An Honor Roll for Each of Us

Integrity Last month we celebrated the first Honors Chapel of our school year.  Over the years reactions to such events have become more diverse and complex, with various questions raised: In the case of recognition for good conduct, why do we honor students for things we expect of them as a matter of course?  Do we adults hold ourselves to the same standards for our behavior?  Regarding academic honors, why do we use grades as the sole criteria for recognition?  Does that not leave out some of our grittiest students whose persistence and achievement might not be fully recognized by the numbers?  Good questions indeed, and they usually inspire me to focus on inclusion in my remarks at these chapels.  At last month’s Honors Chapel I noted an “honor roll” available to everyone.  Dictionary.com’s first definition of “honor” reads as follows: honesty, fairness, and integrity in one’s beliefs and actions.

Living a life with honor is attainable for each of us, no matter our “grades.”  However, it is not necessarily an easy thing to do.  In fact, at least in my case, it has been a lifelong journey to live more honorably over time.  What has helped me immensely has been my spiritual practice to thank God each day for the gift of that day and to express my desire to live that day with honor.  At the end of the day, I spend a brief time reflecting prayerfully on whether I have truly lived it with honor.  I have days when my reflection is tinged with regret when I recognize the moments when I could have acted more honorably.  In those moments I pray that I may have the gift of another day on which I can once again commit to living it with honor.

I thought of those remarks again this month when I read the news that Dictionary.com had selected “xenophobia” as its Word of the Year: fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.  How sad that this is so, but it also serves as added inspiration to aspire to find a place on the one honor roll that really matters.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Birthdays That End in Zero

Mr. Dressel's Birthday

Last week I celebrated my 70th birthday, a number I once could not have imagined.  I am on the “cutting edge” of the baby boom generation since those of us born in 1946 are considered the first (or oldest, if you prefer) baby boomers.  We clung to the notion not to trust anyone over 30 until we reached that age.  I suspect that baby boomers like myself are responsible for the entire 40 is the new 30, 50 the new 40, etc., phenomenon.  I actually saw a suggestion in a magazine that 70 is now the new 50!  That nugget arrived on my radar just in time for my 70th birthday.  I don’t believe it, but I do welcome the notion that attitude and engagement with life makes a huge difference regarding how we choose to live each day.

Some birthdays resonate more than others, and those that end in zero are among them.  Actually, I was provided some helpful perspective years ago by my now-deceased mother.  She sent me a happy 30th birthday card on my 29th birthday (see comment above about not trusting everyone over 30 and the presumed traumatic effect of turning that age for baby boomers).  I had to conclude that it could not be that big a deal if my own mother lost count.  Last year this lesson was reinforced when a friend sent me a happy 70th birthday card a year early.

Nonetheless, there is something when both digits in a person’s age change.  Completion of another decade of life feels like a bit of an accomplishment.  And to me, it feels even more like a blessing.  My birthday was made especially memorable since I was able to spend it in the midst of our students, faculty, and staff.  How many people are lucky enough to be serenaded on one’s birthday by well over 500 people, the vast majority of whom are age 14 and under?  I am still feeling incredibly blessed today, a good reminder that each day can be blessed if we embrace it as the gift it is.  Today is after all in a very real sense the only one we have to embrace.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

P.S. An observation: We first baby boomers seem to love the spotlight and have difficulty leaving the stage.  Two people with whom I share the same birth year have already served as US Presidents, and another is a candidate this year.  That said, I feel supremely grateful that I have the privilege to do the work I do in the community in which I do it!

Letter From Mr. Dressel

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
-Mary Oliver

Dear Members of the Class of 2016,

The words above from award-winning American poet Mary Oliver have served as a particular guidepost for me this year.  Students and educators alike need to add a bit of renewed inspiration and energy every year to make certain that our passion matches the possibilities that await us in school – and in life.

