Perpetual Learning

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.

Wrestling with Why

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The following is a sermon given by Dr. Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Sunday, May 21, ahead of the annual “Senior Shake.”

Deep in the winter of 1985, I was limping my way through John Reimers’ trimester course on the novel. I can’t say that I ever fully understood Mr. Reimers or his methods, but I did enjoy the class. Like those of you who have had his class or have it now, I knew that I was in the presence of a well-read, deeply interesting, sometimes frustrating, and occasionally mercurial man. I don’t remember many details, but I have never forgotten one encounter that I wish to share with you tonight. We were reading Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, and when we came to class one day, Mr. Reimers announced that we would have a quiz. We closed our books, took out some paper, and awaited his instructions. Nothing happened. And then he walked over to the board and wrote one question that we were to answer. “Why?” We moaned and groaned to no avail. He completely ignored our pleading inquiries about how we should answer the question. So we began to write. Many of my classmates wrote several paragraphs and learned later that they’d failed the quiz. I had no idea what Mr. Reimers wanted, so in a fit of frustration, I answered the question “why?” with “because,” and got a “C.” One boy in my class answered, “why not?” and earned an “A.”

At the time I chalked up this Woodberry memory of John Reimers to what I believed to be his arbitrary and capricious methods of instruction. But over the years I’ve come to understand that there was method to the madness—that John wanted us to understand that there are occasions in life when we will never be able to answer the question “why?” Please don’t misunderstand me. Your eagerness and willingness to ask “why?” and to search for the truth is essential to what it means to be an educated citizen in our democracy. Critical thinking is learning how to ask the right question at the right time and then building a case based on facts to solve a problem that needs to be addressed. Those who never ask “why?” typically follow the herd and fall short of their potential, but those who take time to ask put themselves in a position to lead and to serve in communities larger than we will ever be.

But there are undoubtedly times in life when we’ll never be able to answer the question “why?”, and “why not” comes about as close as we may ever get to the truth. Like many of you, I’ve wrestled with one question I’ll never be able to answer: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why are some children afflicted with a terrible illness when most of us are healthy? Why would God stand idly by and allow six million Jews to be killed in the concentration camps? Why are some born into privilege and comfort when others are born into miserable poverty and social chaos? Why do some die in an earthquake or tornado when others are spared? Why does a boy lose his father in the blink of an eye just four years after the death of his mother?

Such questions rattle us to the core and have theological, moral, and psychological implications for how we come to see the world and our place in the human community. As you wrestle with “why?” I want to offer one more story that’s personal to me. After my first semester in college, my parents bought me a car from a friend of a family friend in Dallas. I was back at UVa at the start of the second semester, so a friend of my dad’s drove a navy blue, two-door Honda Prelude to Nashville, where a fraternity brother and I met him one weekend in late January. After the hand-off we set out on the trek to Charlottesville on a cold Sunday night, and all felt right with the world. Near the town of Bristol, snow started to fall. It had not accumulated on the highway, so I felt like I could safely continue the trip back to UVa. Several miles later an 18-wheeler in front of me braked, and when I followed suit, I lost control of the car as we spun around the interstate on a sheet of black ice. The last thing I remember is seeing from the rearview mirror another 18-wheeler coming straight at us. I have no memory of the collision that ensued, but do have a vague recollection of the Tennessee state trooper who woke us up as he came upon the accident and drove us to the hospital to be checked. Fortunately my friend suffered only a sprained thumb. I thought I was fine, but it turns out that I’d fractured my skull (Jennifer, by the way, wonders occasionally if I’ve ever fully recovered!) and stayed for several days in the Bristol hospital before heading home to Texas to restore my health.

Several weeks later the insurance adjuster sent us a harrowing photograph of the two-door Honda Prelude after the accident. It was, for me, the single moment in my life that cemented my understanding of the world and my tiny place in it. The car was absolutely crushed. It’s almost unfathomable that anyone could have survived or not been maimed for life. I was tempted to believe that God had reached out and spared my friend and me in that moment of peril and that He had big plans for my life. But that view of God does not account for the undeserved suffering in the world, those who lose their lives in tornadoes and tsunamis, those who perish at the hands of evil tyrants, those who get sick when others are healthy. We’re left with that vexing question, “Why?”

