critical thinking

Institutional Adaptability

October  23, 2016.     Woodberry Forest Mountain Bike

The single guiding principle for Woodberry Forest should be wide-ranging and thoughtful answers to a meta-question: What do boys need for their future? Of course boys today need much of what we’ve always needed: discipline, rigor, high standards, decency, respect, and an overriding commitment to character and integrity above all.

And yet we know that the world has changed rapidly and irreversibly since the turn of the century with the consolidation of the Information Age and ubiquity of technology in every area of life. Simply put, boys need the timeless values and the structure of the Woodberry community to stay grounded in the midst of accelerating change; at the very same time, however, they need to hone skills like curiosity and adaptability if they’re to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

Every boy who thrives at Woodberry has learned to adapt to the challenges of living on his own: he gets himself up in the morning and makes it to class on time; he takes responsibility for completing his work and fulfilling the expectations of his teachers and coaches; and he learns to live with a roommate and hallmates who may be very different than he is. This elemental form of adaptability is basic, yet it shouldn’t be overlooked. Thousands of Woodberry boys have graduated with confidence that they can achieve on their own when they make their way to college and beyond.

Athletics and the arts often emphasize the importance of adaptability. Winning teams make half-time adjustments in response to what they hadn’t anticipated. The boys on the winter climbing team model curiosity at the highest level. They’re problem solvers who fall from a climb, stand back, reassess, and then change their strategy to make it higher on the next attempt. The boys in this year’s winter musical are embracing adaptability. In “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” a musical murder mystery based on Charles Dickens’ last novel, the ending changes each night, depending on the vote of the audience.

We’re becoming more adaptive in our academic curriculum as well. Engineering, an elective for sixth formers, is applied math and science that demands novel strategies for problem solving as boys create Halloween costumes for faculty children and build cardboard boats for a spring regatta in the Ruffin Natatorium. This is the third year that we’ve offered senior distinction projects for sixth formers. In their final marking period at the school, boys take on their own big projects like building a car, constructing a mandolin from scratch, or producing short movies on a common theme.

Finally, I’d like to salute the faculty who model adaptability, curiosity, and life-long learning for the boys. When we offer a new course in response to changing times, it makes a difference. When we coach a boy to see a problem through a different angle, we help him develop the cognitive musculature to take a risk he might not have taken. And when a boy is consumed with an audacious dream and we look for a solution, we change a life forever.

I’m thinking of Efose Oriaifo ’17, a young man who is legally blind and wanted to join the mountain biking team before he graduated. Nolan LaVoie got special permission from league authorities and the pair competed together on a two-man bike, with Coach LaVoie calling out turns while Efose helped pedal.  Like any thriving species, the Woodberry culture must evolve or be passed by. We know, and we celebrate, the myriad ways we stay rooted to tradition that generates meaning and, at the same time, we live into a future that demands adaptability both for the school and the boys.

A Moment to Remember

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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.

Woodberry in Asia

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Just after the final faculty meeting marking the close of the school year, Assistant Headmaster and Chief Development Officer Catherine Wharton, Assistant Headmaster for Admissions and College Counseling Scott Schamberger, and I made the trek from Woodberry to Seoul, Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. I had never before been to Asia, and I was happy to have the opportunity to see first-hand a culture that generates more and more media attention from the West but remains elusive and incomprehensible to many of us. One of my goals as an educator and a father is to practice life-long learning, and spending time in Korea and China was for me an extraordinary educational experience.

At present, 10 percent of our student body is international, and just over half of those boys hail from Asia. Our international student population represents one of the few material changes in the school’s culture since I was a Woodberry boy in the 1980s. At every turn I have been impressed with the ways our international students add to Woodberry’s culture, make us better in every area, and generate increased cosmopolitanism among us all. The primary purpose of our trip was to be with our Asian students, their families, and our growing body of alumni on their home soil.

In addition to Scott and Catherine, I was accompanied on my travels by Evan Osnos’ excellent Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. A long-time writer for The New Yorker, Osnos lived in China from 2008 to 2013, and he opens a window onto China’s culture that gave me a clearer sense of where I was and what I was seeing. Having made our way home late last week, I’ve assembled nine takeaways (in no particular order of importance) from our journey.

