Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Chapel Talk: Falcons, lift one another. Soar together.

Marc Onion, dean of freshman, English teacher, dorm supervisor, and J.V. boys soccer coach, tells the how and the why of his journey to - and experience at - Peddie.

When I first approached Rev. Johnson with the idea of this chapel talk, I knew what I wanted to convey, the message was clear, but I feared it would take me a while to guide you to my point. I apologize for requesting that you bear with me.

I wanted to take some time this morning to share some of my vivid memories of Peddie, shaped over the thirty years I have had some connection to the place, and I also wanted to direct your attention to what I’ve learned and come to appreciate about the place over the last ten years.

Like a great many of you I first came to Peddie when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. I was a freshman, and I was impressed with much of what I saw: the open campus, the people. I had a very good first day on campus. At the end of which, I climbed back on my team’s bus and returned to Newark. I would return to Peddie a few more times, between 1985 and 1989, always to play soccer.



In 1993, I traveled to Peddie as a rival coach. I vividly remember my personal curiosity in returning that September. You see, that was the first September after the Annenberg gift. $100 million dollars. I pondered, “What is going to happen to this place now? How will it change?”  I remember standing out on the far fields. I was with this Welshman, Jim Hamer, one of the many adopted father-figures in my life. And he said to me, “Marc, can you imagine: $100 million dollars?”  I couldn’t. I mean, in 1984 I had been one of the beneficiaries of a $5 million gift to St. Benedict’s, and saw how that gift initiated a capital campaign. In 1988, I was a high school junior, sitting in classroom buildings paid for with the monies raised. But a $100 million? That’s other-worldly money. That’s not a gift. It’s a blessing. I thought to myself, “Place must be special.” And at the end of the game, Hamer and I packed the JV soccer team onto the bus and drove back to Newark.

Between 1993 and 2004, I worked, happily in Newark, teaching and coaching at St. Benedict’s. But in 2005, life changed. My grandmother would say…No, in fact, she did say…that I came to my senses. I rekindled a relationship. I built up the nerve to phone a woman I’d known briefly, in college. Girl I’d met in friend’s dorm, on April 4th, 1993, approximately 5:45 in the afternoon.  So I phoned her. She was willing to talk to me. In 2006 Michelle married me. As she and I contemplated children, we were honest, and we decided that we wanted out of Newark, that we would move to have a child. In January of 2007, I exchanged my first emails with Ms. Rodrigue, had my first conversation with Mr. McMahon.

On Thursday, January 18, 2007, I traveled to Peddie in a car, not a school bus, for the first time. I was wearing a jacket and tie, not a team warmup. I was a little nervous. But a couple of people really put me at ease. Mrs. Clements called me into her office, shut the door behind her, told me to sit down, grabbed her clipboard from her desk…you know the one she uses when she reads off your list MO’s…that clip board. And in the way that she can….she was frank, to the point, and very reassuring…She talked to me the way I talk to you. Mr. McMahon and I shared humor and our interest in the ancient word. We talked chatted about books. And then there were a few students, Dylan Isenburg and Jarrid Tingle, now alums I hear from each year. Tingle was a bit subdued, but razor sharp. He asked me deep questions about my teaching, wanted to know what my classes would be like. Dylan went further. He’d done a background check on me. Dylan was a wrestler, and you see, wrestling sort of like a fraternity, there really is a wrestling community. Dylan had reached out to a few wrestlers at St. Benedict’s, to get the dirt on who I was and what I was like. He really wanted the opinion of guys he trusted. And Dylan’s intelligence work was no secret. He knew things he couldn’t possibly have known without help, so when I asked him how he’d gathered these soundbites from my classroom in Newark, he told me: “Oh, that’s easy. I know Myles Gerraty.. I asked him about you. That kid loves you.” Dylan and I had a hearty laugh. During our meeting, I saw in Dylan and Jared that magic that makes teaching such an easy choice of how I spend my life.  At the end of the day, I climbed in the car and drove back to Newark, eager to return to Hightstown.

My visit to Peddie was this day-long series of rich exchanges with people who make their lives here—students, faculty, and staff. When I got home, my wife asked me about the place. I told her about the Trinidadian woman running the heads office, Mrs. Torno, and her office partner of the time, the late Ms. Marion Brooks. Ms. Marion was a tough cookie. Never one for long conversation, she had this way of looking at people when you walked through the office. Ms. Marion was cordial, but wisdom gained from corner-to-corner travels in Newark told me: never make Ms. Marion angry, and be nice to Mrs. Torno, she can perform miracles.

Years pass. Michelle and I become parents. Myles sprouts and runs across campus. And I stand before you now. Here’s what I have come to know about Peddie since that warm September day, thirty years ago, and what has been most vivid over the last ten years. And this is the part that I want you to remember.

Peddie is special.

The proof of this is sitting next to you and standing along these walls, and manning the doors to this chapel. Peddie is special because of each of you, the people—young and old—of this community, the collection we form and the individuals we are.

It is easy for us to lose focus and begin to count the growth of the endowment and the many offerings the endowment affords us as Peddie’s specialness. These are not the reasons why the place is special. The endowment is Peddie’s blessing, and what it affords us is the community’s opportunity. What we do with the opportunity, how we meet the blessing, what we do in the moments we share…this is the special.

The specialness is tangible. You can really touch it. Just grab the person next to you, go ahead. Do it. Seated and standing, even the folks, back there, near the door. Hold a hand, hooks arms, or just lean on one another. That’s special. And please understand that this special isn’t apparent at every school. It should be. But it isn’t. Some schools are too big, too impersonal. Too institutional, too state-run. Most don’t offer the opportunity to remind everyone of how wonderful life is, that things can be hard, yet still beautiful. We do this here.

Many of you know this first hand. A friend, a classmate or roommate, or more maybe an adult—teacher, advisor, coach—pushed you and helped you pull yourself together. And so supported, you soared. And adults around the room too, have had heavy days, where we have been bent by grief or trial and challenge, and we have found inspiration and comfort in one or all of you. Such is community. This is the special. Not your achievement. Not the college list. Nor the sports victories. But the relationships…special. The growth…special. The experience…special.

Some of you are sitting next to someone you don’t know very well. You just met, a month ago. But most of you are near someone who has seen you on good days and bad. You have memories together. Someone near you is a good friend, maybe a best friend, someone you were a freshman with. Someone you respect and love, and who loves and respects you….This person is your history, your future. Your right now, this moment, in the vigor of youth, glistening in the promise of labor and talent. This is special. Be your full potential in this moment. And do not allow one another to be any less. Be worthy of the blessing.

When I first heard the Ala Viva, I was like, “What?” I’ve thought about it since hearing the first time. “Ala”…Latin for wing.  “Viva”…a turn on the Latin verb to live. Ala viva: living on wings, to ascend, to soar. That’s a special life, soaring above, lifted by the power of community, the energy of people committed to one another. Do this Peddie. Live in the moment you have with one another. Have expectations of the moment. Lift one another. Soar together. Be that special.

Ala viva!


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