Several years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Preparing our Students to be Community Leaders: An Initial Brainstorming.” After attending TEDxMemphis this weekend, I remembered the piece because I was reminded again and again during the TED talks of the vital importance of developing an interest in civic engagement and community leadership in our students. My thinking crystallizes in this thought: if we want our students to become civically engaged, community leaders as adults, our schools must be civically engaged. We must demonstrate as institutions the skills and priorities we want our students to learn within our curriculum and extra curriculum.
Here in part is what I wrote in December 2011:
“If we want to prepare students to be community leaders with qualities such as humility, decisiveness, passion, vision, and empathy, what should schools do to place their work developing those skills in greater relief? If successful leaders need skills such as the ability to take an unpopular stand, mobilize support for a shared goal, and remain undeterred by setbacks, what do schools need to do to develop those abilities in students?
- Help students learn about the larger community in which they live.
- Balance opportunities for students to serve, study, learn and contribute in their own communities with similar opportunities in environments that are different than their own.
- Engage students in learning that connects them to real-world issues.
- Identify areas in the curriculum where connections to real-world issues already exist implicitly and make those connections more explicit.
- Put students in the position to apply their intellectual abilities to discover issues facing their local community (or the world community).
- Put students in the position of finding and proposing solutions to those issues.
- Give students demanding and ongoing experiences working in groups facing complex tasks.
- Hold students accountable for their ability to express a cohesive, articulate, and knowledgeable viewpoint to a group of people.
I just had lunch with a colleague from another school, and our conversation circled this topic and how we might be able to push our respective schools toward better and better work in this area. The last National Association of Independent Schools Conference focused on public purpose in private education, and I have struggled ever since with how to envision what a big step forward might look like. That said, I believe we need to be bold in this area—our students need to know the central issues facing the communities in which they live (beyond the narrow confines of their own particular zip code), and they need to learn the skills that will allow them to exert their voices in the conversations about those issues.”
After TEDxMemphis I find myself renewed in my commitment to this vital area of work in schools, and I am particularly inspired as I take my first steps in a new community–the St. George’s Independent School Community–which has such a relevant role to play in this work in a city that needs all good hands on deck.
It is going to be an exciting time to be a part of this school and a member of the Memphis community.
(The text here is edited in minor ways from the speech I gave last Thursday to the Germantown Chamber of Commerce.)
Thank you for the invitation to be here today. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to speak to this group because a good school and a successful Chamber have important characteristics in common. A good chamber of commerce and a school worth its salt are forever looking to the future and not simply wishing for it to be better but working to make it better. Additionally, a chamber, like a great school, is forever looking to make connections, to tie things together, to bring together disparate visions of what is next for a community under one wide umbrella. Our shared work, the work of a school and the work of a chamber of commerce is to help imagine, design, and build the world to come. Both a chamber and a school are invested in their communities—their futures are comingled with the future of the communities they serve. The tag line of this Chamber—“Community, Partnership, and Growth”—is one that our school aspires to. St. George’s Independent School’s tag-line also hits powerful notes for me: “active learning/agile teaching to build disciplined minds, adventurous spirits and brave hearts.”
St. George’s, now a vibrant day school of well-over 1100 students on three campuses, has its axis, and original campus here in Germantown on Poplar Road. Its history begins here, and it continues after almost sixty-years to have a deep taproot on the Germantown campus. I was on the Germantown Campus Monday for our Opening Day. Teachers, Administrators, and a Jazz trio greeted parents and students back before gathering in the Chapel for our Opening Convocation where we not only sang and prayed together, but we also heard two fifth graders give their fifth grade speeches—a rite of passage for all of the oldest students there. They were remarkable speeches made more impressive because this young man and woman standing behind the podium were speaking on the first day of school to a full congregation. They were funny and confident; they were prepared and poised. They expressed gratitude; they were optimistic. It became easy, while listening to them speak, to imagine them becoming the sorts of adults we want serving and leading in their community someday. When they finished, the applause was warm and celebratory.
