On Stress, Patience and MLK…

Laidlaw Hall – the school’s biggest classroom – was the site of much learning on Monday, as the boys heard from three different speakers during morning assembly. Our featured speaker was Dr. Scott Levine, an expert on brain health. He spoke about common forms of stress we experience in our daily lives and provided practical advice on how to manage or at least minimize its impact on our physical and mental well-being.

The boys also listened to a student presentation celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in honour of the U.S. national holiday celebrating his birth. We were all reminded of the tremendous impact that Dr. King had during his short life and how he was committed to serving others through his long-suffering, non-violent approach to dealing with issues of racism and inequality in an effort to affect meaningful change.

The final message delivered to the boys was achieved through a “This I Believe” essay. For context, a number of years ago we started this initiative for our Stewards and other boys in the Leaving Class.

The idea was based on a National Public Radio (NPR) program series by the same name. As the title suggests, interested boys are asked to write essays narrowly focused on one principle or concept, expressed in the form of an affirming belief, that is often described through personal anecdotes or experiences. These boys are then encouraged to share these essays through readings in assembly.

We heard one such speech from one of our stewards during this past Monday’s assembly. The premise of his essay was simple but powerful. In citing a specific situation he experienced as a camp counselor, he expressed that he believed in the power of “patience”; explaining that through exercising this virtue, we can help people through challenges they may be facing, and in so doing, we grow to become better human beings ourselves.

Upon reflection, from a philosophical perspective, the three different messages we heard on Monday could be viewed collectively as an approach to living a fulfilled life: It’s important for us to be aware of destructive factors in our lives and do what we can to best manage them so we can be our best version of ourselves, as Dr. Levine pointed out. And in being our “best selves,” we’ll be able to develop character strengths such as patience and empathy, which will ultimately enable us to offer more to others and make a meaningful difference in the lives of those in need.

I’d encourage you to speak with your son about any or all of the messages he heard on Monday.

Thanks for reading,

Scott

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On the College Admissions Process and Being Human…

I’d like to extend a warm welcome back to all of you. I hope you had a restful and enjoyable winter break.

I’ve had numerous conversations with Senior Division boys this week. Almost all spoke of enjoying some down time throughout the holiday. But many, especially our IB2 boys, talked about devoting some of their time off to their university applications. Others talked about completing service initiatives or doing other work toward building their personal profile with a view to their next level of education. Indeed, UCC boys are focused and work hard.

I read a very interesting article over the holiday from The Atlantic titled “Ending Extracurricular Privilege: One Man’s Mission to Make College Admissions Sane (and Fair) Again.” Given that the article is about the post-secondary application process, it clearly holds much professional relevance for me. But I found much value in it from a parent’s perspective as well. In essence, the piece outlines renowned Harvard University psychologist Richard Weissbourd’s perspective on the current admissions process for most American colleges. Which, in his opinion, is “a rat race, [that] has in recent years become ever more tortuous and with an ever-dwindling piece of cheese at the end.” Weissbourd points to a few major problems he sees with the current system, but argues that one of its fundamental flaws is that it ultimately drives students to be self-serving and doesn’t fully value admirable qualities like thoughtfulness and caring for others.

College and university admission requirements have become increasingly difficult to realize and have forced students to focus all of their attention on their grade performance and what Weissbourd refers to as “laundry lists of achievements and activities.” The change we need to see, he argues, is a deeper appreciation for empathetic students who are engaged in meaningful activities and initiatives that demonstrate their care and compassion for others. The quality of their co-curricular experiences, not the quantity, is the key.

Weissbourd argues that parents have, with good intentions, bought into the culture that the college admissions process has created. Many of our youth are over-programmed and over-stressed, especially those in high school who are trying to differentiate themselves from their peers with a view to college or university acceptance. Weissbourd isn’t critical of parenting, but feels that the current climate has caused some to lose focus on what is truly important.

“It’s not that parents today don’t focus on character,” he says. It’s that when they do, they tend to dwell on “grit,” which, again, emphasizes performance over morality. And he doesn’t just mean kids need to be “nicer.” Plenty of kids are nice, he said, but “they don’t have a strong sense of obligation to the common good or our collective future … If we develop kids’ capacity to empathize, kids will be happier because they’ll have better relationships their whole life, and they’ll be more effective at work, too.”

Through drawing attention to the shortcomings of the current college admissions process, Weissbourd’s efforts are having impact. More than 120 colleges and universities have endorsed Weissbourd’s findings, including schools like Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The latter has apparently revised its application and “reduced the number of slots for extracurriculars to four, down from 10 a few years ago, and advises applicants not to list activities from ninth grade, which should be a “a time for exploration.”

