Upper School Chapel Talk from the Headmaster

October 27, 2023

I want to begin today by thanking all of you—students and faculty—for an outstanding beginning to the 2023-2024 school year. There has been such positivity on our campus, such strong behavior, spirit, and performance in academic, athletic, artistic, and social realms this school year. Well done.

I want to commend our seniors, the Class of 2024, for doing an excellent job of leading by example. I told a small group of you last week that while you have faced both ups and downs as Upper School students, particularly by having to start your high school years in the depths of COVID, your leadership this fall has been superb. Keep up the great work through the remainder of the school year.

I also want to thank and recognize Mr. Westermann, who has done an outstanding job as our Head of Upper School. It’s not easy to transition into a new community in a leadership role, but he has done it with grace and professionalism, and we are all grateful for it. We are fortunate, as well, to benefit from superb leadership from Dr. Hudson, Mr. Chaffee, Mrs. Wray, and all of our excellent faculty and staff members. Thank you all.

Now, for my homily this morning. Inspired by Reverend Ohmer and his disciplined approach to brevity and time management, I have an exciting announcement to share with you all—This will be the shortest homily I have ever offered at St. Christopher’s….

If the candles were not lit, I suspect there might be raucous applause at this moment, but given your good decorum, I am going to infer appreciation here from your silence, not disappointment in my commitment to brevity.
I am going to discuss a topic that I believe is simple enough on the surface, though far more complex in practice. I want to talk about the notion of standing out vs. fitting in, particularly as a young person. By standing out, I mean being distinctive, unusual, even unique. And by fitting in, I mean blending, assimilating, conforming to the norm.
Memories from my high school days are, sadly, becoming faded and distant, but one of the feelings I recall is a deep desire to fit in, to be “one of the guys,” part of the group. I remember not wanting to stick my neck out too much, to be too noticed, or to have too much attention drawn on me. A little was OK, but not too much.

Many years before high school, when I was still in the Lower School, I was diagnosed with a form of epilepsy that resulted in occasional seizures that would temporarily cause blindness—I always maintained consciousness, and I did not have any of the muscle spasms sometimes associated with epileptic seizures, but my vision went totally dark, except for floating orbs of light that accompanied the darkness. It was strange and a little scary.

I was in first or second grade when the seizures first started happening, and I remember that one of the things I liked least about the seizures and my ultimate diagnosis was all the attention that was drawn on me—for being different, for having an ailment or condition that was unusual in my class and grade. I can remember having these seizures at school, having to sit down in the back of my classroom, unable to see and hoping that people weren’t making fun of me or otherwise placing unwanted attention on me.

Eventually the condition was properly diagnosed, I was placed on medication, and the seizures completely stopped. My friends and family knew about the condition, it did make me different in some ways, but there were also some benefits to this form of difference. Having to take medication five times a day and routinely visit St. Mary’s hospital for bloodwork and brain scans helped me mature into a young adult. It also helped me to not take my health or anyone’s health for granted, and I developed some real self-discipline with my own regimen of medication and medical assessments. 

Fast forward to college. One weekend a friend and I were driving from Virginia to Philadelphia to attend a career fair for aspiring teachers. While we were driving, I said something really terrible. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know that what I said was bigoted and mean-spirited. The friend and I had a long drive still to go, and we would be spending much of the weekend together. 

The easy thing, the way to blend in, would be for my friend to let my ugly comment stand and not to say anything about it—Just let the moment pass. But he did not. Instead, he looked right at me and called me on my comment, he told me I should not have said what I said, and he was exactly right. It created a bit of an awkward moment between us, but I apologized, and he and I remain friends to this day. I still remember this moment from more than 25 years ago because this friend—who is a St. Christopher’s graduate—had the courage to stand up, to stand out, to not just blend in and let the moment pass. In doing that, he was showing me the hard right over the easy wrong, and I’m so glad that he did.

And, finally, I want to talk about our expectations of you all, out in the community, in athletics, and in general as representatives of our school.

We have to acknowledge that our behavior expectations of you are counter-cultural. That is, they are different from the expectations of mainstream society. We expect you to be gentlemen and models of good behavior here on campus but also away from it—on Mondays and on Saturdays, in October and in July, mornings, evenings, and weekends. It’s quite a high bar of expectation—it’s unusual, distinctive, different from the norm.

Even more pointedly, when you attend athletic contests here and away, we expect you to cheer for your classmates, but not against the opponent. We expect you to respect the officials and not boo or jeer at them. In basketball this winter, we will expect you to remain quiet when our opponent is shooting a free throw because screaming and mocking while he is shooting is not supporting your teammate, it is just antagonizing an opponent, and that’s not what we do here. We may be one of the few high schools left in the state, maybe even in the country, that still holds that expectation of its students. 

My point to you today is that different can be very good. Different can be beautiful and powerful. Consider any leader from any time period in history. Leadership, in almost every form, requires distinction, difference, in some way. 

While different can be uncomfortable, just as my childhood epilepsy and my friend’s confrontation with me was, in the end it is healthy and good, and it leads to positive growth. 
For each of you, especially our seniors, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not blending in, and instead practice the hard right, practice being distinctive. The rewards, in the long run, are well worth the cost.