September 4, 2019: Convocation

Mr. Matthews and members of the Board of Trustees, special guests, colleagues, parents, members of the Class of 2020 and to everyone in the community; it is my privilege to formally open the 2019-20 academic year at Gill St. Bernard’s.
It is an exciting time here at the school and promises to be a fantastic year. I do want to be careful in my comments today though, as the last time I spoke to the school community in June at Commencement, I was a little too self-indulgent. I am referring, of course, to my shout out to the Boston Bruins, who were at that moment leading in the Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues. To make matters worse, I also referenced the Red Sox (World Series Champs) and Patriots (super Bowl Victors) in anticipation of what would be an amazing feat by a city’s sports teams. Alas, the Bruins lost, the Red Sox will miss the playoffs this season, and Gronk looks like he is really retiring. I just hope I haven’t started another 86-year curse!

In some ways these days, I find myself a bit of a stranger in a foreign land, at least in dealing with technology and popular culture. I love my turntable, am suspicious of the cloud and zealously avoid social media. I’ve never taken to either a Kindle or eBooks, as I prefer the hard cover versions. Hard cover books never run out of battery life and you don’t have to worry about sand or water with them at the beach. After golf, reading is my favorite summer activity, especially by a body of water.

However, I’m okay with technology as it holds great promise for us in so many ways. I just worry that we have begun to spend more time with our technology than we do with each other.

Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix recently said, “At Netflix, we are competing for our customer’s time, so our competitors include SnapChat, YouTube, sleep, etc. Consider that for a moment: sleep is a competitor of Netflix. Yet sleep is one of the most important things human beings need. During his lengthy protest of British rule over India, Gandhi fasted 17 times, the longest for 21 days.

However, in the longest recorded sleep deprivation study, the subject made it only 11 days. Furthermore, the negative affects actually begin to set in after only 48 hours. We need sleep. Yet, be it Netflix, SnapChat or Facebook; all conspire to deprive us of this basic human need.

It occurs to me that we should be more conscious of our attention; part of that means being more aware of those things that distract us. For many, it may not be Netflix, but rather online games, like Fortnite, or other games on our phones. By the way, how many hours do you spend on your phone?

The digital distractions in our lives are constantly coming at us: in pop up ads, snap chat stories, texts, phone calls – all demanding our attention – and they often keep us from other things that are more important. Some are quite subtle, so subtle that we don’t even realize that our attention has been hijacked. Consider too, how these things keep us from being present; they prevent us from living in the moment and committing to each other in conversation.

Does it ever happen to you that when you check your phone just to “see if you have any” messages, the next thing you know 20 minutes have passed? What else might you have done with that time? How often do you “check” your phone each day? Ever forget your phone when you go somewhere? How does that affect you?

In several respects, many of these things further add to the “noise” in our lives which drowns out other imperatives and opportunities. I struggle with it too, at times. In those moments when the noise crowds out everything else, I crave silence, the quiet that gives me time to think and make sense of what has become at times, a senseless world. We need to pay closer attention to what we are doing and filter out the many distractions. The research about this is clear: multitasking only leads to less than stellar results on multiple things.

In her wonderful poem, The Mockingbird, Mary Oliver observed,

All summer the mockingbird in his pearl-gray coat and his white-windowed wings
flies from the hedge to the top of the pine and begins to sing, but it's neither lilting nor lovely,
for he is the thief of other sound– whistles and truck brakes and dry hinges plus all the songs of other birds in his neighborhood;
mimicking and elaborating, he sings with humor and bravado, so I have to wait a long time for the softer voice of his own life
to come through. He begins by giving up all his usual flutter and settling down on the pine's forelock then looking around
as though to make sure he's alone; then he slaps each wing against his breast, where his heart is, and copying nothing, begins
easing into it as though it was not half so easy as rollicking, as though his subject now
was his true self, which of course was as dark and secret as anyone else's, and it was too hard–
perhaps you understand– to speak or to sing it to anything or anyone but the sky.

What does it mean “to find your voice, your very own voice?” Are your words congruent with who you are? It takes courage for sure, to speak up when others are silent. It takes courage to speak up for what is right and against that which you know is wrong. Whether supporting someone who is getting teased or taking an unpopular stand, it is not always easy to speak up.