“Why not?” may be about the best answer that we can offer in the wake of terrible loss and undeserved suffering. If we hold to the belief that God gives people what they deserve, we come to see ourselves as righteous if we’ve not yet been afflicted. But then we come to blame ourselves unfairly when tragedy strikes. Our God of love can quite quickly turn into a God of spite and vengeance, and that does not work for me. Instead, I have come to see life as an undeserved gift from God who created all and knows all but does not control all. After seeing that photograph of my pancaked Honda Prelude and putting that single moment in the context of the suffering in the world, I know there’s no good reason for me to have been spared while others perish.

Even though “Why?” is a good question to ask, I hope that we don’t stop with “Why not?” as an answer. It can, after all, be a little too blasé, a little too indifferent, a little too uncaring and fatalistic. In the face of suffering, I hope you’ll be brave enough and courageous enough to ask deeper and more penetrating questions, like “Given what has happened, what am I called to do?” or as the Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner writes in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?” Kushner makes clear that “the God I believe in does not send us the problem.” Instead, through prayer, “He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.” You will get the answers through your faith, through careful conversation with your conscience, through your best relationships, and through, I hope, the foundational beliefs that you’ve learned here at Woodberry.

Many, like the Old Testament’s Job and the Apostle Paul from tonight’s readings, find solace and strength and bravery in prayer. Paul understands suffering to be an opportunity to build endurance which yields character and finally hope for troubled times. Those who have suffered and lean into their suffering seem hard-wired to serve their fellow man, much like we call on you here to take care of each other. A man I’ve long admired is the deceased Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived three years in Jewish concentration camps in World War II and then wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946. Frankl had every reason to be bitter and resentful. His wife, parents, and brother all died in the camps, and yet he somehow rose above the evil depravity he’d witnessed and found meaning and actually freedom through the experience. In the face of the cruel capriciousness of his captors, Frankl looked inward to his moral being and outward to his fellow inmates for the strength he needed to survive and prove worthy of his suffering.

Frankl came to understand that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.” Frankl had been separated from his wife and family and knew he’d likely never see them again, but that brutal fact did not erase the power of love that sustained him. He reminds me that nothing can take away the love we have for our family and friends and for our Woodberry brothers. It was also in the camps that Frankl embraced the freedom of his existence. The ideal of freedom and the reality of a concentration camp seem like a woefully misaligned paradox, and I understand that many of you feel far from free at Woodberry with study hall on Friday nights, classes on Saturday, demerit hall on Saturday night, the many rules in the Blue Book, and our high standards for your behavior that run counter to the ways of the world. I’m reminded of the former board chair, Sion Boney, who said jokingly many years ago when a family friend visited our campus for the first time and compared it to a country club that Woodberry might be better understood as a “country club run by Nazis.”

Freedom in the midst of a concentration camp or freedom and Woodberry Forest don’t make sense on the surface. But listen carefully to what Frankl means, and listen for the ways his message connects to our charge that you take care of each other and wade bravely into the suffering rather than stand idly by. “We who lived in concentration camps,” Frankl wrote, “can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

Choice is the essence of freedom, and while there is much in life that we cannot control, times in life that leave us reeling with no way to answer “why,” each of us has the freedom to make a choice about how we handle the unexpected twists and turns that lie ahead. In the days and weeks and years to come, each of us should spend a little less time seeking success or happiness or searching for meaning. We should, instead, understand that success and happiness and meaning come from our moral beliefs, a dedication to noble causes greater than we will ever be, and to an unconditional commitment to relationships secured by a transcendent love that knows no bounds and sustains us through the best and worst of times. That’s what I hope you’ve gotten here from your teachers and your coaches and the best of your friends, and I hope that’s what you’ll take from here to make the world better as proud and humble alumni of Woodberry Forest.

One Band of Tiger Brothers

screenshot-2017-01-10-15-16-55The following is a sermon given by Headmaster Byron Hulsey during the first chapel service of 2017.

