Not long ago I was walking through the beautiful William H. White, Jr. Library late on a Friday evening before the St. Christopher’s football game the following day. I came across a senior defensive back deeply immersed in a paper for his philosophy class. I was intrigued by his title: “What Is the Truth and How Do You Know?” We visited for several minutes and I walked away, reminded that the rhythm and routine of Woodberry matters in ways that help boys grow into young men, prepared for the challenges and opportunities of a changing world.
Boys have never needed Woodberry more than they do today, and Woodberry has never been more relevant to the world than it is today. This may sound like headmaster hyperbole, but let’s be honest: adolescent boys are engines of distractibility, and in a culture that celebrates the latest iteration of the iPhone, 24-7 gaming, and the latest social media app, boys are struggling to find their footing and make good choices. Biologists and brain researchers remind us that in these adolescent years the amygdala, which governs our desire for immediate gratification, our emotions, and our fight/flight/flee instincts, often overwhelms the prefrontal cortex, the portion of our brains that governs executive function and self-regulation.
I’m occasionally asked why would Woodberry remains one of the very few all boys and all boarding schools. The quick and easy answer is that we’ve always been so. But a better answer is that in an environment of swirling mass distraction, boys need to learn how to manage their affairs, make good choices, and hold themselves accountable. At Woodberry, we provide them with the environment and the support to establish healthy patterns for a successful life, exactly at the time when the plasticity of the brain is at one of its most formative peaks. For third and fourth formers, the structure of the schedule and our clear expectations help boys understand what they need to do in order to succeed. For fifth and sixth formers, we offer more freedom within the structure so that they can exercise increased independence, autonomy, and self-awareness.
The school’s first headmaster, J. Carter Walker, never talked about “executive function,” but he and his faculty, as well as succeeding generations of teachers and coaches, knew intuitively what boys need. Much of what we do here is designed to help a boy build the discipline to regulate himself and make good choices. He has to get himself out of bed and to class on time without the hounding of his mother. Seated meal three nights a week starts at exactly 6:15, not when you want to roll off the couch and peek in the fridge. Study hall is two hours a night, six nights a week. We’re one of the few places left where boys go to class on Saturday morning, even on the second Saturday of November before The Game against Episcopal High School.
In the zero tolerance, single sanction world of the Woodberry honor system, boys learn how regulate themselves by protecting their integrity when they don’t know an answer on a test. They have to respect what belongs to their classmates, even when they’re tempted to take it, and they are charged with telling the truth, even when they know they’ll be held accountable. Without the luxury of a second chance, Woodberry boys learn to make good choices every day when it comes to drugs and alcohol, a long-held school policy that builds the grooves of healthy decision-making. In short, just about everything we do helps a boy learn how to learn and how to take care of himself. Here he builds the neurological musculature of a better developed pre-frontal cortex, and here he learns to stay focused on the signal in a noisy world of increasing distraction.
The patterns we establish often stay with a boy for life. I remember a gathering in Charlotte when the parent of an alumnus referred to his friend Hooper Hardison ’79 and said, “I learned from Hooper that you’ll get ahead in life if you work every Saturday morning.” Hooper was quick to say, “I learned that at Woodberry.” Another alumnus told me that he goes to church every week with his family, not because he did when he was a boy at home, but because that’s what we do at Woodberry.
Graduating seniors tell me the same kinds of stories. In small group conversations every year, they tell me what they value most about the Woodberry experience. One of the prominent threads, coming from every sector of the class, is an enduring self-confidence in knowing how to make good decisions and manage time effectively. This kind of independence, established through the structure of the Woodberry experience and then exercised through a pattern of good decisions that a boy learns over time, is exactly what we mean when we say that in a world of extraordinary and mindless distraction, Woodberry has never mattered more. And given the challenges we see, it’s clear to me that boys have never needed a Woodberry experience more than they do today.