  1. The friendliness, hospitality, and graciousness that we encountered at every turn were incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with our boys and especially their parents, and I am deeply humbled by the sacrifice our Asian parents make to allow their sons to go halfway around the world for a Woodberry education.
  2. Speaking of which, I was inspired by the wide-spread belief shared by so many that education is the driving force behind social and economic mobility for individuals and nations alike. We encountered a deep and reverent respect for teachers as leaders in society, and I appreciate very much the high regard for education.
  3. In Seoul, seven young Woodberry alumni stepped forward at our reception and gave our current students excellent advice about making the most of their Woodberry years. The one common theme was the importance of finding a place for your heart to sing beyond the classroom and to reach up and out to take advantage of the many opportunities we offer. I understand that this advice can ring hollow and sound a little counterintuitive for many of our Asian students who feel pressure to score at the highest level academically; nonetheless, these young alumni offered a rich perspective on the whole of what we do here, and I hope our current boys continue to take this excellent advice to heart.
  4. The scale of what we saw is mind-numbing to say the least. I’m from Texas, and we like to say that everything’s bigger in the Lone Star state, but most Texans haven’t been to China. After having been in Beijing (population of 22 million) and Shanghai (population of 26 million), New York seems like a mid-size city. The feverish and frenzied construction is overwhelming, and the size of airports, train stations, and highways make for an urban infrastructure that has fueled the Chinese economy over the past fifteen years. How much longer the boom can last is anyone’s guess, but the progress they’ve made is undeniable.
  5. One unforgettable highlight was climbing to the top of one section of the Great Wall with my advisee, David Li. It was hot and the air was heavy with pollution, but a late afternoon thunderstorm cleared the sky for a magnificent following day of touring in Beijing, which included visits to the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and Tsinghua University.
  6. China is on the move. Millions of Chinese are pouring into urban areas from the countryside, hungry for economic opportunity. The father of one of our entering boys has created thirteen schools near Hangzhou serving 1000 students over the last twelve years. He has plans to build eighty seven more. It was staggering to learn that most of the modern financial district in Shanghai has been built in the last fifteen years.
  7. A special thanks go to my translators at Woodberry events! Andy Park, Robin Jin, and Adrian Cheung stepped up to make me understandable to their parents, one more reminder that we need to be more nuanced and more thorough in our communications efforts with Asian families who have not mastered English. Woodberry and Beijing are worlds apart culturally, and we need to be more mindful of the ways we communicate to our boys and especially with their families.
  8. Scott, Catherine, and I sampled some Chinese delicacies that I had no idea even existed as foodstuffs. In Beijing we were treated to a fantastic banquet at its most famous and long-standing restaurant, Quanjude, a place where Chairman Mao and President Nixon dined in 1972. The menu included braised fish lips, fried duck hearts, braised sea cucumber, fried duck tongue, and roast duck. At other gatherings we tried cherries stuffed with goose liver, bird’s nest in a papaya, and whole-bodied and whole-head anchovies. Chinese cuisine is very different from Woodberry’s menu, and I empathized more directly with how our students and their parents must find hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and chicken tenders in the Terry Dining Hall.
  9. Finally, I now sympathize more fully with our boys as they struggle with jet lag upon their return from Asia to Woodberry after the holidays. My clock has been inverted twice now in ten days, and I’m amazed that our boys can be in class at 8:00 a.m. and still be coherent for seated dinner and study hall as they make their way back to the Woodberry routine.

All in all, it was a terrific trip, and I’m very thankful to have had the chance to spend time in Asia and to be with our boys, their families, and our alumni as we continue to open Woodberry to the world on behalf of all of our boys and what they need for their future.

The Things You’ll Carry

 

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The following entry is the Baccalaureate Sermon given on May 28, 2016 in St. Andrew’s Chapel by Headmaster Byron Hulsey to the graduating Woodberry Class of 2016 and their families. 

