I always love the opening of school. This is my 26th year in an independent school, and when I first started, I was young, excited, and terrified. Twenty-six years later, nothing has changed except I am no longer young.
I think the last time I spoke to this audience we were in the basement of Geier Hall as part of my interview process for head of school. That was almost a year and a half ago. It has been a very long waiting period since. I have to admit feeling butterflies in my stomach. It’s like an athlete being ready for a big game or a performer getting ready for opening night, but having 15 months to think about it. There is a nervous energy, but I think that is a good feeling. There would be something wrong if I didn’t feel that way.
While I have given talks previously in a chapel, this is my first time serving as a head of an Episcopal school and my first time working in an Episcopal school. I am mindful that there are many things that I don’t know and many things that I will need to learn. Thus, when Reverend Simopolous asked me to speak on the theme of humility, I thought well that won’t be hard.
With Reverend Simopolous’s invitation, I hope to connect this talk to discussions you all had last year about the school’s Episcopal identity, and the book that many of you read, When Jesus Came to Harvard, to theme of this year, humility, and what you can expect from me. On a side note, if you haven’t received this book but would like a copy please let Robin Perry know.
I should begin by saying that I am an unlikely advocate for a book about Jesus of Nazareth. While I embrace the inclusivity of the Episcopal faith and the morality and emphasis on social justice that guides it, as a child I attended a Korean Presbyterian church and Christianity was not a prominent theme in my family. Like most Korean families who were part of the first trickles of immigrants to the United States, we were Christian, but the church was more central to our lives as a social center than as a religious experience. Growing up as a child and then into my college years, my moral sense was developed less directly from Christian principles than from popular and historical influences ranging from Rod Serling and Carl Sagan to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. That development had a moral component I had no doubt, but I had constructed my moral principles from a variety of almost random influences.
As you may know, I ended up teaching history for many years at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire which was founded in 1781 dedicated to goodness and knowledge. The deed of gift for the school stated that “goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation for usefulness to mankind.” From the beginning of Exeter’s history, the expectation was that goodness would be sufficiently delivered to pupils by way of teachers from a Protestant faith and through regular required chapel service. Over time, American society generally and the school along with it became more secular, chapel service became optional, and the pursuit of knowledge and academic achievement became the unrivaled aims of an Exeter education. Goodness rooted in Christian values had gradually been replaced by what? We weren’t sure. Some mixture of tolerance, liberalism, individual rights, and moral relativism, and without consensus about any of it. I think all of us go into education enjoying the academic disciplines that we teach but caring greatly about the kinds of people we are developing and sending out into the world. The collective confusion over what goodness meant to us was disconcerting. I was part of the school’s curriculum review committee that wished to study closely, among other things, what goodness and knowledge meant in the 21st century.
It was in that context that I spotted When Jesus Came to Harvard at the Harvard Coop bookstore. It’s a clever title, but I may not have picked it up if not for my role on the curriculum committee and this persistent question about goodness. After a few pages, I was struck by its relevance to our work. Harvard was sending high achieving and talented people into the world, and some of them were doing embarrassing and immoral things. All knowledge and no goodness. Harvard decided to do something about it. We might be disappointed that the new idea that it came up with was to require a course on ethics and morality. Perhaps it could have imagined something more, and the author Harvey Cox expressed the same skepticism about didactic moral teaching.
That skepticism appealed to me, that he had doubts that this was a solution to the problem. Appealing too was Cox’s academic approach to the study of the life of Jesus. As a historian, I could connect with the historical Jesus—the Jew, the rabbi, the teacher, the moral questions he raised and the stories he told, his teaching style. This was Jesus separate from the religious institutions that formed later around him and that often complicate my understanding of him. I could follow Jesus and his lessons up to his cruel crucifixion in the far reaches of the Roman Empire. And then I struggled as I always do with the resurrection and how else to explain what his disciples saw and the perilous and remarkable tenacity and devotion of his following after his death. When I talked to an Episcopalian friend and religious studies teacher about my struggle to put this all together, he just nodded sympathetically and said not all that helpfully “I’m not sure, but something happened.”
Since I picked up that book many years ago, I have gone back to it many times. It’s one of my favorite re-reads for a few reasons.
First, I’m not the same person who read this book fifteen years ago. Then I was a history teacher and a committee member, and as I mentioned I used to be young. What resonates with me most has changed over time as I thought about the book later from the perspective of an administrator and now as a head of an Episcopal school. I look at underlines from my previous reads and some scribbled notes, and it’s a window into my thinking at different times in my life. As a parent, when I first read the book, my children were four and two years old, and my thinking of how to raise moral children has gone from future tense to more present and past tense, and I hope that my spouse and I and the schools that they have attended have done a decent job in providing a moral foundation. The world has also changed in numerous stunning ways since 2004 too long to list, and various topics resonated even more strongly.
