February Bench Talk: "Always Speak the Truth"

Today I ask you to have the courage to be who you really are and to always speak the truth. Speaking the truth matters, for it defines who you are.

When I was 29 and in graduate school in Boston, I got an interview for the job of Director of Admission at Riverdale Country School, a large and competitive school in New York City, pre-kindergarten through 12th  grade. I had been Dean of Students, so I had administrative experience, but I had never worked in admission, and as I drove to the interview, I decided that, if asked, I would say that I was 30. I looked about 25 and, after all, 30 sounds a lot older than 29.

WATCH: Headmaster Peter Caldwell delivers February Bench Talk


So it’s the end of the day, and I am in the middle of my final interview with the head of school. Among other things, I explained to him that I did not have experience as an admission director, but that did not seem to phase him. Then, out of the blue, he asked me how old I was. There was a long, pregnant pause, and finally I blurted out, “I’m 29.” He looked at me a bit quizzically because it had taken me so long to answer, and I explained that I had been planning to say that I was 30, but in the end, I could not do it. In retrospect, I am convinced that that moment of truth got me the job.

Why is telling the truth so important? I was only a few months away from my 30th birthday, so it would not have been a huge deal to fudge my age.  

But I didn’t.

Slightly misrepresenting my age would not be the worst thing in the world, but as I have gotten older and had more experience with telling the truth and being my true self, I am glad in that small moment back in 1986 I opted to simply tell the truth. 

Since that time, I have noticed that minor misrepresentations of ourselves at best can backfire and at their worst can lead to a life of inauthenticity.

I have another story that happened 10 years later.  This time I am Director of Admission at St. Andrew’s.

Only once in my 25 years of working in admission, did I accept an expelled student. The student, whose name was Jeff, was in the 10th grade at a boarding school outside of Washington, DC. One night he and some friends went into the capital and broke several school rules. When they returned and were questioned, Jeff immediately admitted that the boys had been drinking in Washington, D. C. Jeff was the only one of the bunch to tell the truth, but he was expelled for a major infraction of the school rules. So why did I agree to consider the application of this boy who had been asked to leave another school?

When the father called to ask if the family could visit, he made no excuse for his son. He told me exactly what had happened and how much he respected and admired the school from which his son had been expelled. The father so impressed me with his candor that I agreed to have them visit, but I was still skeptical about admitting this student who had been kicked out of a school that we compete with in admission and athletically.

When Jeff visited, he spoke openly and honestly about his mistake. He did not make excuses.  He placed the blame squarely on his own shoulders. 

In the end, I accepted Jeff for his open and honest way of talking about his mistake.

Jeff became fully immersed in his new school, taking advantage of everything offered. He played three sports, sang in the concert choir and, upon graduation, went to Stanford.

These are two funny little stories, aren’t they?  What do they have to do with you?

For Jeff and me, telling the hard truth in those moments changed our lives for the better. Without getting that job at Riverdale I might not have moved into school administration and without being accepted to St. Andrew’s, Jeff might not have gone on to Stanford.  These paths opened to us because we told the truth about ourselves even though we believed that the truth could, potentially, close the door.

Albert Einstein once said:  “Anyone who doesn’t take truth seriously in small matters cannot be trusted in large ones either.”

I would submit, that nothing is more important than your integrity and this is something that you earn by doing your own, best work. Let me say that again – by doing your own, best work.  As the new semester starts, remember that short cuts never pay. They do not make us smarter and, for teachers, it is impossible to help students learn if the work that is submitted is done by someone else. 

Have the courage to be who you truly are.  And always speak the truth - for the hard truths are always better than the easy wrongs.



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