I want to begin this morning with thanks and appreciation to Chaplain Jay Hutchinson, Terence Gilheany, Odile Jacob, Quinn Kerrane, the Andrean Ensemble, all acolytes and communion assistants, our readers, and all of you who have spoken, danced, sung, painted, performed in our ever widening and expanding Chapel Program. It has been a great year in the Chapel, and our many moments of grace and creativity have developed because of the dedication and hard work of Jay Hutchinson and his team.
In the 2018-19 year, we continued to witness ideologies that express hatred, intolerance, and murder in sacred places of worship and communities across the nation and the world. St. Andrew’s seeks to join in an inclusive movement of solidarity among all faith traditions dedicated to human rights, human dignity, reconciliation, and peace. We must continue to be a School and a Chapel that seeks to express reverence, respect, and hospitality to all faith traditions, especially as forces of intolerance gather on social media and through threats and expressions of violence. Our senior class has opened up these vital schoolwide conversations, recognitions, and commitments that turn religious diversity into a common call for love, reconciliation, and healing.
Today marks the beginning of the Class of 2019’s final week at St. Andrew’s. The formal and informal rituals of graduation week (today’s service, the VI Form dinner tonight, the Mein Chapel Wednesday evening, Arbor Day, Awards Night, and Commencement) all seek to express our collective love and appreciation for our seniors as they reflect on their careers here and contemplate their new lives in college and professional life. We understand that the time for new challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities has arrived for this oustanding Class, and we will seek to assure them of St. Andrew’s continued place in their lives as they begin their careers as undergraduates next fall. We already know that the power of their lives, spirit, and energy have made our community better in every way, and we who remain here next year will seek not to replace them but to build on the many lessons they have taught us about love, kindness, and courage.
When I was about to graduate from high school, I am embarrassed to say that I wasn’t thinking much about others or the need for development in the world; you see, I had an award on my mind: the Alumni Cup, given to the best athlete in the senior class. For years, it seemed, I had studied the wooden board in the main gymnasium of the School, reading the engraved names of honored athletes printed out in beautiful gold letters. I very much wanted to see my name on that plaque in the 1975 year.
By my senior spring, I thought I had compiled a good resume: two sport varsity captain my senior year; most valuable player in soccer, basketball, and tennis. My teams had been successful and I planned to play all three sports at the varsity level in college. I thought I brought passion, dedication, and commitment to every practice, game, and match.
Awards Day at my School took place outside, in a beautiful quadrangle in front of the two main buildings of the School. My parents, grandparents, and siblings were all there that day, and I felt confident, expectant, certain, and ready to hear the sound of my name being read by the Headmaster when the time for the award arrived. To my shock and surprise, the Headmaster announced that two of my friends (a wrestler and a cross country runner) had won the 1975 Alumni Cup. They walked happily to the podium amidst great applause and excitement.
I wish I could tell you that I was mature enough at that time to feel happy for the recognition my friends received that day. I wish I could say that at the time I remembered and appreciated what a courageous and dedicated wrestler one classmate was and what an outstanding cross country runner the other was. But I had no such feelings in my heart at that time. I felt betrayed, insulted, abandoned by my coaches, Athletic Director, Headmaster, and School. I wanted to leave, but instead sat in the sunshine burning with anger and resentment.
A couple of moments later, the time came for the Headmaster’s Award, given to seniors who contributed to the School in significant ways during their career. My name was called, and soon I had made my way to the podium where the Headmaster said kind words about my leadership within the School. This honor and the Head’s generous words should have made me more humble, grateful, and appreciative, but actually, I did not at the time care for that prize at all. I remember handing it to my parents right after the ceremony because I had no use for it.
Following Awards Day, my parents and grandparents held a dinner at our house to celebrate my graduation the next day. I behaved poorly, selfishly, unable to muster much energy, appreciation, or perspective. At one point, my father took me out for a walk down the street and quickly both expressed understanding for my anger and encouragement to move beyond the disappointment. I held onto my anger and resentment for some time.
Of course, the last 44 years of my life have taught me to see this experience in a very different light. I see now that my failure to receive the Alumni Cup was precisely what I needed to experience at that time in my life.
