I am pleased to share with you my opening-of-school welcome, which I shared with new boys and their parents on September 7, 2014.
My name is Byron Hulsey, and I serve here as headmaster, and on behalf of the board of trustees and the faculty, it is a great privilege to welcome you to Woodberry as we begin the 126th year in the life of the school. We are excited to meet you and get to know our new boys, and we hope and trust that for each boy here you will remember this day as the start of an extraordinary life journey that changes your life to the good forever. I want to introduce my wife, Jennifer, who will help the faculty and me care for your sons. And, before I go further, I would like to ask our chaplain, Dr. David Smith, to come forward to offer a prayer as we begin the school year and our new students begin their Woodberry journeys.
In our midst are 112 new boys filling out a student body of 396 total students as we start the year. Woodberry boys hail from thirty states, the District of Columbia, and fourteen countries around the world. Nine percent of our students are international. In the new boy class, there are eighty-two third formers, twenty-one fourth formers, and nine fifth formers. There are thirty-two boys from Virginia, twenty-nine from North Carolina, seven from Texas, five from Florida, and five from South Carolina. We have carefully shaped this year’s class to advance Woodberry’s mission. Selectivity was higher this year than in the recent past, and two-thirds of those accepted to the school were wise enough to accept our offer. The statistics are important and impressive, but the numbers pale in significance to the fact that assembled here this afternoon are boys who will become your friends for life, boys who are likely to attend your son’s wedding and be there through the best and most challenging times that we’ll share together here at Woodberry and beyond. Please take a moment and join me in thanking the men and women who comprise our admissions team and who have poured countless hours aimed at this day, the day we welcome you here into the community of Woodberry Forest.
Relationships matter most here, and the thousands of Woodberry alumni around the country and around the world remember this day as a pivot point in their life journey to manhood. Here you join those who have called Woodberry home for well over 100 years. Thirty-one years ago my parents brought me to Woodberry and it changed my life forever. It was for me the most formative experience of my life. Never before had I felt so big and so small at the same time. I knew from the start I was part of a community much bigger and more enduring than I will ever be. And, at the same time, I knew that here I would be cared for and challenged by men I would admire and respect as my teachers and coaches and fellow students who would be my Woodberry brothers for life. I welcome you to that community today and look forward to getting to know you in the weeks and months and years ahead.
One of the great strengths here at Woodberry is the school’s prefect board, the eighteen seniors charged with sharing responsibility for the dormitories and protecting and promoting the honor system, the most cherished tradition and most significant aspect of the school’s community of trust. Here we are free to be our best and most noble selves, and the prefect board works selflessly throughout the year to care for and cultivate integrity as our most important ideal and value. Prefects are carefully chosen by their peers, the faculty, and the headmaster. We spent a week together in Colorado preparing for this school year, and I know they share my eagerness and excitement to make Woodberry a great experience for your sons. It’s ironic, but hardly surprising, that my prefect my new boy year on Upper Taylor, Nick Purrington, is here today as the father of a new boy, Charles, just one more indication that Woodberry is more a way of life than just a place to go to school.
I am very happy to introduce you to this year’s senior prefect, Christian Zaytoun from Raleigh, North Carolina. In his years at Woodberry Forest, Christian has played varsity football and varsity baseball at the highest levels. He plays the bagpipes in our music community; he excels as a student in the classroom. Christian commands the respect and admiration of his peers, who trust him completely and appreciate his genuine kindness, his keen interest in others, and his unflagging commitment to high standards. He is a great credit to Woodberry Forest and what we do here. Please join me in welcoming Christian Zaytoun.
I want to thank you for sharing your sons with us at Woodberry Forest. We on the faculty are deeply privileged to work with such fine boys. Bringing your sons to Woodberry and telling them goodbye may be the hardest thing some of you have done as parents. The sacrifice you’re making is significant. I know how hard this was for my parents thirty-one years ago. My mother, Linda, died in 2001, and from somewhere up in heaven she is here today with each of you. I came to understand that Mom loved me enough to let me go to Woodberry, and that was a gift of hers to me that changed my life forever. Being back here at Woodberry is a way that I can keep that gift of hers alive, and I want you to know that I will do all I can to make this a great experience for your son. Mom would have expected nothing less of me, I can assure you!
You have made a brave and courageous and superb decision to enroll your son at Woodberry Forest. A quick national and international scan of the data indicates that boys and young men as a demographic are struggling. It’s my belief that boys have never needed Woodberry more than they need it today, and your decision to share your sons with us will do more for him than either he or you can even imagine. Most schools, even the very good independent day schools and coed boarding schools, amount to transactional experiences for most students. Woodberry Forest, by contrast, is a transformational experience for most of the boys here. It is demanding, intense, and often unyielding. But it is at the same time invariably fulfilling. Thousands and thousands of Woodberry men will agree with me and tell you without even a hint of hesitation that this is the place they were shaped and formed.
