Chapel talk: Why do you know what you know?

English teacher, soccer coach, dorm supervisor Marc Onion advises students to ask themselves the tough questions.

The creaking of the pews gives voice to the anxiety of some of you. Feeling, “Oh no, it’s Onion. He’s liable to say anything. Maybe even something about me.”

Relax. I won’t be that direct. But pay attention.

Good Morning…

I have a reflection for you. One that could throw some light (and maybe even a little shade) on your own experience and prompt you to reflect along with me.

This fall marks my twentieth year as a teacher. In 1993 I walked into a classroom as “Mr. Onion” for the first time. In that inaugural September I was a fool, ego swollen enough to believe that I knew what was getting into: teaching. A kid named Scott Farrell corrected all of that. He changed me. Scott Farrell had a habit of doing that, changing teachers. He drove the calmest, most collected to the brink of madness, and the most organized instructors were turned upside down tangling with him. He was THE MALCONTENT. Poster boy for detention, expulsion. Teachers wished for mandatory home-schooling, just to have somewhere else for Scott to be. He undid my peers with his idiocy. He felled me with a question.

He interrupted my well-crafted lesson by raising his hand, waving it madly, as if tracing the arc of some wind-blown leaf.
“O, O…Hey, Onion
I turned. “Yes, Scott?”
“Check it out… I’ve been waiting to ask this for a long time...”
“Go ‘head. Shoot.”
He fired. “Why do you know what you know?”
“Excuse me?” Thinking to myself, what kind of question is that.
“Why do you know what you know?”
“Well…I read and studied. I majored in English because I’d planned to go to law school but…”
“Nah, nah. I’m not asking you what did you study. I don’t even want to know the list of books that you read. It’s not like that. I can get that from any geek in the street. I want to know WHY. Why did you read those books? Why take those classes? And you believed your teachers, why? I know you didn’t believe all of them, so why did you believe or trust the ones you did? I mean, you admit that you haven’t read as much as some other people, so why did you read those books you have read, the ones you seem to care about? Did you pick the books, or did they pick you. You know what I mean? What were you doing when you chose?”

Every kid in the room stopped to listen. I started sweating. I had been called out. Frightening prospect for a young teacher. The resident knucklehead was really a philosopher, and had the nerve to ask me questions I did not have answers to. All I could do was offer up the truth.

“Scott, I don’t have a prepared answer for that. I’m gonna have to get back to you. Can you promise to raise your hand again tomorrow?”

“Oh, ah-ight. That’s a bet. I got you tomorrow.”

Add the necessary twenty-four hours to the story.
“Ah-ight, Onion. What you got for me?”
“I had to think about this last night. And I’m still thinking about it”
“OK. That’s fair. I had to think about the question. So you should have to think about the answer. We’re even.”
“What I’ve been thinking about isn’t really an answer, because I’m still caught up in your question. ‘Why do I know what I know.’ It’s really like you’re asking me to give an account of who I am, explain how I came to be the person standing in front of you. How did I get here, and how’s my identity or sense of self a construction of my education, my experiences, the choices I made. Is that what you’re asking me?”


“Scott, something happened as I learned. I wasn’t just preparing for test or targeting a grade. I think I was making sense of myself. As I read and wrote, questioned and listened, I was figuring out big questions about who I could be and who I wanted to be. It was like I was adding to my life, my person. I was choosing pieces of information, pages from books, particular people, types of mind, codes of ethics, values, principles. Some of what I learned really resonated. I mean I felt the stories. I honored the people around me. I saw myself, my hopes in them. I was empowered because I was of them, and they were of me. I chose to embrace that. As I was learning, I was building me.”
“So…you built yourself… a nerd?”
“Yeah, if that’s the way you need to look at it.”
“Awe, my bad, I wasn’t trying to get at you or make jokes. It’s just…”
“Scott, chill. No foul on the play. No hurt feelings. I know who I am, what I am. Best understanding I’ve ever come to have. Learned that people must come to understand who they are, and that there are choices within the process of understanding. You just have to take time to really think about the choices you make. See, to a degree people choose who they are, or at least how they will live within their own skins. As I figured this out, I made a vow: to never look at myself and feel that who I had become was someone I did not understand or respect. I wanted to always be capable of caring or laughing within, of owning and embracing my own skin. I wanted to fully own my codes and values. It’s not enough to just have them given or assigned to me.”

“Sounds like a lot of work. But I mean, how did you know how to go about thinking about your own life that way?”

“That I got from my grandmother, the Bible and the Qur’an. James Baldwin’s essays, Malcom X, Muhammad Ali, preachers, and lots of poetry. All of this taught me that loving myself had to be natural, as natural as breathing, and I needed to be able to love other people. I learned more of this from family and friends, people in the neighborhood, my teachers. And I did find examples of these things in books. This is why sections of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon are so powerful for me. It’s why I re-read Ralph Ellison’s work every summer. It’s why I hear my grandfather’s voice in my head some afternoons. I recall my role models, I appreciate them, and actively practice what they taught me. This is what the best families, the best communities—what the best schools do, and what we are called to do within schools. We consciously learn and practice finding, being, and building ourselves, to strive within day by day. This is an education.”

Scott, this is where you are now, busy with the work of learning, appreciating, and practicing…that better, promising you. You make the choice to be that you. You have to, because the choice is your life. Life is the beautiful series of choices. And no one can choose for you. They can describe a choice, but they can’t make your choice. That make sense?”
“What needs clarifying?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can I ask you tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Do that.”
“Ah-ight. I got you tomorrow.”
Add the necessary twenty years to the story. We are in this chapel, as a community, a school. And the questions that Scott presented to me should be directed at you

Why do you know what you know?

How did you come to be who you are?

How are you building you?

What choices are you making?

You need to be able to answer these questions. Does this make sense to you?

I hope so. Because someone just might ask you tomorrow.


  1. Even five years down the road, I could still almost hear Onion reciting that speech as I read this post. As a teacher now myself, I feel like I'm being schooled by my kids more often than I'm teaching them. They, like Scott, ask me a lot of questions-- sometimes to try and stump me on purpose, sometimes out of pure curiosity-- that I often don't have a textbook-based answer to but that I can respond to based on feelings, experience, and intuition, and I've come to realize that those are the real foundations and principals of education. Thanks, Onion, for the great speech and the validation that I'm not completely making up this new teaching philosophy.

  2. Very Cool. Mr.'re the best!

  3. I don't know if that was meant to bring a tear to my eye, but it did. I feel I know a little more about the man who is watching over my son, and 'what I know now' makes me happy. I don't know how often you hear this but, thank you.


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