Graduations are traditional moments when graduates can expect (and perhaps dread) advice from their elders.  The words above from the poet follow that structure, and I suggest that her advice can be embraced.  Mary Oliver’s world view is that nature and the ordinary in life provide pathways to profundity, meaning and inspiration.  Implied in her words is her recognition of our tendency to overcomplicate life and to miss the blessings in the everyday.

So I urge you to keep it simple as you move to the next stage of your lives and your education.  Holding fast to those seven unadorned words can work wonders for you.

Pay attention.
Mary Oliver’s words carry much different significance and intent than an identical admonition from a teacher.  Consciously open your senses to the world in which you wake each day, and each day will bring blessing, consolation and opportunity to you.

Be astonished.
Resist the temptation to become jaded, guarded, and – even worse- cynical.  Find joy in the routine, the familiar, the ordinary, the unassuming.  Every day will bring much to savor if we are prepared to be amazed.

Tell about it.
Share your blessings so others can be blessed.  Embrace the world with gratitude and share that gratitude with others.   Don’t be shy about sharing your joy of living with family, friends, and strangers alike.

Keeping things simple can make an amazing positive difference in your life.  Hall of Fame Yankee catcher and accidental philosopher Yogi Berra died early in your eighth grade year.  He was not eloquent in the manner of Mary Oliver, but his nuggets of wisdom echo some of her own.  As Yogi reminded us: You can observe a lot by just watching.

With great affection and appreciation,

Leo P. Dressel
Head of School

Group

All Saints’ Class of 2016

The Wisdom of Bruce Springsteen

Earlier this month I attended the “The River” tour Bruce Springsteen concert date here in Phoenix.  The first Springsteen concert I ever attended was 40+ years ago (yikes): Halloween night, 1975, Paramount Theater, Oakland, California.  I have been a staunch fan ever since.  The 1975 tour followed the release of “Born to Run,” the album that made the Boss a superstar.  He landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek, an amazing achievement in the years long before the Internet when those two magazines had major cultural impact.  Even with this breakthrough, Springsteen still was playing modest-sized venues like the Paramount (capacity 3000 or so).

BruceMuch has changed for the Boss on that score, and much has changed for me on many levels over these 40 years.  In 1975 I was a second-year student at Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley preparing for ordination to the priesthood.  For the 2016 concert our delegation represented three generations, which I found most consoling.  Our granddaughters have little knowledge of Springsteen’s career so I was excited to experience their introduction to his music with them.  I was also proud since—as a self-described Springsteen disciple—I take a bit of credit for encouraging and supporting their father’s allegiance to the Boss.

“The River” was released 35 years ago, and Springsteen has released a new boxed set to celebrate that milestone.  The current tour has the same playlist for most of each concert.  Springsteen plays every song on “The River” in the order each appeared on the album.  Among those songs is one of my all-time favorites, “Hungry Heart.”  The song is so familiar to Springsteen fans that Bruce has the custom of having his audience sing the first verse without him before he circles back to begin again.  The song is quite typical of an approach Springsteen employs: revelation of an important life lesson presented by a narrator who fails to take the lesson to heart.  In “Hungry Heart” the narrator states very clearly that each person has a need, a hunger, for meaning—especially in relationship(s).  That core message is most clearly articulated (in spite of the badly fractured grammar) in the third verse:

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone

In the previous two verses the song’s narrator vividly illustrates how not to satisfy that hunger.  In that he is not alone.  Most of us have spent some time searching on the wrong path(s) at times in our quest to satisfy our hungers; for some that wrong path can have catastrophic impact.  For others, the hunger is so ravenous that it is never satisfied.  For many of us, the path to the right destination is circuitous and complex.  For me, just such a complicated path has led me to a marvelous place for which I am very grateful.  As the Boss and the E Street Band played for 3+ hours, I listened rejoicing in the reality that I have a place to rest, I have a home, and I am loved and far from alone.

Thanks again for the reminder, Bruce.

