On goodbyes, gratitude and brotherhood…

I trust you all had a restful, enjoyable long weekend. Our week back at school started with one of a series of annual celebrations for the IB2 boys: the final Leaving Class assembly. Although rambunctious, the boys settled in well to hear one last message from their head steward, who spoke on the themes of gratitude and brotherhood. Ultimately, according to him, UCC, and more importantly the people in its community provided him with much comfort and support during times when he needed it most. In a very genuine, heart-felt manner, he shared that the memories and sentiments of gratitude he holds of his time here will be with him forever. His inspirational message was greatly appreciated by all those in the audience, who expressed their thanks with a standing ovation.

As our IB2 boys look ahead toward their transition from UCC, I’d like to offer a few thoughts to the Leaving Class boys and their parents, although much of what follows is relevant for all of the Senior Division community.

I’d like to convey my sincere thanks to the boys in the Leaving Class for their years of dedication here. Some arrived here two years ago ready to take on the rigour of the rewarding IB Program. For others, their time here has spanned a number of years solely at the Upper School, and may have included a life of living on campus as part of our great residential life program. Still others may have come from the Prep and remarkably have spent more than two-thirds of their lives here. Regardless of the amount of time your sons have been here, I’ve no doubt that many are experiencing mixed emotions as they are seeing their final year come to a close. Trying to maintain their academic focus in preparation for their upcoming exams, dealing with feelings of celebration at having almost finished high school, struggling with anxiety about plans for next year, on top of trying to navigate the process of leaving many of their close friends, are all significant issues facing many of your sons at this very moment.

In the midst of this turbulence I offer a few suggestions. First, continue to provide the guidance your son needs to make prudent decisions. Encourage him to finish his time here at UCC in strong fashion by helping him to stay focused on the importance of the final month of school.

Secondly, I would recommend that you continue to provide your son with the emotional support he needs. Although he may not show it, in this time of significant transition, he’s likely feeling unsure of himself and his future. He needs to have a steady presence and be reassured as to how much he is loved.

Finally, help him to maintain perspective on what is most important about his experience here. Throughout my 17 years at the College, in the countless conversations I’ve had with Old Boys, not one has ever mentioned his IB point total, nor reminisced about acing or failing an exam. Instead, they inevitably speak about the friendships they’ve maintained that started here, and the many ways through which their time spent here ultimately helped in the formation of their character.

Keeping with tradition, the Leaving Class boys concluded their final assembly on Tuesday with a rousing rendition of a song that has become somewhat of an anthem for the guys over the past few years. Indeed, this song delivers a powerful promise to our boys, both those who are currently here, and to Old Boys across the globe: regardless of where you end up in life, as part of the UCC brotherhood, you need “Never Walk Alone.”

Thanks for reading,

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Celebrating the arts, and the works in progress…

I’d like to thank everyone who was involved with last night’s Nuit Bleue event. Our annual celebration of the arts was a great success, as student work across the broad spectrum of the arts was showcased in various venues around the school. Indeed, in wandering around and observing the incredible talents of the actors, musicians, visual artists, writers, and others, I was so impressed by the talent of the boys. Yet, through my 18 years at the College, whether attending performances, games, tournaments or contests, I’ve come to realize that innate talent is only one part of the recipe for excellence; the most important ingredient is hard work. Last night, in expressing my gratitude to the teachers who work with our broad range of artists, I was struck by how many of them spoke of the long hours and countless revisions that went into all of the pieces, productions and performances on display last night – arduous work that went on behind the scenes, unknown, and underappreciated by audiences who were wowed by final versions of the boys’ creativity.

All that artistic energy got me thinking about the UCC experience. In some ways, I liken the College to a type of canvas, scratchpad, scipt or score sheet that allows boys to explore who they are, make mistakes, and improve upon versions of themselves along the way toward becoming the best they can be. And, like the teachers who helped guide our artists toward producing some of their remarkable creations displayed last night, all members of our community play a role in supporting young men in the formation of their character along their respective journeys of self-discovery.

I suppose all of us – adults and children alike – are artists to a degree, shaping and re-shaping ourselves in a constant effort to improve so that we can present our best self to others. As parents, it is essential for us to understand that unlike the polished and completed works produced for events like Nuit Bleue, our kids are works in progress, and throughout their lives, we must accept that they aren’t perfect and appreciate the beauty that exists at each stage of this very special creative process.

