Apple, Samsung, Poetry and Pluralism…

I spoke to the boys in assembly last week. The text of my address appears below.

Thanks for reading,


“Upon reflecting further on the Special Olympics event we held here last week, and all that I learned from those very special athletes, I was reminded of one of my favourite poems. It was written some time ago by Canadian poet Alden Nowlan. I need to provide a note of caution here. The poem, including its title, contains some insensitive language that reflects the time in which it was written – language that we thankfully do not, or at least should not, use today. Its called He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded. It is a fairly lengthy poem, so I won’t read it in its entirely, but I will share a few relevant lines with you.

The narrative in the piece tells the story of a journalist, presumably Alden Nowlan himself, who goes to report on a concert with local musicians that is being held at a school for people with intellectual disabilities. Throughout the first part of the poem, the reporter focuses on how different the students are, and how those differences make him feel extremely uncomfortable. His observations are mixed with a subtle tone of condescension, speaking of their child-like mannerisms and juvenile behaviour. However, about half-way through the poem, the narrator finds himself in a very awkward situation when a young woman with an intellectual disability sits beside him and as a simple gesture of friendship, asks him for a hug. It is here that the poem takes a turn and the journalist has a revelation, realizing that despite the notable differences between him and others there, as humans we are all connected through our desire for companionship. Describing this revelation, he writes:

I look around me
for a teacher to whom to smile out my distress.
They’re all busy elsewhere, “Hold me,” she whispers. “Hold me.”

I put my arm around her.
“Hold me,” she says again.
It’s what we all want, in the end,
to be held, merely to be held…

not to be worshipped, not to be admired,
not to be famous, not to be feared,
not even to be loved, but simply to be held.

Through this simple, innocent scene, the narrator drives home a significant profound truth for humanity: we’re all different in some way, but fundamentally, all we want in life is simply to “belong”.

The contrasting ideas of difference and unity also shine through in another one of my favourite poems: Human Family by Maya Angelou. I’ll ask the AV guys to show today’s first clip, one that you may have seen before, in which Angelou’s poem is featured:

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t have English until period 4 today, so why am I sitting through a poetry lesson here in Laidlaw Hall?” Well, I think these two poems by Nowlan and Angelou relate very well to our experience here at UCC. You see, to some degree, we are a diverse school. I would say that we have room to continue to grow with respect to the actual number of students we have here from diverse cultures, but when we look at both our day and boarding populations, we have 44 different countries represented at this school and I think we are a fairly united community.

I’m not saying we’re perfect in this regard. In a school as large as ours is, there are bound to be times when misunderstandings might occur and unintended, insensitive comments or actions might cause offense or hurt. In those times, as a caring community, we need to work hard to understand one another, assume good will, and be willing to forgive. This is how diverse communities thrive and flourish.

But you guys have figured this out. You know that there are many differences among our student body: students from different cultures; students with different perspectives; students with different strengths; and students who make different contributions in different ways to our collective community. You’ve realized that those differences are worth celebrating, and ultimately are what make you a stronger, more unified student body. You use the term brotherhood as a way to describe the bond that unites all of you, and that should be a source of great comfort and much pride – knowing that every one of you belongs to that brotherhood.

We watched an iPhone ad earlier that spoke to the idea of celebrating diversity through our common humanity. In continuing on this theme, and in the spirit of fair play, I’d like to show a second cell phone ad – this one from Apple’s rival, Samsung. It too speaks to the value of pluralism. AV guys, if you will, please show the clip .

For most of us, the upcoming holiday presents an opportunity to spend time with friends and family, and in so doing, fulfills that fundamental need we all have – the need to “belong.” Indeed, “we are more alike my friends than we are unalike.”

I wish all the Senior Division boys the best on their exams, and to all of you, whatever your faith or cultural tradition, I hope you have a restful, enjoyable holiday.

Thanks for listening…”


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Lessons from some Special guests…

One of the added benefits of my job is that I have the opportunity to attend some great student events. Unlike others, who pay big bucks to watch the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays, or scramble to get tickets to shows like The Phantom of the Opera, I get to see exciting competitive sports games, top-notch live theatre and amazing musical performances here at school.

