Headmaster's Thoughts: August 2022

Dear Incoming York Prep Student: This month’s essay is primarily addressed to you. Often my monthly essays are deliberately not serious (I even attempt humor), and written for the enjoyment of the reader and myself. But not this month. I want to give you concrete advice on being successful at York, and, indeed, at any school you attend.

The first piece of advice I can give you is that you are working for you. You may think that you are working for your parents or your teachers, and trust me, as a parent and grandparent myself, I can well understand their desires for your success. But, in the end, you are working for your own success. I would immediately agree that the word “success” is a very vague one. To me, it means that you are successful if you believe you are successful. So you have to decide how much success means to you. Whether working at whatever you do, school work or, later, at your profession, ask yourself how much is success worth to you. In fact, most success is somewhat of a fight. And that fight can be with different sides of your own mind. I remember working hard at Oxford when I was a graduate student. They had given me a carrel in the law library which overlooked a field where students often played Frisbee or just hung out. A carrel at this library was the size of a large walk-in closet. It had a table, a chair, and a light. And a big window to watch others have fun. The big “perk” was that you could reserve books and keep them overnight in your carrel. The negative was that you watched students having more fun than you. I was ambitious. Success was important to me, so even though I wanted to be out playing games, I placed a higher priority on getting a good degree. So I worked! It might require a psychological evaluation to find out why I did this. Insecurity played a part for sure (my parents were poor and I was always on full scholarship at Oxford). A desire to make something of myself (even though, at that point in time, I was unsure of my future), and a general compulsiveness, which is part of my nature, also contributed to my decision. Yes, a psychological evaluation definitely would have helped me understand my actions.
You too might gain from such a psychological evaluation as to your motives. I am assuming that you want to be successful. It seems against our nature to desire failure. But wanting to have something (success) and doing something about it, are two very different things. Your call, your choice! Clearly, the rational call is to try and achieve success, and the way to do that is by working at whatever the job is at hand. If you want to succeed, and I sincerely hope you do, then you must have a certain amount of fight within you to accomplish your goal. You firstly have to fight to focus on your studies, something that was easier for people of my age because we had no social media, mobile phones, computers, and in my case, television at home. You have more distractions than I could ever have dreamt of, so your fight is more difficult.
Since you are not living in a bubble but, in your present time, working with members of our faculty, the fight must also be to present yourself positively. Teachers are, whether they think they are or not, like referees in a basketball game. They can ignore or call a minor foul. If they trust you, if they believe that you are trying, they will call in your favor. The reverse is also true. So good grades come from treating your teachers with respect. There is a big “however” to this and that is if you genuinely disagree. I hope that you are curious and skeptical. If your teacher advocates a view that you disagree with, then my advice is to, respectfully, indicate your disagreement. I can give you an example in my life. In fifth grade, we had to read the books by the English author Enid Blyton. I thought the ethical concept of the book was poor.  No, I did not think in this language in fourth grade but I knew something was there that I did not like. She, Ms. Blyton, wrote about small groups of students (the “Secret Seven”, the “Famous Five”) who helped the Police solve local minor crimes. That was fine, but, at the end, they always were rewarded. My argument with this (and I may not have been as coherent at 10 years of age to make much of an “argument”,  and more accurately I would guess I “expressed an opinion” ) was that doing good, as these rather self-righteous groups did, should be done without the inevitable consequence of a reward at the end. Doing good was its own reward, and so giving them anything seemed not only redundant (probably not the word I actually used) but created the feeling that you would be entitled (again a word I probably did not use) to something if you did a good deed. My teacher liked the books and we agreed to disagree, but, and this is the interesting part, I earned the top English grade in the class. I was respectful and had an acceptable, if different, point of view.
By the time I arrived at high school, and then certainly at Oxford, I would feel free to suggest a different conclusion than those reached by the person teaching me. The surprising thing I learned was that they actually enjoyed a spirited discussion. So long as it was done with courtesy and consideration of their point of view, and presented in a respectful way, I never had a teacher who resented my disagreement. Actually, the reverse was true. Maybe I was just lucky, but I do think that a good teacher will accept that there are several views about any problem, and theirs may not always be the right one. I say you have to fight for your point of view, and that required knowing the material. In other words, I had to have read the books of Enid Blyton (which I despise to this day) before I could express to the teacher who had chosen them for us to read, why I did not accept the basic thesis of her books.
Fighting for success may also mean fighting against those who want you to be successful their way and only their way. Jayme had a close friend at Barnard who was struggling in science courses. Jayme knew that her friend was brilliant in history and English, and so asked why she filled her program with science and math. The answer was that her father wanted her to be a doctor. Jayme advised her to switch to studying things she loved (in her case “government”), with the result that she did and became extraordinarily successful in her field. The moral is that she was not studying at Barnard to make her father happy, but to give herself an education in her own chosen field.
If your parents’ or anyone else’s desires for you are what you want, then hooray! They will support you and praise you. Sorry to be personal again, but everyone (including me) wanted me to be a barrister. I did it for over three years. I defended an accused murderer in a very long case. I was not alone in this defense but the upshot was that we won. At that point I realized that I was slotted into a career that I did not love. I decided not to continue being a barrister, notwithstanding my law degrees and everyone else’s belief in my future success, and quit the bar and came to America with Jayme and started York Prep. A very good choice. My fellow barristers may have thought I was having a nervous breakdown leaving a successful career to do something too risky. But the truth is that I would far more likely have actually had a nervous breakdown if I had fulfilled their wishes rather than my own. So my advice is to follow your own goals for the future, and not someone else’s.
If you want to be successful, and I devoutly hope you do, then remember that others (certainly the school’s faculty and later your employer) will be judging you. So learn that punctuality is a sign of respect, act with courtesy, and dress appropriately. It is difficult enough to become successful, without losing a good job because you turned up late to the job interview looking disreputable. On a side note, I should say that this applies to college interviews as well.
I could go on, but I probably have depressed you enough. Life is a fight, and though people can get lucky breaks, all the successful people I know, worked hard and earned that success. Good habits start at school. I suggest you look at why you come to school. If you answered that the primary goal was to get an education, I would agree with you. You can still be yourself and still be curious. You can respectfully challenge and still have fun and joy. But if you know the goal before you start, and consciously fight for yourself, then you will be a winner (hopefully beyond even your present wildest dreams). Nothing comes easy, as the cliché goes, but clichés are often true (just repeated too often) and the rewards of being your own best friend, and looking out for your unique desired future, will transform your life for the better for all the years to come. And take it from an old man; with good health, there are a lot of years to come.
Ronald P Stewart
York Prep