[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!
[I posted an early version of a Cum Laude speech last fall. It was a fragment of a speech I abandoned for another. As we have two of these ceremonies each year, I revisited it for the most recent induction ceremony although I changed its original direction completely. I have been thinking recently about how members of a community are connected to each other, and I decided to try to say something about the value of connection in the talk that follows.]
What is the purpose of your education if not for others, for those you love, for the communities in which you will live? Achievement, like that which we recognize and celebrate this evening, is not an end unto itself nor would it be worth celebrating if it was accomplished for yourself alone. Achievement is only truly valuable when it prepares you to give it back somehow through the contributions you make and the life you lead.
Last Fall I went to my twenty-fifth college reunion.
I distinctly remember alumni weekends when I was in college when a bunch of old folks would roll into town and onto campus. To me, most of these people seemed goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward. They walked around campus as if they were getting used to gravity again after a long time spent in space. They seemed uptight, they often laughed too loud, and many talked too much. They were like some strange breed of five-year cicadas that showed up to make everyone uncomfortable for a brief time before disappearing again.
Recognizing that my undergraduate feelings toward this crowd of alumni were far less than generous, I see now that I was in dire need of some sort of attitude adjustment about these good people who cleared their calendars just so they could return to a place, their college, their alma mater, that held such powerful and lasting meaning to them—and time has provided me just such an attitude adjustment, time has likely provided it for your parents, and the smart money says that time will provide it for you. The adjustment is centered in this: given that life is hard, yet endlessly rich with challenge and possibility, we each need passion and humility to endure and to excel. Just as importantly, perhaps even more importantly, however, we need each other…we need connection.
In my Junior English Course we read the play W;t by Atlanta playwright and teacher, Margaret Edson. The protagonist and narrator of the play, Dr. Vivian Bearing, is a literature professor, a world-renowned scholar of John Donne’s poetry, who is faced with a terminal illness. As the illness progresses, she becomes more and more aware of the fact that she has built a life without the sustaining connections necessary to support her in her time of greatest need. While her health deteriorates, she reflects on her past coldness to her students, as well as her lack of any generosity of spirit, and she begins to feel pangs of regret. She has not given support to others, nor has she valued it, and as a result she is not able to receive support (at least until the very end). For me the most powerful moment is when she becomes particularly sick after a treatment, and she has to call a cab to take her to the hospital, as she had no one to call that might drive her. Dr. Bearing is to some degree a Scrooge-like character who faces her own ghosts in a difficult moment of trial though the difference is that, as opposed to Scrooge, her self-recognition comes too late for her to make a redeeming reentry into the community of humankind she has neglected for so long.
Though she finds some peace at the very end, Vivian Bearing’s story is a cautionary tale, and her example warns us of lives lived with high walls built around us. In her professional life she accumulated achievements, and treated them as if they had meaning unto themselves when in fact this approach sells the highest purpose of our achievements and our education far short. We can do better, and we can think bigger…but we need to value connection with others in order to meet that high purpose head-on. Gaining an education, one marked by hard work and challenge, one marked by deep engagement and a love of ideas and learning is not a selfish pursuit, for the beneficiaries of that process are likely to be in our families, or they may sit in our literature class, or they may live in our neighborhoods, perhaps our city, maybe our state. Indeed the fruits of our educations may extend one day to benefit people around the world, people whom we will never meet.
During my college reunion, in addition to feeling old, I found myself renewing my admiration for many of my classmates. I noted how many of them were living lives of engagement and contribution, how many were selfless leaders in their communities. I noted how many were the friends you want to have in the moments of triumph and of defeat that inevitably mark the calendars of our lives. I also noted how the connection we have maintained over the years has a sustaining purpose. Staying in touch, staying connected can seem somewhat trite, but it is indeed anything but trite. Our connection to others makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for academic achievement. Becoming educated inherently includes the demand that we learn not to see ourselves as living in a vacuum, but rather that we see ourselves as inextricably linked to one another. The high purpose of that education is to make the world within our reach better for our presence. This high purpose includes as well the demand that wherever we bring our minds, we must bring our hearts as well.
So congratulations to our inductees on this admirable achievement. You have done extraordinary work to be here tonight, and we are proud of what you have accomplished so far. And… when you find yourself at Homecoming looking at those goofy, hyper-nostalgic, and awkward long ago graduates of your college or university, please have some patience with them and try not to judge them too harshly. Thank you.
I will be presenting a 20 minute TED Talk-like talk as part of Project Connect in June. For me it will be a homecoming of sorts as I taught at Asheville School for ten years and was the founding chair of the integrated, interdisciplinary Humanities Department. There are some great folks on the faculty there helping to lead the way in discussions about how to think about interdisciplinary work. I will be speaking about the role academic schedules can play in unlocking the potential of interdisciplinary approaches. If you are interested in this topic, I have a feeling that this will be the place to be for these couple of days, and Asheville is a fantastic place to spend some time in the summer! About Project Connect.
