Headmaster’s Thoughts – September 2006

Some years ago, members of my Senior Ethics class asked me if they could see some examples of their teachers’ writings. I replied that teachers write all the time for students, particularly when they prepare homework assignments or when they write their comments on the papers they receive. However, if the students wanted to see if I could write, I offered to author a monthly “Headmaster’s Thoughts” which would be listed on the school website.

Thus began this eclectic series of writings that gets posted every month on our website. Usually, I try to keep the material light, and often the subject has little directly to do with education. This being September, the first month of the new school year, I thought I should discuss some educational issue. As always, your comments are treasured and answered.

So this month’s thoughts are about success and how we try to help our students at York develop that sense of personal triumph. I am afraid these thoughts are not particularly humorous (Why do I apologize for this? I am not writing for the New Yorker!), but the subject is about as important an issue as any school can face, for unless young people develop confidence in their own judgment–making ability, their own “self,” it will be difficult for them to reject the seductive and sometimes self-destructive options that are out there to tempt them. It will be equally difficult to embrace a long term, and frequently inconvenient, dedication to their future that leads to the more classic definition of success in our society. This definition does not necessarily include material possessions but certainly includes the ability to interact positively with others, to be able to contribute to one’s community, and to earn the respect of those around you.

Gore Vidal famously said: “It’s not enough to succeed; others must fail.” Since irony was his trademark, I don’t know how seriously he meant this. It is such a depressing analysis of human nature. It reflects the “zero sum” mentality of competition at its most ruthless. Life for zero summers is like a game of tennis with every point either won by you with your opponent losing, or won by the opponent with you losing. Hopefully, that is not something we teach at school. The graduating class of a few months ago had three students apply to Cornell. Happily all three got in (and all three are going). If one believed Vidal, then each application would have done harm to the others. Fortunately each was judged on its own merits, and so they should be. Success is not earned at the expense of someone’s failure.

Clearly, we have to deal with the appeal of the zero sum philosophy. It has become a catchword, and that means that some think it makes sense. Our best approach is to stress each student’s individual ability and talents. Perhaps it is easier to say than do, but the goal must always be defined. At York, we work with parents and teachers to encourage each student to discover and become master of something unique and valuable. I think one of the best ways to develop a sense of self is to achieve expertise in an arena that defines who you are. The obvious examples are the ability to play an instrument or a skill in a sport. Art, drama, debating… this is the list we think of. However, some young people are just not interested in the obvious. This is not a challenge that a parent or school should drop. Our society offers some wonderful options, and even though adolescents may not consider them “cool” at first glance, expertise is always admired by peers. So in some cases, the more esoteric the activity, the more the sense of self becomes clear. Origami – a student placed 6th in the National Competition (did you know there was a National Competition?); astronomy – we had an astronomy club with a really good telescope for one student (it is surprising how much you can see from our roof); weaving – (the student had a four-sided loom); archery – again a National competitor: hand-making soap; baking cakes; teaching the handicapped; tropical fish—these are all interests of particular students at York that have helped define their unique self and their success. Rather than the “zero sum” of a tennis game, I would far rather compare life at school to the headmaster’s letter of recommendation to college. There is no comparison to others, no lost points, only a description of the individual talents of the student that gives him or her a distinct application of interest, an application of an individual with a sense of self, and, therefore, for me, a sense of success.

In the meantime, we all function in a world that seems to enjoy using neo-Vidal (you get the drift) expressions. “Schadenfreude” is a horrendous word that refers to the hidden pleasure of seeing a friend fail. Ugh! It may occur, but why glorify it with a chic and complicated German word? Vidal again has a famous and appropriate aphorism: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Again this is Vidal being clever, and he continues to be consistent in mocking our human weaknesses.

A more student-used word is FOMO, the acronym for “fear of missing out.” My dog actually has this. Create a commotion in our house with sounds of activity, and the dog will come running because, of course, he is afraid he will miss out on the fun. We all have Fear of Missing Out to a certain extent (perhaps not as much as our Bearded Collie), and it certainly is not in the same league of unpleasantness as Schadenfreude, but ultimately let us hope that our successful students have enough confidence in themselves to believe that friends will always include them, and therefore FOMO is an unnecessary concern.

Of course, one of the prime concerns of adolescence is peer approval. How many times does Newsweek have to tell us that kids think they are successful if the “cool” kids think they are “cool”? It is true that most thirteen-year-olds have the secret prayer of “Oh Lord, may I please be like everyone else!” Understandable perhaps, but not something we should encourage. Most of us, as we get older, seem to almost want the opposite. We revel in our individuality and in the unique qualities that we would like to offer our society. Certainly, that is something that parents and schools can help balance in their teenager’s angst, understanding, but also encouraging, them towards the sense of individuality.

Each year I tell the graduating class at the commencement rehearsals that although teachers like to give out awards (the History prize, the Math prize, etc), I personally dislike them. To graduate is the major award, and every student has had to succeed in their own way to get where they are. We may not know enough, and it probably is none of our business, to give the appropriate award to each graduate, but by then they should know who they are sufficiently well to congratulate themselves, without the necessity of public appreciation beyond the diploma. I tell them that the measure of a school, to some extent, is how personally proud each graduate is at commencement. Hopefully, the adolescent prayer is already behind them, and they recognize their individual strengths.

So, to those of you who are new to the school, I should say that this is a longer and more serious piece than usual. Last month’s “thoughts” show more brevity and superficiality. However, I cannot overstress how deeply we are committed to try to help each student develop a sense of self, and we will always be appropriately responsive to you in working to this common goal of student success. Next month I will try to lighten up.

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.