Convocation

“By many measures you are the most accomplished group of students ever to sit together in this great hall. You have distinguished yourselves intellectually, athletically, and in community service.” Read on for Head of School Tim Breen Ph.D.’s full 2015 Convocation Speech.

The White Mountain School
Convocation September 6, 2015

Welcome.
This is our first time, all together. Welcome returning students, new students, parents, faculty and staff. What a pleasure to be here with you all.

Convocation speeches sometimes consist of remarkable lists of the accomplishments of the assembled students. I could easily do this. By many measures you are the most accomplished group of students ever to sit together in this great hall. You have distinguished yourselves intellectually, athletically, and in community service.

But instead of looking back, I want to look forward. While I am very impressed with your past accomplishments, I am most interested in a big task that is in front of you – in front of us all: Building the White Mountain School community this year. We have the opportunity to build an exemplary boarding school community – one where intellectual curiosity and intellectual work is taken seriously, where we support each other through challenges, where it is OK, even expected that you be different. The trick is, that building a community like this is a bit countercultural – it runs against the grain of some the more prevalent aspects of the popular culture.

Pat Bassett, recently retired president of the National Association of Independent Schools is known for saying that great schools are countercultural. And that the best schools have a strong moral compass. Clear values they strive toward, not just in the classroom, but in all aspects of life.

We have clear values. We have articulated them in our mission statement by saying that we “prepare and inspire students to lead lives of curiosity, courage, and compassion.” Our task is to live toward these values – curiosity, courage, and compassion – even if it means swimming against the tide of popular culture, even if it means being a bit countercultural. This past spring, a group of teachers and students gathered to wrestle with the question: how do we live these values?  What do they look like in practice?  We came up with a list of nine statements – practices toward which we strive.

How do we practice curiosity?
We start with questions.
We seek truth and beauty.
We venture beyond.

How do we practice courage?
We speak our truths.
We fail forward.
We stand up to be counted.

How do we practice compassion?
We are fully present.
We honor our stories.
We give of ourselves.

Today I’d like to reflect on these practices, and suggest that they are all a bit countercultural.

Curiosity
We start with questions.
We have a tendency in our society to begin not with questions, but with assumptions. Our popular culture seems to reward uninformed confidence more than it rewards a curious, questioning frame of mind. If you follow political discourse in our country you can clearly see this. As a school, we are committed to curiosity, to questioning, to learning. Albert Einstein said,

The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality…  Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Our community will be strong if we avoid unsupported assumptions if we start with questions.
 

We seek truth and beauty
We claim no special access to Truth with a capital T. However, we do believe that seeking our truths, our deep truths, is essential to a full, happy, purposeful life.  Our popular culture seems to encourage superficial understandings, Wikipedia answers, and what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.”

Too often in our conversations and our readings we look only to confirm our biases, instead of looking to challenge them. We should seek out not those who agree with us, but those with different perspectives, those we can learn from and with.

And what do we mean by seeking beauty? It is finding not just surface beauty, but the beauty that lies deeper. You know it when you see it. The beauty of the sky 30 minutes after sunset. The beauty of strong supportive friendships. The beauty of a mathematical equation. The beauty of a quiet walk on the paths. The beauty in a poem. It is all around us. Our lives, individually and collectively, are enriched when we find beauty and share it.
 

We venture beyond.
Don’t be satisfied with the status quo. Here we want you to explore beyond the traditional curriculum. In an educational landscape that seems to reward only conformity (with students converging on all taking the same courses and the same tests), we ask you to explore your own ideas and questions.
 

Courage
We speak our truths.
This is hard. There are several things in popular culture that work against this. First, there is tremendous pressure to conform, to “fit in,” to adopt the beliefs of others. It is hard to speak your mind when it challenges the beliefs or actions of a friend.  Second, the broader culture — especially online — tolerates, and even celebrates anonymous comments – often cruel ones. Any quick look at YouTube comments confirms this. Why does anyone think this is an appropriate thing to do? Why are we afraid to own what we say? And third, popular culture can feel like a culture of argument – not a culture seeking to build understanding – and it is often easier to simply sidestep this. Here at White Mountain we want you to speak your truths.  To share your perspectives. To speak up when you see something that is wrong – here or in the broader world. If you can do this, we will build a stronger community and all learn in the process.

Of course speaking your truth is difficult if you have never really been heard, if prevailing power structures have kept you silent. It takes significant courage. We seek to build a community that helps us all develop the courage to speak truth to power.

We fail forward.
Making mistakes, being wrong is difficult. It can be embarrassing. As a result, too many people simply try to avoid it.  But we must lose our fear of failure and our fear of being wrong because the path to learning and growth is always strewn with mistakes, missteps, and errors. We must get our ego out of the way.

Failure is necessary for learning, but it is not sufficient. We must learn from our mistakes. Here at White Mountain we aim to be true learners, knowing full well that learning always includes failure, and growth from failure.

We stand up to be counted
Within a broader culture that seems to reward sitting on the sidelines and criticizing the efforts of others, at White Mountain we expect engagement. Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt said it best:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

We expect you to be in the arena – to engage – in the classroom, on the trails and playing fields, in community service, in the dorm. We want you to dare greatly. Stand up and work to make a difference.
 

Compassion
We are fully present
The prevailing popular culture celebrates the individual above all. It’s all about you. The “selfie” culture. At White Mountain we balance honoring each person as an individual with the importance of contributing to community, the importance of making life better for those around you. When we say we are fully present, we mean that we are not focused on ourselves; rather we make connections in the community. We truly listen to each other. In an age of disposable relationships, we seek to build relationships that last.
 

We honor our stories
We are blessed here to have a community of individuals from many different backgrounds and experiences.  And unlike what sometimes happens in the broader culture, we work to not let our differences divide us. We listen and learn from one another, across our differences.
 

We give of ourselves
Again, we work against the culture of individualism, the “selfie culture.” Here we find meaning in helping others. As Maya Angelou once said,

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands.  You need to be able to throw something back.”
 

We expect you to give back.

And so we begin the year. Let’s see what it is like to live toward these practices.

We start with questions.
We seek truth and beauty.
We venture beyond.
We speak our truths.
We fail forward.
We stand up to be counted.
We are fully present.
We honor our stories.
We give of ourselves.

Will we build a perfect community? No. But can we work to build a great community? I believe so.  However, it will be hard. There will be times when you find yourself not living these values, these practices.  Try to pause and get back on track. There will be times when your friends don’t live these values. Have the courage to talk to them, help them. There will be times when I do not live up to these values. Tell me. That’s how I’ll get better.

So our challenge this year:  Let’s live toward our highest values: curiosity, courage, and compassion – even if they are a bit countercultural. Let’s live toward them in the dorm, on the fields and trails, in the classroom. If we do this, we will succeed in that most important of tasks: building a school community driven by intellectual curiosity, where we have the courage to be individuals, and where we truly support each other.

Thank you all for being here, and for sharing in this great work together.