My first teaching job after I graduated from the University of Virginia was at a co-ed boarding school in rural, southwest England. It was in many ways, the ideal first job: I learned more than I could have ever expected, I made some great friends, and I lived and traveled in a different part of the world that I came to love. Bryanston School was and is in many ways almost the polar opposite of Woodberry Forest: it is co-educational; there is not even a semblance of an honor system; it is unabashedly progressive; it even has a pub in the basement for seniors that is open four nights a week.

I remember many of my students like it was yesterday: Gracie Burnett, Liam Connelly, William Coleridge, Jon Curtis, and Ben Fogle come immediately to mind. One-on-one, these were great kids. Each was smart, funny, curious, and always interesting to be around. But together, they were a handful. They mocked my American accent mercilessly, they took advantage of the fact that I was new at the school and new to the profession, and they more than once showed a flagrant disregard for academic integrity. I remember many days during that first year, at the age of 23, when I was at wits’ end, totally frustrated, confused, and bewildered that my new school was so different than Woodberry Forest       or UVa.

In my ninth grade European history class we spent the entire winter term studying World War I: the causes of the war, the military history, the war at home, the propaganda machine designed to stoke the fires of hatred against the evil foe, and the struggle for peace once the conflict came to a bitter and inconclusive conclusion in 1918. Those of you in Mr. Tallman’s class remember the war in all of its devastating horror: 70 million combatants from around the world were mobilized; 9 million of those who fought eventually died in the war; an additional 7 million civilians lost their lives as a result of the fighting. It was a brutal and devastating stretch of years in European history, and as the first modern, total war in history, it marked the end of innocence for all who lived through it. As a young teacher and a history major, I found the material riveting, and I loved the opportunity to look at the war from every angle. My students—not so much. They were their characteristically distracted selves, rarely, if ever, focused on the task at hand.

We closed the term with a five-day trip scheduled by the department chair to the World War I battlefields in Belgium and France. The ferry ride over from Southampton to Calais was a near disaster, as our students raced crazily around the ship and seemed on the verge of getting into major trouble at every turn. We bussed over to a hotel in Belgium late the night we arrived so we could be at the site of the Battle of the Somme first thing the next morning.

Some of you may know the history of the Somme: it was the epitome of “modern” trench warfare, with little more than a few hundred yards separating the German and British lines. On the one fateful day that the British troops went “over the top” in what was supposed to be a surprise attack, German machine gunners mowed them down mercilessly, leaving nearly 60,000 Englishmen dead or wounded. In fact, England lost more men on that day alone than the United States lost in 10 years in Vietnam.

We’d read and studied the Somme carefully back at school, and still I didn’t expect it. When we stepped off the bus, you could have heard a pin drop. In the moment it felt ghostly in a poignant way, as if these boys and girls had been utterly transformed into the most respectful, quiet, thoughtful, and mature group you’d ever met. I learned that day that there is something in an English person’s DNA that makes the Somme, even though it’s across the English Channel and on the continent, a memorial in perpetuity to a point in time where innocence was lost and the British Empire changed forever. I learned something more important, too, about teaching and humanity. I’d been mistaken to think that I knew my students and that as a group they were likely to be a disappointment. I learned that even when we think we know someone else fully and completely, there’s often another layer at the core of a person’s true self that we’ll never know unless we’re paying attention and open to the wholeness that you get when we cast our critical assumptions aside and take time to be surprised, often for the better.

I’ve been thinking about the Somme a lot of late, especially as we make our way through the Christmas season beyond Epiphany and into the dead of winter. On the one hand, the Somme represents some of the worst in our flawed and fallen human nature: fought over several hundreds of yards of “no man’s land” between national armies who’d convinced themselves that the other was morally depraved and demonic, the human carnage and the financial wreckage were simply catastrophic for Europe. Even today we struggle to understand what caused the Great War. It seems petty and childish. Millions died. So much was lost, and so little was gained. And while we look at the Somme and shake our heads in bewilderment about the inanity of man and how foolish we often are, there’s another story, too.