Your graduation day from Woodberry Forest. 126 classes have gone before you, but this is your day and your moment. May 28, 2016: you have planned for this, hungered for this, perhaps dreaded this or been excited for this. If you are at all like me, you find time to be one of the strangest, most befuddling forces in all of life. We can’t see it, but we sure do feel it. It goes too slow, and then it pours out way too quickly. I understand that Thompson Brock has had an app on his phone since his third form year that counted down the days to graduation. The only thing that surprises me about that is that it wasn’t Teddy Garner! Time creeps by, and then rushes forward way too fast. Most of us would like for this morning, these last few hours, to last a little longer, but time won’t stand still. For those of us on the faculty and for me as headmaster, today is bittersweet. I’ll miss your class, and I will miss each of you, even those chance encounters with the likes of Bo Sheridan on the steps on Anderson Hall. But if we get consumed with spending too much time reflecting on what was or was not, the good times and the challenging times, investing too much time worrying about what might happen or too much time hoping for what will never be, we will run the risk of missing the precious moments that make up our lives.

Even if we miss too many moments, the good news this morning is that Woodberry Forest is and will always be a constant force in our lives, one that has long stood the test of time, and will continue to remain a rock of continuity in a changing world that can leave us feeling bewildered and bemused. Here you learned the rigor and the discipline necessary to reach for a life of consequence and meaning. Here you developed friendships that will last you a lifetime, and here you established relationships with teachers and coaches that might well be the foundation for your future dreams and aspirations. And most importantly, here you grew in stature and character, more and more sure that a life of integrity and character, honor and purpose, will stand the test of time and set you apart from those without principles and beliefs.

I graduated from college long, long ago in 1990 and in that year Tim O’Brien published a novel based on his own experiences that he entitled The Things They Carried. It’s a book that may be familiar to you, and details the kaleidoscopic, nightmarish experiences of fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. O’Brien emphasizes the wide variety of provisions, supplies, and pieces of equipment that an infantryman carried while humping it in Southeast Asia: canteens, can openers, pocket knives, dog tags, mosquito repellent, cigarettes, packets of Kool-Aid, C-rations, toothbrushes, comic books, love letters from sweethearts at home, M-60s and M-16s, slingshots and brass knuckles, safety pins, razor blades, fingernail clippers and ponchos. One of O’Brien’s characters carried his girlfriend’s panty hose wrapped around his neck as a comforter. Other men carried bibles and diaries.

I’ve been thinking of all you’ve carried in your years at the school: laundry that you learned how to do on your own and hauled from Community Street to C-Dorm, backpacks, blue blazers, calculators, pens, pencils, scooters, hats, books, milkshakes from the Fir Tree, Beats and endless bags of Oreos if you’re Michael Davenport, laptops and, at least in the last two years, phones that beep and buzz, a strap from the Dick Gym, and, at least until this year, a tray in the Reynolds Family Dining Room, some of you carried demerits rather routinely, even the “Dirty Thirty,” others of you carried Arthur before bestowing him upon a group of fifth formers earlier this week. You’ve carried your fair share here, just as the legions of alumni who’ve gone before.

O’Brien’s image of the things they carried is far more than the merely physical. For him and for the men in Vietnam the things they carried are freighted with the emotional heaviness of vicious combat in a world far, far from home. They carried guilt and shame, love and redemption, fear and loathing, hope and despair. Above all they carried memories, and so it is for you, too. Here at Woodberry you’ve sacrificed much to be here. Through the rigor that is and always has been the Woodberry way, you’ve developed grit and persistence, patience and follow-through, care and commitment, honor and integrity, character and an enduring self-confidence buttressed by the knowledge that you have made it. Along the way, of course, each of you and the class as a whole, has endured loss and disappointment. You’ve seen friends come and go. You’ve struggled to understand how and why, you’ve had your doubts about this place and about yourselves. But time and time again, whenever there was a chance for this class to fray and splinter, you instead made the call to grow stronger, both individually and collectively, and for that indomitable spirit, I salute each of you, and I salute the class of 2016.