Stuart Schmill, dean of admissions at the prestigious school, said: “We’re trying to allow students to be themselves, to explore their interests more deeply, and not have to contort that or change that to fit the college-admissions process.”

Here’s a link to the article in the event you’re interested in reading it in its entirety.

As loving parents, we all want our children to achieve much success during high school, at university and beyond. In considering some of Wessbourd’s thinking, and not pressuring our kids to conform to a set of self-centered expectations, we’ll help them toward leading fulfilled lives and achieving greater success through caring for others and being more authentic versions of themselves.

Wishing you and your family a happy and prosperous new year.

Thanks for reading,

Scott

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Transactional Transformations…

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

Thanks for reading,

Scott

“I don’t know about you and your family, but for us, December is an extremely busy time of year. In addition to the many social functions to attend, the annual ordeal of purchasing gifts weighs heavy on many. I did manage to pick up a few things at this year’s Festive Marketplace, but I must shamefully admit that I haven’t really done any serious holiday shopping yet, and the longer I leave it, the more crowded malls and stores will become.

I came across a website the other day that provided some stats on spending and purchases for last year’s holiday Season, and predictions are that even more money will be spent by consumers this year in 2016. Here are some interesting figures about last year’s holiday expenditures:

  • UPS estimated that it shipped over 630 million packages during the festive season.
  • The average person spent over US$800 last year on holiday related purchases.
  • Close to 50 per cent of retail sales were done online.
  • This one is mind-boggling: U.S. holiday retail sales surpassed the entire GDP of 181 countries last year.
  • And finally, 176 billion candy canes are made each year. That’s enough for more than five for each resident in the U.S.

Here’s the link to the interesting article.

Those are some big numbers that represent a lot of retail transactions. It’s this idea of “transaction” that I’d like offer a few thoughts on today. Typically, transactions are identified through the exchange of goods and services for funds. We go into a store, hand over some money and walk out with a pair socks, a tie or a book. (You can tell how creative my holiday gifts are.) In many faith traditions, people give gifts to loved ones and the expectation is to get gifts in return. Unlike this self-proclaimed Scrooge, there are some that really get into this idea and one might describe those who do as having a transactional mindset.

Transactional mindsets don’t only appear during the holiday season. They can be seen year round and take many different forms. Indeed, our very societal structure is, in many ways, dependent on transactions. For example, as working adults, we give our expertise and our hard work, and expect to get compensated for all that we give. The relationship between an employee and his or her employer is transactional. Likewise, here at UCC, there is, to a degree, a transactional relationship between the school and its students. As students, you give of your time and your effort, and you expect to get a certain level of education in return, one that will prepare you for success beyond your high school years.

Most transactions that occur in our society, like those between a sales clerk and a customer, between an employee and employer, or between a school and a student, work well for two reasons: First, because both parties involved give something in exchange, and second because they share similar expectations about what each is receiving for what they have given.

As you may expect, transactions break down and fail when expectations between the two involved parties are not the same, or when one party neglects to give as much as he should. Let’s return to our holiday setting and look at a very timely example of this. (My apologies for the quality of the clip. It was the best I could find.)

You don’t need a degree in international relations to see what’s gone wrong in this transaction. In short, the Grinch is taking without giving. And while he thinks that taking away everything that the Whos have prepared for their holiday will satiate his need for revenge and make him feel fulfilled, we know that it doesn’t. Indeed, it’s only through the act of giving – and I would argue that for the Grinch it goes beyond the act of giving back what he has taken – it’s only through the act of giving a piece of himself, that the Grinch achieves peace with those Whos in Whoville, and more importantly achieves peace within himself. Have a look at this next  clip.

In this memorable scene, the Grinch moves beyond the transactional to the transformational, as his compassion grows and his whole mindset shifts from a focus on himself to being other-minded. As most of you likely know, in the scenes that follow this clip, the Grinch realizes he’s had it wrong through all those lonely years he’s spent on the mountain-top by himself, and comes to the realization that to truly live, one must learn to respect others, appreciate their differences and develop meaningful relationships with them.

In addition to the story of Grinch and other traditional TV specials, I must admit that I love the commercials produced during this time of year, as advertisers try to tap into seasonal compassion and sentiments of goodwill through the holiday spirit. One of my favourite commercials I’ve seen this year is based on a simple premise: an exchange of gifts between two men. Here’s today’s final clip, aptly called “A Cup of Tea.”

On one level, this Amazon ad is simply about a transaction, but I think you’ll agree that it transcends the transactional, touching the transformational, as these two friends, men of different faiths, show respect and appreciation for one another, in finding a common bond through their vulnerability and humanity.

Given that this is the last full assembly before the break, I’d like to wish all of you the best throughout the last days of the term. To the Senior Division boys in particular, good luck on your December exams. Whatever you may do throughout the remainder of this year, I’d encourage you to think beyond yourself and look past the notion of “getting” and move toward appreciating others and “giving” of yourself, so that you might enrich the lives of those with whom you come into contact, both here at the school and beyond.

