Second Semester Speech

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Welcome back to Ridgeview. I realize that this is akin to being welcomed back to work. If you are like me at all, the longer you are away, the harder you find it to return. Your school, at this point in your life and likely for some time to come, is essentially your job. It is a peculiar job in many respects, even for those of us who get paid to do it. As you likely know from observing the lives of your parents, few jobs permit one to take so much time off or make the sorts of allowances that this one does. It is further unique in that there are aspects of this job that will recur in almost no other period of your lives.

Many jobs one might find are either explicitly or implicitly competitive in nature. There is always a ladder to climb, and given the limited space on any rung, worker is pitted against worker. Life, in a paradoxical sense, is the same at both its best and worst. School, remarkably, can be different in the sense that there is instead of this the real possibility of community. If you speak with many of the returning alumni, they will tell you that it is the intellectual community that they have had the greatest difficulty finding in the world beyond these walls. In other places, one has colleagues or associates, but there is here the possibility of friendship. It is difficult for young people to realize how rare that is, and because we cannot make our experience your reality, I am left urging you to make the most of your peers and celebrate, albeit mindfully, this phase of your lives. Youth cannot appreciate how quickly it will fade. “Oh, blindness to the future. Kindly giv’n,” as Alexander Pope wrote of the lamb.

This environment, which we can celebrate if we so choose, is made worthy of such celebration only by the upkeep proffered by its stewards. We are trying hard to change the notion that Ridgeview is where fun comes to die, which is an old joke about the University of Chicago. What is interesting about that familiar quip is that it was originally told in a loving way with the knowledge that all that had been accomplished at that great institution would not have been possible if it had striven to be easy rather than great. Greatness comes at a cost, and as much sugar as we might pile upon the spoon, we will never be entirely oblivious to the taste of the medicine. Nor should we wish to be, because that taste is a reminder of why we are here. If we are only to commit to our tasks out of an obligation without the benefit of curiosity, our lives will be harder and our challenges less tenable. I urge you and admonish you to open yourselves to your studies with authenticity of spirit and your utmost humility.

The celebrations we might engage in here can be undone by more than poor attitudes. I used to tell people that my reluctance to teach in a public school centered on the idea that free, universal, an compulsory education was doomed to fail because what was free would not be valued and what was compulsory would be loathed. The schools I grew up in were, for the most part, horrific. They led me to make bold and hyperbolic assertions about sending a child to a public school being tantamount to child neglect. I have garnered a bit more wisdom since then, but there remains a grain of truth in this. One cannot surrender children to a system that does not respect the vital ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and expect that humane individuals competent to engage in profound exchanges with their fellows regardless of their vocations will emerge.

More dangerous than the more organized and bureaucratic threats facing a school such as Ridgeview is the rumor mongering. Rumors are a sort of case study in courage and cowardice. A person becomes disenchanted with the place they have chosen because their child performs poorly or behaves badly, and a scapegoat is sought. The school, the teachers, the administration take the blame, which absolves the family, the parent, or the student from any real examination of their lives or the underlying reasons for their dissatisfaction with their current predicament. They are not content, however, to be dissatisfied alone, because human beings want company in both misery and happiness. In this sense, they want reassurance that it is not their fault, that they have been misserved, and that they are not alone in this. This commiseration gives way to speculation that gives way to lies that gives birth to rumors. Most people cowardly pass it on. They do not know how to have conversation, how to examine an argument, or how to make civil enquiries of those who might set the record straight. In fact, it is often more interesting if the record is not set straight. Recently, a parent called and told me, “I told my children that rather than continuing to spread a rumor, I would call and ask. That we could either speculate or know, and that knowing was better.” It is not only true, it is honorable. The rumors he had heard were that Ridgeview would be going private next year, which it will not; and that all grades will be in the uniform next year, which they will not.

That it is better to know that to speculate, and that it is better to speak truth than spread lies is applicable in how we treat not just institutions such as this school, but in how we treat one another. In many conversations with seniors over the years, the topic of friendship has invariably made an appearance. If you are younger, you might be surprised that these are the sorts of conversations we have together, but they are because they are timely. The conversations always go deeper than mere friendship, because friendship assumes that we share something in common with another person; in effect, that we already like them. The demands on a human being living in a community are greater than this though. We must love one another, and we do not mean this in a romantic sense, though that will also make an appearance and consume more bandwidth because it is oftentimes more sensationalistic. Instead, love in this sense applies to how we treat one another, which is as though each were his own end and not a means to ours. Treating people this way requires a lot from us – it is not a low bar. It requires that we perpetually examine our interactions with others; that we are on guard against our baser instincts to take advantage of another rather than finding ways to serve one another. This is no easy thing, and one may learn the principles of the thing from a book, but its application can only be learned through experience.

The most egregious violations of this principle are things such as murder and the like, along with the whole litany of horrors that man routinely visits on his fellows. The lesser offenses, though less heinous, are more ubiquitous. Of these, one is the activity of bullying. The world hates a bully, unless they are the bully at which point they makes excuses, obfuscate, and make highly complicated rationalizations for their behavior. The bully rarely considers himself as such, and is as likely to consider himself a victim. Sometimes bullying is done to patch over a bit of existential boredom, but more often it is done because the bully lacks the aptitude for self-examination that would permit him to see himself for what he is. I have spoken of he, but the term I should remind you is gender neutral. If anything, in our environment, bullying has been more pervasive among the girls than the boys.