I chose to leave a school I continue to believe in deeply because I found the distinctive mission of St. George’s wonderfully compelling, and I was attracted to this school in large part because its ambition is uniquely tied to the best ambition of its city and surrounding area. At my core, I believe that a key, perhaps THE key, to the sustainability of our schools is the extent to which we are aligned with the best ambition of the communities in which we exist. In short, we have a responsibility to be focused on something greater than ourselves, and in living out this responsibility we also ensure our own relevance and legacy. Much of my career as a teacher and an administrator represents this belief, particularly the last two schools where I have worked—Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio and The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia. Both institutions strive to be good neighbors—institutions that strive to act in a way that parallels the highest expectations we have for our students. At Hawken, this meant creating an urban campus designed to be a center for experiential and service learning. At Westminster, it meant educating young people about the principles and practice of philanthropy, while promoting the value of service learning throughout the school’s curriculum.
While the work of these two schools is remarkable and I am proud to have been a leader within each, St. George’s offers a uniquely powerful vision for what the future of partnership can look like. Founded in 1959, St. George’s is both an old and a new school, and its model represents a powerful manifestation of its Episcopal roots and its vision for the contribution the school can make to each community where it has a campus—Germantown, Memphis, and Collierville—and beyond. The school’s three campuses: the original campus here in Germantown, another lower school in Memphis, and a middle/upper school just over the line from Germantown in Collierville are bound together by a shared mission and philosophy. The Germantown arm of the school is old—it served elementary students in grades PK-6 for nearly forty years before the other two campuses existed. St. George’s is also new—in the mid-1990s the school launched a capital campaign to expand to the middle/high school grades by building on donated land in Collierville.
Here is where the story gets really interesting: as fundraising began for the Collierville Campus, a group of anonymous donors approached the school about funding a second elementary campus in the city of Memphis to serve families who valued education but didn’t have the means to afford or access a high quality independent school education. The anonymous donor group gave an initial $6 million gift, and the development of a positive partnership with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church allowed the school to open the Memphis campus in 2001. Importantly, this year marks an exciting and historic moment for the school because this year our Senior Class, the Class of 2016, includes the first group of students who started on the Memphis Campus. Their graduation reminds us that this school is just now coming fully into its skin.
Each campus represents a necessary strand of our DNA with the Germantown Campus representing the original strand. Long before I arrived at the beginning of July this year, the school created concise language for the value of the model: “We believe the St. George’s model gives all students meaningful experiences in diversity, enriches the learning experience for all students, and prepares students to be successful adults. We also believe that this model sows the seeds for a better Memphis.”
Underpinning all this is the belief that our students will be better equipped to navigate a complex world if they learn to navigate complexity now. Our belief is that standing shoulder to shoulder with others with a wide range of backgrounds helps young people grow into become adults better prepared to engage an increasingly dynamic and quickly changing world. Learning to live into this complexity helps young people develop the requisite skills. I am certain that the world needs the people St. George’s strives to graduate.
We know that St. George’s fits into a much larger tapestry of educational opportunities in Germantown. Two examples of institutions doing vitally important work are Bodine School and The Madonna Learning Center. With its 43rd anniversary approaching next month, Bodine School provides an invaluable service to students with dyslexia and reading differences. The Madonna Learning Center, with its recently completed new facility, meets the needs, both educational and social, of young and adult students with special needs. And there are, of course, more…from the Bowie Reading and Learning Center to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and from the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf to the Municipal School District, which on its own serves over 5400 students, Germantown has a wide-range of educational options.
I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate our desire to be a good partner and neighbor. Our Campuses are constantly in use by camps, churches, and athletic teams. I am looking forward to our widely known annual Arts Alliance Show in particular. Always a community favorite, it will be happening at the Collierville Campus from November 5th through the 7th, and it will showcase a wide range of the best artists in the Memphis area. I hope you will join us.
A colleague of mine recently described a cartoon she had seen that may have some relevance to the issues a school and a chamber of commerce try to overcome. In the cartoon there is a small boat on the water and four people in it. Two of the people are on the low end of the boat, bailing as fast as they can because the gunnel is slipping below the waterline. The two other folks on the boat are on the high side, and dry. One of those two looks at the other and says, “thank goodness that is not us.” Of course, they fail to recognize we are all in the boat together. We are connected, and thus we owe it to our students to teach them to make meaning from that connection, to value it and to deepen it, for in doing so they can become the generation best suited to face the opportunities and challenges that inevitably lie ahead.
Thank you so much for this chance to join you today. It my hope that we can use today as a catalyst for becoming even more connected and even better neighbors. I also hope you take the chance to learn more about our school.
