t dream of before. The schedule itself has been a remarkable success. Among other things, it allows for a later/healthier start time and for far deeper engagement in the classroom. What we have not yet explored is how it can be a vehicle for the kind of flexibility that will allow us to pursue opportunities beyond traditional academic courses without compromising class contact time. We can do that, and it is time too pilot ideas in order to learn how best to make it happen.
          Because I have not announced the idea to the entire community yet, I will hold off in describing the details, but I will point out that without the focus on the role of pilot programs, we artificially limit our chance to move a school farther, more thoughtfully, and more quickly forward. While reading what I wrote way back in 2012, please use the links to navigate to a more through discussion of each of the bullets. I hope you find my reflection helpful.
FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QE2_leaving_southampton_water.jpg 
RMS Titanic (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/RMS_Titanic_3.jpg )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots: