September 6, 2017: Convocation

Mrs. Udoff, members of the Board of Trustees, colleagues, parents, students and members of the Class of 2018, it is my privilege to speak to you today as part of Convocation. This ceremony officially begins the 2017-2018 academic year at Gill St. Bernard’s, which will end in June at Commencement. It also gives us the opportunity to formally recognize the seniors, two new trustees and consider the months ahead.

First, I would like to thank the members of the Operations staff for all their hard work in setting up the Athletic Center for today 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 the ceremony.

Finally, I want to recognize and express my appreciation to Connor Kirk for reading this year’s book selection. It is never easy to get up and speak to an audience of any kind, notwithstanding one so large. Thank you, Connor, for doing such a wonderful job.

In schools, September is traditionally a time of hopes and dreams; everything is possible as the academic year begins. With the many new faces and other changes on the campus, there is naturally a great deal of excitement. Still, it is normal to feel a little anxious--college applications, challenging courses, making friends, keeping friends, navigating everything in an online world – and it can sometimes even be overwhelming.

The summer is a wonderful opportunity for me to rest, catch up on my reading list and reflect on the many challenges facing our school. In addition, it offers the benefit of unscheduled time during which I might better determine the proper course of action moving forward. Of all the things that happened this summer, I feel the need to single out the recent events in Charlottesville, VA for particular comment as they were so deeply disturbing on several levels. Most of all, the optics of torch bearing men chanting “Blood and Soil” must not be overlooked or ignored. They were eerily similar to images from Nazi Germany in the 1930’s captured by Leni Riefenstahl in her propaganda film, Triumph of the Will.  In the aftermath of the devastating floods in the Houston area, the significance of this seems to have been relegated to the back pages. And yet, what happened cannot go away and should not be forgotten.

Let me be as clear as I can on this issue: Gill St. Bernard’s is committed to being an inclusive place where acceptance and understanding of others is essential. Racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred in all its forms have no place here. Furthermore; words, symbols and actions which hurt others in our community have consequences for everyone involved. Hate speech is not free speech at our school. It is contrary to our core values and mission; as such will not, and never has been tolerated.

In his book, The Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela offered this profound observation:

“I always knew that deep down in every human heart there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another because of the color of his (or her) skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

The study of history teaches us that non-violent forms of protest are the only successful way to truly change a culture. Ghandi in India, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in this country, and Betty Williams/Mairead Corrigan in Northern Ireland are just a few who succeeded in their efforts to challenge and change the status quo. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that challenging and changing a deeply embedded culture takes decades and constant attention. It is not a “box” that you check off and move on to something else. Human beings are tribal in nature and the complexities of life encourage more of this behavior, rather than less.

In his most recent work, Thank You For Being Late, Thomas Friedman makes this observation, “In such a time, opting to pause and reflect, rather than panic or withdraw, is a necessity. It is not a luxury or a distraction – it is a way to increase the odds that you’ll better understand, and engage productively with the world around you.”

Pause and reflect...

I agree with him that it is neither a luxury nor a distraction – it is an absolute necessity today. So much is happening, so quickly, that it is often hard to fully comprehend what is taking place in our nation, the world and understand the implications for us. Even now, a number of things are occurring which are sure to affect us in some way.

Friedman explores the tremendous forces impacting our lives – Moore’s Law (the power of technology), the market (representing the power and ubiquitous influence of geopolitics) and climate change (with its subsequent loss of biodiversity)—raising a number of questions about the future. Fortunately, Friedman does offer an answer and even hope in the form of community – the power of people coming together – to make a difference and solve problems in our country and the world.
I would like to think that in Friedman’s eyes, we at Gill St. Bernard’s are on the right track as we work to further enhance and strengthen our school community at this particular moment in time. And while we may not be able to change Washington, we can certainly change things in a positive way at Gill St. Bernard’s.

A year ago, I asked everyone – students, teachers, staff, even parents--to commit to becoming a community of learners. After all, the reason for our very presence here today is that we are a school, an academic institution. By its very definition, Gill St. Bernard’s is a place of teaching and learning. Central to our study of various subjects, we try to make connections between the past and present, consider actions and reactions, solve equations, understand language, appreciate art and music. You will most certainly encounter all of these things this year and much more. Perhaps, in the process, you will also learn about yourself. After all, self-discovery lies at the heart of the examined life.

For example, you might consider the second law of thermodynamics and how it relates to Hurricane Irma or even North Korea. Take the time to read Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address; the shortest inaugural address ever written, yet possibly the most profound. Explore Naomi Shahab Nye’s poem, Kindness, and begin to understand the importance of sorrow.

Pause and reflect…

This year, I ask that you commit to becoming a community of kindness. The book Connor read this morning, You Are Special, by Max Lucado, is set in a village filled with wooden people called “Wemmicks.” While each one was different, all were made by the same carver. Many of you are familiar with this story and an important lesson that it teaches: we often tend to label others in ways that may be shallow and even hurtful. However, if we can commit to that journey of self-discovery as Punchinello did, it is possible to understand that each person, every person, is special and loved. This message was shared quite powerfully last spring by one of our parents, Rose Kirk, with our upper school.  In fact, it was so important, that I felt it needed to be reiterated at the beginning of this year to the whole school and have the story told by her son, Conner.

There are some obvious parallels between the village of Wemmicks and our own school. I suspect that if you pause for a moment and reflect, you might think of a few. Is it possible for Gill to ever become the kind of place where there are no grey dots or gold stars?  What role might you play it helping this to happen?

In her most recent book, the author Krista Tippett writes of the concept of “making belonging infectious”. What if we could make belonging infectious at Gill St. Bernard’s? Instead of separating into groups based on questionable labels or tired assumptions, get to know others and enrich your life in the process.

Two of our core values, compassion and courage, are sometimes lost as we focus more on integrity, respect and excellence. However, the challenges we face—Hurricane Harvey (and now Irma), a growing intolerance in our country, the need for equity and justice—all call us to feel compassion for others. In order to successfully address these issues, we will also need the courage to face them as the most important things in life are often the most difficult. As we continue to strive to be a community of learners, let us this year also become a community of kindness. Lead by example as you undertake the journey of a new academic year, open to the possibilities, and make a difference in the life of our school.

In so doing, you may not only encounter new ideas, take healthy risks, and make some new friends; you may also discover yourself. Remember that you are special, and don’t forget to take time to pause and reflect.
Thank you, and best wishes to the Class of 2018.
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 vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.