Learning to Teach on Devil’s Courthouse

Spotted this in my FB history feed this morning. It remains relevant regarding how I perceive my work in a school, particularly as I approach my life as a leader in a school.

Ross All Over the Map

(I started my career as an English teacher at Providence Day School in the fall of 1988.  The previous summer I worked at Camp Pinnacle in Hendersonville, NC.  My experiences as a rock-climbing instructor had a profound impact on how I view teaching.  Devil’s Courthouse, so named by the Cherokee who inhabited this region of North Carolina, is an impressive spot, particularly when you are dangling from its face.)


I was at 5700 feet, 2000 feet above the cove floor, 200 feet above the base of the cliff face, about sixty feet above my climber.  I was tied into a bow-line-on-a-bite, a remarkable variation of the standard bow-line that distributes equal stress between two separate safety holds.  In this case the safety holds were chalks wedged into cracks in the rock.  I leaned out as far as I could, so I could see my climber, who was stumped by…

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From the Belly of a Fish

[I was asked to write a blog post for the National Association of Episcopal Schools blog called The Commons this week. Copied blow is the text from that post. You can find the original post HERE, as well as some excellent posts from their blog called, The Commons, HERE].

Faded fresco of Jonah being thrown off the boat and into the mouth of the fish in the background and being expelled onto the beach in the foreground. [from the Sacri Monti di Orta. Photograph by J. Ross Peters]
Tomorrow [this blog post written on Sunday, September 10] I will be speak to our seniors during their Chapel service—my topic: Jonah. The story of this lost man has sparked my imagination since I was very small because it is so visually compelling. The Episcopal mission of our schools clearly should live in such places and such moments as those that occur in chapel—the rhythm and the familiarity of the liturgy, the comfort of a community sharing pews together. However, I would think all of us in Episcopal schools might agree that the mission of our schools must exist ubiquitously, not simply confined to specific sacred spaces and specific moments in our daily and weekly schedules. Such thinking is far easier to assert than it is to incorporate into the living truth of a school.

I am working to make sure that in my role as Head of School this year that I am more consistently naming how what we do outside the walls of the chapel is at least as much an expression of our Episcopal identity as hymns, collects, and even homilies from the Head of School. For us that means discussing our three-campus model, which draws students from around fifty zip codes and includes students from a stunning range of racial and economic backgrounds, as sourced from our Episcopal connection. It also means framing our work through the new St. George’s Bunkhouse, a satellite adjunct campus focusing on helping our students develop the habits of the good neighbor, as a natural step for a school such as ours. And it means that when we are helping our students understand the importance of sportsmanship and positive cheering, we name that brand of school spirit as an essential ingredient of our school’s identity.

In working to be intentional in making the connection between what we do and our Episcopal identity, I am reminded that the work of our Episcopal schools is often counter-cultural. Our school exists in a town that has on a regular basis pulled at its seams along racial, economic, and geographic lines. Our job is not simply to chafe against that corrosive momentum, but to present an alternative to it—to value everyone as a child of God, to reach into the humanity that connects us rather than toward the divisions that turn us from each other and thus, I believe, from God. Clearly the issues that pull painfully at the fabric of Memphis are issues all over the country. The work we do in Episcopal schools is not getting easier, yes, but that only means it has never been more important.

So tomorrow I will talk a bit about Jonah, a man who lost sight of his mission, and in order to find it again he had to be entombed in the belly of a slimy fish, ask for forgiveness and grace, and be burped up on a beach. Here’s hoping we don’t have to spend time in the belly of a whale to keep our Episcopal mission in our sight.

The original post from the NAES website.

Updated reflections on The 9/11 Seawall and the The Empathetic Community

On this sixteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, I am reposting a couple of thoughts I have had in earlier years regarding this traumatic event in our history.

Ross All Over the Map

(The World Trade Towers and the QEII Photo:Neal Boenzi/The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/09/08/us/sept-11-reckoning/towers.html#1

[As we head toward the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, I am reposting (with some revisions) something I wrote several years ago that still reflects my thinking about the primacy of creating and sustaining a community that prioritizes empathy. Since posting this in January of 2012, I have seen many examples of people on a kind of figurative seawall facing challenges that threaten to become overwhelming. Additionally, I recognize that we have all stood on our own seawall at various points in our lives. When we are in immediate and pressing danger like those in need of rescue on 9/11, it is human nature to raise our hands and voices for help. It is more difficult to raise our hands when the challenges we face are less visible.  Living within an empathetic community makes it more possible for those who…

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One Body, Many Parts: An Opening Convocation Reflection

[I gave the following homily at the Opening Convocation of St. George’s Independent School on its Collierville Campus two days after the violent and tragic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Good morning!

