September 5, 2018: Convocation

Mrs. Udoff, members of the Board of Trustees, colleagues, parents, students and members of the Class of 2019; it is my privilege to speak to you today as a part of Convocation. This ceremony marks the official beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year at Gill St. Bernard’s, which will end in June at Commencement. It also gives us the opportunity to formally acknowledge and recognize the seniors, as well as new members of our Board of Trustees.
First, I would like to thank the members of our Operations staff for their many efforts to set up the Athletic Center for this event as well as our Technology Department. I would also like to thank my assistant, Mrs. Fry, for all of her help in coordinating the many logistics of Convocation. A special thanks to all of you for dealing with the excessive heat and humidity of these first few days of school. In particular, I do appreciate everyone’s patience yesterday after the power to some of our buildings was shut off.
 
Finally, I wish to thank Anna Tulenko for reading this year’s book, Only One You. It is not easy to speak to any audience, let alone one so sizeable. Thank you, Anna.
 
I have always loved the beginning of the school year. It is a chance for a fresh start and the moment when everything is possible. Of course, social media has now changed some of the dynamics of these first few days, as we no longer spend as much time catching up on summer activities and what is going on in our lives. I am not sure which is more unfortunate—the “oversharing” that occurs online, or the artificial quality of many snaps and posts—though both eliminate important opportunities for us to communicate face-to-face, as well as the chance for a fresh start.
 
Keep in mind that no matter what an app may promise, everything you post will never disappear. Think about that for a moment. Have you ever sent a message you wish you could have taken back, or posted something you later regretted? Perhaps one resolution for the “new academic year” you might make is to spend less time on social media sites, and Fortnite, while I’m on the subject.
 
Most of you know by now that one of my favorite activities is reading, and the months of June, July and August provide me with the chance to finish a number of the books on my library table. I often share them with others and in turn, welcome recommendations on what I should dive into next. Some are easy to read, others quite difficult. The best ones give me the opportunity to learn, reflect and grow. Learn, reflect and grow. In many ways that is much of what education, and even perhaps life itself, is all about. What will you read this year? What might you learn? How do you reflect on things in your life?
 
This summer the faculty read Jean Twenge’s book, iGen. They discussed it over lunch a few weeks ago and I am confident that you will be hearing more about in the coming months. After all, it examines much of the research about the generation born after 1996. The number one takeaway is that we would all benefit from spending less time on our cellphones and more in face-to-face conversations.
 
Consider too for a moment, Only One You, which Anna read earlier. The author, Linda Kranz, offers advice on what each of us might do, to make the world a better place. For example,
 
--Always be on the lookout for a new friend
--If you make a wrong turn, circle back
 
Some might suggest they are too simple or too obvious, although they’re easy to remember and most will agree that each is a kind of basic “life lesson.” Simple does not necessarily mean simplistic. How might you make the world a better place? How might you make Gill St. Bernard’s better?
 
Just this past week, many in our nation celebrated the lives of two great Americans: Aretha Franklin and Sen. John McCain. They came from distinctly different backgrounds and their paths were also different; yet both made our country and the world better.
 
Franklin, an immensely talented singer and songwriter, was a tireless voice for civil rights for most of her life. She made the song, Respect, written by Otis Redding, her very own. Aretha’s version powerfully spoke to a deeper, more fundamental need that many feel for respect. Sadly, it remains largely unfulfilled for some, even now.
 
John McCain bravely served our country during the Vietnam War, a conflict that terribly divided our nation in the 1960s and 70s. The son and grandson of admirals, when he was captured by the Vietnamese he was offered an early release from prison because of his family. However, he refused such special treatment to remain with other American captives and was a POW for more than 5 years. After his release from prison, due to his injuries, he left the military and dedicated his life to public service. Eventually, McCain became a US Senator and presidential candidate. In the last few years he regularly decried the partisanship in Washington and current rancor, which he found incompatible with the ideals of our nation. McCain also repudiated the use of torture in any situation, as he himself was a victim of torture while in prison.
 
Although each was flawed (and in fact, both confessed to being so), their lives were rich in meaning and purpose. Franklin and McCain made an impact in important ways on our culture and country. I encourage you to learn more about each one beyond the soundbites and tweets.
 
