Chapel talk by faculty member Matthew Roach
Earlier this year, after one of the many great chapel talks we’ve had here—maybe it was after Mr. Ebbott’s, or Ms. Shultis’, or Josh Harraka’s or Harry Gensemer’s—one of my junior students asked me,
“Mr. Roach, would you ever give a chapel talk?”
And I was like, “I actually gave one last year….And also one the year before that.”
So… I hope this one is just as memorable as those. Today, I’m going to talk about the difference between being a smartly strategic student and person, on the one hand, and being consumed and wholly defined by strategic decisions, on the other.
Let me tell a few stories to show what I mean.
Let me tell a few stories to show what I mean.
Earlier this year, I gave my US History class a pop quiz on the previous night’s reading assignment. It was just a “how well did you read” sort of quiz—a few basic questions, a few tough ones. No big deal.
Or so I thought.
My students went into a frenzied panic. They moaned. They groaned. They told me, and this is a direct quote, that I had “betrayed them.” Most of all, they started freaking out about their grades. They said,
“Is this, like, going to be graded?”
“How many points is this worth?”
“What if we get a bad grade on this?”
“Does this count?”
At first, I was annoyed. I thought to myself, “These kids need to get tougher. They’re being soft, and pathetic. And all this talk of grades is obnoxious; how about they stop grade-grubbing and just take the quiz.” But after a minute or so, as I recognized the genuine frustration that many of my students seemed to be feeling. I decided to take their complaints seriously. After they finished writing, I asked them, “Why was this quiz such an issue for you?”
“Because it was a surprise,” they responded. “Because it’s going to affect our grades. Because we were focused on doing other homework last night and we didn’t review history as carefully as we should have.”
A few students, in particular, were palpably resentful of me.
They said, “It’s just that you didn’t tell us to pay extra close attention to the reading. And we were up late working on other classes homework, and we didn’t do history until the last minute. And most days, we do our homework for this class really well, but last night we didn’t, and now this quiz will going into our grade for the class, and that grade will affect our GPAs.”
Of course, not all of my students had this reaction. Some of them coolly aced the quiz; some did fine; others failed with quiet dignity. But the majority complained and stressed out. Perhaps it was just a rough morning, but the moment stuck with me. Why did they lose it over a simple reading quiz? For me, their reaction showed the way that pressure can alienate you from the material that you are learning. When we had discussions in class, these guys were engaged, relaxed, and seemingly interested in what we were talking about. But as soon as the specter of a grade appeared, they became coldly strategic.
Suddenly, they did not care about my subject or see the many personally significant reasons for learning history. They only cared about the implications of the grade. How will this affect my grade? Will it be graded?
Now, this kind of thing is familiar to anyone who’s been a teacher or student ever since I can remember. I’m sure that I myself had similar moments in my classes long ago. But I would argue that the level of pressure on students has increased significantly—even in the eight years since I graduated high school, and the four years that I’ve been a teacher.
In last year’s talk, I used the word “flourishing” to describe moments of human connection, love and excellence. This time, in contrast to “flourishing,” I’m going to use the term “The Game” to describe a strategic emphasis on getting certain grades, results and outcomes. I use this term not because this process is fun, but because it is often arbitrary, easily manipulated, and empty.
The Game views school as a concrete means to an end. It defines the ideal high school career as one where you get good grades, take lots of AP Courses, and play a sport that will help you get into a quote unquote “better” college than you otherwise would have. The Game does not care about development of character; character won’t impress colleges, unless you have a perfect 500 word essay about it. The Game doesn’t care whether you enjoy doing something or not; in this ideology, passion and interests aren’t even mentioned. Indeed, according to the Game, nothing you learn in school is, itself, particularly important. The content and skills you learn won’t matter to your life; only the grades on your transcript will count in the end. Credits and badges, the Game suggests, are the goal: grades, awards, service hours, SAT scores, individual athletic statistics, and AP courses—these are the things that really matter.
