Your Education: About You, Not About You

With Manny Ihomne after his chapel reflection
With Manny Ihonme after his chapel reflection

On Friday Manny Ohonme, CEO of Samaritan’s Feet, visited the Collierville Campus of St. George’s Independent School. The goal of Samaritan’s Feet is to provide shoes for ten million young people living in poverty around the world. You can learn more here:

This year our Friday chapel services are for grades 6 – 12. In the past the Upper School (9 – 12) and the Middle School (6 – 8) only came to gather as a full group rarely–convocations, holiday celebrations. As part of an effort to knit our community together more tightly, bringing us all together in chapel only makes sense. It is a weekly reminder for us that we are connected, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that our shared space and experience at SGIS is valuable and powerful.

When he spoke to our group Friday, he celebrated our school’s diversity and our privilege to be a part of the SGIS community. He reminded us of just how rare it is in the world to have some of the things we may at times take for granted–friends, families, education, food, shelter, and…yes, shoes. He offered us the sort of perspective one garners when exposed to people who have vastly different life experiences than our own. I believe this exposure is imperative for every students’ growth. It is core to the SGIS approach, and it is a large part of the reason I chose this school for me and for my family.

After the service was over, I thought again of something I have often talked about and written about, that is, education is a gift. In fact, it is on the short list (right beside love of family and good health) of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. Our education is indeed ours–no one can take it away once we have it. It goes with us even if we lose everything else. It guides us and prepares us for what is ahead. So..it is ours. It is about us.

But it is also not about us. Most interestingly perhaps, our education exists only as we make meaning from it and as we are moved toward action in the world as a result of it. The questions I have for all of us who have had the privilege of an education such as the one at SGIS–

  • What will we make happen as a result of our education?
  • How can we use our education to impact the world around us?
  • How can we make our education not simply about us?
  • How can we continue to learn from people who have different backgrounds, different opinions?
  • How can what we already know lead us to want to learn more, understand more, impact more?

Opening Convocation Reflection: Good Neighbors in the SGIS Ecosystem

With the 2016-2017 Prefects as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)
With the 2016-2017 Prefects, as well as John Leach, Rector of the Church of the Holy Apostles (Photograph by Suzie Cowan)

[I gave the following reflection during the St. George’s Independent School Opening Convocation today]

Good Morning! Good FIRST morning of the 2016-2017 school year.

Before sharing a couple of thoughts with you, I want to give a shout-out to the Class of 2017. I couldn’t more excited about the creativity and leadership of this group of seniors. I would also like to offer a round of applause to our prefects who have been hard at work preparing for the year ahead.

On Saturday evening, most of the Class of 2017 joined Mr. Gibson, Mr. Morris, Mr. Gorham, Ms. Hardy, and I at the St. George’s Bunkhouse in order to socialize, to eat Central BBQ, and to see our new space—it is awesome(!). Our time together was a chance to reconnect, or better for our purposes this morning, to remind them that they are interconnected as they prepare for the challenge and excitement of their final year at St. George’s as students.

I have long admired the 20th century thinker and novelist Aldous Huxley. For years I taught his novel Brave New World. In the novel Huxley imagines a society that has had human connectedness and kindness intentionally pulled from its fabric. As a result of prioritizing comfort and stability over everything else, 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. Additionally, many of the challenges we see in our world are absent, but to the reader’s increasing horror so are love, relationships, and caring. In the final work of his career, entitled Island, Huxley offered advice that to my ear seems perfectly timed for us. In the novel he implores: “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.”

Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George's Independent School August 15, 2016
Order of Service from Opening Convocation at St. George’s Independent School August 15, 2016

With Huxley’s thought in mind, I spoke for a couple of minutes to the Seniors on Saturday evening. I talked to them about their role as leaders of the school, and I spoke about the idea that we are each part of the St. George’s ecosystem. As you likely learned or will soon learn in biology class an ecosystem is a complex set of relationships among the living resources and residents of a place or area. St. George’s human ecosystem includes three campuses; it includes faculty, staff; it includes infants who are less than a year old and members of the Class of 2017; it also includes alumni, trustees, and families.  Here is the key idea of my remarks this morning: our job, OUR job, is to make the St. George’s ecosystem as healthy as we possibly can. Indeed, a substantial part of the lives that I wish for each of you after your time at St. George’s is that you make all the ecosystems of which you are a member healthier and more sustainable. I am thinking of your colleges and universities and later, your cities and neighborhoods, for they are ecosystems as well.

