Headmaster’s Thoughts – December 2006

There are two “thoughts” that I would like to express this month. The first is short but important, and that is to thank Ice T, his York Prep students, and the production staff for the series “Ice T’s School of Rap” on VH1. It was funny, uplifting, and enjoyable. Our school looked gorgeous (how did they get those camera shots?), the kids came across as rising to the challenge, and the editing was generous to all concerned, including me. Thanks!

The second is more serious and only connects with the first because Ice (the man himself) told me that his upward path of success—from gang member to musician, actor, and author—began when he joined the Marines.

So to begin this completely separate line of thought, I should tell you that around the corner to our school, on 65th and Columbus, is the New York headquarters of the Church of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons as most of us know them. Every day, young men in white shirts and dark ties, with satchels slung diagonally across their chests, journey forth from this center to attempt to convert New Yorkers to their cause.

It is a cause of which I know very little about, but the idea of the compulsory two-year service of missionary work required of young Mormon men is intriguing and, in many ways, commendable. Being a missionary is the “heavy lifting” part of religion. It must be an arduous and frustrating job. New Yorkers, I suspect, are very rarely converted, and yet, with optimism and energy, the young enthusiasts venture forth.

We, as a country, also have a “heavy lifting” component as part of being a successful democracy. That task is borne, by and large, by young men and women in the armed forces. They have the dangerous job of fighting, and now the equally dangerous and frustrating job of attempting to keep the peace, in a country whose inhabitants want us to leave.

It is not a war that they have chosen nor is it a war that seems to be going our way at all. But the noticeable factor about the American army is that in it the heavy lifting is usually (not always, but usually) done by what used to be called the under classes. Rarely are children of privilege fighting in Iraq, and thus the war seems not to be taken as seriously as if they were. I am ashamed to say that I can only think of one person who is fighting there (a brother of a valued teacher at York), and I say “ashamed” because it means that I scan the death lists with less anxiety than I should.

So what am I suggesting? Certainly not the draft, although I wonder: How quickly would Congress have had us invade if their children, and the children of their largest contributors, were among the fighters? I fantasize that we would be a more peaceful nation with a more careful foreign policy.

No, what I am suggesting is that we review how we can better share the heavy lifting of democracy among all of us. In New York, our State Chief Judge, Judith Kaye, has rightfully made jury service something that few citizens can opt out of. It is a pain in the neck, but it is completely appropriate that we all have to share in the process. Should our young people be required to do some community service for more than the hundred hours we require at York to get a diploma? I mean taking six months to work in a meaningful way in real service to the country; for example, helping rebuild devastated areas, teaching and advocating for the underprivileged, working with relief agencies or in hospitals, basically doing some of the “heavy lifting.”

I am a realist enough to know that this is very unlikely indeed to happen. We all seem happy enough to relish the consumerism of America without any sense of sacrifice. I am as guilty of this as anyone. But as I write, another three Americans have just been killed in a bomb attack. Along with that tragedy, Paris Hilton again has hit another car and sped off, Jennifer Aniston is breaking up with someone, Angelina Jolie is selling the rights to her newly adopted baby’s photographs, and Tom Cruise…

We (or maybe it is just me) are reading the tragedies as though the Americans killed were not our boys and girls. Mea culpa! I am sorry to say that they are, and maybe if we all understood that then we wouldn’t be there in the first place.

The Mormons make all their young men go out on their missions. In that sense, they are more democratic than we are. Ice T was changed by his time in the Marines. Impressive! The problem is how to engage our more privileged young people in helping their society. We can’t allow just one group of Americans to enable the rest of us to ignore the difficulties and responsibilities of being the most powerful nation on earth. That’s the thought, the easy part. The solution seems to be beyond me.

Finally, I showed this to Jayme as I always do, and she said I am ending on a “down” note. She asked me to express, on our behalf, a happy holiday to our school community and then added the wish for everybody: “May all your presents be expensive!” That seems a remarkably apt closing.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section In the News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.