“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
– Salvador Dali

Wishing you a restful, enjoyable long weekend.

Thanks for reading,

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“To err is human…”

I spoke at assembly this past Monday about making mistakes, and about steps we can take to try to avoid them. My address to the boys appears below. Perhaps it will provide a springboard to further conversation in your household. You’ll note I conclude with some thoughts about the Battalion Ball. If your son is attending this event, I’d encourage you to talk to him about making good decisions so that the event is safe, fun and memorable for all the right reasons.

Thanks for reading,

“Good morning… I trust you all had a restful enjoyable break.

This two-week holiday always seems to arrive at the perfect time, signifying that we’ve managed to make it through another winter, with thoughts of the warm days of spring ahead. The anticipation of better weather is not the only thing I look forward to at this time of year.

For armchair athletes like me, March brings with it, one of the most exciting sporting events of the year. With the NCAA Final Four Basketball Tournament reaching its climax, fans of college hoops like me eagerly anticipate the remaining games and the 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.

To some degree, the world of athletics, especially at the collegiate level, provides a stage through which onlookers can observe important character moments as we watch players and coaches react to adversity and challenge. One such moment occurred in the opening round of the tournament this year during the Vanderbilt/Northwestern game.

Northwestern has never won a tournament game and with 15 seconds remaining in its match-up against Vandy, it appeared as though that streak would continue. I’ll ask the AV guys to run the clip to show you what happened.

You can predict what happened in the final 14 seconds of the game. Northwestern went on to score both free-throws and then held on to record their first tournament victory in the school’s history. Not surprisingly, there has been much post-game discussion about what happened. One reporter described the unfortunate error as one of the worst mistakes in NCAA tournament history, claiming that “Fisher-Davis had committed the biggest basketball sin of all, something drilled into players every day of their lives. He didn’t know the time and score.” (USA Today, March 16, 2017)

Understandably, Fisher-Davis was devastated by the impact of his error. In his words: “I saw him [referring to his coach] point at (McIntosh), but he was just telling me to pick him up (and guard him)… And then I committed a dumb foul. You gotta be smarter than that in that situation… Obviously it’s hard to take. I especially feel bad for our seniors, going out like that, off a play like that.” (The Tennessean, March 16, 2017)

When asked about Fisher-Davis’ game losing error, Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew, who throughout the season had an “at times” rocky relationship with the young Junior, chose to focus on the positive aspects of the situation:

“He made a mistake at the end, yeah, I mean I’m not sure what happened. He’s the type of person that he feels some blame for it. The second half, we had no chance if he didn’t make some of the shots that he did. I just wanted to let him know that, we’re with him no matter what… I’m going to make mistakes and everybody is going to be around me and supporting me and vice versa. That was just how it was.” (Business Insider, March 17, 2017)

Vanderbilt players also conveyed their support for their teammate, acknowledging his great play throughout the rest of the game that ultimately led to them even being close with a tough Northwestern team.

I don’t want to be overly dramatic. After all, we are talking about a basketball game, but I think there are number of valuable life lessons to be learned from the split-second error that cost Vanderbilt an opening round victory.

First, Fisher-Davis admitted he had lost track of the time and score, and that he also misunderstood what his coach was telling him to do. We will all be faced with pressure situations in our lives and during those times, we need to be fully aware of all that is going on around us and we need to communicate with others clearly so that we can make decisions based on understanding and sound judgment.

Second, we will all make mistakes. I make many of them, if you don’t believe me, you can ask my wife and kids who do a very good job of reminding me when I mess up. Fisher-Davis blew it and he didn’t try to shift blame or explain it away. He immediately admitted his error and the impact it had on others. In particular, those most greatly affected, the graduating players with whom Fisher-Davis played, many of whom would never play in a basketball game as important as that one for the rest of their lives. When we do make mistakes, we need to man-up, accept responsibility for them, and do what we can to best manage their wide-reaching impact.

Finally, when the mistakes of others affect our lives, we need to be understanding and forgiving. There is no doubt that Fisher-Davis’ coach and fellow players were feeling extreme disappointment, frustration and anger, yet all of them supported their dejected teammate to the fullest, understanding the situation for what it was, knowing that showing their aggravation and being critical would in no way change the outcome of the game. Learning from our own mistakes, and the mistakes of others is important for growth, but the learning process will only hampered by cynicism, negativity and dwelling on the mistake. There will be times in your lives when you will be adversely impacted by the decisions and mistakes made by members of your family, your friends and other people with whom you associate. How you react during these times will be the best reflection of your character – being positive, supportive and taking steps to move forward always makes the situation better.