This time around I was struck by Cox’s depiction of the devil’s temptation of Jesus. Cox wrote “the temptation story shows Jesus at the outset of his public career struggling with the question of what leadership style he will choose.” In the past fifteen years, we have seen leadership styles at the national level that we could not have predicted or imagined. I am the fourth head of this school in the past fifteen years. My leadership style will matter, and I draw some comfort from knowing that Jesus, too, struggled to figure that out. Cox’s distinction between what is fact and what is true is even more relevant in this age of constant information. I can’t keep up, and helping students manage all of it can feel both important and impossible.
I can also access at a deeper level some of the more challenging parts of Jesus’s teaching. The well known call to “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors” is an extremely high bar, and I don’t fully comprehend it. I do know that over the years, I have been on the receiving end of comments from people who are upset, sometimes over something that I have done and sometimes because I was the person who had to take responsibility. Sometimes the people are teachers or staff; sometimes they are disappointed alumni, or frustrated parents. There was a time when I would have pushed back, but I found that when I listened and put myself in a position of caring and appreciating what they cared about, I could sometimes find a way to understanding and resolution. Maybe someday I can get to love, but I’m still working on that.
I think, too, of Jesus’s provocative entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, mocking Roman rule, and then heading to the Temple to rebuke merchants who were making profits in a house of prayer. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what was going to happen to him. And he did it anyway. As Cox put it, “he was going to die in dishonor, defeat, and failure.” What I have done in my life pales by comparison, but as I have taken on more responsibility, the stakes have gotten higher, my shortcomings are more visible, and the consequences of failure are greater. No one is going to crucify me for any of it, but it leads me to wonder where he found the courage to accept the brutal consequences of his actions. And it provides a model for all of us who have to make choices that we believe are right but are not popular.
So I have changed over the years. What has not changed since my original reading is our students’ need for help in guiding them to make moral decisions in very complex circumstances.
I think it’s this sober recognition of what our students need that leads me back to this book. I haven’t and we haven’t addressed fully the dilemma of our work. We must continue to be a great teaching and learning institution while also recognizing that our primary challenge may not be the dissemination of knowledge. I am consistently astonished by what our students know and what they can do. The more difficult challenge is how we encourage our bright and hard-working kids to see their success as more than individual academic achievement. How do we help them appreciate the greater purpose of what they working so hard to achieve? This connects, I think, to our concerns about their emotional well-being. What is all this hard work and achievement for? Is it to get into the honors course, make cum laude, get into a brand name college? If so, we all know that this is not the path to fulfillment.
Being an adolescent is hard. They are in a period of constant growth, assessment, self-scrutiny, and public display. We are in the midst of a crisis of student well-being, and we see rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. If being an adolescent is hard so too is teaching adolescents. They demand all of our patience, wisdom, care, and love. From many faiths or none we can agree that clarity of moral purpose will serve our students well now and in the future. I doubt that we will ever feel that we have this down just right, and that just means it requires our constant vigilance and dedication.
Our ability to do our best for our students requires self-care, quality relationships, role modeling, and mutual support.
On self-care, teaching demands all of who we are, and we bring our full selves to work. Find time to do things that you love, that energize you, that helps balance your life outside of the day to day demands of your work here. We will have triumphs and challenges in our personal lives and with our families. I have a daughter in her second year of college on the east coast and a son going into his senior year at an east coast boarding school and entering the college admissions process. Even when they aren’t here, they are never far from my mind, and when they struggle a big part of me struggles, too. It’s part of who I bring to school every day. I know that you bring your full selves to work, too, that your loved ones are on your minds. We have to be a community that cares about you during good times and tough times.
The education we provide for our students will also be no better than the quality of the relationships that we have with each other. When they see us supporting and trusting each other, then they know that they can expect support and trust from each of us. Students are experts at observing adult behavior. They are at a period in their lives where they continue to observe their parents, but begin to seek the guidance of other adults. It’s an essential part of their growing independence, and they look to us for the most subtle cues and affirmation. The words we use, the physical expressions of approval or critique, and our knowledge of details about their lives that tell them I care about you enough to know you.
As the head of school, I will do my best to model the behaviors that I have mentioned and to develop quality relationships with you. It won’t happen all at once, but that is one of my goals over time. When I talk about having a life outside of work, I will do my best to not be a hypocrite. I want so much to be a good head for all of you and for all of the students that I may immerse myself in the work, but I will do my best to keep some sense of balance.
Finally, I know from experience that there will be problems that don’t have an easy answer, but difficult options not of our choosing. I hope that I can at least ask many of the right questions that help us all get to better answers. I hope to recognize when I do err and that I can correct my mistakes. It’s impossible to please everyone all the time and that would be a dubious goal in any case. I hope to be guided by what is right, what is best for the children and for the community, and what expresses best our highest values.
I am fully human, with all the vulnerabilities that come with it, and that brings a humble recognition of my individual limitations and reinforces my belief that whatever we achieve we will achieve together as a community.
Thank you, all.