Each year John Bapst begins the school semester with a Convocation. The entire school gathers as one body to be welcomed and hear wisdom by a member of the school staff.
This year Mr. John Emerson, Chair of the Department of English and a member of the John Bapst faculty for 27 years, was introduced by Head of School Mr. Mel MacKay to give the annual address. Below is the speech he delivered in strong and passionate voice this morning. Students responded to his words with a standing ovation.
An Ethic of the Spirit—Convocation Speech, September 2013
Good Morning John Bapst Memorial High School.
Thank you Mr. Mackay for honoring me with this opportunity—on this beautiful morning, this advent of the 2013-2014 school year—to give the opening semester’s Convocation Speech.
I am going to attempt to rise into high mindedness in the course of this speech, but I have some things of a very common nature to say first in support of Bapst’s overall ease of operation and quality of life: Girls could you please not make dress code such a hassle for us all. And faculty, really, wet wite-out on the scanner of the copy machine? Finally, boys—boys, boys, boys—for the rest of the school year please lift the toilet seat before you pee; please flush the toilet when you finish; and please hit the trash barrel with your paper towels.
There’s actually a theme here, and for many years you could find it in the Student-Parent Handbook: “We expect . . . that every individual who comes to John Bapst Memorial High School will study, work, and participate with consideration for every other individual . . . .”
Small survey: Raise your hand if you did not want to get out of bed when you had to get out of bed this morning.
I understand: If someone were to ask me at 6:00 or 7:00 a. m. on a Tuesday morning when I was your age what my favorite place is, I would have answered “Bed.” I did not want to leave my bed in the morning, but I did not know then that simply getting out of bed and showing up solved most of life’s problems.
Here’s a story: Stonington, Maine–who’s been there? Stonington is as far as you can drive downeast; if you want to travel farther, you have to get on a boat. Land’s End is nowhere more beautiful, and though the place endures a lot of summer people, it is so remote it just does not get too many tourists. Stonington itself is a collection of several small working harbors, and its primary residents are fishermen, dock workers, and craftsmen, and for them getting out of bed early is the difference between poverty and prosperity.
At the main peer of the central harbor near the fisherman’s coop is a small business called the Harbor View Market; it opens at 3:30 a.m.–3:30 a. m.–because that is what the lives of fishermen require. For me, now an early riser by long habit, it is a sweet convenience. A month ago, I woke up in the waterfront bed and breakfast at my usual 4:00 a. m., lamented a moment that its coffee time was a lazy 7:30, but then quietly dressed–my wife sleeps until 6:00–slipped into my sneakers and gratefully walked to the Harbor View. I followed a very broad shouldered man in, got my coffee, he got his; he also stopped at the hot food kiosk and grabbed four breakfast sandwiches. Coming out the door behind me, he was greeted by a couple men on their way in. The closest one said, “Hey Jimmy, how’s it going?” and Jimmy answered without missing a hurried step to his pickup truck, laden with lobster traps: “Same thing, different day.”
I laughed. In the Maine speak that I have learned to love, a downeast fisherman bluntly and humorously captured one shade of a universal truth. Certainly at some moment this year, all of us will be able to say not untruthfully, “Same thing, different day.” But our lives are not the life of a downeast lobsterman, and we will not, for as long as we are at Bapst, ever be able to say, categorically, “Same thing, different day.”
I am in my twenty-seventh year at Bapst, and every year has been different. True, I will teach five classes, all of which I have taught before, in the same room where I started teaching in 1987, and, as always, that room will be filled by students, some of whom, my class lists tell me, have been with me before. But these, like many other day to day events, are mere material constants; they are not part of the real game that I will play this year—which is a concept that I think most of you also understand.
When the sun rose this morning, it rose not only on a new day for Bapst but on a new day for all of us individually, on a new day on which we can all begin to remake our lives. Of the 478 Bapst students in this room, 161 are new to the school. Of the 441 who were here last year, 119 very big, even overshadowing personalities are gone. And all of you have different classes. The building and the address are the same, but Bapst is different because you are different, and most of you want to be different; some of you even have dreams of glory. You want to be better—better athletes, more involved citizens, better artists, better musicians, better actors, better writers, better students, better friends, better people—which means you believe in the possibility of personal change. I do too—sometimes almost desperately. For us today and tomorrow and for every tomorrow to come life can be not only a “different thing and a new day” but a better thing and a better day because we ourselves know that with a little more work we can be better in every way that we live.
How many of you have resolved to have that better year? (Apparently, church attendance is down; the correct answer is Amen or Hallelujah. How many of you have resolved to have that better year? )
I want to be a better teacher this year, and I have colleagues who I know also want to be better teachers—who want to reach with you greater depths of knowledge, who want to challenge you more meaningfully and originally, who want to be fairer and more disciplined evaluators, who want higher AP Exam scores. Some of us are resolved to do the best work we have ever done.
This vision of life—that we can be better than we are—is not, of course, original, but everybody’s particular commitment can be authentic.
Our core values are integrity, achievement, and respect; everybody agrees that these are important values, and few will argue against the other values named in the student handbook: courtesy, kindness, helpfulness, mutual support, and friendliness; tolerance, acceptance, understanding, and fairness; honesty, dependability, responsibility, and maturity–whoa. All together, they compose a sturdy ethic—proper, sober, dignified, and rational.
But we are not these values because we have named them in a handbook, and though we will see them in practice every day, we will also see soon enough in this all too human community their regular (and, usually, unnecessary) violation.
Stay with me now; I am not casting Bapst in a negative light. What the heck? You’re just a bunch of kids. And we adults know that experience mostly allows us, merely, to recognize mistakes as familiar.