I’ll ask the AV guys to play today’s final clip. Some of you may remember seeing this commercial before. I believe Dr. Power showed it a few years ago. I feel its message complements the thoughts I wanted to share with you this morning. Play the clip.

It would be nice to have some sort of a warning system – like a honking horn – to correct us when we’re headed toward making a poor decision, but despite all of the technology out there, there isn’t a device or anything I know of that will prevent us from making stupid mistakes.

Yet, there are some tips that can help us make better decisions, especially in those pressure filled situations:

One: Remember the learning from previous mistakes – your own ones and the mistakes of others.

Two: Trust your instincts. If you feel somewhat hesitant about a decision you are going to make, chances are it’s one you may end up regretting.

Three: Have some forethought. Most teenage boys (and some 50-year-old men like me) aren’t necessarily known for projecting too far ahead, or for thinking about the consequences of the choices they make. Considering the potential impact of our actions before we take them often contributes to making better decisions.

This Friday is the Battalion Ball, and like any other year, many senior boys will be attending this annual memorable event. I urge you to carefully consider your decisions in preparation for the evening so that it’s memorable for all the right reasons. Carefully consider your own decisions and be good teammates – supporting others in making their own good decisions and collectively trying to minimize mistakes that might be made.

Be safe and have fun.

Thanks for listening.”


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Anger, pain and the power of forgiveness…

To conclude our recognition of Black History Month, Old Boy Jared Walker ’05 spoke to the boys during Monday morning’s assembly. Walker spoke about the racism he experienced in his own life and shared a poignant story about how he was questioned by two policemen while on his way to school here a dozen years ago. The officers apparently struggled to believe he attended UCC. Walker remarked how pleased he was to see evidence of greater diversity at the College today. He also spoke about the horrible historical case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 after allegedly accosting Carolyn Bryant in a store owned by her and husband. Till’s case made headlines back then for a number of reasons, one of which was that his mother insisted on having an open casket so all could see what his killers, who were never convicted, had done to him. Till’s case is making headlines today because the 82-year-old Bryant (now known as Ms. Donham) has recently recanted much of the details she presented as fact back then, details that ultimately caused the senseless killing of a 14-year-old boy.

In reflecting on Walker’s address, I came across an article from the New York Times about Till’s death and Bryant’s recent confession. Amidst the anger, pain, suffering and profound sadness evoked by the article, comments from one of Till’s relatives stood out for me. In speaking of the tragedy, Till’s cousin Wheeler Parker, 77, said “… the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days.” The article concludes with a further reference to Parker who remarkably says he harbours no ill will toward Ms. Donham, and hopes her admission brings her peace. “I can’t hate,” says Parker. “Hate destroys the hater too. That’s a heavy burden to carry.” (“Woman Linked to 1955 Emmett Till Murder Tells Historian Her Claims Were False”, New York Times, January 27, 2017)

I’m not certain I could hold the same perspective toward those responsible if a member of my family suffered like Till did, but Parker’s message of forgiveness is extremely powerful. Indeed, it reminded me of an NPR “This I Believe” speech I heard a few years ago titled “Finding Freedom in Forgiveness.” Through it, a woman, a victim of rape, and a man, who spent 11 years in prison as a result of being wrongly accused of the crime, speak about finding a certain peace in their lives through their respective and collective process of forgiveness. Here’s a link to the written text and the amazing thee-minute audio recording by the co-authors of the essay. It’s well worth listening to.

In many respects, forgiveness seems entirely unnatural; it’s a selfless act that requires much courage and an active, not passive, mindset. Indeed, the easiest route to pursue when we feel we’ve been wronged is to do nothing but dwell on our pain. Yet, to initiate the process of forgiveness, we need to shift our focus away from the hurt we’re experiencing and look toward taking constructive steps to manage our emotions and move forward.

I hope you or your children never have to endure anything as traumatic as Till’s death, or as the experience shared by the co-authors of the essay. But in a community as large as ours, there are bound to be times when your son will experience some degree of emotional pain through the course of his relationships with his peers, teachers or coaches.