Until next time…

My best,
Leo

Mind Games

Last month I had a delightful lunch date with three boys in our third grade, a “Hangin’ with the Head” opportunity offered as an auction item at our parent association fundraiser.  I thoroughly enjoyed observing their interaction and conversation—and the insights it provided me about the world of contemporary third graders.  Gaming was the most frequent topic of conversation, with Minecraft taking center stage.  The most memorable quotation that emerged from the gaming conversation was this: “Minecraft is just too complicated for adults.”  I think there is definitely truth in that statement, especially for this adult.  There is no doubt that every one of our ten grandchildren is more adept at manipulating electronic devices than I.  They are digital natives one and all.  I am clearly a digital dinosaur in terms of chronology, evidence of which is that I was a mid-
20s adult when the game Pong was introduced.  No first grader in our school can read better than I or solve math problems better than I, etc.  However, I am quite certain that most—if not all of them—could easily eclipse me in iPad manipulation skill.  That represents a huge paradigm shift for educators.  The tables (tablets?) have been turned.
Hand of Asian girl playing Tablet.This development can be good news for children and adults, but there is an ever growing number of cautionary tales.  Not a week goes by that I do not see an article in professional literature about the perils of excessive screen time for young people.  This is of particular concern for me as head of a school with a 1-to-1 iPad program in our middle school and a commitment to the incorporation of other new technologies into our PK-8 educational program.  One of the harmful side effects of excessive screen time is the deleterious effect if has on the development of social-emotional skills in students (and all of us, for that matter).  This has risen to the level of a public health issue as demonstrated by the guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  This is particularly worrisome for me as head of an Episcopal school that puts a high value on development of such social-emotional skills in our students.

This is not intended as a diatribe against new technologies.  These ever-changing and ever-advancing tools can provide many benefits, and they are not going away.  Minecraft provides a brilliant array of options for learning and problem-solving.  I myself have been exhilarated by the ways in which I have grown as a learner through contemporary technology.  We adults need to help our young people to manage their use of technology; they can figure out the manipulation piece on their own.  To provide that assistance, we need to model what we desire.  We need to get off our devices more often and model genuine healthy personal interaction at home and at school.

I sincerely believe that children’s brains are changing in new ways because of new technology.  My hope is that this will be an evolutionary moment in human development- not a devolutionary one.  I also firmly believe that we adults can be very influential in influencing that outcome.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Counting the Days

 

Sometimes counting the days is the proper thing to do.  For example, my administrative colleagues and I have been doing just that as we map out the calendar for the 2016-17 academic year.  We have a target range of student contact days for the year, a goal to make each of the four quarters as close in length to each other as possible, and the need to measure the impact of the timing of various holidays on each year’s schedule.  So it makes good sense that we count the days carefully.

Christmas day

Conversely, I am also especially aware at this time of year how counting the days can be counterproductive even though it is an irresistible temptation for many of us.  How many of us are counting the days until Christmas (or actually Christmas break!).  I confess to doing just that more often than I would like.  For those of us who are Christians, this runs counter to the wisdom and beauty of the Advent season.  This is a time for living in the moment, a time of watchful waiting, a time for living in serene anticipation rather than impatient calendar-watching.

As the days of December become increasingly frantic, we need to return to the beauty of living in the here and now.  After all, no matter how and whether we count the days, each of us has only one day that matters: today.  Many years ago (before we even knew each other) my wife Jan co-founded a support group in St. Louis for people living with cancer.  The name of the group was Make Today Count.  That is a helpful and hopeful mantra for each of us no matter our circumstances.  We need less counting the days and more making each day count.

Until next time…

Peace,

Leo

Justice and/or Mercy?

Pope Francis

I have been reflecting a great deal on the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States and also on the range of responses to his presence in our country’s midst.  Certainly the predominant response was one of exuberant admiration, but this unpredictable pontiff has a knack for keeping most of us on our toes.  In most cases he left people both inspired and challenged.  I am enthralled by the Pope’s continual attention to the delicate interplay between justice and mercy.  During his recent visit this was perhaps most obvious and stirring (and for some controversial) in Pope Francis’s remarks about the death penalty and his urging that it be abandoned while calling for alternative measures that distribute mercy and justice more evenly.

