Welcome back. We have made history together by being part of the 40th time Waynflete has sent the Upper School off into the wilderness and the world and managed to bring everyone back. If any of you come up with a song, a rap, a performance, or whatever to commemorate this historic event, let me know.
Personally, I am just grateful that I did not become the object of a commemorative ballad. Last week I was hiking in the 100 mile wilderness with nine fleet footed sophomores. On the day that we powered up and down four mountains in succession, it occurred to me that I was in danger of becoming the subject of a ballad that might be entitled: The Legend of the Upper School Director We Left Behind. You can imagine the refrain. For years to come, groups gather around the campfire on dark, moonless nights, the wind howling through the swaying trees, and they hear, or they think they hear, a voice cry out plaintively in the wilderness, “Hey, wait up for me. Wait up for me. Wait up for me.” That is just not how I am hoping to go down in OE history, so I am grateful to my group for taking pity and letting me keep up.
Having somehow survived that experience, this morning I do want to talk with you for a few minutes about bells, or the lack thereof at Waynflete. Anyone who has seen any movie version of life in high school or who has gone to school somewhere else is familiar with bells going off between classes and informational announcements coming over the intercom daily. Yet Waynflete has neither. This is the start of my 25th year as the Upper School Director. By way of talking with you about bells this morning, I want to share a few lessons I have learned over that time about what makes a school successful.
The first, not surprisingly, is the quality of the faculty. To illustrate that point, I have invited the Upper School team to sit with me on stage instead of being interspersed among you as they normally are at assembly. This group is intelligent and passionate, varied in expertise and interests, and uniquely unified in determination to connect with all of you in order to make themselves matter in your lives. As a teaching corps, they rival any faculty anywhere, in or out of the classroom. I know that not only because I have watched them work, but also because I have learned something from each of them, and a whole lot from some. All of you and I are very fortunate to be headed into a school year in the company of this fine staff.
The second ingredient for a successful school depends on the ability of you – the students – to tune into your learning opportunities. That can be more challenging than you might think. Sometimes we let ourselves get bored and daydream in class. That is a wasted opportunity. Sometimes we get so worried about doing well in school that, ironically, anxiety cancels out not only the joy of learning but also the capacity to learn itself. And sometimes we just let ourselves be distracted. If you are reading a novel while texting your friends, you may get the plot, you may even pass the quiz, but you haven’t really read the book.
I re-learned an important lesson about distraction the other day. I want to introduce you to the teacher who taught it to me. This is Georgie, who is a 2 ½ year old cocker spaniel. She is a rescue that my wife and I took in a couple of weeks ago. Our old dog died last spring, so I had fallen out of the habit of walking the dog. When I started walking Georgie, my summer was winding down and my inbox was filling up with email. The first couple of times out, I brought my phone and attempted to read and answer emails while walking and untangling myself from the lead as Georgie zipped back and forth, curious about every sound, every smell, every movement we encountered. Several times I tripped over Georgie as she cut in front of me and nearly face planted. I found myself scolding her and feeling really annoyed.
And then on one excursion as I attempted to walk and peck out an email, the phone was nearly yanked from my hands as the leash suddenly jerked. I turned back to find Georgie rolling happily on the sidewalk, fully immersed, in sharp contrast to me, in the moment. I realized that I was the one responsible for my own annoyance because I was doing one thing – walking the dog – while mentally trying to be somewhere else.
Watching Georgie’s extreme joy as she seized the opportunity of the simple pleasures offered by the coarse texture of a sidewalk, I realized that I had something to learn from her about living life fully. We exist perpetually in the present moment, but we will only live fully to the extent we choose to actively and fully invest ourselves in it. Now I leave my phone behind on our walks, and they have become a lot more enjoyable and interesting.
So what does this have to do with bells, and not having them ring every 50 minutes or so, sending us from place to place? Bells are an external stimulus on which we would depend to know what to do next. Same with daily intercom announcements. At Waynflete, we want our students to internalize that knowledge. In order to function, we set basic expectations and then depend on each of you to figure out how to meet them. We need you to know when it is time to check in with your advisor for homeroom and to do so every day. We need you to show up to class on time ready to learn. And so on.
In short, as your teachers, we don’t want to take over your lives. We want to help you learn to guide your own. We don’t want to tell you want to think; we want you to learn to think for yourselves.
If we can fend off the distractions, stay focused on the myriad opportunities of the moment, and thoroughly enjoy each others’ company along the way, there is so much potential for all of us – teachers and students alike – to grow and thrive this year.
And there probably will even be some time left over to roll on the sidewalk.
Thank you for listening. Have a wonderful first day of classes.