A minute ago I used the word “work,” and I also asked, who is resolved to have that better year. I need you for a few moments to hang on to those words “work” and “resolve.”
I am in my twenty-seventh year at Bapst, but not until Mel Mackay, your Head of School, the man who just introduced me, did a Bapst administrator have the vision and courage to use the word “excellence” in his sense of what Bapst is about. (He also is the first administrator to use the word “virtue,” a beautiful word. (From a classical ethics perspective, the terms excellence and virtue are virtually synonymous.) When he did, a decades long fight for the soul of the school was won: at the same time, he invited into our lives an ethic of a different order, an ethic of the spirit. It has a small presence on pages 11 and 12 of the Student-Parent Handbook, but it needs to live larger in our community, and it is up to us to fully form it in the consciousness of our school, although implicitly the more thoughtful among you already live by it every day.
At best, all of us all our lives are apprentices to excellence. As determinedly as we pursue it, it naturally moves to a more distant horizon—of course it does, for the human spirit is infinite—yet if we genuinely aspire to reach our potential, we accept the reality and begin to strive toward that more distant horizon.
Now, I need you to hang on to five more words. Add to “resolve” and “work,” the words “vision,” “courage,” “determination,” “aspiration,” and “striving.”
These words, and others like them—”curiosity,” “engagement,” “creativity,” “service,” and “enthusiasm,” for example—name the values that compose this ethic of the spirit. These values, if I may borrow terms from physics and math are kinetic; they are vectors. They are the values upon which you will have to ride to reach excellence, to reach the staid values of Bapst’s motto and every other value named in the handbook; they are values that will deepen and strengthen your character by building in you resilience, endurance, even grace; and they are the values by which you will succeed. Here is the great truth of Bapst: It is a place where character succeeds. Achievement requires aspiration. Integrity requires courage. Respect, in its deepest sense, requires work, service, merit; you earn it.
A high SAT score is good, but alone it does not succeed; talent is good, but alone it does not succeed. You have to dignify your gifts. Vision, curiosity, engagement, aspiration, enthusiasm, striving, resolve, determination, service, and work succeed. Character succeeds. Bapst is, has been, and always should be a place where character succeeds, for life, all of life, is an enterprise in which character succeeds.
You chose to attend John Bapst Memorial High School. Reflect on that for a moment. That choice is you exercising your freedom, and the question now is whether you are going to man up, or woman up, to the choice? You are free to be excellent in a place that makes excellence possible. Man up, woman up to the choice. You owe yourselves the best of yourselves. Live this ethic of the spirit. It is the way that you will make yourselves better and make yourselves new; it is the way you will make Bapst better and make Bapst new.
We, too, your administrators, your teachers, the school staff at all levels are also free to be excellent; arguably, because we are adults we are obligated to be excellent.
I am on a committee this year charged with the task to improve teaching. We have had some pretty heady discussions so far, and we shall make progress. You have a role to play.
Bapst offers a product in the free market, and you and your parents are purchasers and consumers of that product, and therefore you have the the right to judge the quality of the goods. But our society understands that rights are attended by responsibilities; this concept is the full equation of integrity.
You will have a day on which you formally evaluate your teachers and classes. It is an awesome right and therefore an awesome responsibility, one that, if you take it seriously, can shape your education while you experience it and one that can directly improve the school.
We owe you the best of ourselves, and you owe us an honest report on whether you are getting it. Judge us by our preparation, by our expectations, by whether we engage and challenge you, by our fairness, by our discipline and consistency, by our love of the subject, by our enthusiasm, by whether you do meaningful work everyday, and by whether you have in hand at the end of the year a harvest of work that shows that you have learned, that meets the terms of the course.
Make Bapst better. Make it new.
Finally, let us also make it our common mission to fight negativity. It is a virus, insidious and paralyzing, paralyzing especially to our drive toward excellence, and it is human created. I will fight it wherever it shows up because it is the enemy of the ethic of the spirit and because it is my job to believe in you. If I did not believe in you, I could not teach. You may experience the strife of failure, whether of performance or of character, you may fail in ways that will haunt your conscience for years, but so long as you are honest with yourself, so long as you take or, better, assert your responsibility, so long as you want to be better, you will be able to hold on to your self-respect, which is far more important than your self-esteem. But in any event, I will not stop believing in you, and keep in mind that the game works best if you also believe in yourselves.
We are awake; we are out of bed; the game is afoot. Play hard, play unrelentingly, choose excellence.
(It was at this point the students rose in a standing ovation and filled the room with applause. When the sound concluded, Mr. Emerson continued.)
Can you listen to me for another moment? I have an epilogue of sorts, and I have been fighting with myself for this whole speech about whether I should say it, partially because it has an emotional dimension which I may not be able entirely to control. In a few moments I will go to a class that includes six students who were in a sophomore class with me two years ago. Also in that class was Owen Krause.
Last year, we, but especially you who are seniors, lost him–swiftly, brutally. And in losing him, you also learned how deeply you loved him. I did too.
Those of you who came to Owen’s memorial service heard Owen’s father give a eulogy for his son. No one would have asked him to do this in the midst of his overwhelming grief. No one would have expected him to. He asked this of himself, and I have not seen a finer moment of courage. It transcended even excellence. The deep love he showed for his son, the enthusiasm with which he celebrated his son, the joy he could not help but feel in celebrating this beautiful boy—despite the almost paralyzing grief he felt—is among the most poignant experiences of my life.
Let’s honor Owen this year by emulating his father’s courage, his father’s excellence, by asking something extraordinary from ourselves, by living this ethic of the spirit.