(The author with the Senior Prefects from St. George’s Independent School August 17, 2015)
(Below is my welcome back to school Chapel Talk from St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, Tennessee on August 17, 2015. The school has over over 1100 students JK-12 on three campuses. I delivered the talk that follows to students, families, faculty, and staff on the Collierville Campus, which serves students in grades 6 – 12. The remarks I gave varied a bit from this text in relatively minor ways though my welcome was a bit longer than what appears here.)
Welcome—welcome in particular to the Class of 2016…
When I was about six, my family switched churches from a tiny Episcopal Church far out in the west-end of Richmond, Virginia to a much larger urban Episcopal Church, St. James’s, which was much further in town. To my second grade eyes, this new church seemed huge…not just huge but the hugest—perhaps the biggest room I had ever been in except for the Richmond Coliseum where I had seen the Harlem Globetrotters play. My guess is that to a number of our sixth graders this campus might seem a little overwhelming too compared to the campuses where you all went to fifth grade.
Anyway back to St. James’s and the biggest room I had ever been in…in the chancel of this church written in the large gold letters was the motto of the Church, words from the 22nd verse of the first chapter of the book of James—saying… “Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.”
“Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only.” For me, the words that surround it in the Book of James are confusing, but that line, that line is clear. When we think about the meaning of those words—“Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only”, they might be better described as frighteningly clear. Because they call us not just to listen but to take action. They call us to choose the hard right over the easy wrong, they call us to care for strangers, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Not easy stuff. Not easy stuff in a school and not easy stuff in the world you will find after school.
It is, however, the stuff that can make a school great, and it is up to you. It is up to you to make the school, to invent it for this year into a place of doers and hearers. Your passivity is unhelpful, your action is required, your commitment is necessary. If this is a new beginning for all of us, then what are we, and what are you, going to make of it?
I believe that becoming educated is a righteous act. It is the lifelong task of taking the gifts you have been given and making them meaningful, making them have an impact. Making the world a better place for your presence in it is not simply something to try to do in your spare time, it is a sacred responsibility. It is the space in your life to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.” This work is important—the world needs you.
I will mention several ways we might get started on this work as a school.
- First, know that we have jobs to do. For example, a job of those who have been here before is to help those of us who are new—people like sixth graders and first year heads of school. By your actions it is possible to make the campus a bit smaller less overwhelming for others. You can do this with ample doses of kindness and patience.
- Support each other. Show up for each other. We are stronger when we are connected, when we go to the game, when we deliver a well-deserved standing “O” at the play. For those of you on teams know that you win games on the field, court, or pool, but you win fans in the ways you treat others in the hallway and in the classrooms and beyond. Deserve the support you seek.
- Show gratitude: Over the summer there has been a lot of doing going on by a lot of doers, and it has all been for you. Teachers prepare for classes, and they say their own quiet farewells to summer vacation, the facilities staff has been hard at work the entire summer making this place a beautiful place of learning. Men worked in outrageous heat all summer to make sure we have places to park. They deserve our thanks and appreciation. Please show your thanks and gratitude through your words, yes, but more importantly through your actions—take care of this place and honor your opportunity to be here.
This can be an amazing year, and I think it will be, but we all have some doing, and, yes, some hearing to do in order to make it that way. Thank you and…Happy new school year.
For as long as I can remember Communion has fascinated me. I think it all goes back to when I was about three and a half years old.
When I was very young, we were members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church way out River Road in Richmond, Virginia. Though it has become a large church in the many intervening years, at the time it was still recognizable as an old mission church—a small 1870s white church-house with deep stained wooden pews. My memories of St. Mary’s are hazy—we left to join St. James’s when I was six—though several impressions are carved deep within me. Those memories include my grandfather’s booming and endearingly off-key hymn-singing voice and bright Spring-time morning light, framed by the windows, illuminating sparks of dust.
One Sunday I walked up to the front with my parents for communion. As a small child, I should have stood when I reached the railing, but I kneeled and found myself looking through the balustrade at the gray pants legs of the gray-haired minister, Holt Sauder. I was embarrassed and confused to hear the congregation laughing—they found this entertaining. I did not. Reverend Souder did not laugh, but instead he kneeled and gave me the bread and the wine under the rail. His face was somehow both serious and kind—he met me where I was. I think this is a perfect example of Grace and of the meaning of communion.
