Good morning, everybody, and welcome to the first of many mornings that we will gather in this chapel. While most of the speakers here will be seniors sharing their stories with us, occasionally we will hear from adults, and twice a year, today and the start of the second semester, you will hear from me – about the frequency of a visit to the dentist, but without the complimentary toothbrush.
In the interest of full disclosure, my chapel talk will not resemble most seniors’ chapels – and not just because theirs are funnier than mine. I look at my chapel as an opportunity to welcome us back into this important ritual, to share what I hope will be a few useful insights, and maybe offer a little humor, too. In the next few minutes I want to share some reflections about my father, challenge some conventional advice, and tell a story about beginning.
I – My father
My father was a laborer, a jack of all trades and master of none, as he put it; one day he might be painting a house, the next fixing a roof, working outside in all weather, doing whatever job he could find to support his wife and six children. He never made much money, but people in town liked him and knew he was honest, so he never wanted for work.
He had grown up in the opposite house and married, if not the girl next door, then the girl across the avenue , and eventually moved into her family home, which the two of them fixed up, bit by bit, as time and money allowed them to do. But his emphasis was on what was needed, rather than fine carpentry; he made essential repairs, and left the finish work, well, rather unfinished. Every floor in that small house sloped, and most corners were anything but square. Wind whistled around the windows in winter, and heavy rains would find my parents roaming the house to strategically place buckets and pots to catch the steady drips of water leaking through the roof.
My father preferred to spend his time and energy on us – playing catch, or showing us how to skip rocks, or cooking hamburgers on a rickety grill while the flames singed his eyebrows. He especially liked taking my older brother and me to Fenway Park; this was the early 1960s, when the Red Sox were notoriously terrible and thus, tickets were cheap and seats easy to come by. One of my favorite memories of my father is of him sitting back in his grandstand seat, arms spread across the two seats next to him, feet up on the one in front of him, smiling at the two of us and enjoying the game, usually a Red Sox loss. His favorite team was the New York Yankees, but if the Bombers weren’t playing, his favorite team was whoever was beating the Red Sox. His needling was gentle, though if I made the mistake of pouting when my Red Sox were losing, he would pick me up out of my seat and tickle me until my mood changed.
Among the fathers that I knew when I was growing up, my father stood out in two important ways: he spent a lot of time with his family, and he seemed not to care very much about material things. My father walked home for lunch every day, repaired our old station wagon in the driveway, and took us to the beach on weekends. As a teenager, years after my father had died, and heady with my own aspirations, I struggled to understand him. In later years I came to see that I had been in the midst of my own struggle – to understand who I was and where my life might take me. For reasons that were not clear to me then, I was pointing myself away from my hometown, away from the place where I had grown up, and away, I realized years later, from my father.
All roads eventually point toward home, it has been said, and there is truth to that. When my daughter was born, I found myself filled again with memories of my childhood, of growing up with my five brothers and sisters in that tiny house in southern New Hampshire, where floors sloped and corners were seldom square, but especially with memories of my father. I could see myself back in those seats at Fenway Park, turning to look at him and seeing him smiling at me. He was utterly content, and at that moment I realized he always had been. I finally understood what he was trying to tell me.
II – Act your age
My fourth grade teacher, a woman who prized order over all other things, was fond of telling her students, as her patience wore thin with us, to “act your age.” We usually responded to such advice by either imitating the sounds of barnyard animals or putting our fingers to our temples in a pantomime of intellectual discovery and declaiming some nonsense or other. She would put her head down on her desk, let out a big sigh, and say something like, “Is it Friday yet?”
Though I recall a good many adults telling me to “Act your age” when I was growing up, I never felt an urge, when I became an adult, to utter those same words to my students – or to anyone else for that matter. This unwillingness to advocate as my own teachers had done nevertheless led me to pursue a career in schools. In my second teaching job, half of my course load was with 7th and 8th grade English sections; suddenly, my students understood all of my jokes! ‘At last,’ I thought, ‘I’ve found my humor peer group – 13 year-olds!’
I have tried, with some degree of success, to adopt a mature demeanor, but I admit I enjoy breaking out from time to time. So it was last March, when my wife and I decided to try something we had never done before: we took a surfing lesson. Seriously. I know what you’re thinking: ‘My head of school is trying to come across as a dude. Make him stop.’ Let me assure you that this will not be one of those stories that goes like this – ‘I had never done this before but discovered I was a natural. So then I had to decide whether to come back to CA or buy a van and devote my life to riding waves.’ No – this is not one of those stories. But this is a story that underscores the dubious advice about acting your age.