In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, I’ll conclude with a final rhyme:

During this holiday time, either through work or through play,
Let us aspire to be better each day.
And, akin to the Grinch, whose heart grew in size,
May kindness and charity be the sought-after prize.

Thanks for listening.”

 

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Fathers, sons and the myths of manhood…

The school’s biggest classroom, Laidlaw Hall, was the site of some important learning during Monday morning’s assembly. The boys heard messages about “manhood” from three different men.

First up, Principal Sam McKinney reflected on the notion of mentoring and its impact on forming character. According to his personal experience, “to be a good man, you have to know a good man.” Next, the boys heard from David Brown, the head coach of our varsity football team who spoke of his young son, fondly telling the boys how his little boy loves to dance, and the joy that comes with that for him as a father. He went further to share his concerns about the future, and about a time that likely will come when his son will be told by someone else – an adult, or one of his peers – how boys “behave” and how he fears that dancing might not factor into that conversation.

Finally, our guest speaker Jeff Perera, from NextGenMen spoke about traditional notions of masculinity, describing their toxicity and how they eat away at identity, ultimately making men less than whole. Perera projected the image of French sculptor Bruno Catalano’s piece to drive home his point home.  Our boys were asked to challenge their notion of manhood and identity through a series of self-reflection questions:hu

  •  Am I the type of person someone would want to be stuck in an elevator with?
  • Do I present as a “safe space” for others, especially those who are different from me?
  • Do I have the courage to speak up for, and support others in need?

Perera’s talk reminded me of a speaker we had here in assembly a number of years ago. Joe Erhmann is a “big man,” both in the literal and figurative senses. He was an All-Pro defensive line-man for the NFL’s Baltimore Colts during the 1970s and more recently has been a coach of one of the most successful high school football teams in the U.S. Despite his success on the grid-iron, he has gained notoriety in recent years for his work helping youth and adults alike find purpose in their lives through a focus on care and concern for those in need.

On the day he was here, Joe shared his views on what being a real man was all about. He claimed that the vast majority of boys in North America are brought up in a culture where they are expected to conform to certain ideals of manhood that ultimately define who they are and how they should behave. He went on to describe what he perceived as the three most common myths of masculinity:

1. Masculinity is defined by one’s athletic ability
2. Masculinity is defined by the type of women with whom one is involved.
3. Masculinity is defined by the amount of financial or professional success one achieves.

One of the major problems with these myths, according to Joe, is that our cultural perceptions of manliness are based on beliefs that are self-serving. A true man, in Ehrmann’s eyes, is defined by the type of positive, meaningful relationships he develops and maintains as a son, friend, partner, spouse and father.

I’d encourage you to have a conversation with your son about definitions of masculinity and what it means to be a real man.

Thanks for reading,
Scott

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Celebrating with humility…

One of tensions we wrestle with here at the College is balancing celebration with humility. Indeed, for fear of being construed as boastful, we often don’t “toot our trumpets” as much as we should.  As part of our partnership with the UCC Parents Organization (PO), each month I present a snapshot of student-related events and happenings in the Senior Division. I spoke with the PO this past Tuesday and in the spirit of celebrating our boys, I’d like to share some of that information with you.

A prefatory comment: In relating information like this, please be aware that I’m unable to capture all of the achievements of the College and of the boys. Please assume good will as I share some of the many highlights from this past term:

Co-curricular Successes:

  • A highly successful Fall Music Night showcasing the remarkable talents of our musicians
  • Varsity football, varsity soccer and varsity volleyball all made it to their championships; football and soccer are CISAA champs and the volleyball team is currently competing in the OFSAA provincial tournament
  • Model UN in Montreal: our team won “best delegation” (fourth year in a row) at the Secondary Schools MUN Symposium
  • Great results at the McGill High School British Parliamentary Debate Tournament; one of our senior teams made it to the semi-finals and one of our IB2 boys placed second overall (out of 200 students)
  • Two of our senior debaters have qualified to represent Canada at the Oxford Cup Debating Tournament in Oxford, England
  • The Fall Play, True West opens tonight; get your tickets asap

Community Events:

  • We had a film shoot on campus involving two Old Boys: film producer Sanzhar Sultan ’07 and film director Nick Wernham ’02. Some of our film and theatre students had the opportunity to get an insider’s view of life on set.
  • Our Foundation Year Careers Morning saw numerous Old Boys presenting to our boys about working across a variety of professional fields
  • Many of our Senior Division boys were involved in our Special Olympics Basketball Event. I must admit that this is one of my favourite events of the year – very good for the soul.