Communion always includes the idea of a coming together. Most formally and seemingly most relevant to a chapel service like this one, it can refer to the Rite of Communion where bread and wine are consecrated and shared. A communion is also, however, a coming together in what might appear to be a more secular sense—a reunion between friends, a shared meal welcoming someone new to town. It is my contention, and certainly my belief as relevant to the work a faculty does in a school within the Episcopal Tradition, that no such communion is purely secular. A few examples might illustrate my point:
During my 25th college reunion a couple of years ago, 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, our communion with them makes our lives meaningful, makes our struggles a bit more manageable, and these connections reveal the purposefulness that should underpin our striving for academic or professional 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. Our coming back together after so many years was an expression of our indestructible linkage. It was its own kind of powerful communion.
This last Saturday night, my wife Katie and I were invited to the home of a St. George’s family. There were several other couples there as well, and they seemed to know each other well. They were already neighbors. They shared a familiar and easy sense of humor. Now an event like this could have made the new couple—the new head of school and his wife—feel like a curiosity, a topic to be investigated. However, instead it was a moment for us to feel welcomed, remade from stranger to neighbor. They were generous in their sharing, and as a result we didn’t just chat and eat together—we broke bread together. They too reached through the balustrade to us.
There is a story I tell too often about advice I received from a colleague on the eve of my first day teaching. I was just barely 23, I looked like a strangely tall 12 year old, and I was appropriately nervous about the challenge ahead. I was going to be teaching primarily seventh grade English, and I had a full slate of other coaching and extracurricular responsibilities as well. To me this colleague was the omniscient veteran though he was probably only really 25 or 26. This is what he told me—at least it is close: “Listen man, you are going to be great at this because this is all you really need to know…no one likes seventh graders. Their parents don’t like them. Their friends don’t like them. They do not like themselves. If you are the guy, if you are that person who likes them, who let’s them know everyday that you like them and that you happily choose to be with them, they will rise to all the challenges you set for them.” That moment is interesting to me because he was reaching through the balustrade to me—I needed all the help I could get, AND he was sharing the essence of what is necessary for a teacher to reach through the balustrade to students. It sounded like a secret, like a strategy for effective teaching but it was really about much more—it was about communion, and it was about grace. He was telling me to welcome my students, to accept them as they were. I believe he was asking me to love them. And by the way, though I am imperfect in remembering it when I should, his advice is relevant to all people, not just seventh graders.
In the summer of 2014, my wife, Katie, daughter, Eleanor, and I travelled to Northern Italy for several weeks in order for Katie 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.
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. For the most part, they were not idealized figures. They were the real community of man—some on crutches, others had goiters, some wealthy and beautiful, some clearly destitute, others apparently corrupt and even conniving. They are an intentionally imperfect mix, and so are we, and so is any congregation headed to any communion. St. Francis, as depicted in the chapels, was trying to live a life imitatio cristi, in imitation of Christ, and through his example he called for others to do the same. The Francis of the Sacro Monte di Orta Chapels is one who is reaching through the balustrade as well.
The gifts of communion referenced as “The gifts of God for the people of God” are not just the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, but they are also the invitation to come to the table and the grace to welcome us to it.
So my wish this year is that we think of our interactions with children, our students, as acts of communion, and that we keep in mind that our most important work involves reaching through the balustrade to love and to accept all those remarkable, not yet fully made young people who have come up the aisle or down the hall to our classrooms.
21 July 2005: Cambridge, King’s Cross, The British Library, Tavistock Square, The British Museum, and the Long Cab Ride
Today marks the tenth anniversary of the London terrorist bombings of July 7, 2005. My wife, daughter, and I were in Cambridge that summer, and two weeks later, the second day of bombings, we were in London. Fortunately, that day the bombs didn’t detonate properly, for we, like so many others, were in London that day. It feels appropriate to reblog this piece that I wrote several years ago on this sad anniversary.
Originally posted on Ross All Over The Map:
Our plan for the day was already logistically challenging…catch an early train from Cambridge to King’s Cross, London, drop our bags into secure storage there, head to The British Library to see the rare documents room, walk to The British Museum by way of Tavistock Square, return to King’s Cross by the same route, pick up our bags, catch a train to Gatwick, head to the hotel, wake up early for a flight back to the States. Whew!