Much of the mindset of the Game is, no doubt, pervasive and inescapable. For better or for worse, this is the world that we, as competitive people at a competitive school, exist in. And so I’m not suggesting that the Game is always bad, or that all strategic thinking is wrong, or that you guys should be ignoring all these measures of excellence. I think you should care about your grades, and I think you should keep in mind good strategies for getting where you want to go. I didn’t ask Mr. Honsel to play guitar after my speech so that I could just trash all the good advice the college office gives you.
No, what I suggest is that we think a bit more critically about what The Game does to us as students, athletes and people, and make some adjustments to fight its inhumanity. Because it is, largely, inhuman. It makes no concessions to life, to beauty, to happiness, to love, to humor. You don’t get any credit for that stuff.
And The Game can even take things that are wonderful—learning a new thing, winning a championship, coming up with a cool idea—and cynically turn them into resume builders and interview talking points.
Examples of the Game are everywhere, once you start looking.
The Game is quitting a sport that you enjoy and are good at in order to focus on one that might lead to more college-entry success.
It’s spending hours per week, as my 17 year old brother did this summer, on SAT prep classes.
It’s not caring about your current Peddie team because you’ll be playing in college anyway.
It’s choosing a class that will look better to colleges over one that you’re actually interested in.
You get the idea, I think.
Again, I’m not saying that these decisions are always wrong, or that you should forget about your future and become aimless. I’m just saying that when these decisions start to pile up, and when you are only thinking about the Game, it has the opposite effect it’s supposed to have—all this supposed strategy for greatness makes you miserable, makes you a worse person, and turns you into a victim of the very system you’re trying to manipulate.
Because here’s something that few people tell you about the Game: it never ends until you decide to end it.
If you’re willing to quit on your teammates and not care about your team here because you’ll play in college, chances are you’ll have a similarly strategic and empty approach on your college team. If you’re constantly consumed and stressed about grades at Peddie, you’ll be the same way in college. And then you’ll be worried about finding a job, and then whether or not that job pays well enough and sounds cool enough, and so on and so forth. Because if you can’t appreciate and embrace the beauty in your life now, you won’t be able to recognize it once you reach the point you think you’re striving for.
How, then, can we combat these kinds of miserable results?
Well, all I can share here is my own personal strategy, a kind of anti-strategy strategy, one that has led me to compartmentalize the Game and focus my whole self on achieving moments of human connection, humor, beauty, and intellectual revelation. Before I adopted this mindset, I was a very stressed out and uptight person. I was worried all the time. I was insecure. I would fix in my head certain goals and scenarios—I need to get this grade, I need to score this many points, I need to date this kind of girl.
But then, one day, I decided—and that’s a key word, decided, because it was a choice—to take a different approach.
And so now I have a huge brag to make.
Sometimes, I feel like a superhero. You know, one of those previously ordinary people, who realizes, in moments of wonder and ecstasy, that they’ve been given an amazing gift or talent. My gift is not as obvious as flying or shooting webs or being Iron Man, but it’s also way better than those things. My power is the ability to deeply enjoy life, to soak up its moments in total reverence and joy. My gift is making the simple, the mundane, or normal into something to treasure. Ok, so…maybe that’s not better than flying. But it’s still pretty sweet. I believe it’s a miracle, a cosmic miracle.
I haven’t done anything to really deserve this, other than to decide to do it. And I’m grateful for it, because I use it every day when I laugh with my classes and friends, become immersed in a beautiful song, or appreciate a book or a jump shot or a performance.
I use it to love life.