I loved my athletic experience in high school. I had three very different coaches who each taught me a lot about life, teamwork, discipline, and sacrifice. My soccer coach turned out to be one of the most important and inspiring mentors in my life. He was calm, composed, and charismatic both in practice and on game days. I modeled much of my own coaching and leadership philosophy on his example. My basketball coach, in contrast, tried to break me down and destroy my self-confidence and creativity as an athlete, all in a single-minded attempt to see if I would collapse under his constant criticism and outrage. It was a brutal experience, but he succeeded in making me play for the good of the team and accept the foundational roles of playmaking, defense, and leadership. I ultimately rejected his form of teaching and coaching in my own career and educational practice, but his onslaught taught me the most of any of my coaches. My tennis coach was thoughtful, analytical, and reserved—a perfect match to my turbulent and emotional approach to the game.
I had great teammates in all of my sports seasons, and together we grew up and learned about friendship, diversity, collaboration, sacrifice, dedication, and integrity —lessons that continue to inspire me to this day. We played in a league called the Interstate League, bringing schools from Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo together in all sports. We spent a lot of time on busses together, times when we had time to talk to one another and create the culture of our teams.
In other words, the award, the Alumni Cup was an alien force, a distraction that sought on Awards Day to separate me from the essential athletic experiences I had enjoyed in high school. On that afternoon long ago, I might have thought I wanted and deserved the trophy, but I now see the prize was actually a trap, a temptation to lose my way and surrender my appreciation of the culture of collaboration implicit in team sports.
I also realized soon enough that if I thought that highly of myself as an athlete, I needed to get to work, develop my skills, push myself into more rigorous competition and commit to playing as many varsity sports as I could in college. Part of me definitely wanted to show my old coaches and school what they had failed to recognize in me, but the better response came later: I needed not an award, but a commitment to excellence.
As a Head of School myself now, I sometimes feel engulfed by an award culture. As you know, we will give out a lot of awards next Saturday and Sunday at St. Andrew’s, and as we do so, we have to be careful to be sure we do not lose our abiding spirit as we identify individuals from the collective whole that is a Class and a School. As someone who remembers the distortion and desolation a prize day can bring, I want each one of you to know that our award culture seeks to recognize exemplary performances that emerge because of both individual effort and dedication and more importantly, the culture of excellence we all create together.
I understand and appreciate the difference between exemplary performance and good work, and I agree that at St. Andrew’s we witness feats of intelligence, artistry, athleticism, and leadership that are astounding, but I firmly believe that the success each of you find here is dependent on the contributions of every single member of the community. In other words, we each have contributed to the culture that makes exemplary performance possible.
As I share diplomas with seniors at this time next Sunday, each one of them will be aware that their success and accomplishments took place, developed, and emerged through the support of peers, faculty mentors, and underformers who believed in and supported them. At least at St. Andrew’s, we do not succeed without collaboration. We know that those who seek success through a worship of self, through a competitive mindset that views classmates and working colleagues as threats to their own ascendency and progress ultimately destroy themselves, their schools and colleges, and our commitment to the common good.
And one more thing: the temptation to focus on the self in an awards culture blinds us to the gifts and sacrifices others make for us. Did my parents and grandparents deserve to experience the petty resentment and immature outrage of a self-centered prep school brat on a night that should have celebrated the joy of family and education? That evening, that lost opportunity to be present with my extended family haunts me today.
Graduation may on the surface seem to be about you, but it is actually about family, parents, grandparents, generations who come to witness not your prizes but the miraculous growth and development of a person of generosity and maturity. They come to celebrate the love that propelled you to St. Andrew’s and the growth and maturity you now bring into their lives and the world.
And we know that graduation in not about collecting prizes and awards. It is about being part of the movement known as the Class of 2019, and more generally the movement of St. Andrew’s. It is about realizing that in the most challenging, joyful, trying, successful, and tragic moments in your life, the Class of 2019 and St. Andrew’s will be there for you. It is about realizing that everything you learned here will prepare you for the most challenging moments in your life. That is why the best moments on Awards Night emerge through our student speakers and video celebrating the entire class.
No award can capture the ethos and abiding spirit of this place, but the sight of you individually and collectively today and especially next week make me believe in St. Andrew’s and in the future you will redeem and rescue.
- Headmaster News