This past week I had the pleasure of experiencing one of my favourite events of the year, as we hosted the annual Special Olympics basketball tournament. People often ask me what it is about this particular event that I enjoy so much. Without sounding too hokey, I must simply say that I find it very “good for the soul.” There’s a certain form of purity that the participating athletes bring to this exceptional competition, something that we don’t often see in other sporting events.

This purity shines through in many ways:

  • A keen passion for sport. Don’t be mistaken, this is a very competitive environment. But more than winning, the joy of playing is what stands out.
  • A deep respect for all participants. Boys and girls of varying ages and abilities play with and against each other. Their all-inclusive approach to the games shows how much they value each individual’s unique contribution.
  • A genuine appreciation of sportsmanship. On more than one occasion, glasses were knocked off in the heat of play, and I watched opposing players stop the game, pick them up off the floor and hand them to an opponent. There was also a notable absence of jeering, as players positively cheered on their own teammates and those on opposing teams.

Observing all of this from the participants was moving and inspiring, but I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention the contribution of our boys who served at the event in numerous ways, including helping with organizational details, directing participants to where they should be at specific times, refereeing the games, and just generally being a positive force for all of our guests. Kudos too to Deirdre Timusk, our director of CAS and community service, for her part in making it all happen.

Initiatives like the Special Olympics basketball competition present meaningful opportunities for our boys to help others in need. Yet, there’s reciprocal benefit in service activities like this, and we shouldn’t overlook the valuable learning that takes place for students participating in such events. There’s a part of me that wishes all of our boys were watching along with me in the mezzanine last Tuesday. Like me, they would have observed sportsmanship, passion and respect for others in action. But more importantly, they might have experienced that same sense of peacefulness that I did that day – one that comes from sharing simple, joyful moments with others. For a brief instant, we’re distracted from all of life’s daily pressures and catch a striking glimpse of pure humanity.

“There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.”
– Robert M. Hensel, poet and activist for disabled persons

Thanks for reading,

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On Perspective, Reverence and Remembrance…

Perspective is a characteristic that is elusive for many adults at times, and is a concept that is often particularly difficult for young people to understand. During both of our assemblies this week, the boys heard from speakers, and were presented with content, that may have helped them grasp at least some of the meaning of perspective.

On Monday, 89-year-old holocaust survivor Nate Leipciger, shared his story of how he spent his teenage years – being uprooted from his home, separated from family members, and surviving various concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. Leipciger explained that life expectancy upon entering concentration camps at the time was about four months. The boys were captivated by his heart-wrenching account as he spoke about losing his mother, sister and other relatives during that time, and also about narrowly escaping his own death on at least two occasions. It was truly inspiring to see such a positive mindset from a man who had experienced so much hardship.

“Life is a series of moments, good and bad,” he said, “and what we remember are just fractions of those moments. We need to cherish the good moments and overcome the bad ones.” As well, today, during our annual Remembrance Day Assembly, the boys were given the opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices made by so many soldiers of the past during the two World Wars and other military conflicts. Students honored Old Boys who had served their country in a very respectful way through their singing, musical performances and a theatrical presentation. As always, the boys were in top form – like Monday’s assembly, you could hear a pin drop throughout the entirety of our Remembrance Day Ceremony. It was a truly moving experience and the reverence demonstrated by the boys, both those participating in the order of service and those in the audience, was admirable, and greatly appreciated by the many veterans who were in attendance.

The two assemblies we had this week were further examples of why I often refer to Laidlaw Hall as the school’s biggest classroom. Indeed, profound learning takes place there. Not the type of learning that is assessed on tests or exams, but learning that will go a long way to help your son better navigate his moral compass and develop strengths of character.

Through hearing Nate Leipciger’s story and remembering lives lost during military conflict, I suspect that your son has a better understanding of hardship, sacrifice, courage and hope. He may also have a better appreciation for the value of perspective.

Wishing you and your family a relaxing and enjoyable long weekend.

Thanks for reading,

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On CRISPR, Cohn and living a fulfilled life…

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education has appropriately emerged as an area of focus in recent years as a key priority in almost all educational settings.