Late on Christmas Eve in 1914 British Expeditionary Forces heard their German counterparts singing carols and patriotic songs, and they saw their trenches lined with lanterns and fig trees. The following day on Christmas morning the guns fell silent, and British and German soldiers climbed out of their trenches and met in no-man’s land, exchanged gifts, took photographs, and played informal games of what we call soccer and they call football. They were, for that fleeting moment united and connected and made whole by a common belief in the gift of the Christ child for a fallen and broken world.

Tragically the truce did not last, and the war raged on. But here, in that one moment, we have the second competing image of how we might live our lives. On the one hand we fall prey to the natural temptation to see a dualistic, binary world of “us versus them”—angels and demons. That’s a zero-sum game of winners and losers that divides us from one another and even from ourselves. It’s a man-made and socially constructed narrative as old as humanity, and it pours forth in the Bible in the Cain and Abel story and all through human history in wars and conflicts that emphasize how we’re different and better, more pure and more righteous. Of course the other side sees itself in exactly the same way and the conflicts–personal, within a family or community, within a nation and between nations–rage on. The truth becomes elusive, trust evaporates; fear, suspicion and doubt fester. We see it today in the bitterly divided United States: red versus blue; Republicans and Democrats; gay and straight; conservatives and liberals; men and women; rich and poor; Fox News and MSNBC; the educated coastal elites at odds with the nation’s heartland; rural versus urban; police and Black Lives Matter demonstrators. The list goes on and on, and the identity politics and the slicing and dicing of the electorate we know so well threatens to tear our national community apart and leave us ever more certain that we are right, and the other side is wrong, that we are patriots and the other side are traitors to the cause.

And like any such nation, community, or family, we’ve had some of division and difficulty at Woodberry, too. We are lesser than the sum of our many parts when we fall prey to the temptation to think of ourselves and others as parts of a whole rather than the whole itself. But the Christmas truce at the Somme reaches through time, and made even my rowdy students pause just long enough to see a second, more complete and unified vision of who we are and who we can be, whether it be individually, here at school, or in the nation and world. At Woodberry we’re better when we practice and celebrate all of what we do here, whether it’s an eclectic and spirited cast in Spamalot last winter, extraordinarily diverse chapel choir and musical ensembles singing and playing at the candlelight concert in December, boys taking on sports they’ve never tried, diving into an elective class they’d never considered, or working with Mr. Phillips with younger students as a peer tutor. It’s singing Amici in chapel, after The Game, or at commencement. These programmatic and scripted initiatives matter, but just like the Christmas truce, it’s the unplanned, impromptu times of togetherness that can matter even more. It’s when a table of fifth formers with boys from all over the world hangs out with each other on Tuesday night, long after they’ve finished their meal, just to enjoy each other’s company. It’s down-time on dorm that you might spend with someone you think you know, but really don’t. I’ll never forget two years ago when sixth former Averett Flory from Columbus, Georgia told me what he loved most about Woodberry is that one of his best friends came from Hong Kong that he’d visited there the past summer. “If I’d stayed home and never gone to Woodberry,” he told me, “there’s no way I’d ever have a friend from Hong Kong.”

Forging these kinds of connections and building these relationships across apparent divides requires empathy and leadership, but it results in a reservoir of trust that is in short supply in our nation today. In just eleven days we will celebrate the peaceful transfer of power as President Obama gives way to President Trump on January 20. We should never take for granted the peaceful transfer of power between two competitive parties in our democracy, and the pageantry and celebration matter for our national community. During President Obama’s Farewell Address tomorrow and during President Trump’s Inaugural Address next Friday, be watching for signs that they want the nation to be knit back together and that they will work to make it happen. Fortunately, they have models of leadership in American history to which to point: After the bitterly divisive election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson claimed in his inaugural, “We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans.” In his first inaugural before the Civil War, Lincoln called on the North and the South to remember that “we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” In his second inaugural, before the Civil War had even come to a close, Lincoln emphasized that he’d go forward with “malice toward none and charity for all.” Just weeks later when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Grant asked Lee, “How many men do you have, and are they hungry?”

