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Try to be a Little Kinder: A Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Speech

November 20, 2014

J Ross Peters:

Reposting this one as I am reminded daily of its relevance in our lives and our work.

Originally posted on Ross All Over The Map:

[What follows is my talk from last night at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.]

photo

GOOD EVENING! And welcome to our families and our friends present this evening for the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, welcome to our honorees—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening is more to help mark a beginning than an end.

I have been reflecting recently on two quotations from Aldous Huxley, 20th century thinker and novelist:

First, Huxley asserted, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”

And second: Huxley implored, “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything…

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Making Places and Creating What is Next: A Cum Laude and NHS Induction Speech

November 17, 2014

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Good Evening!

It is a pleasure to welcome parents, friends, and most importantly, students to the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony.  The students here this evening have distinguished themselves in many areas of school life from the classroom to the stage and from community service to the athletic field. They have earned this recognition. In myriad ways, Seniors, members of the class of 2015, you have done more than simply pass through Westminster. In real ways each class and each student within it, participates in making the school, creating the school.

Indeed we are not just passing through any of the places of our lives: our school, our city, our home, our work-place. No, we are not simply passing through places, we are all creating them. Underpinning our celebration of your achievements this evening is our belief in each of you that you will go into the world and go about the business of creating the world to come. This belief is born of another one that is that your education is not simply about you but it is also about the communities where you will lend your voices and your labor.

This summer my wife, daughter and I travelled to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for my wife to complete research on a remarkable place called, the Sacro Monte Di Orta—or the Sacred Mountain of Orta, a Renaissance era pilgrimage site where twenty chapels are dedicated to St. Francis. My wife, Katie, along with a couple of colleagues, is writing a book about this beautiful place set atop a small peninsula on Lake Orta, which sits at the mouth of the Ossola Valley not far from Switzerland. My job was to provide photographs for the book, so I spent many days shooting inside these captivating, dimly lit sacred spaces. Over our time there I realized that I was being given a rare glimpse into another time and place during which people dedicated significant portions of their lives creating the world around them. Like each of you they were doing far more than simply passing through.

Created over the course of almost two centuries, each chapel features a different scene from St. Francis’s life. While the walls are rich with remarkable frescoes, the scenes in the foreground draw the most attention as each is made up of life-size and often unbelievably realistic terracotta figures acting out the most dramatic moments of Francis’s biography. In order to get the photographs required for the project, I spent a great deal of time crawling, edging and tip-toeing under, beside and between these figures, many of which are well-over 400 years old, and I began to wonder about the people who must have been the models for this array of figures. The kiln in which these figures were made is adjacent to one of the chapels, making it clear that the models for many of the figures were likely people that lived in the area, almost inevitably as close as the ten minute walk down to the very small town of Orta San Giulio.

After spending so much time with the figures, I began to wonder what we can know about these people. What were they trying to tell us through this fascinating place that they created on a bucolic hilltop? While we know they didn’t have anything like the educational opportunities you have had, I believe they have some relevant advice for us:

  • They encourage us to live lives of civic engagement. They were participants in, not simply observers of, their community. They helped create their world, as opposed to simply commenting on it.
  • They encourage us to value the future, and they encourage us to believe in legacy. The Chapels were always intended for permanency. The commitment necessary to design them, build them, complete them was extraordinary. Our world often seems to value planned obsolescence over and above permanency.
  • They encourage us to see our lives among others as acts of devotion and as expressions of faith. In many of the chapels there is stunningly beautiful and ornate ironwork. There is enough of it in fact that it seems clear that talented artisans likely spent huge portions of their lives working just in this one site. Working on the Sacro Monte, which is completely focused on St. Francis, was in and of itself an expression of both faith and devotion. Their life of faith was inseparable from their professional lives.
  • They encourage us to welcome the entire world community to our shared work. The figures in the chapels are not visions of ideal form nor do they represent one ethnicity or background. Many types of people are represented—African people, European people, Near Eastern people young, old and in between people, as well as disabled people—a man with a goiter examines Francis’s stigmata in one chapel, while a multiple amputee stares off wistfully in another. The scenes in the chapels seem to invite the world to the story of St. Francis.

