Convocation: Freedom Within Structure | Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Convocation: Freedom Within Structure

Faculty, staff, students, Ryan - Welcome to the 125th September at Morristown-Beard School. I hope that you all had a wonderful summer. We start the year with a convocation ceremony to symbolize the ushering in of a new year, a new beginning. The academic calendar allows us to start fresh every September. Every year, we bring new energy, new ideas and, for many of you, new growth, both physically and emotionally.

A few weeks ago, I went to a wedding of a former advisee, where I sat next to a small boy who was attending the ceremony with his father. Throughout the service, the little boy expressed awe of the colored windows, the soft stool in front of him, the instrument with long strings, the organ, the statues, the flower children, the minister's command of her congregation. It was captivating to watch this boy's responsiveness to her directives: to stand and sing, to sit and listen, to turn with kind words to his neighbor. I found out later he had never been to church before, but his respect for the institution, the ceremony, and his engagement with the congregation was palpable.

It is this kind of reverence for something larger than yourself that I want you to keep in mind this year. I want each of you to consider your commitment to this 125-year-old community. I want you to think about your commitment to the process of learning, your respect for each other and for the faculty, your respect for our alumni and the students who came before you.

Our 2016 baseball team was fantastically successful, but it was not simply because they had gone further than any other team in the history of MBS that they were great. It was not batting, pitching, and field statistics that made them exceptional. I would submit that it was partially the work that they did off the field that contributed to their success.

As a team, these 16 boys attended the winter musical, Pippin, offering support for their fellow students. As a team, they won a national award for academic excellence, demonstrating their commitment to the classroom. As a team, they won the Frank Sayre Award bestowed by the states' umpires for exemplary sportsmanship; an accolade that rewards values and character. Collectively, that is what made them exceptional.

With these values in mind, I want you to think about how you are going to move through your day from class to class with this same amount of dignity, respect, focus, and commitment. I am going to ask you to put away your cell phones, your food, your loud voices and to respect academic spaces – including the library.

I want you to approach your work in this School with the same respect and awe that Chicago Cubs' Ryne Sandburg has for the game of baseball. I am going to read to you his 2003 induction speech to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"I was in awe every time I walked onto the field. That's respect. I was taught you never ever disrespect your opponent or your teammates or your organization or your manager and never ever your uniform. Make a great play, act like you have done it before; get a big hit, look for the third-base coach and get ready to run the bases; hit a home run, put your head down, drop the bat, run around the bases, because the name on the front is a lot more important than the name on the back. That's respect... When did it become okay for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?... These guys sitting up here [in the baseball Hall of Fame] did not pave the way for the rest of us so the players could swing for the fences every time up and forget how to move a runner over to third. It's disrespectful to them, to you, and to the game of baseball that we all played growing up. Respect. A lot of people say this honor today validates my career, but I didn't work hard for validation. I didn't play the game right because I saw a reward at the end of the tunnel. I played it right because that's what you're supposed to do, play it right and with respect... If this [induction to the hall of fame] validates anything, it's that guys who taught me the game did what they were supposed to do and I did what I was supposed to do."

At MBS our daily schedule and our obligations structure us—but they liberate us, too. Ryne Sandberg knows the intent behind these rules and regulations. He understands that paradoxically from structure we get freedom—freedom to create, to stretch, to grow. Rabbi Peter Grumbacher reminds us that there are healthy and unhealthy freedoms. Freedom from structure leads to chaos. Freedom to create structure through a set of rules and regulations enables us to grow and flourish within a framework of specific and agreed upon expectations.

Recently I received a note from a MBS alumnus who wrote: Students at MBS don't know how great they have it. In college they will encounter countless professors lauded for their works and laden with degrees and accolades. But what they will not find quite as easily when they leave MBS are educators who actually care about them, who know them from Adam. In a crammed lecture course with little instruction and a faceless professor, they'll soon figure out that it makes very little difference whether they turn in junk or their very best. But at MBS, where the teachers indeed have faces, ones that are very prominent in their lives, one cannot get away with laziness or apathy without a fight. What these kids will miss most after leaving MBS is being held accountable. What they will miss is knowing that someone truly cares about whether or not they produce their best work."

As we start the year, I hope that each of us seizes the opportunities that surround us, respects each other and those who came before us, and learns to show a reverence for something that is larger than ourselves. Have a great year.

On Thinking Institutionally
By Hugh Heclo
Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO 2008

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
By Sebastian Junger
Twelve Hatchett Book Group, New York, New York 2016


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