And perhaps the best part about this power is that I live in a place, here at Peddie, that is especially conducive to cultivating a love of life. Here’s an example:
This fall was rough for me in a few ways. I ripped my kneecap off trying to dunk on Harley Borish, and later had knee surgery; two of my grandparents died; I broke up with my girlfriend. At one point during this stuff, after I was late on some advisee reports, Ms. Clements gave me an extension and wrote, “You’ve had a horrible fall term.” And it was true. But while literally hobbling through these setbacks, I woke up one day November and realized that I was having a great time --because of my students, my soccer team, my dorm, my fellow teachers, and my friends and family. Everyone was so wonderfully supportive and positive, and my appreciation of their humor and love made each day fun. I felt incredibly lucky.
Now, please do not mistake my love of life for complacency; I still want to do important and big things. But I think I understand that worrying and cynically strategizing all the time will not help me to do those things, and will actually prevent me from enjoying them when I do.
As a further example of the distinction between cynical strategy and open flourishing, here’s an excerpt from a Short Story by the Japanese writer Haruki Marukami. The story is called, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One April Morning.” I think you’ll like it.
Here it is:
Once upon a time, there lived a boy and a girl. The boy was 18 and the girl 16. He was not unusually handsome, and she was not especially beautiful. They were just an ordinary lonely boy and an ordinary lonely girl, like all the others. But they believed with their whole hearts that somewhere in the world there lived the 100% perfect boy and the 100% perfect girl for them. Yes, they believed in that miracle. And that miracle actually happened.
One day the two came upon each other on the corner of a street.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you all my life. You may not believe this, but you’re the 100% perfect girl for me.”
“And you,” she said to him, “are the 100% perfect boy for me, exactly as I’d pictured you in every detail.”
They sat on a park bench, held hands, and told each other their stories hour after hour. They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. And what a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It’s a miracle, a cosmic miracle.
As they sat and talked, however, a tiny, tiny sliver of doubt took root in their hearts: Was it really all right for one’s dreams to come true so easily?
And so, when there came a momentary lull in their conversation, the boy said to the girl, “Let’s test ourselves- just once. If we really are each other’s 100% perfect lovers, then sometime, somewhere, we will meet again without fail. And when that happens, and we know that we are the 100% perfect ones, we’ll marry then and there. What do you think?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is exactly what we should do.”
And so they parted.
The test they had agreed upon, however, was utterly unnecessary. They should never have undertaken it, because they really and truly were each other’s 100% perfect lovers, and it was a miracle that they had ever met. But it was impossible for them to know this, young as they were. The cold, indifferent waves of fate proceeded to toss them unmercifully.
One winter, both the boy and the girl came down with the season’s terrible influenza, and after drifting for weeks between life and death, they lost all memory of their earlier years.
They were two bright, determined people, however, and through their unremitting efforts they were able to… return as full-fledged members of society…and they even experienced love again, sometimes as much as 75% or even 85% love.
Time passed with shocking swiftness, and soon the boy was 32 and the girl 30. One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from east to west, while the girl was walking from west to east, along the same narrow street in Tokyo.
They passed each other in the very center of the street.
The faintest gleam of their memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts.
Each felt a rumbling in their chest. And they knew:
She is the 100% perfect girl for me.
He is the 100% perfect boy for me.
But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of 14 years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd. Forever.
A sad story, don’t you think?”
Now, how does this story relate to my point about The Game vs. Flourishing with a love of life?
In the story, the boy and girl feel something amazing, but their strategy and scheming gets in the way. They are looking so far into the future that they miss the opportunity of the present.
For me, this story is about recognizing the wonderful things in front of you and then holding onto them as best you can. The boy and the girl would be happy together, but they over-strategize and fail to grasp the gift they’ve been given. Because they couldn’t appreciate the beauty in their life then, they literally weren’t able recognize it when they reached the point they were originally striving for.
Marukami, through this story, suggests that you can’t let strategies and schemes and The Game get in the way of your love of life, your flourishing, because you can never predict or shape exactly how things will turn out.
So as you listen to a jam by Honsel, Harry, and Abi, enjoy it. Recognize your own power.
And figure out how to get 100% love of life into your day, every day.