It’s one thing to be humble and magnanimous in victory, quite another to be gracious and charitable in defeat. And yet history can help us here, too. In 1992 Bill Clinton won the White House by overwhelming the incumbent, President George Bush. It was, for Bush, a bitter pill to swallow. Losing always is, especially when the stakes are so high and you’ve poured so much into a presidency that was rejected at the polls. And yet the elder George Bush has a vision of the country that is much bigger than us versus them or Republican versus Democrat or rural versus urban or rich versus poor. Just hours before the inauguration of his rival, President Bush went into the Oval Office one last time and wrote a letter to Mr. Clinton that he left in the desk. “I wish you great happiness here,” Mr. Bush wrote. “I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice, but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”

I hope we see similar threads of unified connectivity for our nation from those who have won and lost in the days ahead. But we can’t wait for others to do what we need to for ourselves and our community here at Woodberry. At our best we are the way the world should be, a place of wholeness and oneness, a community bound together by high expectations, trust, respect, and brotherhood.

Scripture tells us that God wants us live in unity as one body, the whole so much more mighty and meaningful than the sum of the separate parts. Saint Paul urges the Ephesians to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all through all, and in all.” May we all take time to listen and reach out; let us make a point in this new calendar year to get to know someone we might have never known and take care of a brother who needs a helping hand in a moment of confusion, difficulty, or loneliness. Because at our best, and that means right now, we are one band of Tiger brothers, forever and ever. Amen.     

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.

 

 

24/7 Learning

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Most of us who are alumni know intuitively how to answer the question, “Why Woodberry?” But occasionally our heartfelt answers about enduring friendships, a rigorous academic experience, and well-rounded opportunities in the arts and athletics sound to those who don’t know the Forest like something that could appear in marketing materials from any of the best independent day schools in the land.

It’s almost impossible to market the marrow that makes up Woodberry’s culture. My most lasting memories as a boy here are truly kaleidoscopic: bus rides back from Richmond or Alexandria; working through squabbles with roommates and hall mates on Upper Taylor as a new boy; hanging out with friends in the Reynolds Family Dining Room long after we’d finished eating; arguing about politics with Nat Jobe and the most conservative boys in the class in the common room after study hall; playing pick-up basketball deep into a Saturday night while the mixer crew rambled back from Chatham or Madeira or some other faraway place.

As headmaster, my greatest joy comes from watching the boys create their own memories, and these memories are invariably borne from extraordinary learning opportunities that happen anywhere and anytime in our all-boys, all-boarding environment.  We are expanding the curriculum to include electives that challenge the boys academically to apply their learning in new contexts, some of which will have greater relevance for them as they prepare for life in college and beyond.

But our taught curriculum comprises only one important part of the learning experience at Woodberry, and not by any means the whole of what it means to be a Woodberry boy. In the weeks just before Spring Break, we were treated to two fantastic theatrical performances, the Black Box production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile and, on the main stage, the musical Spamalot. In Spamalot, six boys appeared on stage for the first time in their Woodberry careers. Four are sixth formers who were clearly making the most of their days at Woodberry by participating wholeheartedly in endeavors that they might not have chosen if they’d stayed at home for high school. This learning experience in the dramatic arts was formative for them, and their sensational and rollicking performance was so good that we had prohibit fellow students from coming to watch them more than once and missing more than one night of study hall!

Just before exams, the sixth formers also completed the Average Joe’s basketball intramural championship. Teams are composed of non-varsity players. The varsity players only role (an incredibly challenging role, for sure) is to referee the hotly-contested games in the Dick Gym. The championship game included not one, but two, improbable last-second shots, and the ensuing pandemonium was a reminder of the purity of sport at its very best.

I love the fact that sixth formers Gray Robertson and John Pittman called the game on WFSPN, our new student broadcasting network and a learning endeavor that Gray launched this year to bring the magic of Woodberry to viewers and listeners far from our campus.

At our best, we love learning here at Woodberry. Whether it’s in the classroom, on dorm, down by the river, in the dining hall, at the easel, or on the field, the Woodberry experience is rich and transformative for boys, new and old, who love the school far more than words could ever convey.