Underdogs, Upsets and Wellbeing…

My assembly address to the Upper School boys this past Monday:

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you are likely aware of the NCAA Basketball Championship Final that has been in progress for the past few weeks and is reaching its climax, as the final four teams have now been determined. I happen to love this tournament, as viewers have a chance to watch some remarkable athletes in action, ones who don’t play for money, but for pride in their school and passion for a sport they love. And, if I can brag a little, I’m proud to say that my bracket is still alive – I picked Michigan to win the title this year. However, I must admit that I am conflicted. You see Michigan plays Loyola Chicago in their next game, and like millions of viewers across North America, I have become a big fan of the Loyola Ramblers. They entered the tournament as an 11th seed and very few people gave them a chance of advancing past the first round. Since that time, they have, against all odds, squeaked past their competition and won the favour of fans everywhere to earn the role of this year’s tournament darlings. Interestingly enough, the team’s most well known personality hasn’t hit a jump shot or lay-up all tournament. In fact, this person hasn’t even played in a single game.

You’ve likely heard of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, Loyola’s team Chaplain. At 98 years old, sitting in her wheelchair, Sister Jean has become synonymous with the team’s winning streak and some of the most endearing pictures and clips from the tournament are those that show the respect and admiration that the Rambler players have for their oldest, dearest fan. Here’s a quick clip (https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/977708312174186498) that illustrates the meaningful connection between these young student athletes and Sister Jean. By the way, I understand that the Sister Jean bobble-head will soon be released. You know you’ve made it when you get your very own bobble-head.

The image of the Rambler players hugging Sister Jean, and their unbelievable run as the tournament underdogs this year reminds me of another famous final four moment – one that happened 35 years ago. Here is the scene: the NC State Wolfpack went a mediocre 26 and 10 in 1983, but they did end up winning the ACC Tournament which gave them a birth in the National Final Four playoff, where they were ranked 6th in the West Division. Their opponent in the championship that year was the tournament favourite Houston Cougars who, by contrast, had a league record of 31 and 3, were riding a 26 game winning streak and were ranked #1 in their division. As evidence of their strength, there were three players from that team who were eventually drafted in the NBA’s 1st round, including hall of famers Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon, who incidentally spent his final year in the NBA with our own Toronto Raptors.

But I digress, back to the game that some call the greatest championship upset of all time. Not surprisingly, the Cougars were heavy favourites going into that final game. They were nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma because of the dunking power they possessed, annihilating almost all of their opponents throughout the regular season. Nobody gave NC State a chance…I’ll ask the AV guys to play a short clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICZ8HO8c9bw up to 1:15) showing the final closing seconds of that game, one of the greatest upsets in sporting history. You gotta love sports – anything can happen!

We’re going to watch the clip again, but this time in two parts. First I want you to watch up to the 14 second mark. Pay attention to coach Valvano’s reaction here. AV guys, the first 14 seconds please… You see Coach V running around there, looking for someone to celebrate with…It’s sort of funny – here he is, in the biggest game of his coaching career, and he can’t find anyone to hug. In addition to being a great coach, Jimmy Valvano, who sadly passed away after a courageous battle with cancer 10 years after this game, was also a great public speaker and in referencing this particular moment, here’s what he said:

“The kid, Derek Whittenburg, who took the winning shot [that missed] is a kid who broke his ankle, after the 7th game of the season. Doctors said he’d never play again, but he made it back. Miraculously with rehabilitation just [a few games before] the tournament…the next game we lose, is the last game of his career. Not only varsity, his career, so every game we won he’d run over and he’d hug me. We won 9 games in a row. And he’d run over and he’d hug me every single game…The shot goes up, it’s to the right, I see its gonna be short, Lorenzo Charles grabs it and he dunks it. And at that moment I knew two things: I was the 28th coach in the history of the game to win a championship and there were 50 million people [watching]… I sprinted and got to centre court, in Albuquerque, New Mexico with 50 million people watching me, to hug Derek Whittenburg, and for the first time in 10 games, he’s hugging someone else. I’m out there all by myself. With 50 million people watching me, so embarrassing you know?”

