Headmaster’s Thoughts – April 2018

The overall wisdom of W.C. Fields is debatable. An alcoholic movie star, most of whose performances on screen he made while intoxicated, Fields created a role for himself as the quintessential misanthrope who behaved badly to those less fortunate than he. That, in fact, this was a pose (he actually had a dog and doted on his grandchildren) was not something his fans cared to know. They loved the curmudgeonly nature of a character who could publicly display disdain for the values of empathy and compassion.

Yet, in one great quote, he imparted a wisdom that people rarely connect him with. I will give it verbatim: “It ain’t what they call you, it is what you answer to.” How I wish that every child believed that. In this age of Snapchat, and instant messaging, adolescents seem to breathe an oxygen made of peer approval, and their insecurities render them vulnerable to depression when they think they are rejected by the “cool” group. “It ain’t what they call you, it is what you answer to” is the antidote to this adolescent angst. If you only answer to those who raise you up and respect you, it matters less if some other adolescent, trying to gain self-stature, puts you down. Who cares what they call you, if you know who you are?

We, at York, have weekly sessions with our early adolescents, trying to help them deal with the awkwardness of their insecurities. “It ain’t what they call you, it is what you answer to” is something Evelyn Rowe-Cosentino stresses in these groups. It is not an easy challenge. Social media platforms seem designed to appeal to the insecurities of the adolescent who wants so desperately to be part of “the group.” Let me say that I find minimal value in Snapchat and its competitors. These programs seem to encourage thoughtless foolishness, and fake arrogance. Maybe that is easy for me to say since I do not carry a cell phone. Call me anything you want on instant messaging, because I will not see it.

So, we have taken the first steps to at least put cell phones in their place. Students in the 6th through 8th grades, will now adhere more closely to the existing school policy as described in the handbook. They will store their phone in a special bank of phone lockers when they come to school. They can retrieve them just for lunch, but then they have to be returned to the locker until the end of the day. No vibrating urgent messaging. No ability to hear or respond. If some message is important and needs to be delivered to a student, that message can come through the school main phone line, 212 362 0400. We are one of the last schools in New York to have real live (and wonderful and sensitive) front desk personnel who answer every call courteously. The fact that we still answer our calls in person comes from a personal (on my part) intense dislike for “menus” when I make a phone call.

Our move to lock up the phones during the school day, is an attempt to pre-empt the problems of these devices as much as we can. It is, frankly, an experiment; I will let you know how it goes. And we will continue to encourage our young people to listen to the wisdom of that great inebriate W.C. Fields; “It ain’t what they call you, it is what you answer to.”

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School