In her poem, Mary Oliver calls the mockingbird a “thief,” for he steals the songs of other birds, mimics sounds, never singing his own. Do you sometimes mimic those around you, especially your friends, even when you may disagree with them?

How do you find your voice, sing your song?

In the children’s book this morning that Adrian read, Say Something, Peter Reynolds presents a diverse group of characters who speak up or out about a variety of things. “You don’t have to be loud,” he writes, “powerful words can be a whisper.”

You may find your voice in many ways. Saying something is more than just the New York City slogan, “If you see something, say something,” although that is important too, and easy to remember. Ultimately, however, it is about finding yourself.

Speaking up or out also reflects your gifts; the many talents you possess, some of which you may not yet have discovered. Will you commit to the possibilities, the potential within you this year, or are you content to copy others, blend in and just stand on the sidelines? Life is always more interesting when you participate in it.

This summer, our faculty read Bryan Stevenson’s incredible book, Just Mercy. As a young lawyer, he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, and defended a number of people wrongly convicted of crimes and often sentenced to death. Through his work, Stevenson discovered his own voice as he spoke on behalf of others. Since his early efforts, he has gone on to build the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; a powerful testament to all those African Americans lynched in the past hundred years in the United States. It is every bit as moving as the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, DC.

The 1619 Project, recently published by the New York Times has shined a new spotlight on the terrible history of slavery and its impact. Slavery remains our country’s greatest sin. This initiative speaks for those whose voices were dismissed, ignored and stolen from them. In many ways, the 1619 Project may be the most important piece of journalist reporting this year, one that I hope will fundamentally change our understanding of American History and how it is taught in schools.

And what about our planet? Climate change and its impact on us is very real and moving into a new phase where we need to spend as much time considering how we will adapt to a warmer climate as we do with the efforts to mitigate it. Sadly, it is certain to happen and there are no other options. David Wallace-Wells has pointed out, “You can’t choose the planet, which is the only one any of will call home.” Who will speak for the oceans, the hundreds of species facing extinction, the rain forests; those who have no voice at all? How can you step up and join others seeking to address these and other issues? How might you make a difference this year? What does your voice sound like?

Even as we do this, we must also remember the importance of listening. Perhaps more art than science, active listening is the gateway to understanding. Steven Covey captured this in his principle “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” How often do you interrupt someone in a conversation, either because you disagree with them, or because you are guilty of “predicting,” saying what you think they are going to say? How does that impact the nature of the conversation? Usually, not very well. Are you able to quiet your own mind long enough to truly listen to what he or she is really saying? Have you ever had to ask someone to let you finish what you where trying to say?
There is real power in being an effective listener, being present to engage thoughtfully and with respect. It is essential that we take the time to fully hear what others say, to listen, before we speak. It is also okay to disagree on something.

Suffice to say, there is a whole lot going on in our nation and the world which is troubling. Furthermore, the nature of our discourse has noticeably deteriorated. We now often struggle to have constructive conversations about the most important things. This should not happen. Further complicating matters, some create or subscribe to “false narratives” for the sole purpose of undermining the actual truth. This has only furthered the divide in our nation and at times may even raise doubts about what we know is real. The Holocaust did happen. The American Civil War was fought over slavery. Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon. These are all facts. Don’t allow an internet troll or other hate group lure you down a path that destroys both trust as well as faith.

This year, in between all of the myriad demands we place upon ourselves, consider taking the time to more regularly engage in conversation, face to face, free from digital distractions, listening and speaking with each other in ways that foster understanding and build community.

Gill St. Bernard’s is all about discovery: here you have the chance to speak up and out on a variety of issues as well as share your talents with the community. Discover the world this year, and in the process discover yourself.

The great American author Toni Morrison passed away in August. Among the many profound things she said and wrote, one stood out:
“If there is a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”

As you write this particular chapter at GSB in that special book, I hope that it will reflect your voice, your own voice; free from the noise of our popular culture and technology, congruent with who you are. Equally important, I pray that it will also demonstrate that you are a great listener.
Finally, share your gifts with the GSB community this year, and be mindful of our core values of courage, integrity, respect, compassion, and excellence. Try to make them your touchstones as you navigate various challenges, be they academic, social, or getting into college. You won’t regret it, and since the academic year will pass by in what will one day seem like just a moment, be sure to make the most of it.

Thank you, and Go Knights!
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.