I also took some time in my comments to our Seniors to expand our understanding of what it means to be a neighbor. It is easy to limit the definition of neighbor to the people who live next door or across the street from us. In fact, if someone says that someone else is their neighbor, we naturally assume that they live very close to each other. However, I would like us to think of our neighbors far more broadly to include not only our school, but our city, our county, our state, our nation, and our world. I would like for us to include people with whom we disagree under the umbrella of our idea of neighbor, and I would like for us to be among the people who strive to be good neighbors. At St. George’s we are going to name our school’s effort to be a good neighbor SG901, for as much as any school, if not more than any school, we are deeply connected—we are neighbors—to all of our area code.

In the letter I emailed you recently I made an ask for civility within the St. George’s community. For me playing a healthy part in our ecosystem, being a good neighbor, and committing to civility and to civil discourse are all intertwined—in fact, to my way of thinking they are essentially the same thing. Striving to make the parts of the world we touch healthier, kinder, more humane is the same thing as striving to be a good neighbor, and the same thing as striving for civility in our interactions with others.

This is not just my ask, however.  In the Gospel today—a reading from Matthew we call the Beatitudes—Christ identifies “Peacekeepers” as the Children of God. By telling us that the peacekeeper is blessed he is calling us to be Peacekeepers. That should be us; that must be us. Peacekeepers embody the characteristics of a good neighbor, and they make human ecosystems stronger.

Every part of an ecosystem impacts the way the system as a whole functions. What part will you play in St. George’s ecosystem this year?

It is an honor to have you all here. Let’s make it a great year! Amen.

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An Ask for Civility: Opening of New School Year Letter

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[We sent the following letter out to the St. George’s Independent School Community this morning.  While it is relevant specifically to SGIS, I believe it also has some relevance to all schools on this eve of the 2016-2017 school year.]

Dear Families:

We are gearing up for a great year at SGIS. As I write, the new lacrosse wall is going up; teams are sweating it out on the courts, fields, and in the weight room; rewiring is complete to allow for more pottery wheels in the art room at Collierville; and teachers are making preparations for their courses. I am sitting in my Collierville campus office, having recently returned from vacation in the North Carolina mountains, and I am feeling the familiar anticipation of the first day of school. Now with a year at St. George’s under my belt, I believe more powerfully than ever that this is a special place doing important work for all the children who join us.

While this summer for the Peters family has been replete with chances to reconnect with friends and family, and we have enjoyed opportunities to spend some time on familiar ground in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, my enjoyment of the summer has been tempered not only by tragic news in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Nice, but also by our national struggle to remember that we share more in common than that which separates us.

As I think about the troubling momentum of our recent headlines, Psalm 133 seems relevant. Its first verse —“Behold how good and pleasant it is/for God’s people to dwell together in unity”— is particularly evocative for me as its first three words, Ecce Quam Bonum, provide the Latin motto of my undergraduate school, and it has become a habit of many of my Sewanee friends to sign cards and emails to other graduates with the letters EQB. The rest of the Psalm points out that “dwelling together in unity” places us closer to God and is indeed a gift from God.

Placed in relief by the frightening events of this summer, Psalm 133 reveals that we have a rare opportunity in this school, and rather than warn you against the dangers of squandering it, I would like for us to think about how we might strengthen the ties that bind us. I believe we can use that strength to serve and to lead students so that they might become servant leaders in communities that will always have poignant need for them.  I do not know the future, but I do know that, whatever way it tilts and spins in the days, months, and years ahead, the world will need such people as St. George’s strives to graduate (SGIS Portrait of a Graduate).  It will need them not only to meet the world’s gaze but also to engage it with strength, empathy, determination, and integrity. It will need them, not only to recognize the issues that may divide us, but also to know how to engage people who see the way forward differently than we do.

After this long preface I have an ask for all of us – teachers, parents, friends and students: make a commitment to civility and to civil discourse within our school community. Please make this commitment even as we witness its opposite day in and day out in media, in political campaigns, on athletic field sidelines, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat threads. We cannot ask young people to be civil, much less to value civility and civil dialogue if we are not able to meet the standard ourselves.