Good first morning of the 2017-2018 school year. A particular welcome to our sixth graders just joining us for the first time on this campus, as well as to the remarkable and impressive Class of 2018.

Hear the last part of today’s scripture from Romans again: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

These lines got me thinking about our differences and our interconnectedness. It also made me think about our individual bodies and how when one part is not working well, all the other parts are affected. This played out in my life when I faced significant hearing loss.

For the first time in 2002 in my left ear and later in 2015 in my right, I had a condition called Otoschlerosis. When one has Otoschlerosis, the stapes bone—a tiny bone—the smallest in the human body—stops vibrating. That means that there is nothing to communicate sound vibrations to the ear drum. As a result, over the course of about six months, I went deaf in the affected ear. Hearing aids reduced the problem to an extent; however, hearing aids seemed to eliminate a lot of sounds and voices in order to allow me to hear the voices closest to me. In order to do what they do, they simplify the world of sound.

During these two periods of hearing loss, it was stunningly disconcerting to find myself in a world that felt constricted, too small, oversimplified. I was missing so much. I felt out of balance, and in fact, I would lose my balance sometimes.

The condition left me discouraged and exhausted because I knew what better hearing sounded like. I remembered what it was like to hear clearly and make meaning from the many voices around me. I knew I was missing what I considered to be a necessary variety of voices that surrounded me.

Fortunately, there is a surgery that largely solves the problem called a stapedectomy. It is an amazing surgery in which the stapes bone is removed and replaced with an artificial stapes bone made of platinum and Teflon. Today my hearing is close to normal. Going to our scripture today, I have never been more aware of the value and interrelatedness of all of our different body parts and systems than when the bandages were unwrapped a couple of weeks after surgery and immediately I could hear again. I felt whole again.

I was so overwhelmed with the amount of sound I could now hear after these bandages were removed that I had to sit down for a while before driving. The world had opened back up, and I was overwhelmed and elated for an hour or so, a dangerously distracted man. For the first time in many months, I could hear people speaking around the corner, and I could understand people without having to look at them while they spoke.

The sort of deafness I experienced is not the only kind of deafness. Deafness can also affect a group of people who cease to hear voices not their own.

Here is my worry: in our country and in the world there is a risk of becoming deaf to each other because we forget the importance of hearing different voices. Rather than losing our hearing to a medical condition, we could simply forget to use our ears. St. George’s stands against that kind of deafness. Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.

Our school is intentionally a place that challenges us, at times uncomfortably, not to be deaf. It challenges us to hear the voices around us. It challenges us to work with others, to benefit from and share with others.

Over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, evidence of deafness to those of different backgrounds revealed itself in the hateful, bigoted statements voiced by white supremacists, and their actions led to dreadful acts of violence.

Following this violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, issued a statement that said in part:

“Violence and extremism in the guise of racial identity or racial pride are as sinful and twisted as violence and extremism committed in the name of God. The tragic events in Charlottesville today, and the hatred that fueled them, grieve the heart of God. All of us need to repent of the racism that still flourishes in our nation.

Together, we join with all people of conscience and goodwill to pray, in the words of our Prayer Book, that God would “take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.”

Reverend Hollerith continues, “We will pray for the victims of this tragedy; for God to soften the hearts of those blinded by racial hatred; and for all Americans to find the courage and strength to do the hard work of repairing the racial divisions among us.”

The work of our school, and any great school, is to create an environment where we do hear each other, care about each other, and recognize our shared humanity. This effort has never been more important. There is so much wonderful work and fun and shared purpose ahead for us this year at St. George’s—it is in our hands to make something valuable out of this school year, but I want to challenge each of us to fend off the deafness wrought by arrogance and narrow-mindedness. I want you to listen to the experiences of those different than yours, listen to those who go to different houses of worship than you do, listen to those that come from a different zip code than you come, listen to those who look different than you look. Becoming educated involves learning more about others and challenging our assumptions. To do this, we have to listen carefully.

In the school year to come, let’s remember the gift we have been given that allows us to come together in this school, and help us to hear and learn from the remarkable variety of voices around us. I am excited about the year to come at St. George’s—I can’t wait to get it all started.

Thank you.

Some pictures from the first day of school at St. George’s…