Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to:
- connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
- share ideas about learning and human development;
- spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy.
Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing.
Michael Ulku-Steiner, Head of School
Hatred, isolation, goodness, and connection
As the school year surged through its final weeks, I neglected this blog.
The few readers who may actually have missed reading my posts (here’s looking at you, mom!), can find plenty from recent weeks on my Twitter feed — accessible through this link or via the yellow banner on the top right.
I was a longtime Twitter skeptic. Now I consider it one of my most potent learning tools, among the interweb’s most efficient ways to build a learning community and share ideas. For those who tire of getting bogged down in bloggy self-indulgence (here’s looking at you, guy who already got bored and clicked elsewhere!), Twitter is worth a try.
Today, my mind and heart are stuck in Charleston.
I am neither qualified nor equipped to comment usefully on senseless hatred. Neither is Twitter the proper channel for processing collective bewilderment and grief.
But something (serendipity? providence?) offered me a trio of ideas this afternoon which seem somehow connected to the tragedy at Emanuel A.M.E. Church.
1. The photograph above shows DA alumnus John Hage ‘94 – yesterday in Charleston. Shared by longtime DA faculty member and parent of alumni Bobbie Hardaker, the image reminded me that even distant tragedies are local tragedies, and that our students, more quickly than we might imagine, have real roles to play in the real (complicated, horrific, beautiful) world we inhabit. I coached John on DA’s basketball team and remember him as energetic Spanish student and a curious, courteous teenager. Reading his bio and learning more about his work at Mt. Pleasant Presbyterian makes me grateful that he will be involved in the healing in Charleston.
2. The poem below was written by Michael Josephson. It arrived in my inbox, minutes after the image above, from longtime DA faculty member and parent of alumni Dave Gould. Though Dave hadn’t seen the image above, it so happens that he was particularly close to John Hage and his classmates. Dave Gould taught the philosophy below through a thousand historical figures, practical jokes (like the yearbook photo at right), and close relationships. It is among the reasons he won DA’s first Faculty Legacy Award (click here to read more about the effects of one life-changing DA teacher).
WHAT WILL MATTER
Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end.
There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours, or days.
All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought but what you built; not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom, and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident.
It’s not a matter of circumstance but of choice
Choose to live a life that matters.
3. The photos below (and a few dozen more linked here) capture DA’s annual SOCK Camp. Serving Our Community’s Kids (SOCK) Camp brought 45 Hope Valley Elementary Schoolers to our campus this week for crafts, games, science experiments, talent shows, guest speakers, and water fun. Among the things I love and admire about SOCK Camp:
- The whole week is free of charge to parents who otherwise might not be able to provide a summer camp experience for their children.
- The camp has been running continuously since 2006, when it was envisioned, designed and launched by DA classmates (Brennan Vail, Samantha Leder, Ashley Brasier and Mary Elizabeth Lovelace, all ‘08).
- It is run now, with minimal adult support, by an army of organized, tireless, cheerful staffers (this year under the able direction of Anna Sundy ‘15).
- The camp is one of several longstanding, reciprocal partnerships with Durham Public Schools. Some of this week’s campers from Hope Valley Elementary know DA through our Augustine Project course, or our Hope Valley Tutoring initiative, or through Student U. All these strands connect young people who could otherwise be strangers in Durham.
SOCK Camp, like the work of John Hage and the philosophies of Dave Gould and Michael Josephson, gives us reason to hope that we might one day extinguish the fires of hatred and isolation by flooding our local communities with goodness and connection.
Thoughts about Charleston, the Confederate flag, and empathy from an alum who is indebted to the school for many things, not the least of which is learning to consider items two and three in that list long before item one endured its latest sad chapter:
I spend a lot of time, as a teacher, trying to help young people grow up both in terms of their habits and the depth of their empathy. The latter is arguably the most important skill an English teacher can help students develop. It's at the core of great narratives. It's at the heart of decency, humanity, and leadership. And, it's something that teenagers are in particular need of learning because there's an inherent narcissism which comes from experiencing the kind of constant and ground-shaking change of those years. I certainly lived with and through that sort of stubborn narcissism and let it color my opinions. For instance, I signed a petition in ninth grade which argued students on Durham Academy's campus should be able to have confederate flag bumper stickers on their cars. My logic was that the confederate flag doesn't inherently mean that you are in favor of slavery and it can instead represent a nostalgia and appreciation for southern heritage (the very kind of nostalgia that permeates every lamppost, cobblestone, stunning vista, bar, and plantation-style home in Charleston and cloaks it in a kind of American magical realism which only horrific events like the recent shooting can show to be an appalling farce). I was not necessarily completely wrong as a ninth grader, though my mother and brother, Katherine McKee and Winder Holeman, have rarely been so angered and confused by my behavior. I simply lacked sufficient empathy. I had not studied history with Mr. Gould and Mr. Braemer, and I had not studied English with Mr. Adair, Ms. Towns, and Mr. Ulku-Steiner. My grasp of the complexities and history of human grief did not yet encompass a large enough circumference. And so, as a teenager, it didn't matter to me how seeing the confederate flag affected others, only how it affected me. The feelings of others were secondary to my feelings, and I could see no reason that I should have to adjust for the sake of anyone else. This worldview, both in general and in relation to the confederate flag, is obviously ridiculous, but it's also the premise behind many of the arguments teenagers make, particularly those who are strong-willed. As an adult, it's obvious that the opposite considerations matter far more: Why would I do or say anything that hurts or offends those around me unless I truly feel that I have to do so? What's staggering is that anyone, let alone government leaders or an entire state or region, could be functioning for decade after decade at the maturity level of me in ninth grade. How can they not see that it doesn't matter what it means to you? It matters how it affects the world. Creating pain is quite easy, and it can spiral into hate quickly. Converting pain back into love is tremendously difficult and takes great time and care. Creating pain when it's not truly necessary is therefore foolish and irresponsible, words which are also a pretty good description for me signing a petition in support of exhibiting the confederate flag nearly twenty years ago. I am imperfect, but I have grown up. It seems to me that those expectations are fair ones to apply across the nation, and they are expectations I know to be in place at Durham Academy.
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