The most highly charged issues of our time are alive in the conversations our students are having with and without us every day. We know that they are watching us carefully. Interestingly, even when as parents we believe our kids are not listening to us or valuing our opinions, there is no source of insight they trust more than us. They are listening to what we say and how we say it. They are using us to formulate their opinions and to calibrate their character. They are testing boundaries in order to find the lines within which they will operate as adults. In our national dialog we are struggling to post appropriate boundary markers for young people regarding civility, so in our community, the SGIS community, we have an obligation to be counter-cultural.

Preparing students, our children, for the “real world” does not mean emulating its worst characteristics. The best preparation for young people includes setting a far higher bar so that they grow into the very people who are ready to help raise standards above the lowest common denominator. At SGIS, the call to be counter-cultural in this area is not new; however, the immediacy of its relevance has never been more clear. St. George’s has always sought to bring people together, and our three-campus model drawing from over fifty zip codes is a testament to both our faith that we can navigate the spaces that separate us and our determination that we must. I request that all members of our school community deepen our commitment to civility even as the world around us may seem determined to undermine the effort. Civility involves acts of will and thus reflects our character both as individuals and as a group.

So as we begin a new school year, one with such promise for all of us, I will strive to keep Psalm 133’s call in the front of my mind: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity.”

EQB,

Ross Peters, Head of School

Standards of Conduct (according to The National Institute for Civil Discourse):

  1. Be respectful of others in speech and behavior
  2. Take responsibility for personal behavior, attitude, and actions
  3. Promote civility through everyday interactions
  4. Listen fully and attentively to the speaker, seeking to understand them
  5. Practice non-violence, using words to inspire change

Our Mission: St. George’s Independent School is an Episcopal school dedicated to the pursuit of excellence, preparing students for a life of learning and meaningful contribution in an inclusive learning community that nurtures outstanding academic achievement, relationships, leadership and character reinforced by Judeo-Christian values. 

The Cadet Chapel, The Episcopal Diocese of West TN, and SGIS

United States Air Force Academy Chapel
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (photograph by J. Ross Peters)

On Monday the Diocese of West Tennessee and St. George’s Independent School (SGIS) announced their renewed partnership. Below I have copied the letter to the Diocese from The Right. Rev. Don E.  Johnson, Bishop of West Tennessee, as well as my letter to the SGIS community. As I was drafting my letter I found myself reflecting on our family’s visit to the United Stated Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs a few years ago. The connection in my mind between the Cadet Chapel and our relationship with the Episcopal Church is partly circumstantial–it was three summers ago that we visited my sister and brother in law, as well as their three children in Colorado Springs where my brother in law served as the Air Force Band Commander, and while enjoying new summertime adventures I often look back on past ones. However, there is more to the connection as well…

The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel is a stunning space. Unmistakeable as a place of worship, it does not look like any other place of worship I have seen or heard of in the world. Bathed in blue light, the sanctuary calms and centers its visitors, as well, I am certain, as the generations of cadets who have sought solace there. One reason my thoughts drifted back to it is that I realize I wish for our students a similar spiritual solace and comfort in the face of challenge that the Cadet Chapel provides. The world we ask young people to enter is difficult; it is confounding; it is often disappointing. The world we ask young people to enter has always been so. The world we ask young people to enter today seems particularly torn and frayed. What we strive to give our students at SGIS–regardless of where they find themselves on their spiritual journeys–is both the comfort that faith can offer, as well as the challenge it provides to live lives of service to others grounded within faith in something greater than themselves alone. The Cadet Chapel sends this message.

United States Air Force Academy
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (photograph by J. Ross Peters)

In architectural form it communicates the priorities that I believe should accompany our school’s work as an Episcopal School. By design and function it welcomes people of all faith backgrounds–it embodies the idea that all of us are children of God. For all the community, national, and world problems that await the next generation of students, they will also enter a world rife with opportunity–opportunity to contribute, to design, to make, to serve, and to lead. In order to take on the roles we wish for them as adults, I hope our school can help them grasp both the comfort and challenge of faith.

United States Air Force Academy Chapel
United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (photograph by J. Ross Peters)

 

Letter to the SGIS Community
Letter to the SGIS Community

 

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Letter from The Rgt. Rev. Don E. Johnson, Bishop of West Tennessee
Letter from The Rgt. Rev. Don E. Johnson, Bishop of West Tennessee