Needless to say, Coach V got over his embarrassment, but it is amusing to watch his reaction – overflowing with joy, but a little dismayed that he can’t find anyone to celebrate this great accomplishment with.

Let’s watch the remainder of the clip – this time, I want you to pay attention to the reaction of the Houston players. We see the dejected athletes static, some sitting down, but most alone and isolated from their teammates. Their disappointment is very clear, as they struggle with their loss and are emotionally despondent with the entirely unexpected outcome to their situation. Indeed, they serve as a great contrast to the victorious NC state players who are dynamic, vibrant, gathering together and embracing each other with jubilant hugs. Now I’m certain those Cougar players banded together back in the locker room and consoled one another – no doubt through some tears – but I’m always struck by their reaction after this loss, by their sadness and despair.

A few points to ponder:

First, celebrating accomplishment is a key to wellbeing. Renowned psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman says that doing so is one of five or six fundamental characteristics of flourishing people. Recognizing our achievement, personally, or as a community, is one way to boost confidence and bring about feelings of positive emotion. We should be grateful that we are a community with much to celebrate.

Second, things may not always go as planned, so we need to be able to adapt in every situation and take things in stride. When he was alive, Coach Valvano consistently made fun of himself for what happened after that amazing upset. Ironically, he might even be remembered more for his reaction after the game, than for the remarkable feat that he and his players accomplished that day. But he always placed what happened post-game in perspective, and chose to focus on the positive emotions that came with that historic upset.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to be comfortable with leaning on others in times of struggle and despair. Just as it is beneficial for our wellbeing to celebrate our accomplishments, it is crucial for us to acknowledge our vulnerability and open up to others during times of disappointment and despair. As a caring community, we need to appropriately honour our individual and communal achievements, but also be ready to support one another in times of struggle and challenge.

May we be a brotherhood that is empathic and deeply caring for one another, in times of victory, and defeat.

Go Ramblers!

Thanks for reading,




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The value in being uncomfortable…

Hats off to all the boys who were involved in the planning and execution of a tremendously successful World Affairs Conference. The school was buzzing on Tuesday with around 800 students from 15 different Ontario schools and superb presenters who spoke on various topics connected to the theme of “Paradigm Shifts”. Kudos to Gregory McDonald, our faculty adviser, as well, for all of his hard work in guiding the boys through the arduous, multi-faceted planning process.

The conference keynotes and plenary speakers were not the only impactful speakers in Laidlaw Hall this week. On Monday, to kick off our Black History Month celebrations, the boys heard from spoken word poet Joshua “Scribe” Watkis who interspersed stories of his personal life with powerful poems to share insight into his experience as a young African-Canadian man growing up in east Toronto.

As a recovering English teacher, I was very impressed with Watkis’ poetic prowess, but what struck me most about his talk was an exchange that took place during the Q&A session after he finished his formal address. One of the boys asked him a challenging question about content that was posted on Watkis’ personal Twitter account, tweets that the questioner expressed might be construed by some readers as racially divisive.

It was a tense moment, as the boys in the audience anticipated Watkis’ reply… Scribe rubbed his hands together, stepped toward the mic, smiled and said: “I’m so glad you asked that question, thank you.” He then went on to respectfully address the student’s question in a thoughtful way that included both historical perspective and personal experience. After the conclusion of the assembly, Scribe apparently shook the student’s hand, thanking him once again for having the courage to ask a tough question.

There was one other important moment in Laidlaw Hall on Monday. One of our Stewards delivered his “This I Believe” speech in which he spoke of finding great comfort within the UCC community during different times of struggle in his life. In particular, he spoke of his mother losing her job and of his grandfather’s passing as two times when he found much needed solace through his friends and teachers here at the College.

In reflecting further on this particular student’s message about the kinship he felt here, and the potentially awkward exchange that took place during Q&A with Mr. Watkis, I was reminded of the paradox that rests within any community. We grow as individuals, and as a collective, through the comfort we provide for one another, yet we also need to recognize the growth that comes during times of discomfort. It’s good for us to feel secure, but also good for us to feel insecure at times.

I’d encourage you to speak with your son about his sense of community and all that he experienced in Laidlaw Hall this week.

Thanks for reading,

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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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