Watch a video of this speech
Convocation, or the call to come together, is a tradition not just at Vermont Academy but also at all boarding schools. Often the central event is a signing of the Honor Code, as we have done today. Why do this? Why make a call to community to witness this signing? What does the signing really mean?
We all learned in our history classes about the progression of human history from hunter-gatherer to agrarian culture to the city-state or polis. Rooted in that ideal of the Greek polis is the belief that the common good can only be reached by community, and that the sum of individual acts of integrity lead to a sensibility among the community, an affirmation and witnessing of the good. In this paradigm, as individuals, the best that we can do to contribute to the community is to cultivate and grow our best selves. Thus our school motto, “Be True to Your Best Self,” fits into this magical equation of the individual and polis.
To make the polis more real and more “Vermont,” we can think of our school, at least on the level of citizenship, as a village. This contract you signed today tells all that you affirm the values of the school and that you will act with integrity and care in order to preserve the fabric of the whole. What do I mean there—the fabric of the whole? You are part of a great tapestry of individuals and differences. These must be preserved. When you break a rule, and especially a major school rule, you make what the Hebrews would have called a tear in the fabric. All ancient societies in the East and the West believed that something deep was lost in the group if the individual was to make an ethical break out of the group.
This probably seems like a lot to weigh on a bad decision, like smoking or the major school rule of igniting a flame in a building on campus, or so many other rules you must read in the student handbook, but if you hold onto this concept of citizenship and of your moral and ethical responsibility to build your life and the lives of others according to ideals, you can turn to it when you are tempted. The short term excitement of rule-breaking can bring lasting consequences.
I will finish by sharing a personal anecdote, because I am not standing here as the head of school and the great moral authority. When I was at a previous school, a student I advised went on a college tour with a friend and his friend’s father. Because this student looked older than he was, his friends convinced him to go buy beer at the liquor store. It was his decision, though, and his alone. Decisions are individual. He was caught, and the police were called, and he was shocked, and so was his family, because he was raised with strong ideals. What had gone wrong? But he was also a teenager, and the “what if” of temptation had taken him hostage.
Years have gone by now, and this student is in law school, and the school asked about prior offenses. He spoke with a dean about this incident in his past, and he is going to do the research and find the documentation to show that he did his community service and followed through with the discipline administered to him. Last night he called me to catch up on things, and I admitted, “I had forgotten all about this.”
He said, “I didn’t. I remember everything.” He knew the town, the county, the location of the courtroom. He then described the scene at the liquor store, the policeman, the judge, his community service. This had stayed with him for all of these 12 years since. We had not talked about it since the pressured time when all of this was happening. It was a learning experience, and one he shared honestly and promptly when the question came up on his law school background information. All of this ethical and moral learning is a dynamic, not a static, environment. It is real, and with us every day.
How do we build back from mistakes we make? In a boarding school environment, you happen to be in the most ideal situation for inner growth and realignment. When you fall, we catch you; when you make errors (big and small), discipline occurs, but discipline is teaching at heart. It feels raw and empty when you make a mistake, but as this student showed, he owned what he did, accepted his discipline and used that experience to build wisdom. Maybe wisdom is the collection of life learning outside of the classroom that grows and evolves, but is also never ending. We are always in this position of building and learning from our mistakes, if we only allow ourselves to trust, to be authentic, to be present.
Please think about what the common good is and why we value it at Vermont Academy, why character and ethics are part of your every day education. Thank you to the new members of our community for signing the Honor Code today and to all who have signed before, keeping the pledge you made an active, dynamic, and living force in our little village polis.