Thank you for joining us for Parents Weekend at St. Andrew's. These three days represent our opportunity as a school community to thank and honor you all for the love, support, and sacrifice you express and make for your sons and daughters at St. Andrew's.
Just the other day, I had the opportunity to read one of our senior's college essays, and because it was such a beautiful tribute to her mother, I asked Nicole Lopez '19 for permission to read the first paragraph as a way of welcoming and honoring all of you. She writes:
"Every day, for as long as I could remember, I would witness my mom leave through our front door at 4:00 p.m. and catch a train to her job in Manhattan. Sometimes around 2:00 a.m. the next morning, I would be drawn out of my sleep by the sounds of her gentle footsteps leading their way through our dark living room stopping at our kitchen counter, where I would hear the jingle of the keys drop onto the cracked tile. Comforted by the rhythm of these noises, I would drift back to sleep, in a bed right beside those of my older sister and older brother. These same footsteps would be standing by my bedside a short five hours later, tenderly awakening me to get ready for school."
I am proud to say that I was one of Nicole's teachers, though I really can't take any credit for the beauty of her prose and the powerful sensitivity and love she communicates here. Her voice speaks for all of us: you are here today because you have made educational opportunity the most important priority in your family's life. You have simultaneously expressed a deep and profound hope for the future of this country and the world.
It is an interesting experience to lead a school in a period of such anger, distrust, fear, and suspicion in the country.
I have always identified St. Andrew's as distinctly countercultural in its redefinition of the American boarding school: in its approach to questions about values, ethical principles, and culture; in its exploration of the very purpose of this form of education.
But now, we are countercultural in our resistance to influences that seek to widen differences, ruin collaboration and creativity, and make the dream of our country's more perfect union less and less feasible.
In the midst of our own fervent political attacks and skirmishes over the past few months, a lot of us missed the news that Russian operatives have gotten quickly to work on exploiting this divide, offering equal opportunity support for the intolerance and suspicion of both the left and the right. It is truly remarkable that the world's greatest democracy now stands so vulnerable to strategic and destructive attacks that essentially capitalize on our own inclination and desire to believe the worst, not of our foes, but our fellow countrymen and women.
Those of us who care about the history, promise, and potential of America need to get to work to repair and heal this vulnerability. Families and schools seem like the perfect places for such regeneration.
Here are a few initiatives we all can pursue together, each depending on the collaboration of parents, faculty, and students.
Getting the Narrative Right: Despite the barrage of news featuring dysfunction, polarity, even violence, the United States and the world have remarkable people, organizations, and initiatives designed to heal, create community, and represent hope in this century. Over the years, this Engelhard stage has featured such men and women: from Bryan Stevenson, to Paul Farmer, to Diane Nash, to St. Andrew's leaders (parents, past parents, alumni, trustees) in business, medicine, education, and the arts.
We have hope, progress, and enlightenment on our side. We educate students who have come of age at a time when so many modes of intolerance and discrimination have been exposed, revealed, recognized as fraudulent, out moded and empty. Yes, those voices of hatred and division can be teased to life again, but even granting the enduring power of these dying cults, the future belongs to this generation who are so eager to embrace human rights, proximity, humility, and grace.
We as adults need to introduce students to those who literally awaken each day with a desire to improve the prospects, hopes, and dreams of the human family. These transformational people are you and your neighbors, acquaintances, role models, and exemplars. These people teach our students that with hard work, courage, resilience, and kindness, they can change the world. These people are not ideological; they are passionate agents of change, reconciliation, and collaboration. They speak about and witness eternal truths that bind us together. We can work together in the coming years to deepen the study and appreciation of people and organizations who contribute to a public good.
Consider these words written this week by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor:
"Not long after I retired from the Supreme Court..., I made a commitment to myself, my family, and my country that I would use whatever years I have left to advance civic learning and engagement. I feel so strongly about the topic because I have seen first hand how vital it is for all citizens to understand our Constitution and unique form of government, and participate actively in their communities. It is through shared understanding of who we are that we can follow the approaches that have served us best over time, working together in communities and in government to solve problems, putting country and the public good above party and self interest and holding our key governmental institutions accountable."
Elevate the Norms, the Principles, The Spirit of our Families and Schools: I know that the best families and the best schools expect a lot of responsibility, character, love, and empathy from young people. They never say to their children or their students that the commitment to kindness, generosity, and service is only activated in adulthood. They never say that elementary, middle, secondary school, or college are years free of ethical and moral foundations, responsibilities, and commitments. They never spoil their children by a worship of materialism, arrogance, or superiority. They never need to have their children or students learn about the existence and threat of harassment, hazing, abuse, sexual assault, intolerance, or bigotry because from day one, the family and school stand for eternal truths and sacred principles honoring human equality, empathy, compassion, and dignity. They believe in the power of families and schools to replace an egotistical or selfish mindset with one that is patient, affirming, and transformational. Families and schools have inspiring narratives, heroes and heroines, sacred rituals and traditions.