In his statements and writings about his vision for the church-and by extension for the world-Pope Francis clearly advocates for a stronger measure of mercy (perhaps most notably and directly in his book The Church of Mercy).  Pope Francis suggests that we need a world that honors both justice and mercy, not one in which people choose between justice or mercy.  This tension between justice and mercy is present in all settings and all situations in which judgments and decisions that affect people’s lives are made, including in schools. This is an important consideration as we strive to create and enhance a “nurturing community” in our school as our mission statement states.  How do we balance accountability with support?  What does justice look like for a Kindergartener or mercy for a middle schooler?  Developmental and contextual considerations obviously come into play.  Do mercy and justice look different in an Episcopal school than in many other school settings?  And in what way?  The questions are many, and the need for discernment in every situation essential.

As I reflect on justice and mercy within the context of my years in school leadership, I can identify instances when I erred in both directions- too harsh in some instances and too lenient in others.  At the same time I am grateful for those moments when a decision has proven to be both just and merciful, at least in the long term.  I would hope that I have become more adept at finding the right balance more and more over the years.  It is important to me to consider decisions I make within the context of justice and mercy because it speaks to the sacredness of the tasks I share with my colleagues in helping our students become the people God calls them to be.

I admire Pope Francis for his acknowledgment that ambiguity is deeply embedded in our lives and that there are no simple answers.  Nonetheless we must continue to ask the difficult questions with both justice and mercy in mind.  That is no easy task.  Last month at a faculty meeting our division heads led an exercise centered on an article written by the now-former President of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Pat Bassett entitled, “Twenty-Five Factors Great Schools Have in Common.”  One such factor cited by the author is this: (Great schools) know their priorities when making difficult decisions, ranking first “what’s best for the school,” then “what’s best for the student,” then “what’s best for all other interests.”  Some of our teachers suggested that the first two priorities ought to have been reversed.  What’s best for the school?  What’s best for the student?  The best decisions are those when one can answer “yes” to each of those questions.

Until next time…

Peace,
Leo

The Mystery of Endings

Being MortalThis week, I began reading Being Mortal by physician-author Atul Gawande. Gawande’s thesis is that our culture and our medical system do not do a very good job helping people as they near the end of life. He illustrates that thesis through individual stories, including those of his ancestors, extended family members, and patients. He, of course, accepts the inevitability and finality of death, but as the subtitle of his book suggests we could do a much better job of focusing on “what matters at the end.”  Some deaths add unambiguous tragedy to their finality. Still etched in my heart and in my prayers is the death of a young man who died earlier this week, a victim of a freak and random accident while standing at a bus stop. I did not know the young man, but the accident occurred at an intersection that I pass through to and from school each day. The day of his death I had passed through that intersection a matter of minutes before the tragic accident. As I learned more about the quality of his character, my sadness only deepened. There was no chance to attend to “what matters in the end” for him.

Although far less dramatic than death, endings are also part of school life. These endings are also more ambiguous in8th grade class photo many cases. While there is comfort and order in the clear beginnings and endings of school years, there is also some wistfulness in such endings.  After next Thursday, we shall never count the same cast of characters in our school community as we have this year. Teachers and students move and depart, and of course some students graduate. Some of this year’s graduates will have spent 10 years at our school, a duration made all the more remarkable in that it represents about 70% of their young lives. They shall never have a school home for that long again (except perhaps in the case of very complicated graduate programs years down the line 🙂 ). So I suspect that there will be mixed feelings in their hearts on graduation day, as will be the case for many of their classmates. There will, of course, be many laughs and smiles that day but also (I suspect) some tears.

So we soon bid farewell to another school year soon, very grateful and likely a bit wistful, firm in the hope that a new beginning will bring in a few short months.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

On Not Peaking Too Early

Students recognized at Honors Chapel.