We arrived for our lesson on the beach at 8:00 a.m. to meet our teacher, a forty-ish, tanned, in-shape guy whose name – and I’m not making this up – was Sharky. He was very laid back, very calm, and very encouraging. We did a quick orientation to surfing – how to balance on the board, how to kneel and stay balanced, then how to stand, take a proper surfing stance, and ride a wave. In minutes I was balancing easily, paddling effortlessly, timing my move, then popping up into a perfect surfing position and riding waves. Of course, we were still on the sand, but nonetheless, I felt pretty good.
Then Sharky took us out into the water, and things got considerably more difficult. First of all, balancing on a surfboard that’s floating in the water is not easy. I think I fell off four times before I made it out to where the waves were breaking. Second, lying on your stomach on a surfboard and paddling is a lot harder than you may think. The first few minutes felt easy, but then my lack of upper body and arm strength began to reveal itself. I watched our younger classmates catching waves, standing, falling, paddling quickly back out, and repeating the process on wave after wave. They were a lot younger, stronger, and faster learners than I was.
Still, I was determined to get up, stand, and even surf. On the next wave, I succeeded in getting to my knees and rode to the shallows locked in that position; I was so happy to still be on the board I didn’t want to ruin the feeling by trying to do more. A couple of waves later I managed to ride with one knee up and one down; progress, I thought. I paddled back out, with exhaustion beginning to take over. I think Sharky sensed this, because he took the opportunity to time a wave and give me and my board a shove, providing just enough momentum for me to immediately kneel and lift one foot, then the other, and then to stand. I was up! I kept my knees bent and my arms out. I heard Sharky shouting, “Hey, hey, there you go!” At which point I made the mistake of turning to give him a thumbs up. My board went one way and I went the other, launching myself in a slow parabola and landing back first and feet skyward. Sharky said it was a “most excellent wipe-out.”
The feeling of moving on top of a wave is thrilling and a lot of fun. Though a ride might last only a few seconds, those few seconds are amazing. My wife and I each managed to get a number of rides without hurting ourselves – or anyone else for that matter – and though we were the oldest students on the beach that day by a couple of decades, we were glad that we had decided to defy my fourth grade teacher’s advice.
III – Beginning
Nine years ago, almost to the day, my wife and I dropped off our daughter at college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Unlike most of her classmates, who had chosen to attend east coast schools, our daughter wanted to follow a different path – she wanted to reinvent herself – but there, on the verge of our departure, such a brave thought seemed at best a distant and unrecognizable glow on the horizon. She hugged us both goodbye and turned, shoulders tight and head down, back toward campus; I thought to myself, ‘How can we be leaving her so far from home?’ By the time we reached the rental car and pointed ourselves toward the airport, we were both blubbering. We heard little from our daughter over the next week, other than a few terse responses to our hopeful entreaties, and we began to imagine the phone call that might be coming – ‘Take me home. This is all wrong.’
But the call never came. What did come was an email from her about two weeks after we had left St. Paul. In the first paragraph, she detailed her loneliness over the first few days and her anger with us for our having to leave earlier than the other parents (I had to get back to school to run faculty meetings), but after feeling sorry for herself for a bit, she reminded herself why she had chosen to come to this school so far from home. She wrote that she wanted a “bigger life” than the one she had had in high school. She wanted to try new things and take a few risks, risks she had not been brave enough to take in her old school. So she forced herself to leave her room and to join the activities and get to know those around her. Classes began and brought the comfort of routine, and she settled in, still a little shaky and homesick, but working at it, one day at a time.
Then one evening something small but wonderful happened. As she was walking across the quad from the dining hall to the library, she heard someone call her name. Did she want to join a Frisbee game? In her head she translated the question: Did she want to put off studying to risk life and limb in the gathering dark, to dodge trees and hurl herself into bushes in pursuit of a disc with a bunch of relative strangers whose judgment about safety was deeply in question? Why yes, yes, she did.
But more important than joining a game, she had heard her name spoken by someone who a week ago had been a stranger. If there is a sweeter pleasure than being in a new place and hearing someone call your name, I cannot say what it is. She was known in this new world; she had made a beginning. Our daughter would encounter plenty of hurdles over the next four years, but she would think back to those moments of connection, like this one, and she would go on.
So here’s the advice I want to leave you with: Live not for things or achievements, but for experience, for connection. Act your age only when necessary. You may only be young once, but if you play your cards right, you can make it last a lifetime. And school, like most things in life, is a series of beginnings and transitions, all of which are challenging, and all of them manageable; and managing such challenges is the stuff of learning, not to mention most of the fun. All you need is a little courage and the willingness to take a chance.
Thank you for listening, everyone.
“Surfin’ USA” (The Beach Boys)