People and place shape us and generate the memories that bind us all together, but we are ultimately formed for the good we’re called to advance after we leave. I want to call on you to remain humble and hungry always, and I challenge you this morning to avoid a mistake that I’ve seen plague too many Woodberry alumni. It’s true that here we are one and in our Woodberry family we know what this place means and what it does to make boys into men and make good men even better. But don’t expect the rest of the world to care that you went to Woodberry Forest. I’ve seen too many alumni expect too much in life just because they graduated from Woodberry. I went to college with guys who occasionally acted as if they expected the Woodberry aura to matter to those on the outside far more than it does. Please, gentlemen, don’t make that same mistake. Know deep in your gut that the truths of this place will hold you in good stead for the rest of your lives, but, at the same time, avoid the temptation to project yourselves with hubris or arrogance on men and women who in the end just don’t care that much that you went to Woodberry. Instead, wear your experience here lightly on the outside. Be curious, inquisitive, tender-hearted, and open-minded on the path that lies ahead. Have confidence in your ability to reach beyond yourself, but always have something to prove, or else you’re settling for a life of mediocrity that falls short of your potential. Remember the counsel of Warren Buffett, who advises us all to “hang out with people who are better than you, and you cannot help but improve.” Stay rooted to the story of Jesus after the Transfiguration: be not afraid, and come down quietly from the mountain-top that has been this extraordinary experience without lording it in any way over those who just don’t know and just don’t care.

While I hope that you’ll wear your journey here lightly on the outside, I trust that you’ll allow the Woodberry experience to burrow deep inside you for the rest of your lives. On numerous occasions this spring I’ve been reminded that the place means so very much to so many Tiger faithful. At reunion weekend I met and visited with misty-eyed men who spoke emotionally about who they’d become here, what they learned here, how they suffered here, and how they came, far from the comfort of their homes, to embrace the responsibility and the opportunity to reach for a great life full of meaning and fulfillment. Just a couple of weeks ago at a Woodberry reception in Richmond, two non-alumni parents whose son graduated over ten years ago told me how hard it was for them to turn left out of the entrance and bid farewell to the campus one final time after commencement. And just two nights ago, as I wandered the campus and the senior dorms, I came upon groups of you just hanging out, soaking up the few remaining hours you have together. I came upon a fantastic, late-night game of poker in Griffin House, and the ease, comfort, and sheer bliss in the room captured for me the essence of brotherhood that is at the core of who we are.

Not long ago I was visiting with a headmaster friend of mine from a Catholic boys’ school outside of Boston. He mentioned that one of his early board chairs believed that there is a dynamic and interactive relationship between the ethical, social, and spiritual values of justice, mercy, and grace. Justice, he said, is when we get what we deserve. Mercy is when we don’t get what we deserve. And grace is when we get what we don’t deserve. There is no disputing the fact that justice and the clear line and acting on high standards matter here at Woodberry. And while that justice may be plain and may be clear, it hurts us and rattles us and jars us; at the end of the day, however, our commitment to moral integrity and high standards generates the brotherhood, and it’s not the brotherhood that produces the high standards and devotion to moral integrity that constitute the Woodberry way.

Mercy is another matter entirely. While it may not be etched into the Blue Book or the enrollment contract, and while it may vary situation to situation and person to person, we know that it exists, and I daresay every alumnus alive today would be able to tell you about a time that he was the beneficiary of mercy, a time that he did not get what he deserved.

For me it is grace that is the synthesis between the two. I like the interpretation of grace as being when we get what we don’t deserve, and for me this is wrapped up in the parable of the prodigal son that Caleb read this morning. Justice and mercy are woven into the daily culture of life at Woodberry, but on the cusp of your graduation, it is grace that I hope embodies this place for you in the years that lie ahead.

Part of us will always be the prodigal son, the one who leaves home with ambitious dreams about hitting the big one and making it on our own. At various times in your life you will likely find yourselves on the greasy pole, searching for a toe-hold and yearning for material success. And no matter how successful you may become, or how frustrated or disappointed, I hope and I pray that for you, just as it has been for me, Woodberry is a place of undeserved grace which calls us home and reminds us that we are known, challenged, and loved, that here we are one and here we are welcome and here we are the beneficiaries of an abiding grace that we did not deserve, but instead exists as a gift from God and the faculty and alumni who have shaped this place for 127 years. Amen.