A.I. Totten: A Thanksgiving for a Role Model

J Ross Peters:

During our Grandparents and Special Friends Day celebrations on each of St. George’s Campuses this week, I had the opportunity to speak briefly about the vitally important role of grandparents and friends in the lives of our students. During my brief remarks, I mentioned that my own grandparents had played critical roles for me growing up. Just thinking of my grandparents reminded me that a great educations for our children most often results from partnerships between student, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors and schools. My reflections yesterday reminded me of the blog entry below from a few years ago.

Originally posted on Ross All Over the Map:

My grandfather A.I Totten, led a remarkable life and though he passed a number of years ago now, I still think of him often. (In fact, I think of all my grandparents often, and I am certain I will write about each on this blog at some point.) A letter I wrote to him on the occasion of his 90th birthday seems particularly appropriate today—Thanksgiving. I am so fortunate to have had a number of role models both in my family and beyond it. I am particularly thankful to have people in my life about whom I can say things like I wrote to him.  Here is an excerpt:

“Papa, I have been thinking of what to say in this letter that will reflect what I appreciate most about you. In the end I see in you an example of what I want to be—how I want to care…

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Thanksgiving Chapel Talk: Faith and Action

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L-R: Ross Peters, Sophia Quesada, Bill McClain, Mayor Luttrell, Mayor Joyner, and Brendan Gorham.

(St. George’s was selected as the 2015 Good Sports Always RecycleTM Sustainability Steward winner by the Tennessee Office of Sustainability for advancements in reducing its overall waste footprint through energy and water conservation, recycling programs and the use of green space. St. George’s Independent School is the only school in the state to be awarded the designation this year. Today Shelby County Mayor Luttrell and Collierville Mayor Joyner joined us for chapel today to celebrate the school’s good work in this area. I spoke as part of the chapel service.)

Good morning!

Last Saturday morning, I woke up early to feed our dog, Mic, and to let him outside. Dogs don’t understand weekends, so our weekday schedule, really HIS weekday schedule, prevails on Saturdays. At 6:00 a.m. he got to work finding ways to wake me up, to let me know that it was time to go. There was snorting, some bumping, a little licking of my hand dangling from the side of the bed. After his inevitable victory that lead to my sleepy walk to the kitchen as he charged and bounced beside me and to his breakfast and later to his sprint around the back yard, Mic was already headed back to sleep with a full stomach, as I, now mostly awake, fixed some coffee and began to read the news and to watch CNN. It should have been a comfortable Saturday morning reveling in the knowledge that the Gryphons would have another home game after an impressive victory the night before, but it was not a comfortable Saturday morning. World events in Paris on Friday were disquieting to say the least.

There have been other disquieting national and global news moments in the last few years such as, Sandy Hook, Ferguson, Baltimore to name a very few. Additionally, there have been names of countries that have become shorthand for conflict and tension—Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea. And last week terrorist attacks in Beirut on Thursday and Paris on Friday have drained those of us who pay some attention. Drained us. Drained us to the point that it becomes difficult to take much more in. Becoming a knowledgeable citizen is exhausting, even disheartening because at times. What we learn can challenge our faith; it can dampen our hope. It might even, during this season of thanksgiving, cause us to postpone explicit expressions of gratitude.

As I have continued to process the tragic events of the last week, I have also been gathering my thoughts about what I might share with you this morning. Here is the core of what I would like to share:

  • First, becoming knowledgeable about national and global events is the beginning of engaged citizenship, and it is an obligation of a thoughtfully faithful person.
  • Second, we must respond to global events by taking local action in our school and in our community to make the world around us better for our presence.
  • And finally, our positive actions in the world represent both faith and thanksgiving.

Becoming knowledgeable about national and global events is a responsibility. The freedom we enjoy and, once you are 18, the power of our individual votes calls us to be growing in knowledge. Our opinions should be informed as we have an obligation to know what we can know and to strive to understand what can often feel beyond comprehension. To meet this demand we need both faith and reason—and perhaps a neglected truth is paramount here…developing faith and reason takes dedication, practice, and work.

In the face of scary issues—global warming, terrorism, political and cultural polarization—it is easy to withdraw, and it is easy to boil our opinions about complex issues down to simple sound bites. Indeed, we are often pushed in this direction through the news media that too often gives us the quick and the easily digestible instead of something more nuanced and closer to the truth.

And each of us individually bears responsibility for oversimplifying a complex world in that we want what we want immediately. When we can’t get what we want quickly, we quickly move on. Too rarely are we willing to read to the end of a news item. We stop after a paragraph or two, or worse, we read the headline and move on. I have been guilty of this, and I bet many of you have too. I believe we are fortunate to be in a school that pushes us away from the seductive gravity of short attention spans, ignorance, and apathy. In thinking about the things for which you are grateful this Thanksgiving, be thankful for teachers who challenge you, those who don’t let you off the hook for shallow thinking.

Sometimes, however, in our reading or watching of news we simply become overwhelmed not because we are not concerned enough, but because the depth of our concern stops us in our tracks. Rather than avoiding the news, rather than apathy regarding world events, we become paralyzed by them. In these moments our understanding of national or world events ceases to have any discernable narrative and becomes a sort of ominous background music to our daily lives.

There is, however, good news, friends. The good news is that there is much we can do to affect our world locally, and I argue that while we want to develop national and global understanding, we want to center our action locally, in the world that surrounds us—our campus, our community, our city, and state. The statement—“THINK GLOBALLY, ACT LOCALLY—is particularly helpful here. The school and larger community in which we live should be better because of our presence, better because of our willingness to overcome news overload and spiritual paralysis to make a difference in the city and region where we live.