During last Monday’s assembly, the spotlight shone on STEM here at UCC, as the boys heard from Dr. Ronald Cohn, chief of paediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children and chair of paediatrics at the University of Toronto. Cohn’s fascinating address was a blend of his life story, mixed with remarkable updates in the field of CRISPR treatment, and prudent advice on how to lead a fulfilled life.

Like many of the boys, I had heard the term CRISPR before, but did not have a full appreciation of the life-changing impact that this specialized type of genome-editing technology can have on those suffering from conditions caused from DNA errors, specifically patients with Duchene muscular dystrophy. For me, a self-professed recovering English teacher, the scientific details proved too much to fully grasp, but watching a video of a laboratory mouse that was unable to move its hind legs, and seeing that same mouse fully mobile after receiving CRSIPR treatment was astounding. As well, hearing Cohn speak of the considerable impact this same technology could have on the quality of life of someone suffering from the debilitating disease was simply awe-inspiring. Here is a link to a Toronto Star article featuring Cohn’s work in the CRISPR realm.

Cohn’s work in this field, and all that he shared with the boys clearly demonstrated his intelligence and intellectual ability. However, what was equally impressive for me about his talk, were his encouraging comments about the characteristics he felt would lead to living a successful, fulfilled life.

First, he spoke about setting goals and pursuing your passions. Reminiscing about his high school experience, Cohn mentioned that his chemistry teacher advised him against pursuing the sciences at the post-secondary level. “I’d love to speak with him now,” mused Cohn.

Second, our guest reinforced the need for hard work, and the need to be resilient in times of failure. He commented on the numerous setbacks that occur during scientific experiments, and the countless sleepless nights he’s had throughout the years, in preparing for conversations with patients when things haven’t gone as planned. Ultimately, failed experiments provide important data for future successes.

Finally, Cohn talked about the immense joy he receives through his work in the service for others. He lit up when he spoke of the kids in his care, and challenged the boys to deeply consider how their work, whatever it may be, might positively impact those in need.

While Cohn’s message had a specific scientific focus, there were definitely elements of his talk that apply to all of us – scientists and non-scientists alike. I would encourage you to speak with your son about Monday’s assembly, and about setting goals, being resilient and caring for others.

Thanks for reading,

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Burgers, Bullies and Brotherhood…

We place significant emphasis on co-curricular programming here at the College, and it’s exciting to see so many students fully engaged in the breadth of our fall offerings.

Indeed, as we look toward November next week, it’s a very busy time in this regard as we see cast and crew members rehearsing for theatre productions, musicians gearing up for fall music night, and athletes preparing for playoffs and championships.

The early mornings, late afternoons and long lunch hours associated with our co-curricular activities can create some challenges in trying to maintain an appropriate balance with academic commitments. But the numerous benefits of being a member of a club, cast, crew, ensemble, group or team enrich the UCC experience for those involved and create life-long memories. The Old Boys who I’ve spoken with over the past 18 years consistently point to their co-curricular involvement as the source for lasting bonds of friendship that continue well into their adult lives. Our current boys seem to recognize this as well and, in recent years, the term brotherhood has emerged as a foundational feature of being a member of the UCC student body.

This notion of brotherhood has been on my mind as of late. When I looked up the term in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, I was surprised to see that there was a section titled “Definition of Brotherhood for Students.” There are three definitions that appear under that heading:

  1. the state of being a brother
  2. a group of people who are engaged in the same business or have a similar interest
  3. feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people

While I feel there’s some merit to all three definitions, I really like that third one. What a wonderful community we’d be if every boy felt understood and supported and experienced meaningful friendship. It’s certainly an admirable goal for us to work toward.

One final reflection on brotherhood: courage is key, and I think what prevents boys from feeling that complete sense of brotherhood here sometimes is a lack of courage.

Here’s a link to Burger King’s most recent commercial. Before you think I’ve lost my marbles and question the connection between fast food and courage, you should know that this very interesting, very powerful, three-minute public service announcement is receiving a lot of media buzz as of late for its positive message about standing up for others.

I encourage you to watch the video with your son. I suspect it will serve up some “food for thought” and perhaps ignite further meaningful conversation about courage and true brotherhood.

Thanks for reading,

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On Caring Communities…

During Monday’s Barton Lecture assembly, three different speakers touched on the topic of other-mindedness.