How we deal with hurt, pain, anger and frustration is a key part of the forgiveness process and ultimately plays a significant role in our leading of balanced lives. It’s essential for us as parents to actively model forgiveness in our relationships so our kids clearly see its benefits. If we always personalize the actions of others and remain focused on our hurt, we risk being trapped in the realm of negativity and hindered by an unforgiving mindset that will ultimately impact our personal growth and impede our ability to develop meaningful relationships with others. Through forgiveness we find both freedom and fulfillment.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Thanks for reading,

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Perspective, Perseverance and Positivity…

Those of you who read these weekly missives with regularity will know that I chiefly write about what goes on in assembly, or other happenings here at the College that take place outside of the classroom walls. Some schools refer to teaching like this as their “hidden curriculum,” but I’ve never been fond of that term. Here at UCC, we’re intentional about the learning that takes place in Laidlaw Hall, on our fields and courts, on our stages, and through our club programming. Indeed, it’s not “hidden” at all; rather we promote, foster and celebrate the development of virtues and strengths of character in as many ways as we can.

The informal, non-classroom learning your son experienced this week was plentiful and, according to this recovering English teacher, could be summed up in a thematic statement: “Perspective is key to living a fulfilled life and we always have a choice in how we respond to hardship and difficult circumstances.”

Here’s how this theme played out this week:

Our boys heard Spencer West from the We organization speak about the need to overcome challenges and embrace change on Tuesday. West is a uniquely inspiring individual. Born with a condition that impeded muscle growth in his legs, he had both of them amputated during childhood. Rather than allowing his disability to take control of his life, West spoke about focusing on what you can do rather than obsessing over what you can’t. He’s a guy with a lot of credibility in this regard. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of friends a few years ago and showed the boys footage of how he managed to help motivate others to finish their journey during the final leg of the climb. Through his work with the Me organization, West reminded us that we all have “the ability, but more importantly, a responsibility, to lend a hand to others in need.”

You may have noticed your son heading out the door on Wednesday morning wearing a pink shirt in honour of Pink Shirt Day to promote greater awareness of bullying and related issues. For those of you who may not be familiar with the Pink Shirt Day initiative, it started in 2007 when a new Grade 9 student at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia was bullied for wearing a pink shirt. In response, two Grade 12 boys rallied the student body to wear pink shirts the next day to show their support for the bullied student and to make a very clear and colourful anti-bullying statement. There was a sea of pink shirts at Kings that day, and I’m proud to say that, nine years later, the support remains strong. Our traditional colours of blue and white were replaced by various hues of pink worn by students, faculty and staff members.

The boys will hear from a speaker from Jack.org on Friday morning. It’s an organization that was founded a number of years ago by Eric Windeler and Sandra Hanington, the parents of Jack Windeler, a young man who struggled with mental illness and ended up taking his life during his first year at Queen’s University in 2010. Eric responded to this personal tragedy by leaving his corporate job and committing full-time to Jack.org, dedicating his life to the work of supporting young people through the mental health challenges with which so many are struggling.

I’ve always felt that the old adage about making lemonade from lemons was overly simplistic and lacking in empathy. It simply doesn’t account for the fact that we all respond to hardship and challenge in different, personal ways. However, I think there’s value in hearing the stories of those who’ve had to cope with physical hardship, emotional turmoil and personal tragedy. Doing so can serve as a source of needed encouragement, provide important perspective and offer pathways to explore when contemplating how to best respond to the challenges we face in our own lives.

I encourage you to speak with your son about the messages, both direct and indirect, that he heard over this past week.

Thanks for reading,

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Learning through failure…

Thanks to all of you who attended the Founder’s Day dinner yesterday evening. The event was a great success and provided the opportunity to hear from some of our student musicians and to honour those who give generously of their time and other resources in support of much of the College’s programming.

Our keynote speaker for the evening was Harvard University innovation expert Tony Wagner, who Skyped in from Cambridge, Mass. with an address through which he critiqued traditional aspects of contemporary approaches to education. He challenged all of us – parents, teachers and administrators – to radically rethink our existing framework for teaching and learning in an effort to best prepare students for success in whatever field they choose to pursue in life.

One of the key themes Wagner touched upon was the importance of failure as a paramount step in the learning process. He asked those in attendance to consider whether or not they felt they learned more from their successes or from their failures in life. Wagner argued that our failures provided far more opportunities for significant learning and that the lessons learned when we fall short are longlasting and play a significant role in future success. Given the importance of failure, Wagner questioned why schools (and students and parents) had such an aversion to it.