Students recognized at Honors Chapel.

This past week we conducted our second quarter Honors Chapel for our middle school.  In many ways these chapels are always positive and consoling occasions.  But, I also find in myself a bit of tension about each such event, especially as I ponder the remarks I would like to make for the occasion.  The tension derives from a number of sources.  Does honoring students with grade point averages of a certain level contribute to excessive focus on grades vs. learning?  Does this honors chapel ritual contribute to students’ regarding their sense of identity and worth as measured by what they do rather than what they value?  Does this occasion contribute in some small way to the increasing obsession with resume-building that seems to be imposed on our students at an ever younger age?  I don’t want to overstate the level of tension, but I do believe strongly that there is benefit in pondering that tension.  It impels me and my colleagues to consider regularly how best to recognize, affirm, challenge, motivate- and yes, honor- our students.  (At this week’s chapel our middle school head did a masterful job of transcending that tension by including every student in his words of encouragement.)

We do not want our students to get ahead of themselves and to start thinking that they need to have everything figured out and are able to reach every measurable benchmark when they are so young.  We lament that our children are being forced to grow up too fast in our contemporary culture, but we sometimes contribute to that acceleration in our school culture. I have reminded parents on more than one occasion that no one ought to peak at the age of 14 (or 18 in the case of high school seniors).  How sad that would be! I owe my deceased mom thanks for that nugget of insight and wisdom.  Quite a few years ago I was appointed principal of my high school alma mater, a Jesuit school in St. Louis, a matter of months after completion of my training.  When my mom heard the news of my appointment, she posed this question to me: “Don’t you think you’re peaking too early?”  That query stung a bit at the time, but in retrospect she was absolutely correct.  I was getting ahead of myself- for a number of reasons I shall not belabor in this reflection.

Even at this stage of my life, I consider myself a work in progress.  How much truer is that reality for the young people in our charge?

Until next time…

My best,

Leo

Losing Propositions

Football is on my mind these days.  It is hard to avoid that topic in this part of the world since the Valley of the Sun will host this year’s Super Bowl and all its ancillary activities.  However, this year football’s “second season” on both the collegiate and professional level has provided insight that transcends football.  As the eagerly anticipated college football playoff unfolded, I discovered that I may not be as immune from the “winning is the only thing” philosophy whose initial articulation has been attributed (apparently incorrectly) to legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.  A similar sentiment was expressed more bluntly by the late Dale Earnhardt: “Second place is just the first loser.”  If true, what does that make the loser of the fill-in-the-blank bowl- or even its winner?  I am not the first to note that the laser-like focus on the college football playoff diminished the interest in and value of all the bowl games not connected to the playoff process.  I readily admit that there are too many bowl games for fans to sustain engagement and frequent changes in corporate sponsorship of games also adds to the confusion and indifference.  Nonetheless certain games with significant and longstanding traditions seemed to have barely penetrated fandom’s awareness this season.  With the exception of a few games in which I had a rooting interest, I remember the results of very few other games except the playoff ones.  So I must confess that I have been captured by the hype.  I am embarrassed as a result because I proclaim healthy and collaborative participation as an ultimately far more important value than the outcome of the games at our school.  Perhaps I have more in common with Vince and Dale than I would like to admit.

As both the college bowl games and NFL playoff games have unfolded, I discovered another unfortunate tendency in myself.  In the games that I watched in which I did not already have a clearly established positive rooting interest, I found myself investing my interest in rooting against one of the teams for one or another reason: perceived ethical lapses, an arrogant or annoying coach, an overbearing fan base, regional biases, etc.  I learned that such negative motivation does not sustain my interest over the long haul.  More importantly the good life lesson reinforced for me is that negativity leads us down an unhappy path in more serious life endeavors.  Rooting against a person or team does not emanate from our better nature.  And, in life’s more serious pursuits and interaction, jealousy and resentment can poison our soul – a losing proposition of utmost significance.

Until next time…

My best,

Leo