What we are trying to do at St. Andrew's, with the benefit of an all-residential experience, is to cultivate habits of mind and heart that are real, authentic, and responsible. In this era of St. Andrew's history, students have indeed sacrificed to make this culture real, recognizable, and vibrant. And so, as we begin a new year full of complexity, energy, and challenge, I try to remind our students that the cultivation of grace requires real effort, real discipline, and real commitment.
Please join us in this discussion with your students. Ask them, whenever you can, not only how they are doing, how they are learning, how they are progressing; also ask them how they are growing in grace, humility, and kindness. Ask them how their peer circles are expanding. Ask them how well they seek out others who view the world differently; ask them how they experience and express kindness, concern, and empathy for their own family. Ask them what they stand up for every day, without fail. Ask them about their student and faculty role models and exemplars. Ask them to reduce their social media profile and create a life that is real, substantial, significant, and passionate.
Articulate the Power of Truth and Honor: Across the nation and world, we are seeing a challenge to notions of honor, integrity, and the truth. These violations conspire to fuel dangerous transgressions against the human spirit. It is not only the disintegration of truth that should alarm us: it is the permission a culture of deceit gives to expressions and acts against human decency, civility, and honor. "Everything is permitted", thinks one of Dostoevsky's characters as he is tempted by the breakdown of spiritual and moral foundations. And so he ventures forth like Shakespeare's Macbeth, to violate and desecrate a human life.
I value our honor code's mission statement:
"We seek to live lives of integrity in moments small and large, in all we say and do."
This statement in and of itself has become decidedly countercultural, for it implies we seek out a consistency in our approach to what we do, what we say, and what we believe, regardless of the circumstances that surround us, and especially in moments when our integrity and commitment to the truth will hurt our own self interest or be invisible to everyone. I believe that a commitment to truth and integrity halts the progression, advance, and permission of violence and absolute power.
When I grow troubled by the state of the world, I turn to Shakespeare and then inevitably to our greatest current commentator on his work, Stephen Greenblatt. He argues that in his brilliant plays, Shakespeare suggests that betrayal, deceit, and deception have always existed, but what has always been fundamental, essential, and reliable are courageous voices of the truth to confront and defeat the essential degradation of their time. We might remember Emilia in Othello, or MacDuff in Macbeth, or the servant of Cornwall in King Lear who refuses to remain silent as the play dissolves into torture and contempt for human rights.
We as adults have to model and enact an approach to the truth that is decidedly open, consistent, courageous, and logical. We have to be the people devoted to the "collective decency" and "the popular spirit of humanity", Greenblatt describes in this passage:
"The Shakespearean leaders are often compromised and corruptible; the crowd is often foolish, ungrateful, easily misled by demagogues, and slow to understand where its real interests lie. There are periods, sometimes extended periods, during which the cruelest motives of the basest people seem to be triumphant. But Shakespeare believed that the tyrants and their minions would ultimately fail, brought down by their own viciousness and by a popular spirit of humanity that could be suppressed but never completely extinguished. The best chance for the recovery of collective decency lay, he thought, in the political action of ordinary citizens. He never lost sight of the people who steadfastly remained silent when they were exhorted to shout their support for the tyrant or the servant who tried to stop his vicious master from torturing a prisoner, or the hungry citizen who demanded economic justice."
Developing a Collective Approach to the Pollution that Threatens to Influence and Defeat the Creativity and Generosity of Youth: Those of us who work in the world of education can quickly identify the smog that can ruin the development of a 21st Century citizen, scholar, and leader:
A dearth of love, support, affirmation, and encouragement, on the part of parents, guardians, and school.
Parental or institutional forces that essentially create anxiety or demean or diminish the pursuit of ideas, the cultivation of passion, or the pursuit of a life of meaning and service.
The narrative of perfection that strangles education with a rigid series of requirements, demands, and sacrifices. We know that this culture of perfection has to a large degree been augmented and encouraged by the power of the college admissions process in America. But just because the colleges insist on a public demonstration of perfection, schools and families do not have to relinquish their values and their dedication to a cultivation of citizens who will change the world.
The surrender of our commitment to teach, sustain, and embody resilience. The coddling of the adolescent experience leads to chaos and confusion in adulthood.
The lowering of norms that protect and inspire the development, growth and energy of young people: accepting as if it is inevitable, the use of alcohol, drugs, juuling, and other forms of chemical substances.
The worship of the screen and the retreat of adolescents and adults from the proximity, engagement, and purpose great communities embody.
It seems logical then that we as teachers and parents keep the focus on aspirational rather than anxiety provoking goals. Students achieve more, play better, create more powerfully when we remind them of the power of hard work, dedication, and resilience; when we tell them that if they have dreams of doing magnificent things in their lives, they have our belief, support, and encouragement; that failure precedes accomplishment; that adolescence does not have to be grim, strategic, and exhausting; rather it can and should be the vital and most enlightening stage in life, a time when moral and ethical principles and commitments are built and confirmed.
You as parents come to us this weekend as vital reinforcements of our community values and spirit. We need your confirmation, affirmation, and support.