Again, the bullets above represent some, but not all, of the achievements of the boys and the opportunities available to them through our co-curricular programming. Surely this is all good news, but the better news is that this only represents the first term. There will be plenty more opportunities for your boys to get involved and to contribute to our community and to those beyond our walls.

On a final note, while celebrating success is important, we need to be mindful that it’s not always whether we win that’s most important. As the old adage says, “It’s how we play the game” that’s most important. Here’s a humorous, but moving 90 second ad that speaks to the impact we can have when we shift our focus from ourselves and our own accomplishments, and look at doing what we do through the lens of making a difference in the lives of others.

Thanks for reading,
Scott

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When the lights go down…

John Wooden is known as one of the most successful coaches that the world of athletics has ever known. He never had a losing season in his time with the UCLA Bruins basketball team, which set an incredible record of 88 consecutive games without a loss. He also captured 10 national championships during his career. Wooden was 99 years old when he passed away in 2010. He’s certainly a legend in the world of sport, but Wooden is also known as a man who had a transformational impact on others, and his countless quotes about character hold truth that will last forever.

Here are a few with which you may be familiar:

“Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

“The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

The last quote above was one that resonated with me in particular this past week. As part of our Halloween celebrations on Monday, the lights in our Upper Dining Hall were darkened as we were treated to some spooky, yet delicious, treats served by our Aramark staff. As I walked into the dining area near the end of the lunch hour, I was informed that an unusually high number of boys had eaten and neglected to clean up after themselves.

Unfortunately, we frequently see a small number of abandoned, messy tables during the lunch hour. But we rarely see this in the Upper Dining Hall, likely because so many faculty and students are eating in that space. When pondering why this was an issue in this particular space on this particular day, I had to conclude that more boys had left without cleaning up after themselves thinking that they wouldn’t be seen because of the dimly lit hall.

Thankfully the scenario I’ve described is not the norm, but I was troubled by Monday’s unusual mess and immediately thought of Wooden’s quote about the test of character. Was it because fewer people would have noticed that some boys felt that they could leave their tables without clearing their plates, and others at those tables didn’t remind their peers about the need to clean up?

I’d encourage you to speak to your son about cleaning up, about having the courage to speak up to his friends when they could be doing better, and about striving to do the right thing all the time, even when no one is looking.

Thanks for reading,

Scott

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Ringing the dinner bell…

I’ve very fond memories of my undergrad years, but if I were to be honest, very few of them revolve around academics. That being said, I do remember one lecture in particular from a first year Classics course taught by Dr. Margaret Visser. That name might ring familiar for some of you, as Dr. Visser at one time could be heard regularly on CBC’s Morningside in discussions with host Peter Gzowski. The specific lecture to which I refer was one that was based on one of Visser’s favourite topics and the subject of at least two of her books: dinnertime.  I can envision her passion and insight as she walked us through some of the classic “dinners” depicted throughout Western literature, and explained all that was really going on in them, beyond the consumption of food. The massacre at the “suitors banquet” in The Odyssey and the betrayal by Judas at The Last Supper in the Bible are two of the darker examples I recall from that memorable lecture.

Visser’s point about dinner is simple: it’s about more than eating food; it’s a time where we can connect, communicate and share a type of communion with one another. British writer, broadcaster and Order of the British Empire recipient, Simon Fanshawe, maintains a similar view:

“The reason to eat together is beyond food… Meals together are profound in their own way because eating together, sharing food, is the most basic social bonding mechanism that humans practise… food is easily divided and often shared between humans and eaten together to create harmony… Eating together becomes a way of increasing our knowledge of each other, [and sharing] our warmth to each other.”

The Done Thing (Arrow, 2005)

I read a very moving article from the New York Times this week that speaks to the transformative experience that can take place at dinner. In his article “The Power of the Dinner Table,” David Brooks writes about Kathy Fletcher and David Simpson, a couple in Washington, D.C. who are having a significant impact on the lives of troubled youth in their neighbourhood. Fletcher and Simpson haven’t built a community centre, nor have they established comprehensive outreach programs. They simply open up their home and invite others over for dinner. Here’s the link  to Brooks’ inspiring article.

If the pace of your family life is anything like ours is at my home, finding time for family meals is a real challenge. In our household, between juggling work schedules, the kids’ homework and driving to and from dance lessons and swimming, eating dinner, let alone sitting down as a family to share more than mashed potatoes, is a real challenge.

Visser, Fanshawe and Brooks all remind us of “the power of the dinner table” and how significant and transformative this simple daily ritual can be. Meaningful family dinners seven days a week are likely a pipe-dream for many of us, but committing to making the most of the times we do manage to meet around the table as a family is a good step in the right direction.

Bon appetit!

Thanks for reading,
Scott

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