In a cultural moment when we cannot walk down a sidewalk without seeing people lost in their phones (and indeed I have been often guilty of this as well), I worry that our touch on the places where we live is becoming lighter. The danger is that we will become less engaged, that we will be seduced too easily by short sighted thinking, that we will lose our sense of gratitude and our commitment to faith, that we will narrow our view of world and fail to chaff against examples of corrosive polarization that pulls neighbor from neighbor and nation from nation.

Our wish for you and for the communities in which you will live, work, and lead is that you will be the ones who look up from virtual lives that can distract us and into the world that needs us to be participants, partners, and leaders. Our wish is to graduate many of the people who will help make and create what is next.

This evening is one of a number of markers in an eventful Senior Class calendar, and along the way much of the celebration will be and should be about all that you have accomplished to bring you to this point in your lives. My hope is that we reserve a portion of that celebration for the amazing things you will do after you leave here. So, Seniors, congratulations on this recognition. You are not simply going to pass through the places of your lives, no, you are going to make them.

Thank you.

Learning with Abandon: 4th of July Slip-n-Slide

July 31, 2014
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4th of July Slip-n-Slide #1 (Copyright 2012 Ross Peters)

I love that my daughter has the ability to throw herself at an activity with abandon. She can become immersed, single-minded, absorbed.

4th of July Slip-n-Slide #2 (Copyright 2012 Ross Peters)

We spent the Fourth of July in Norris, TN. Only briefly in mourning because the drought conditions forced the town to postpone the fireworks, she quickly found the slip-n-slide.

4th of July Slip-n-Slide #3 (Copyright 2012 Ross Peters)

She went down many times, waiting only somewhat patiently to move back up to the front of the line. Each time she slid, she tried something slightly different. Some of her attempts at doing something new didn’t work well…more often, however, they did. On most slides she became more inventive, more confident, and on the occasion of this particular series of photographs, more joyful.

4th of July Slip-n-Slide #4 (Copyright 2012 Ross Peters)

For many students the Fourth of July is about equidistant from the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. I find some poetry in choosing these photographs from this particular landmark date of summer, for while it is just about as far from a school year as one can get, the pictures are representative of something we should remember in schools.  While summer is a time away from school, it is often provides a wonderful platform for learning, simply because kids have the time to lose themselves in activities without being shepherded away too soon to whatever is next on the daily schedule.

4th of July Slip-n-Slide #5 (Copyright 2012 Ross Peters)

How can we make the important learning that happens in school mimic the abandon and engagement of summer moments like this one more often?

4th of July Slip-n-Slide #6 (Copyright 2012 Ross Peters)

Student-Athlete Signing Day Talk

February 7, 2014

(I spoke at the Student AthleteSigning Day event on Wednesday at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta where 20 students or roughly ten percent of our Senior class signed on to participate in college athletics. I drifted a bit from the words I had written down in advance, but what I include here is for the most part faithful to what I said.)

Welcome.

There are certain truths that athletic competition is brutally willing to reveal to us. Such competition at some point reveals our weaknesses, our doubts, and our hesitations. It points out to us, no matter how our teachers and parents and friends might try to shelter us from the news, that we have a long way to go and that there is work yet to be done.

In order to reach the point we celebrate today, our signees today have not only confronted the honesty of competition but they have risen above it. When they received news that improvement was needed, they realized hard work was necessary.

I love this moment for our signees. I love it when there is a tangible result for hard work and deep, sustained commitment. This is a moment when competition in its honesty shows its other side—the side that reveals what we are capable of, what we can achieve, and what is possible.

All over the country today there are high school athletes busy in ceremonies such as this one, signing their names in order to commit to the college or university of their choice.  They are putting on new hats and jerseys. They are accepting the congratulations of coaches, teachers, peers, family, and friends.

I worry at times about how prepared this national group is for the pressures, challenges, and temptations that lie ahead. I worry about the cultural priorities we have attached to college athletics and how this generation of student-athletes will rise to its challenges or be buried beneath them. I wonder how this group will maintain their values and their sense of what is really important. I know these challenges are often far more difficult than the ones athletes face on the mat, or field, or court, or river, or pool, or track.

Importantly, for this group signing today, I worry less about you.  I am confident in not only what you do as a student athlete but also who you are when you do it. My confidence and faith in you is born of my knowledge of where you have been. You have had the coaches I would wish for my own child. These people are not simply present today—they are sharing this moment with you.

