[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 SchoolsConference. 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.
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.
[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?
[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 Commencement. Lucas and Carolyn wrote speeches for an audience to hear them, not read them. With that in mind, please excuse any editing errors. JRP]
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.
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.