…And all of this while pushing a stroller with a daughter who just turned two in it!
Two weeks earlier, July 7, 2005, my wife Katie had been taking her students on a chartered bus from Cambridge to The British Museum when they were turned around by a sign on the exit ramp that said—“London Closed.” At the very…
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Westminster’s first experience with JanTerm was not an end unto itself. It was always part of something larger. As the final part of a two-year rollout of a new daily schedule and school calendar, the JanTerm represents the single biggest curricular step forward in the Upper School since its founding–45 new challenging and varied electives, offered over the first three weeks of January for the entire 820 student Upper School at The Westminster Schools. The new schedule, in addition to adding a JanTerm, includes a later start, longer classes that meet less often, and more time for teachers to work in teams. The schedule falls from the school’s Strategic Plan, and it is a creation of a group we called the Time Task Force, an outstanding group of six faculty members. Over the course of a Spring, Summer and Fall, the Time Task Force did deep research, listened carefully to all the school’s constituents–faculty, students, and parents–and then crafted a remarkable proposal, which both aligned beautifully with the school’s vision and challenged us deeply.
In planning for JanTerm, we recognized that there would demand for internships, but we didn’t have the staff to support it, nor did we have an immediate vision for what this program, adjunct to the courses of JanTerm, might look like. So we did not commit to creating opportunities for interships until the registration process for the JanTerm courses was complete. And when we did decide to take this step, we thought of it as a pilot, as something we might try out and buy or as something we might have to put back on the rack.
A couple of years ago I wrote a series of blog entries about how schools should pilot ideas more often before making long term commitments to any single idea. In essence the heart of the idea is that schools have often built significant curricular/extracurricular programs without the “D” of “R and D”. They have leaned into Research, but tried to skip Development. When schools make this mistake, they inadvertently raise the stakes of the bet, they increase the pain of failure, they miss an opportunity to test drive a program, and they fail to build the momentum of support a good idea needs from a school community. Links to those blogs can be found here:
- Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
- Pilots: Pointing Toward the Progress We Want to See in Schools
- Pilots: Getting More of What is Good in Schools
- Pilots: Creating Safer Space for Experimentation in Schools
- Pilots: Showing the Ways Forward in Schools
In the late Fall of 2014 when a couple of our planned JanTerm courses did not have adequate signups to support them going forward (in registration talk..they “didn’t make”), we decided to try to pilot a small number of JanTerm Internships and Independent Studies for a small number of seniors who had particularly well-formed and thoughtful ideas. We could take this step only because of the fact that a couple of courses didn’t make, thus leaving us the staff to lead this pilot of an Internship Program. Also working to our advantage we knew we were likely to have just a few seniors whose ideas for what they might like to do were advanced enough to work in January. Not being overwhelmed with demand was an advantage.
The application process was fairly rigorous, and the time window for sign-up was short. This was mostly a result of deciding to take a stab at this pilot program late in the game (November for a January rollout), but it was also fortuitous as only students who already had a passion were prepared to submit an application. As a result, the applications were for the most part excellent, and in the end six students were approved to move ahead. Each had a mentor, and one faculty member was assigned the task of observing them and organizing their final presentations and assessments Their execution of those plans was even better.
I will likely write again in this blog about more of the specifics of our nascent JanTerm Internship Pilot, but sufficed to say, it was a big success on a small scale–just what we wanted. Each of the six students had a powerful experience, developed a quality relationship with his or her mentor, and represented the school well in the community. By ensuring our ability to do well whatever we set out to do in this pilot, we preserved the ability to grow the program in a steady thoughtful manner in the years ahead. We generated the momentum for the program it will need to continue on a positive growth trajectory going forward. By keeping the scale small, we did not become overcommitted to a program that has yet to define its long term placement in our JanTerm program. I am excited to see how the school moves forward in this area.
It is a pleasure to welcome parents, family, and friends to the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony. And most importantly, it is a pleasure to welcome our honorees, accomplished members of our senior class—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, at least this part of it, is really more about what you will do than it is what you have already done.
Fred Rogers once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say “It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
Fred Rogers who created and starred in Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a children’s program that ran for decades on public television, was a significant presence in my early childhood. Even ahead of Sesame Street, which was brand new when I was headed into preschool, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was my favorite show. I would sit cross-legged in front of the television and be absolutely ready to join him as he invited neighbors into his home, as he invited us to get on the make believe trolley, and as we arrived in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe.”