You also have families who have driven endlessly to get you to games, camps, and coaches. These same families have picked you up when you have fallen. By the way the origins of the sports odyssey that lands you here today may seem long ago to you, but it likely feels like yesterday to them. They have loved you and sacrificed for you. Thank them—in fact let us thank all of the coaches and family members here today with applause.

Before I finish and hand off to Coach Drake, I would like share a wish I have for you…

My daughter and I throw the lacrosse ball a lot. She is in fourth grade, and she could tell you  every name on the Varsity Girls Roster. She loves the game. There is joy in her play. She would sleep with her stick and cleats if we let her.  She comes to mind for me today perhaps because of this truth: you don’t get to take everything you have now with you to college—your friends don’t all go with you, your coaches and parents don’t go with you.  One thing that does get to go with you is that joy of playing the sport you love.  Keep that safe.  Maintain it. Take care of it.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak and congratulations to each of you…

Try to be a Little Kinder: A Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Speech

October 10, 2013

[What follows is my talk from last night at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, GA.]

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GOOD EVENING! And welcome to our families and our friends present this evening for the Cum Laude and National Honor Society Induction Ceremony.  And most importantly, welcome to our honorees—congratulations to each of you! The praise we offer you this evening is well-deserved. The challenges you have faced that led you here are real. And yet, this evening is more to help mark a beginning than an end.

I have been reflecting recently on two quotations from Aldous Huxley, 20th century thinker and novelist:

First, Huxley asserted, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’”

And second: Huxley implored, “Never give children a chance of imagining that anything exists in isolation. Make it plain from the very beginning that all living is relationship. Show them relationships in the woods, in the fields, in the ponds and streams, in the village and in the country around it. Rub it in.”

For many years I taught a novel by Aldous Huxley entitled, Brave New World. In this dystopian classic, Huxley creates a society that has had relationships and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. To make way for a top priority of stability, the world we encounter in the novel is devoid of altruism and philanthropy. The notion of family is as alien to the characters in the novel as the absence of the notion of family would be to us.

In the world that we live in we can feel the forces pulling us away from kindness and away from communion with each other. These forces form a sort of gravity that comes from both inside of us and outside of us.  For you Westminster seniors, I am not referring to the tug of independence that challenges the ties that bind us as you redefine relationships with your family in advance of your leaving home.  This graduating Senior tug is healthy even though it doesn’t always feel healthy; it is transition to a new kind of relationship with your family rather than an abandonment of it.

There are other forces, however, that are unhealthy and represent a kind of cultural permission to fall from our better selves and into a reductive facsimile of ourselves. We see this in the prepubescent level of debate in government, and we see it in the cruelty we at times allow ourselves in facebook, or twitter, or tumblr posts. We see it in mean-spirited reality television where we feel that we are only spectators when in truth our watching, our reveling in the misfortune of others or in our perceived superiority to those on the screen is its own kind of participation. Our comfort with this is based on an illusion of distance and separation from each other.  It is a kind of forgetting of that which Huxley reminds us—that is, that “all living is relationship.”

So, why is tonight an appropriate time to speak on this topic of kindness and relationship? In short, because all the work you have done, all of the sweat and frustration you have endured, as well as all of the adulation and success we recognize this evening only has value in as much as it allows you to live a life of connection and contribution to your family, your neighborhood, your community and city, your nation and your world. Recognizing the primacy of relationship allows us to see the primacy of kindness. I focus on it here because I know…

Kindness is not easy; it is certainly not quaint or trite; kindness is requires courage, it makes us vulnerable, and it requires selfless contribution. It requires thinking of others before we think of ourselves.

Kindness sets a high bar; it is rigorous. It is not simply a hobby. It is not OK to be kind only when it is convenient and to shut kindness out when it is not practical.

Kindness is not seductive but its alternatives are, and they are ubiquitous.

Each profession has benefitted infinitely through the kindness of its practitioners, and each profession has suffered in its absence.

To do unto others as you would have them do unto you requires selflessness, self-awareness, and yes…kindness.

I say all this about kindness knowing how often I have fallen short of its mark, and knowing as well that I will fall short again. And again.

So much that you have learned here and we celebrate tonight has been at its core about discovering the relationships between ideas, content, and notably, people. You have learned things like how history and literature are linked, or how art and science can play well together. Tonight I ask that we remember how we are connected, how we are in a relationship.  Like Huxley implores in the second quotation I read, I want to “rub in” this idea. And in this remembering of connection, I hope that we are able to hold kindness a bit more tightly to our thoughts, and our words, and our actions.

