My Friend, Mr. Teasdale
Recently I was watching my youngest daughter play a game with a first grade boy. She was making up the game as they went along, and it involved choosing favorite items. It began with her asking what he wanted for dessert: ice cream or popsicles? Answer on 3. Ready? One, two, three!" On "three," he said popsicles. She said ice cream.
As the game went along, they chose between Skittles or Sour Patch Kids; chocolate or vanilla; Patriots or Giants; football or soccer, mountains or beach, and I began to realize that the boy would be pausing long enough to try to see what Lucinda's answer was, so that he could have the same response. He was not concerned about figuring out what he liked best but about emulating her. If they blurted out opposite answers, young David would revise his answer to be the same as hers.
I was struck by his lack of desire to duke it out whether chocolate was better than vanilla or whether the Giants were better than the Patriots, but I realized, too, that his desire to be like her is normal in young children. Children of 5 or 6 naturally imitate older people and want to be like them.
But watching this fun little game made me wonder how we make the transition from imitating others to looking inward and knowing what it iswe think, what we want, what we prefer, and essentially, who we are.
And it struck me how challenging it is for us to develop our sense of self because when we are young, a natural inclination is to imitate.
In my last Bench Talk, I encouraged you to embrace your identity and role within your family because your family is the nexus of who you are. It is really in the context of your family that you begin to define yourself and that self-awareness and understanding helps you when you are with groups of people in other contexts.
Many of us want to feel included. We want to be a part of a class, a team, a clique. We want to have friends. Being a part of a group is good and important. We spend a lot of time here at MBS talking about the community, but I do not want to lose sight of the importance of the Self within the context of a larger group.
How do you not lose sight of yourself when you are surrounded by forces that may push you and shape you in ways that you are not naturally inclined? How do you stay true to your self even when you are with people whom you call your "friends," people who want you to be something other than who you are? Does Young David think he must like chocolate just because his friend Lucinda does?
Is being friends synonymous with being the same?
My overarching question today is this: What does it mean to be a friend?
In my first month of school, I knew I had a friend in Mr. Teasdale, and I will tell you why. It was after lunch, and I struck up a conversation with him, and he looked at me and said "Peter, you have something caught in your teeth...right here..."
I know my story seems ridiculous, a friend telling me I have something caught between my teeth, but I took this small gesture from Mr. Teasdale to be hugely significant because it was the moment that I knew he was my friend.
What do true friends do for each other?
I submit two things about what it means to be a true friend: First, a true friend gives you critical feedback. Now obviously having spinach between my teeth does not say anything about me ethically, morally, or intellectually, but having food caught in my teeth could lessen the impact of the wisdom and advice I might offer others, and I took this small moment to know that Mr. Teasdale was my colleague and my friend because he gave me honest feedback.
Second, I use the story of Young David and Lucinda to highlight the point that when you are older, a good friend does not force you to conform in terms of what you believe, what you do, or even what you wear. Being good friends does not mean you have to be the same. For example, as we know from a well- known film whose title I will not mention, being good friends does not require that on Tuesdays everyone wears pink.
We have many examples of good friendships and destructive friendships in history, literature, and film. I am going to give you a few examples from wide-ranging texts with the hope of striking a chord with you one way or another.
A famous friendship on stage is the one between Hamlet and Horatio. Horatio is known as Hamlet's best friend and fellow student at Wittenberg University. Hamlet tells Horatio all his secrets about the Ghost, about his pretended madness, and about his conspiracy against Claudius. They have been friends
for a long time, and Hamlet tells Horatio everything, so by traditional measurements it appears to be a strong bond. Yet, if you look at the dialogue between these two, Horatio says little other than "Ay, my lord" and "Yes, my lord." "Good, my Lord." Or "I will, my Lord." Nowhere in the play does Horatio give Hamlet honest feedback about how he might adjust his vengeance or consider things in a different light. Hamlet is not perfect; He is in dire need of critical feedback. There is no doubt he needs someone like Mr. Teasdale to tell him about the metaphorical spinach between his teeth.
In history, we have Greek philosophers, Plato and his student, Aristotle; they disagreed on a number of things, including the nature of good and the definition of poetry. Through their extended philosophical disagreements, they forged strong ties and understood themselves and their beliefs even better. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is a true friend of Elizabeth Bennett when he deigns to tell her the truth about her own vanity, pride, and illusions about her family. As painful as it is for Elizabeth to hear this critical feedback, Mr. Darcy's gesture of truth and sincerity helps Elizabeth grow and better understand herself. And if the Hamlet, the Greeks and Victorian literature do not work for you, I offer an example from Pixar films. In Toy Story 1 Woody tries to help Buzz Lightyear understand that he is a toy; it is a hard truth for Buzz, who thinks he is on a mission to save a planet, but Woody works to help Buzz embrace his true self as a toy, and in the end this disagreement propels them towards a strong friendship.
My thought for you today is to try to be a bit more like Mr. Teasdale in your ability to be a friend and give each other honest feedback. Surround yourself with courageous peers,
friends, and colleagues who are willing to tell you about the metaphorical spinach between your teeth.
Ultimately, you will give more fully to the Morristown-Beard community if you embrace who you are and surround yourself with friends who may think differently but hold similar values of honesty and love.