Rogers was an impressive thinker, and he had much more to say than his children’s television program could contain. Humane, kind, and strong-willed, he had some powerful things to share not just with small children, but with all of us. While some it might sound quaint to our ears, it is often also relevant and challenging.
For instance, he provocatively challenged the power of culture when he said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”
He encouraged us to see the many facets of others, stating: “What’s been important in my understanding of myself and others is the fact that each one of us is so much more than any one thing. A sick child is much more than his or her sickness. A person with a disability is much, much more than a handicap. A pediatrician is more than a medical doctor. You’re MUCH more than your job description or your age or your income or your output.”
He even had something to say about keeping events such as Cum Laude Induction ceremonies in proper perspective, asserting: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”
This evening, however, I would like to focus for a few minutes on something Fred Rogers said that tends to recirculate after national tragedies. Here goes—
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
In the wake 9/11, only a couple of years before his death, Fred Rogers appeared as a familiar and comforting voice to the very parents who had once been young devotees of his television program. This generation of adults was now struggling to explain the unexplainable tragedy of 9/11 to their children. Given the chance to speak to us once again, he told us to look for the good, to spend less time trying to make sense of what happened and more time seeking the good in others. In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks, it was not hard to find the helpers he described. First responders by job title or by inclination were ready at every turn to help others even if it meant putting their own safety at risk.
The helpers showed up after the Boston Marathon bombing as well. Even as most were understandably running away there were plenty of people running to provide aid and comfort to the injured.
It is not just after tragedies, however, that helpers are relevant difference makers. These helpers have likely looked out for you, our inductees, at virtually every turn in your life—your neighbors, teachers, coaches, friends, religious leaders and…not to be missed this evening in particular…your parents have played this role for you in ways both visible and invisible to you. Helpers don’t often get a movie’s heroic soundtrack to announce their good work, and they come in a fascinating array of shapes and sizes, an infinite variety of backgrounds and professions. It is my belief that they outnumber, and will always outnumber, the forces that corrode, abandon and destroy.
I have been thinking a lot recently about people who have found their way to professional lives that incorporate the helper role. This should be a particularly apt moment for such ruminations as you have a universe of potential paths ahead of you, and you will have some choices to make not only about what you will do, but who you will become. There are innumerable examples we could discuss here—I will spare you a catalogue and focus on just one.
John Woolard and I were classmates at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. Yesterday morning there was an article about John in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Here is an excerpt from that article, headlined “Passion for the planet led to big gig at Google for Richmond native”:
“During graduate school, Woolard’s interests had grown to include climate change and energy conservation.
“I was really focused on how you could take the power of the free market and use it to drive environmental change,” Woolard said.
Silicon Energy, which Woolard co-founded, produced software that helped utilities and other businesses save energy.
“It was one of these companies that really changed the industry. … Just through zeros and ones, or computer software, we were able to do the equivalent of avoiding the construction of two large coal or nuclear power plants,” Woolard said.
In 2006 at age 41, Woolard became president of BrightSource Energy, which built three of the country’s largest solar energy plants in the Southern California desert. “We did enough solar to serve 170,000 homes.”
Last July, Woolard joined Google, where he is vice president of energy.
Google uses a lot of energy in its data centers and other facilities, “so we try to make sure we are doing it efficiently,” and the company also buys a lot of renewable power, Woolard said.”
John is living the life of a helper—his own brand of that species. His is a life that creates a synthesis of both his professional ambition and skill, as well as his devotion to energy conservation and environmental sustainability.
So, Cum Laude Inductees, the question you and all of your classmates will have to work out in the coming years is this: what are you going to do with your remarkable gifts? You have them, oh my goodness but do you have them. Tonight we name that for you. You are going to know enough, connect enough, excel enough. But how are you going to become the helper? The most valuable things you do in your life, the things that will most clearly define you, will be what you give and how you help.
Fred Rogers can provide us one more insight before I close this evening. For me, it reveals the beauty of the helper most simply:
“There was a story going around about the Special Olympics. For the hundred-yard dash, there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and, at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around, and ran back to him–every one of them ran back to him. The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. And you know why? Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.”
If the members of this group of unique sprinters in a race choose to be helpers, you, my friends, you can be helpers as well, and you should be, and you must be.