We are living in a moment in our history when we have more dynamic and significantly more powerful means of connection than at any other time. If we think it, we can communicate it—globally. If we want to know more, we can find it—immediately. And yet within these truths there is this paradox: at the very moment when we have more means of communication and more efficient means of acquiring knowledge, we somehow face unprecedented risks of feeling disconnected, alienated, and alone.  Dangerously, we also risk being people who disconnect, who alienate, or who dismiss others. Our education, certainly the education and achievement we honor this evening, should lead us to be among the people in the world who overcome these challenges, who find ways to create relationships that transcend the smallness of internet chatter and of easy meanness. Our most earnest hope is that the students of Westminster graduate with a desire to serve the greater good and to lead others in making a better world. I believe this work begins with recognition of the centrality of relationships and of the vital role of kindness in achieving these ends of serving and leading. The content and bulk of the education you have acquired here is the most apt partner I can imagine for such a necessary ask and demanding task.  And thus in the end I can think of no group of young people whom I would rather send into the world to do this work.

So to the new members of the National Honor Society and of the Cum Laude Society, congratulations on work well-done.  We look forward to the rest of the year with you, and even more we look forward to all that you will do in this world.

Thank you.

“How would it be if we lived in that castle?”: A Five Year Old Films and Narrates

May 22, 2013

J Ross Peters:

As we head into summer, I am ready to do some new exploring with my daughter who will turn 10 in July. We’ll make sure to do some filming if only so I can preserve her wonderful narration.

Originally posted on Ross All Over The Map:

This growing up happens fast, no doubt.  Three summers ago my wife, daughter and I spent a month in Italy, mostly in a small Piedmont town called Vogogna, which backs up into the northern side of the Ossola Valley not too far from Domodossola.  Just this evening I found a video my daughter took one morning on our Flip Video camera as we took a hike up the mountain and found ourselves above the ruin of a thirteenth century fortress.

Eleanor and I have followed my wife’s coat-tails on a number of adventures—to England, to Italy, to Egypt, and to Tunisia.  This particular summer we were there because one of her co-authors for a textbook writing project for Oxford University Press has a summer home there.  While the writers wrote, Eleanor and I explored.  She was just days away from turning six, and she was up for anything.  Her imagination…

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Message For Our New School Webpage

February 24, 2013

[At Westminster we are in the final stage of preparing a new website. As many readers will already know such work is remarkably demanding and multi-faceted, and among its complex tasks is creating engaging  new content for the school’s web-presence. Our Communications Team has been doing great work preparing to unveil the web-page, and their efforts have included coaxing new messages out of each Division Head.  Below is what I submitted as a message from me. It is a revision and a repurposing of a blog entry entitled, “The Talent Assembly: Evidence of the Ties that Bind Us,”  I wrote in the Fall of 2011.]

From the Upper School Head:

In the fall of my first year at Westminster, we had what we called the Talent Assembly where students performed music for our upper school community. When I was a student, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing this. To step up to the microphone to sing or to play the piano, flute, or guitar would have been beyond my imagination. I wouldn’t have risked it. I wouldn’t have been able to abide the idea that I might do it poorly or that others might laugh at me for trying.  So when I saw this assembly, I was amazed and deeply moved.

That morning I was proud of the students who stepped up to the microphone. For each of them courage, skill, and hard work was met with generous applause. I know they felt the glow that follows a job done so well.

It takes both the performer and the community to make this kind of event successful. What I saw was not only students displaying remarkable talent, but also audience members cheering the performers as they walked on stage and as they exited. It was a genuine and warm applause that rolled through the crowd. Good things happen in such a school, in such a community. At Westminster we value the power of community, and we focus attention on deepening the connections that tie us together.

I have always loved the potential of school, and I was fortunate enough to land in this one where so much that can be great about a school is great. Westminster pops with energy, with questions,with possibility, with opportunity, and with kindness. The Westminster community—students, faculty, and staff—arrives here each morning from all over the city, and we share the vital conversation of learning.  It is an extraordinary intersection of people!

We strive to be the school we would wish for our own children. For me that school is one where my child is challenged, yes, but also one where my child is known and supported.

I hope you will take the opportunity to come see us!

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