Another good read from my summer, The Courage Way, is a thoughtful book by Shelly Francis which looks at the vital role that courage plays in leadership. More than anything else, Francis speaks to the daily work that all leaders must engage in, in order to be impactful. Most of all, it is critically important that our inner lives are congruent with our outer actions. Leadership is a skill that may be learned and it is not something inherent even though many believe otherwise.
 
Do you have the courage to take on a leadership role here at Gill? If you are presently serving in one, how can you be more effective? In addition, Francis talks about community and how “…(it) is rarely a given, obtained once and kept forever.” All leaders have to work at building community, as it is not a box to be checked off on a list or taken for granted.
 
Gill St. Bernard’s is not just an educational institution; it is at the same time, a unique community of learners. Each of us is every bit a teacher just as we are all students. Your experiences here should be about much more than an eventual acceptance at a college or university. Remember that our mission is not just to prepare you for college, but also for a “meaningful life.” What might that look like for you?
 
One way to achieve this requires that we “dig deeper” in our classes, in our conversations and take advantage of the opportunities we have to grow this year. At times, it may include topics that are difficult and require us to look at things from a different perspective. Guided by our core values of Courage, Integrity, Respect, Compassion and Excellence; we can and should have civil face-to-face conversations about challenging issues inside and outside of our classrooms. Yet we cannot, and must not let stand comments or actions that are hurtful, bullying in any way or behavior that is vulgar. Hate speech has no place here as it is counter to our values and purpose as a school community.
 
My major in college was history, and I continued that concentration in graduate school. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I deeply value the study of history and discern just how much the past shapes both our present and future. As Sebastian stated in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.”
 
At Convocation last year, one of the topics I spoke about was the protests that arose in Charlottesville, VA over a statue of Robert E. Lee. It led to an unsettling march on the campus of UVA, eerily reminiscent of 1930s Nazi Germany. I mention this because a year later, the controversy surrounding confederate monuments still remains. Indeed, the perceived lack of any progress led a group of students at UNC to physically tear down another confederate statue, Silent Sam, on their campus in Chapel Hill earlier this month. Why has this ignited such passions around the country? What are the underlying causes and why is it happening now?
 
First, it is important to remember that it is a complex issue, which requires an understanding of the American History, especially the Civil War and Reconstruction period. However, the seeds of this conflict were planted in 1619. Although there are many places to start, a good one is Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in 1860, which stakes out a constitutional argument against slavery and proved to be the catalyst for his election later that year.
 
Unfortunately, it has become easy for some to dismiss academic learning, which takes time and hard work. Serious scholarship has been undermined by simplistic messages which seek to discredit the truth. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to difficult questions. Furthermore, you should be skeptical of those who offer them.
 
It was not a coincidence that these protests took place on college campuses. Colleges and universities have often been “hothouses” for debating controversial issues in our country for decades. The incident at UNC is not the first time student protests ended in a violent act. However, while we examine many challenging topics at GSB, insuring the respectful nature of our discourse is always paramount. I hope that the Class of 2019 will bring this same spirit of constructive dialogue with them when they go to college a year from now.
 
Two other books have been on my mind as of late, Madeline Albright’s Fascism: A Warning, and Tim Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom. Although perhaps darker in nature, each considers recent developments in our world against the backdrop of the 20th century. Whether you agree or disagree with the conclusions they have reached should be based on a careful reading and understanding of the issues they explore, as opposed to online reviews or simplistic summaries from unverifiable sources. I would also note that both Albright and Snyder are optimistic about the future of our democracy.
 
In closing, I wish to share the inspirational final words of Richard Blanco’s famous poem, One Today:
 
“We head home; through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk,
but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky.
 
And always one moon,
like a silent drum tapping
on every rooftop
and every window,
of one country—
all of us—
facing the stars.
 
Hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—
together.”
 
We live in an extraordinary time. Being a part of this community, members one of another, we have the opportunity face-to-face, to listen, learn, and grow. Live this year in person, and not online.
 
Best of luck to the Class of 2019 and to everyone for a great year.
 
Thank you.
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Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a rigorous, meaningful, and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.