Our featured speaker, Danielle Zanotti, president and chief executive officer of the United Way for Toronto and York Region, had the boys chuckling as he broke into song, crooning “These are the people in your neighbourhood … ,” the smash hit from Sesame Street. He then went on to challenge the boys to make an effort to get to know the people in their community, both at UCC and beyond the school walls.

He shared some very interesting statistics supporting the benefits of caring, connected communities over those that aren’t: higher gross domestic product rates, lower crime rates and better educational results. He pointed out that although Toronto is continually cited as one of the best cities to live in worldwide, we need to be aware that some in our community are still facing significant struggles, with 133,000 kids living in poverty and 80,000 young people who don’t graduate from high school or move on to post-secondary schooling. Zanotti’s message resonated with the boys, and served as a powerful reminder about the importance of connection and compassion.

Next up, the boys heard from Rachel Metalin, who reinforced Zanotti’s message by speaking about the chaos and calamity that can occur in communities that are void of kindness and concern. Referencing the violence that took place this past summer in Charlottesville, Va., the boys saw video footage of people who chose to divide, rather than unite, the people in their communities. Metalin reminded the boys that this type of hate can lead to dreadful consequences, as history has shown, and in this particular instance it ultimately led to the death of civil rights activist Heather Heyer. Through reflecting on the violence in Charlottesville, the boys were challenged to consider the importance of community, understanding, acceptance and courage.

Lastly, to celebrate other-mindedness, Jeff Needham, the executive director of the Ontario Duke of Edinburgh Organization, presented a group of dedicated UCC students with awards at the bronze, silver and gold levels. Kudos to all the boys who were officially recognized on Monday morning for their extensive commitment to serving others in need.

We may not have deep relationships with every one of our neighbours, but it’s comforting to know that we all belong to the UCC community. And while we’re by no means perfect, I do hope that you feel a sense of connection here, and that you find that the College is filled with people who care about your son.

During this Thanksgiving weekend, I hope you manage to make time for reflection, gratitude and connection with your son, family and friends.

Thanks for reading,

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On serving your school, country and others…

I want to take this opportunity to extend a personal invitation to all of you, especially our new parents, to attend our upcoming Association Day festivities this Saturday. Essentially our version of homecoming, A-Day showcases a variety of events in which our boys are involved. It’s a great celebration of community, as we see Old Boys, parents, faculty and staff uniting to support the efforts of current students representing the College in athletics and other areas of our co-curricular programming.

One of the features of A-Day with which I’m most impressed is the amount of volunteering required to run this huge event. The number of students and past and present parents who willingly give up their time to help out during this annual celebration is inspiring. Many thanks to all of you who will be involved in some capacity on Saturday; your devotion and dedication to the College is admirable and provides a great example of service to all members of our community.

The idea of service was spotlighted in assembly this past week, as Makmot Edward Otto, a member of Uganda’s parliament, visited the College and shared his interesting life story with the boys. Otto grew up in a Ugandan district that was ravaged by civil war. Faced with a future that would likely see him having to serve as a child soldier, a young Otto left his hometown and started on a path of education that would take him to Canada, where he ultimately earned a doctoral degree from the University of Toronto.

After founding his own law firms, Otto felt a calling back to Uganda to work toward improving life in his town of birth. He now serves the district as an elected official. He spoke with great pride about the opportunity he now has to give back to his homeland and drive necessary change for needed improvement there.

Service is one of the values upon which the College was founded 188 years ago, and it remains a core part of the UCC experience today. Our international service trip offerings this year include destinations like Uganda and Costa Rica. As well, we also provide local opportunities for boys to serve through our Horizons tutoring program and other school-organized initiatives.

Given all the ways we help boys to learn the value of service, we need to make sure we don’t limit our understanding of it by confining it to something meant only for those outside of our community and that’s only done in an organized and systematic way.

On its most basic level, I think service is simply about being compassionate and other-minded. Thus, your sons are presented with unstructured and unscheduled opportunities to serve every day, like inviting a seemingly isolated student to join him and his friends at their table for lunch, or standing up for someone who’s being ridiculed in the locker room. As parents, I think it’s important for us to remind our kids that it’s often the smallest acts of kindness that make the biggest difference.

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.” – Mother Teresa

Thanks for reading,

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