“Ross All Over the Map” has been a powerful tool for reinvigorating my writing and for refining much of my thinking about school change, travel, photography, and music. It has pushed me and it has rewarded me. That said, I have felt its limitations more and more over the last six months or so, in particular as I have been pulled toward writing that requires a longer period of fermentation than standard blog entries. In early December I wrote about my goal to reinvigorate the blog, but alas, I have fallen short.
Interestingly, it was the blog that led me to take what felt like the brave step of sharing poetry I had written, and now it is my work with poetry that has kept me away from the blog recently. Over the last couple of months I have been giving the same amount of time I was devoting to the blog to work on a collection of poems. As I have been working on them, it has become clear to me that the pressure of continually posting work creates the potential that I would rush them and that their quality would suffer as a result.
So here is my plan: for the near-term, I will give full priority to my work with poems, and I will be committed to finishing the full collection I have outlined. I will also maintain the blog though I will not maintain the same commitment to posting as often or as regularly. In the blog’s first full year I averaged over two posts a week. For now, I am adjusting my goal for posts to something like one post every two or three weeks.
When after the first couple of months of its existence, I started to refine my vision for it (“Finally, A Name for My Blog”), I already knew that I wanted the blog to be malleable. From the start I have wanted it to meet a personal need far more than it would create an additional obligation—my life like everyone else’s has enough requisite demands already without adding another by choice.
I am excited to continue work on the poems and to see how the blog continues to evolve. Here’s to the new plan!
The poems I have posted on the blog are collected here.
Written by a former student from my days teaching at Asheville School, this will likely be the most memorable piece I read this holiday. We teach them and soon enough they teach us.”I’ve learned that love is bearing witness.” Christmas with my homeless aunt. – Slate Magazine.
I fell in love with language, first heard its music and its rhythm, on my parents’ laps and in church. The love was borne in sound before it was in meaning. Psalm 23 in particular provides comfort to me not at first because of any analysis I may apply to it but rather because of its sound, held in the shared voices of congregations generation after generation. It is beautiful language, and I am certain I heard Psalm 23 many times before I was old enough to understand it. I heard it many more times before I understood more than the first five compelling words–”The Lord is my shepherd.” I am connected to it beyond my intellect, beyond all reason. I surrender to it.
Clearly Psalm 23 can bear the weight of far more advanced scrutiny, but its greatest gift may be in its sound and within that sound, the confident reminder that we are of a flock from which we may find comfort. It reminds me that faith allows us belief in that which is forever beyond our intellectual grasp. Here I find a sustaining paradox of faith…like the child comforted by a parent’s voice speaking a language he or she cannot yet understand, through faith we too are comforted by what is beyond our understanding.
[I wrote this originally for a devotional pamphlet some members of our community are putting together for the holiday season. I have made a couple of insignificant changes to this version.]
The blog went dark over the last month, and I plan on rebuilding its momentum. For over a year I had at least an entry a week, but I have not posted since late October. It is not that I haven’t been writing, but somehow I slipped out of the routine of posting. I wrote a prayer for our Thanksgiving service, I wrote a brief devotional on Psalm 23 (that I may post later this afternoon), I wrote letters, and I have been working on a longer poem—it is far from ready for public display, however, and in fact, it may remain forever private. All the different purposes for which I write have temporarily ceased to intersect appropriately in blog entries, but I feel an intensifying drive to get back to it. I miss the discipline the blog takes, and I miss the demand it places on me to organize my thinking on a number of different topics. The blog has helped me to be more purposeful in my work and in my living—perhaps I have been a bit adrift without it.
That said, as I have been working on the poem, I have been reminded time and again of the necessity of not feeling obligated to share everything or to share something before it is ready, before it has a purpose that includes an audience. Interestingly, I have been good at telling my students about the powerful role of expressive writing—writing we do to think, to sort out, to leave unfinished; however, I have not been as good in the last year and a half or so of taking that good advice. Some personal blogs seem to seek a space that lives between writing expressively and transactionally—writing that has an audience such as is necessary for transactional writing but yet is still without a polished form or function, as is characteristic of expressive writing. For me, however, this blog, Ross All Over the Map, is full of transactional artifacts. While blog entries can be personal, having an audience is essential to them.
I guess this all leads to that conclusion that I need both forms of writing. Some of it is not only “not ready for prime time,” but it is never intended to be ready for a wide audience, while other writing that I do benefits from the recognition that others will see and evaluate what I have written. I am looking forward to get back on track with the blog in the coming weeks.