I realize that “failure” in education is a very complicated matter, especially when placed in the context of the overly competitive world of university admission, but I think Wagner’s thoughts on the subject are worth much consideration. In short, failure and, more importantly, how one responds to it, can be transformational in the learning process in terms of the development of personal strengths of character.

Regardless of their field of expertise, one of the fundamental similarities shared by noted leaders worldwide is that they have, to some degree, experienced failure in their lives. In the world of sports, Michael Jordan, arguably the most renowned basketball player of all time, has been very candid about being cut from his high school basketball team and the significant impact this “failure” had on him as he was growing up. Countless other figures — including giants in the realms of the arts, politics and business — have also met with significant disappointment throughout their careers. But they haven’t allowed those experiences to deter them from their respective pursuits of excellence. Here’s a link  to a video titled “Famous Failures.” Ironically, the short clip has a spelling error in it. Yet it clearly illustrates the notion that failure needn’t be debilitating, but rather can be a source of intense motivation to succeed beyond expectations.

I think we would all agree that resiliency is one of the most important character traits required for success. Yet, as parents, we’re so reluctant to allow our children to experience failure during their childhood and adolescence. These are time periods which might accurately be characterized as some of the “safest” times in one’s life with respect to the consequences caused by failure. Dr. Alex Russell, whom I’ve referenced in previous missives, has a memorable catch-phrase for this concept. He claims that parents should be more comfortable with the “painful, non-catastrophic failures” in their kids’ lives, as they’re the experiences through which children will truly develop skills to cope with disappointment and loss when the stakes are much higher later on in life.

Here are three points for us as parents to ponder on the topic of failure:

  1. We need to look for environments and create opportunities that will enable our kids to take safe risks, even when failure may sometimes be the result.
  2. We need to be sure to provide an appropriate level of necessary emotional support for our children when they experience failure, loss and disappointment.
  3. And from a practical point of view, we need to help our kids engage in a process of reflection when success isn’t achieved, one which helps them to place the event in perspective and enables them to extract pragmatic lessons to help them with the challenges they will no doubt face in the future.

Wishing you an enjoyable, relaxing long weekend.

Thanks for reading,


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Lessons from Cincinnatus…

During Monday’s assembly the boys heard from the three finalists running for the position of head steward. All three candidates did a superb job of delivering their respective addresses and answering questions from their peers during the Q&A session. I’m confident any of the three boys in the running will be an exemplary student leader in representing their peers and the College overall.

Prior to hearing from these three student leaders, Principal McKinney shared a story about Cincinnatus, a statesman in the fifth century BC who devoted himself to the service of his country and its citizens by leading the Roman army in a time of need:

“One such custodian stood out in the fifth century BC. The Roman army was surrounded. The country was in need of a leader who would seize the moment and turn the situation defeat into victory. They called upon a man who was out plowing his field, a farmer. He came. He saw. He conquered. He went home. Cincinnatus gained fame for his selfless devotion to his country. This half-legendary hero of the Roman Republic gave his all in a time of crisis and then gave up the reins of power when the task was done and went back to his plow.”
-Michael McKinney, The Focus of Leadership 

Thankfully, unlike the Romans in the fifth century, we’re not in a time of conflict or crisis. However, we can still learn much from a leader like Cincinnatus. A few valuable lessons come to mind:

First, anyone can lead. While he was likely more than a simple farmer, the fact that legend depicts him as out plowing his field, rather than being an experienced renowned military leader, speaks to him being “ordinary.” Yet, through his leadership, the Roman army managed to accomplish “extraordinary” success.

Second, effective leaders don’t make excuses, but maximize resources available to them and lean on others for support. Cincinnatus was apparently in power for a mere 15 days, yet during that time he worked with the existing army and managed to defeat the threats that jeopardized the national security of his country.

Finally, admirable leaders chose service to others over self-interest. Given his success, I suspect that Cincinnatus could have stayed on in his role as dictator and enjoyed all that came with that status. But instead, once he completed his assigned task and fulfilled his duty to his fellow Romans, he simply went back to work on his farm.

Given the size of our school, understandably, there are limited opportunities for officially titled leadership roles. However, I’d encourage you to speak with your son about becoming a leader, titled or not, through looking for ways to make a positive impact, stepping up when called upon, leaning on others for support and choosing service over self-interest.

Thanks for reading,

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