GSB Convocation for the Class of 2022

And lo, the rains came down and the floodwaters rose for 40 days and 40 nights...according to Genesis, not the National Weather Center. Even though that isn’t happening here in Gladstone, last night was particularly damaging and our thoughts and prayers are with all those who were impacted by the storm. Indeed, we received a tremendous amount of rain in the past month, making this the second wettest summer on record. Perhaps the GSB Players’ production of “Two by Two” this past spring was a prescient selection, although its central message is ultimately one of hope, and hope is a good thing, maybe even the best of things (to quote Stephen King).

Well, the rains have stopped, the sun is coming out, the roads are clearing; but given all that is happening in the country and the world, what next?

We certainly live-in challenging times, and it is easy to get caught up in the negative narrative, or in plain language, all that is wrong. I suppose this is why I have come to believe that “Optimism is a moral choice.” It is a decision I hope more will embrace this academic year Beginnings are naturally full of anticipation and excitement. Consider for a moment all that has changed at Gill St. Bernard’s since June. There are new faces in the faculty and student body, changes to the campus and daily schedule. Most of all, though, there will be changes in lunch this year. With each one, there will be new opportunities for us, new possibilities.

Unfortunately, one thing hasn’t changed very much: the pandemic. We find ourselves again having to navigate Covid with regular testing, face coverings indoors, and social distancing. Sadly, until we can safely get everyone vaccinated from this terrible illness, we will have to live with some restrictions in our lives. Fortunately, last year’s experiences demonstrated that we are able to successfully navigate the pandemic and remain open for in person classes. Further, the many lessons learned have helped us improve our protocols. I thank everyone for their patience, cooperation, and understanding as we work our way through this together.

Working together will be an essential requirement for our school as we continue to move forward.

At Gill St. Bernard’s, our mission is “to provide a balanced, diverse, and secure community that prepares students academically, socially, and ethically for college and a meaningful life.” These twenty-one words establish our purpose or primary reason for being here.

In this morning’s reading, author Giolia Belloni begins her story with a sheep, who after watching some birds in the sky, is determined to build a flying machine. With the help of her friend the wolf, they start building. Their first effort crashes. Again and again, they fail. Yet, instead of giving up, the sheep rethinks her invention and redesigns it. Persistence, or grit, in the face of failure is an important part of the learning process. Setbacks can teach us much...if we are willing to learn from them.

How about you? Consider for a moment those times in your life where you may have failed or gotten something wrong. How did you respond?  There are plenty of quotes from famous individuals about the

 importance of learning from our mistakes. Most agree that failure is a part of life, and no one is perfect. Yet even though we can all agree on this, we still don’t handle failure very well. Kathryn Schultz suggests

that part of our struggle is because we don’t always realize when we are wrong. In the early 1950’s, three young chemical engineers set out to develop a solvent for the aerospace industry. Unlike the sheep and the wolf, it took them 40 attempts to perfect their formula. Combined with the first letters for water displacement, they called their new product WD-40, in recognition of how many attempts it took to get it right.

More of you are familiar with Thomas Edison who, among hundreds of inventions, was responsible for the electric lightbulb. What is sometimes forgotten is that it took him thousands of attempts before he succeeded. Consider too, that although we are willing to recognize that mistakes are a normal part of life, why are we so afraid of making them?

This summer, the faculty and staff read Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again. In it, Grant emphasizes the insight and growth that may come from being willing to rethink your ideas and opinions. The book even has an entire chapter on “The Joy of Being Wrong.”

Now, let me pause for a moment to state the obvious, which is that most people do not like or ever enjoy being wrong. I am definitely in that group, especially when it comes to the weather. Just ask my children. However, I would have preferred the chapter title to have been, “The Joy of Discovery.” When we realize we have fallen short or failed, it is awkward, uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Yet, if we can overcome these feelings, and as Grant writes, “examine the facts and think more like a scientist,” we may discover, learn, and grow. The sheep in the story did this and, as a result, she and the wolf were able to fly.

After more than twenty years here, one thing that some have learned about me is that whenever I see trash on the floor or ground, I pick it up. I know how hard our staff works to keep the campus clean and it bothers me. However, the more important reason I do this is because I believe in the importance of stewardship.

Stewardship is a word you don’t hear very often outside of religious institutions. Yet, we talk a lot about “being good stewards” at Gill. Stewardship refers to the “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to you.” I am a steward of the school. So are the Trustees. In fact, the very term “trustee” stems from stewardship. They are “entrusted” with the care and responsible management of the school’s many resources. Administrators, faculty and staff share in this responsibility, too. This morning, I want to encourage all our students, especially the Class of 2022, to also be stewards of the campus.

The first stewards of the land on which our campus is located were the Lenni Lenape. They lived on and worked this area for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the first Europeans in the 16th century. As part of improving our understanding of the history of Gill St. Bernard’s, a group of faculty have begun working on a Land Acknowledgement. Through this, we may more fully appreciate and become even better stewards of the campus. Our 208 acres are a special gift which we must care for so that it can be passed on to those who follow in our footsteps.

Stewardship though, is about more than just taking care of the campus. It extends to the people too– students, teachers, parents, alumni – who make up the GSB community.

Community is at the center of our school. A key word in our mission statement, we seek to ensure that GSB is “balanced, diverse, and secure community.” In “The Upswing,” Robert Putnam suggests that one reason for the polarization of our culture today lies in the over emphasis on “I” as opposed to “we.” He states that freedom and equality do not have to be in tension with each other. Community can “coexist” with individualism if both are “properly” understood and respected.  Putnam references Alexis de Tocqueville, who first made this observation almost two hundred years ago as he travelled throughout America.

Through shared experiences here – a class, a team, an ensemble, a club – relationships form, and trust may be established. I “see” you because I “know” you, which in turn may lead to I “hear” you, as well as a place of greater understanding and inclusivity. Grant suggests that the most important skill we need to develop is that of active listening. Well that, and as Ted Lasso quotes Walt Whitman, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

These shared experiences begin with a willingness to engage with each other – thoughtfully, respectfully – recognizing that we come from many different places and viewpoints. By first acknowledging those things we agree on, our relationships have a better chance of surviving arguments over those things on which we disagree. By the way, another area I suspect we agree on is that there is always room for improvement. Gill St. Bernard’s is not a perfect school and will always be in the process of becoming a better one.

Coming together as a community to tackle issues and solve problems without rancor remains our best hope for success.

There are many messages in this morning’s book, Anything is Possible. The importance of determination, grit, and rethinking one’s ideas are obvious. In addition, let’s not overlook that the story has a sheep and wolf working together. Normally when those two get together, the occasion is for a meal. However, in the end, the author’s most important message is “Only those who dream learn to fly.”

What are your dreams? What stories will you write this year? How will you use your voice?

Best wishes to the Class of 2022 and everyone for a great year.

After all, anything is possible.

 

Go Knights!

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