Now, so far from the reading of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew to my words, you might wonder, given our close proximity to the holidays, specifically to Thanksgiving, what does all this has to do with the season? The answer is: “it has a lot to do with Thanksgiving—it has everything to do with Thanksgiving.” I believe that our positive actions in the world represent both faith and thanksgiving. Through our actions, we live appreciation and thanks. And, importantly, through this sort of appreciation and thanks, we change the world. Words alone, while powerful as a means by which to give thanks, are not enough. As we move into a season of thanks and of giving, let us remember that our best way to give thanks is to give of ourselves to others.

After many many years of spending time in the mountains and woods of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, feeling overwhelmed by global events is for me like losing my compass, while re-reading the Beatitudes is like finding it again. To end I will read the gospel again. Listen in particular for the words: “mourn”, “merciful” and “peacemaker”. 

Matthew 5 When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

By our lives in this school and by the tragic events of the last weeks, we are called to action in the world—called to mourn, called to be merciful, and called to be peacemakers.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Deep, Thoughtful, Engaged Lives NOW for our Students

St. George’s Independent School –A view of the Collierville Campus, affectionately called “The Lodge” by the student body.

As I left The Westminster Schools this summer after serving as Upper School Head, I found myself refining my wishes for high school students in this particular moment in history. In an interview about my departure for the school’s magazine, I said:

“It’s not what our students are going to do ten years from now; it’s what they’re doing now. We spend too much time worrying about what students will do next when what really best paves the way forward is to live our lives richly, deeply, and thoughtfully now…”

When I look back on that statement from my new post as Head of St. George’s Independent School in Memphis, TN. I am more convinced than ever that we owe our students opportunities for deeper engagement now in life of the body, mind and spirit, as well as the life of civic engagement we need for them to lead. While the answers can, will, and should vary widely between schools, the priority should be clear:

If we want students to live creative, passionate, and civically engaged lives as adults, they must go about living toward those priorities now, and we must go about the work to support them in this effort.  

If we want them to contribute to the communities in which they will live and work as adults, they must contribute now. In order to accomplish this, our schools, places of business, and non-profit institutions must go about modeling the same priorities we wish for young people.  

…And most importantly we must model the priorities in our lives as individual community members. To do less risks creating a generation passive and cynical about the positive role they might play in the world.  

As I have been going about the business of learning my new town, a number of factors have conspired to keep the topic of this blog front and center for me:

  • The Memphis area has explicit needs that should demand all hands on deck—young, old and in-between. The community doesn’t simply need them at some future date–it needs them now.
  • The seniors at St. George’s are so clearly ready to live toward the priorities named above. St. George’s is fortunate to have a great senior class who lead in myriad ways. They are deeply engaged in the life of the school and the life of the community.
  • Meeting people in the Memphis area who are leading lives toward the priorities I named are making a real difference everyday. I want our students to know them and to learn from their example, so that before they head to college they can see clearly that such lives are not only necessary to the success of our communities, but that the lives of these role models is achievable and rewarding.

Looking Up and Out: Response Inspired by NAES’s New Heads Conference

View from the interior of the Renaissance Hotel at Seaward, site of the NAES New Heads Conference
View from the interior of the Renaissance Hotel at SeaWorld, site of the NAES New Heads Conference

Over the last three days I participated in the Jonathan T. Glass Institute for New Heads, sponsored by the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). Led by the Rev. Dan Heischman, Executive Director of NAES, and Ann Mellow, Associate Director of NAES, we spent our time together discussing specific issues relevant to Episcopal School Heads of both parish schools and independent Episcopal Schools. The experience was extraordinarily valuable.

I was particularly interested to learn more about small parish schools. If I had any thought that the complexity of our work as Heads of Schools was proportional to simply the size of our individual school, I abandoned that thought sometime during our sessions on Thursday as I gained insight into school headship positions quite different than my own. Overall, I find myself becoming more aware that what is important is not what one knows in a leadership position, but far more relevant: 1) how one listens carefully enough to understand the people and the culture of the school and 2) how one over time breathes his or her personal knowledge and experience into the life of the school.

At the conference, I garnered more useful insight by hearing about schools not exactly like my own than I would have trying to find one to one correspondences with schools closer to the profile of St. George’s. As I think about the future of schools, St. George’s in particular, I find myself tripping up over and over again on the idea that we should be looking for what is not exactly like us in order to learn what school might need to look like going forward. In the case of the NAES New Heads Conference, that meant learning from schools operating in a context different than my own.

However, in the larger context of heading a school in this moment in history, I believe leadership will have to develop a far keener ear for listening to what is happening beyond our school and even our schools generally. Our questions need to become smarter and more expansive. For example:

  • What is happening in our cities, businesses, churches, museums, and community centers that might inform the work ahead for our schools?
  • What is happening in higher education that might serve as a barometer for what might be coming in independent secondary schools?
  • What small liberal arts colleges have faced challenges that might lie in wait for our schools?
  • What colleges have been handling a quickly evolving financial and admissions landscape well?
  • How can our school become part of the good story of our community?

The most sustainable schools will be the ones able to align with the best ambition of the communities in which they sit. We will not be able to afford to navel gaze within our own very tiny community of schools in order to find the best way forward—we must be explicitly about something greater than ourselves. Thus the central existential question grows out of “How can we be sustainable?” and into “Why should we be sustainable?” 

In thinking about my own start as head of a school within the Episcopal tradition, I find comfort in knowing that Episcopal schools are situated to look beyond our individual institutions as we strive to teach our students to see beyond themselves so that they might live lives of service, leadership, and meaning. This belief grows from a recognition of the focus in Episcopal schools on what NAES calls “the spiritual dimension of learning that values both faith and reason.” Such a focus should pull our eyes not simply to look up for help and comfort, but to look out into the world that calls for us to be the help and the comfort.