Headmaster’s Thoughts August 2019

Lin Manuel Miranda gave an extremely thoughtful graduation speech at our commencement exercises this year. He stressed how wonderfully little he knew about life when he graduated. For him, this was a positive realization, because he enjoyed learning so much more when he recognized the amount he did not know.

I completely agree. I suppose that most of our graduates, if asked, would think that The Big Bopper was a hamburger, when in fact, he (The Big Bopper) was a great rock and roll singer, whose most famous song was “Chantilly Lace”, and who died in the plane crash with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Of course, they may not have heard of those two either. A major gap in knowledge!

I thought I should send my little book (which some of you have) of these “Thoughts” to my children. They responded, after having read the essays, that they had no idea that I had worked as a milkman’s boy, or indeed any of the personal revelations in the book. My fault! As parents, we should give oral histories to our children, but we are usually remarkably reluctant to do so. Jayme was quite blunt with my father in asking him; “So what was it like being in Dachau?” which was a taboo subject in my family until she brought it up. He just never talked about it. Similarly, veterans of wars invariably do not discuss their combat experience with their family. We all know so little about our parents and their experiences. We will, in time, regret that we knew so little.

So there is a solution to this. Either to be open and talk about the challenges that every one of us has faced or, as I chose to do, write about one’s experiences as a young person. Children have difficulty seeing their parents as teenagers, but teenagers we all were, and we all got into scrapes and mischiefs that our children would love to hear about, and indeed, should know about.

Oral or written, one’s personal history is a gift to one’s children. When we pass away, as all of us will do, we will only exist in the memories of those who knew us. It is our responsibility to provide knowledge of us to our descendants, and we need to get over our reluctance to do so. I say this having been to too many memorial services in my life. I am always struck by those where real intimate anecdotes of the deceased were given, and those where just generic statements were made.

So I was grateful that Lin Manuel told the graduates how he found out how little he knew at their age. Hopefully they, and their parents, took what he said positively (as I did) and determined to fill in the blanks. I have written these “Thoughts” for 15 years, and if nothing else, they have opened a window as to who I was, for my children and grandchildren. I have absolutely no idea why I could not express my early experiences by talking to them. My fault! But I am glad that this vehicle of writing an essay every month, has enabled them to see a side of me that I otherwise would have hidden. I encourage all parents to share as much as they can about their background. You will be surprised how little your children know.

Ronald P Stewart
Headmaster
York Prep School