Earlier this week the faculty and I began our meetings with a single priority: that every boy under our care here at Woodberry is known, challenged, and loved. That is our commitment to the boys, and that is our pledge to you as their parents. For 126 years we have operated on the belief that boys excel when they are challenged by men and women who know them as individuals and care for them as more than a student or an athlete or an artist. Boys may pretend otherwise, but here we believe that deep inside their hearts and souls they want to be challenged by teachers and coaches they admire, because that is how they feel respected. The magic of this place is the commitment we have to your sons — that here they will be known, challenged, and loved, even on those occasions when they may be, as adolescents are wont, almost unlovable.
My charge to the boys will be simple, but demanding. In return for our commitment to them that they are known, challenged, and loved, they will gain the most from this opportunity if they work hard, build their character, and take care of each other. The world beyond the gates of Woodberry Forest is both coarse and too often superficial. Emblazoned by the door of the Walker Building are the central pillars of counter-cultural expectation here: “Let him who enters this portal as a student delay not to dedicate himself to intellectual thoroughness and moral integrity.” In a world that celebrates glitz and glamour, here we care more about substance that endures. Superficiality makes a splash in social media, but I assure you that there is nothing superficial about the Woodberry experience. Boys learn how to learn here, no matter what they have or have not accomplished before. They come to value the ideal of hard work, a quality that will surely prepare them for a world that is more and more demanding. And while we certainly encourage and applaud great achievement, we care more here about character and integrity and the critical importance of being your best self in a world that too often caters to our worst selves. I can tell you from my experience that these traits are not natural in most boys, but here at Woodberry they become natural as boys learn the value of hard work, the critical importance of character, and the genuine fulfillment that comes from caring for each other.
These are our beliefs, and from these beliefs we build a program in academics, the arts, and athletics, on dorm and in the dining room, wherever we may be, a program to provide boys with the opportunity of a lifetime to grow and develop and depend on themselves. Yes there will be joy and fun and rest and relaxation, but make no mistake: What we offer here is deliberately hard, and difficulty and disappointment are nearly certain. Know this from the outset, and keep in mind that it’s at these moments, uncomfortable as they may be for both your sons and for you, that he will have the opportunity to chart his way forward and become more than he ever thought he could be. With that in mind, I’d like to offer some specific advice to each of you as you work through the challenges of parenting a boy at Woodberry Forest.
1. Trust the school. This may be new to you, but it is not to us. We’ve done this for 126 years, and the process works.
2. Saying goodbye is hard. Know that our hearts are with you and that your sons are cared for here. Don’t linger into the early evening. Be resolute when it is time to go.
3. Give your son the opportunity to manage himself, for that is how he’ll grow the most. If he can’t, we will help him learn. He needs to understand that he can’t depend on you to prepare his path here. You have given him the opportunity for us to prepare him for the path, and that is an extraordinary gift.
4. Limit calls, texts, Facetime, and Skype, especially early on. If your son is homesick, this attention will make him miss you even more. If he isn’t, he’ll be worried that he’s letting you down when what he needs to do is make his way forward here.
5. In conversations with your sons, tell them how much you love them and how proud you are of their bravery, not how much you miss them (even though that will likely be true.)
6. Understand that the first year is a marathon, not a sprint. Two tough days do not make for a difficult year.
7. Communicate with us if you’re worried, but most of all encourage your sons to self-advocate with his teachers and coaches first in the midst of difficulty and disappointment. Be sure to use his adviser as a point of contact for his whole experience, but always start with the teacher or coach. They will be timely in their reply back to you, but remember: please encourage your sons to advocate for themselves and take responsibility for their own success.
8. Accept our invitation not to worry too much or too quickly about academic challenge and difficulty. Your son may be like me: I had appetite to do well, but I was woefully underprepared. I had to learn how to learn, but that had to come from me, and not because my parents were concerned.
9. Remember that the only grade on the transcript is the final grade at the end of the year. Early on your sons will be challenged to become the architect of his own success, and that takes time, patience, and persistence. What matters most is grit and tenacity, and you can encourage these traits no matter where you are.
One of my favorite writers is the Kentucky poet, essayist, and novelist, Wendell Berry. I think of Berry often when I think of my parents and their gift of a Woodberry education for me and what I want Jennifer and me to provide our children, Ben and Claire. My mother and father came of age as parents in the 1970s when the self-esteem movement, still strong today, was in its infancy. Mom and Dad raised me to believe that I was special — no more or less than anyone else — but special, in God’s eyes and in theirs. They gave me self-esteem. But the problem was that I did not feel special. I was one of a multitude in my hometown of Lubbock, Texas. I was under-known and under-challenged. That all changed when I got to Woodberry. Here I was known, challenged, and loved by men I admired and boys I wanted to emulate. I wasn’t any bigger or better or more important than anyone else, but here I grew, like I want your sons to grow, in an enduring self-confidence that comes from self-discovery and achievement.
Self-esteem is fleeting, but self-confidence secured by accomplishment will last a lifetime. Back to Wendell Berry. Not long ago he wrote, “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” That’s the gift you’ve given your sons, and it’s one that will last them a lifetime.