On goodness

When I saw Tom Hassan at the TABS board meeting in Boston, I asked him if he had updated his three priorities.  Tom is a very smart, nice, down to earth man who is also the Principal of Exeter.  When I first met him, I didn’t think he fit my stereotype of what that role should look like.  Have you been to Exeter?  It is fancy – quite over the top beautiful, actually – and I think I thought that the Head would be fancy too… like he might wear a tux every day…or at least a bow tie.  But Tom doesn’t seem to have an ounce of pomp and circumstance in him, although I’m sure he would look fine in a tux.

For the past year, I have referred to Tom’s document called Immediate Priorities.  In it, he outlines “three fundamental imperatives that will guide us over the next several years:  intellectual ambition, global exploration and goodness.”  Now I read a lot of strategic plan documents – in fact, without bragging too much, I have read every single CAIS strategic plan document plus at least 50 others.  All of them mention similar objectives, often in similar wording.  But I was struck by one of the words in this document:  goodness.  I find it compelling in its simplicity.

About goodness, Tom writes the following:  “The very foundation of what we are and what we do here at Exeter is formed by our collective community values. Even when unspoken, our values serve as a powerful example to the students on our campus today and to those we hope to attract in the future. Our students live in an often uncivil world and will inherit serious moral responsibilities. Exeter must be an early touchstone that reminds them throughout their lives to value goodness just as much as knowledge.”

I love the phrase:  “even when unspoken”.  My daughter often mocks me for repeating phrases that I like, but I do like to think about certain words and the images associated with them.  When I think about “even when unspoken” I think about all of those programs that promote a “Characteristic of the Month” and how they stand up next to the power of “even when unspoken.”  I think of the staff members that work at the school and the high standards that they must meet to live up to those “even when unspoken” values.

So I teased Tom when I saw him: “I have been talking about your goodness document for a year now and could use some new material.”

He came to life.  He said something like this (with apologies to Tom, who is much smarter than the comments I will capture here):  “I am more compelled than ever to focus on goodness, and we are intentional about ensuring it in three ways:  our faculty and our hiring practices; the twice a week speakers we bring to assemblies and the discussions that follow; and our Harkness teaching style, where we model expressing different viewpoints and listening to each other”.

I felt inspired.  At this time of year, I have to work hard to not get caught up in shopping and endless to-do lists.  I crave authenticity and reminders of what it means to be human.  So as I sat down this morning to capture my hope for our CAIS schools during this season, I found myself thinking of my conversation with Tom and his emphasis on goodness.  He noted that when he became Principal, he often reflected on the words of the founder of the school.  (I looked it up, to be sure.)

The founder of Phillips Exeter Academy defined its mission more than two centuries ago. “Above all,” John Phillips stated, “it is expected that the attention of instructors to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under their charge will exceed every other care; well considering that though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”

During this holiday season, I want to slow down and refocus – not on what is new and next, but on what is known for sure.  I want to come back to simple ideas that are compelling and worth repeating.  I hope you too find time to slow down and refocus.  And I hope we get the chance to talk about goodness together in the new year.

Happy holidays.

Nelson Mandela

I feel so grateful that this week, I was in South Africa to meet with Executive Directors who run independent education associations around the world.

On Tuesday night, on our way to a restaurant, our taxi driver stopped in front of Mandela’s house.  The guards gave us a questioning look, but our taxi driver wanted us to notice the painted rocks surrounding the trees around his home – people, mostly children, paint messages on rocks and leave them for him.

Last Friday, we took a boat out to Robben Island, home of the prison where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he spent jailed.  Our tour guide, a former prisoner, told us that he remembers one day when the international media was going to tour the prison, and Mandela was given new clothes including shoes to wear for the photos.  He pointed to the photo to show the differences between Mandela in the foreground and the reality of the place in the background.  He also showed us the place where Mandela hid his writings (see pic below) and told us my favourite story.  Mandela gave a copy of his book to a friend, and it is a good thing he did since the authorities destroyed what they thought was his only copy of his writings.  Years later, when Mandela was President, he gave this fellow prisoner a position in the government in honour of his role in sneaking the writing off the island.  With his famous sense of humour, Mandela appointed him to be the Minister of Transportation.

His room, which has been preserved, had a window with no glass so his winters were harsh with only two blankets.  It is small, cold, and bare.  His days were filled with hard labour; we saw the quarry where the men worked in the direct sun, and the cave where the men took short breaks, the only time they were able to talk with each other – they call it the “home of democracy.”  When Mandela returned and met with former inmates, he placed a rock down in the quarry, and without this being planned, other former prisoners followed suit one at a time in silence. That pile of rocks remains in the middle of the quarry.

I get overwhelmed when I think about what he went on to do when he was finally free.  In addition to his many world accomplishments, I am most impressed that he forgave his enemies and encouraged others to do the same.  Today, Robben Island is just one small but perfect example of Mandela’s vision of truth and reconciliation, as former prisoners and guards live on the island and give tours to the public to teach the world to love.

Everyone I met told their Mandela story – about where they were when he was released and about their favourite quotations.  Last night I received this email from our South African host:

“You will have heard today about the passing away of Nelson Mandela last night and our hearts are very heavy because such a beloved and great man has left us. You have indeed visited us at the end of an era in South African history.

You may have seen these quotes of his before, but they can inspire us in our work in education:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

I can only imagine what Mandela’s house looks like today, with crowds heading to pay tribute to their hero.  I read one article about celebrities laying flowers, but if you look closely at the photos, others are laying rocks as well.

p.s.  I hope you spend some time reflecting on the life of Mandela, and I hope that you share his stories with children so that his legacy lives:

  • See the new movie called Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and read Morgan Freeman’s comments on portraying Mandela here