It does not suffice to tell a bully that they should stop, or that they are being purposefully cruel, or that they are doing unknowable damage to another that will manifest itself in a myriad of ways at an unknown point of time in the future. Ordinary apologies count for little when the injury they seek to remedy was caused with conscious intent. A bully was once thought of as a moral scoundrel, an oafish dimwit who shamelessly intimidated, threatened, or frightened others. Today, in a society that exalts victims, virtually any behavior is counted as bullying. When I was a child, the schoolyard bully was well known. It was typically an older or larger student who would harass younger students at recess or on the way home for school. This nearly always climaxed in violence: a fistfight in the parking lot, on the playing fields, and when the victim did not fight back, it became a waiting game as idiotic bystanders waited for someone to break it up. Black eyes, split lips, cracked ribs, concussions, and boxer cuts were the usual results. Periodically, it turned out much worse: a broken jaw, an arm or a leg, a collapsed lung, or even a stabbing. As was often said in those circumstances: “the loser goes to hospital, the winner to jail.” High drama to be sure. The point being, bullying was more physical and less psychological, and it seemed to be largely the domain of boys with girls organizing themselves into cliques with periodic squabbles. Reflecting on this phase of life, it occurs to me that bullying was an inevitable stage in which we learned the way of the world as it was in its ruthlessness and of the strategies we would need to confront it. There will be times we get our feelings hurt, when people will say hateful things, when we will not be accorded our rightful dignity, when we are insulted, slandered, denigrated, disparaged, and belittled, and we must not forget that how we respond to these provocations, both internally and externally, is up to no one other than us. The bully’s character is determined, but our character will reveal itself in how we hold up. I grew up in an age when it was an embarrassment to be a victim, but this generation seems eager to martyr themselves to the very idea of victimhood because in this at least there is a community, even if an impoverishing one, and yet I do not believe anyone truly prefers to feel this way. We do not need to. Our community and the values it celebrates are up to us. If we choose to live in a mire, we will. Finding a community of people who will commiserate with you about your desperate state will not make you less desperate. Attitude and character are everything. How we confront the blight of bullying will prove a strong commentary on the integrity of our community.

If you encounter physical bullying, fight back. Defend yourself and anyone who needs you. There will be time enough to sort out who provoked whom later, but no one should labor under the belief that there will be easy prey at Ridgeview. Bullies are emboldened by victims. Fight back and make the costs to the bully high.

Psychological bullying is a different beast. It is the name calling and the exclusionary nature of petty hallway politics, which is always followed by the bully denying that anything wrong was done and that it was all a misunderstanding. We can almost picture the person who gets away with this leaving an office with a smarmy smirk plastered on a devious little face – pleased with his cleverness and oblivious to his cowardice. It is the sport of the weak. It is hard to punish, but easy to recognize. Teachers and administrators are unlikely to navigate all the nuances of students’ social networks and so protect you from it, which leaves it to you to protect one another. It is up to you to make it uncool to behave this way by calling people out for such conduct on the spot, and if they persist, ostracizing them and making sure others who would befriend them have full knowledge of who it is that they would befriend.

To my shame, a parent recently told me that in coming to Ridgeview for the first time that no one was mean, everyone was nice, but that no one was welcoming. The problem with people in general is that they wait for institutions to do the work of individuals. It is a bad idea and it does not work. You may not get to choose your community, but you do have a part in shaping it. You are responsible to and for it, and you cannot suppose that it is for someone else to create your opportunities. Supposing you were a Student Ambassador or a member of Student Council, and you said that that the Ambassadors or StuCo are not doing much. Please understand that this is you saying I AM NOT DOING MUCH. To say it the other way round is to claim that others are not creating enough for you to do, which makes you sound as though you will forever be incapable of meaningful independence. If you belong to either of these two groups, you are leaders, and you have an obligation to confront the types of behaviors that I have described. In fact, everyone in this room has such a duty. Do not shelter in place or stand by waiting for someone else to act in what is your stead. You are Americans, and being an American has genuine meaning here. Do not act like a subservient European who waits to be told or stands idly by waiting for the “correct” authority to respond. You have a moral compass and you have agency. If you see something wrong, react rightly. Demonstrate ethical initiative.

Some time ago I heard an economist speak, and he quoted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. In that story, Holmes is teasing Watson about why he can deduce so much and why Watson cannot. He says to Watson, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” He provides as a follow-up example that Watson has ascended the stairs hundreds of times but does not know the number of steps in the stairway. We are all much like Watson. We go through our days repeating the same motions, saying similar things, and consumed or driven by the same frustrations and desires. We see, but we do not observe. I implore you to live with an intent to observe, and to consequently live more purposefully. As we set out on the second semester of the year, please contemplate your studies with more curiosity, give more consideration to those around you, and generally live a life of scrupulous self-examination.

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