September Bench Talk: Convocation - It’s Always More Complicated Than You Think

It’s Always More Complicated Than You Think: Resisting Assumptions

Welcome! 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.

Today on this first day of school, I want you to think about who you are and how you want to define yourself this year within the MBS community.

Is it possible to reduce your life to a single moment or a single story? How about a single trait or identifier? I imagine that none of us wants to be defined by a single word or action but rather, we want to be known for our full potential with all of our complexities.

When my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, her teacher called home with grave news: “A boy in Alexa’s class broke her necklace. We are terribly sorry, and we have reprimanded him.”

Alexa returned home with tears in her stockings and scrapes on her knees. Where the necklace tore, a line of red burned on her neck.

However, she was perfectly happy. She recounted her day, what she learned in class and how she beat her nemesis, Kyle Stoltz, in a running race during recess. She then started, and won, a game of tag. She loved the peanut butter sandwich we had packed her for lunch. She did not mention the necklace at all.

Nearly every day, Alexa returned home from school with holes in her tights, scuffs on her shoes, scrapes on her knees or hands or elbows. She loved to play games, and she was competitive. Some might say she played rough; some might call her a “tomboy.”

When the teacher called home and told me about this boy who had broken her necklace, I asked if Alexa had done something to provoke Kyle’s behavior or if she had retaliated in any way. The teacher investigated.

As it turns out, to understand this moment, we need more context. After their running race, Kyle tried to say they tied. At this, Alexa pushed him to the ground and sat on top of him until he admitted that she won. After that, he retaliated by pulling her necklace.

Aha, I thought. There are at least two sides to every story, and often there are not just two but multiple perspectives.

In 2006, France played Italy in the World Cup Final. Zenedine Zidane, the captain for France, received a red card in extra time for head butting an Italian player in the chest. Newspapers, magazines, and internet articles were flooded with photos of Zidane leveling Marco Materazzi. In fact, even now, if you Google him, “Zidane head butt” will be the second suggested hit.

Zidane has many accolades: he is widely recognized and regarded as one of the best male soccer players of all time; he scored twice in the 1998 World Cup Final when France beat Brazil; he was FIFA World Player of the year three times. Pele said of him, “Zidane is the master. Over the past ten years, there's been no one like him. He has been the best player in the world.” He has also experienced great success as a coach; he acted as manager for Real Madrid, and, under his guidance, the team won the Champions League three years in a row.

Yet, he is widely remembered for this head butt, this red card, this seemingly heated, malicious act. We do not know exactly what Materazzi said that prompted Zidane to strike him to the ground. Rumors circulated that Materazzi had insulted Zidane’s mother. Two years ago, Materazzi admitted he would never insult a mother, as he had lost his a few years prior. However, in this same interview Materazzi admitted that he had insulted Zidane’s sister, prompting Zidane’s retaliation.

Was Zidane wrong to head butt Materazzi? Or could Materazzi have said something that could justify, or even excuse, or help us understand Zidane’s actions?

What is important in both these stories, the story of Alexa as a kindergartener and the story of a world class soccer player is that human beings cannot be defined by a single action, a single trait, or a single identifier. We human beings are complicated creatures, full of complexities, and we need to resist the tendency to reduce each other to single words or moments.

In his novel, The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen creates a narrator who defies these single word descriptors. He is an unnamed, illegitimate son born of a French priest and Vietnamese mother who fled Vietnam and now lives in the United States. Educated in America, the narrator has learned to speak English without an accent. He is a spy, a mole, a North Vietnamese Communist playing a South Vietnamese refugee. The opening lines read, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” In this novel, Nguyen ultimately argues for the importance of seeing from multiple perspectives, through multiple lenses, not only as we see and understand the world but also as we see and understand ourselves.

ut also abroad. After Zidane’s head butt, a French newspaper asked: “What should we tell our children, for whom you have become an example for ever? ... How could that happen to a man like you?” Others chose to forgive Zidane. They did not let his outburst, this fleeting moment of rage, stain his career. One French writer wrote, “It’s good for us to see our national hero is fallible.”

Was Alexa right to push Kyle to the ground and sit on him until he admitted that she won the race? Probably not. Just as Kyle should not have broken her necklace. This might be a difficult lesson to convey to five-year-olds, but if you feel set in your ways or in your arguments, if you think your belief is “right” or if feel that you have been “wronged,” try to view that situation from another angle, through another lens or perspective. Rather than thinking in terms of right and wrong, think in terns of right and right (Hegel).

Before the 2006 World Cup Final, Zidane was a household hero, not only in France b As we start the new school year, I encourage you to embrace the ambiguities, the gray areas, not only in your studies, but in your social lives. When you read a book or a headline, when you watch a film or the news, consider how those narratives can be interpreted in different ways and consider what story or argument or narrative is left out.

When you rush to judge either a classmate or a teacher, as we are wont to do, pause for a moment – try to put yourself in their shoes. It will help you understand not only their perspective, but it will broaden your own.

As it turns out, Kyle Stoltz was Alexa’s “nemesis,” but he was also her kindergarten crush and, later on, first boyfriend.



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