At today’s All-School Opening Chapel, Head of School Jeff Zemsky shared the following meditation. At the conclusion of Chapel, all students and faculty gathered around the flagpole in front of the CE Building for our traditional flag-raising ceremony- led this year by senior Willem Parent ’20 and first-grader Savannah M. ’31.
Each summer the Alumni Association selects members of the Moravian Academy alumni community to honor as a distinguished alumnus or alumna. This year, after receiving many nominations and deliberating, they selected a member of the Class of 1974, who has dedicated his life to environmental stewardship and the conservation of forests in America.
It was my honor to call him and let him know the exciting news. He listened to me and said, “No.”
Here’s how that conversation went: “Good morning, Henry, my name is Jeff Zemsky, I’m the current Head of School at Moravian Academy, and I’m calling with some exciting news. The Alumni Association would like to honor you as a distinguished alumnus this year.”
He paused and said, “No, come on, I know there are more illustrious graduates than me. I don’t think I’m the person you’re looking for.”
I told him that we like to listen to our students and we know Moravian students are interested in sustainability, in resource management, in community organizations and public policy, and what can be done about the most difficult challenges in the real world. He warmed up to the idea, but still, he was not sure.
I told him, “Henry, we are trying to help our students develop their interests and it can be a little daunting, a little scary. We want to teach our students that you have to be able to achieve at a high level and that you have to also be willing to love what you do and that requires some daring.”
I asked him how a kid from Bethlehem ended up running forest steward organizations in New England. Without a pause, Henry told me about his 8th grade English grammar teacher at Moravian Prep, Mrs. Kramer. He remembered her name immediately. He also remembered she was more than a little intimidating and that at some point, she assigned an essay to improve their writing and grammar. They were to choose a topic they cared about and describe it. He chose his love of being in forests and his beginning ideas about environmentalism – this was 1969-70. We talked about how excellent classrooms are both challenging and safe for students. A few days later, he wrote me to say yes. I’m hopeful that you will be able to meet and talk with Henry later on this fall.
I tell you this story in hopes that you hear in it a familiar refrain, something you’ve heard before. It is this: if you find a way to make what you are learning personal to you, the lesson will become a part of you. Write for your teacher and it is an assignment. Write for yourself and it becomes a lesson.
I also tell you Henry’s story because, let me break this to you now, on the second day of school, the mission skills are still here. We don’t have new ones. The skills that we want you to focus on are still creativity, and empathy, and perseverance, and curiosity. Can you find them in Henry’s story?
These skills will again be important for you, and for us, this year because I have charge for you, a mission to accept, a goal to pursue. It is this: create your own original content this year, in whatever grade you are in. After all the grades and the conferences and the essays and the performances and the games, I want you to have something left behind, something besides your report card, some artifact that is still in the room when you leave it. Something you can wrap and give to someone you love as a gift. Perhaps a recording of a piece of music that you have loved to learn. Perhaps a cardboard prototype for an invention. Perhaps a monologue for the stage, or a video you’ve made for Film Fest, or a song you’ve written for someone else to sing at Coffee House. Or perhaps a podcast recording describing all the best ways to use the quadratic formula, or a video describing to someone else how to master your multiplication tables. Or perhaps an idea about how we can make our planet stay healthier for longer.
Something magical happens when you take facts and use them to do something else, to create something or teach something, you are turning knowledge into a little bit of wisdom. That is the endpoint: wisdom, not just knowledge. Remember that knowledge is basically a collection of explanations and experiences, all the things we know. Wisdom is using that knowledge to make a good decision. The difference is important and it is a Moravian tradition to understand it.
Here is an easy way to remember it: knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom is knowing not to put the tomato in your fruit salad. That would not taste good. It’s like knowing the difference between good toppings, some go on pizza and some go on ice cream. But don’t mix up and put pepperoni on a sundae or sprinkles on pizza.
As students you need to work on both knowledge and wisdom, so don’t let yourself go too far in either one direction; they need each other. If you try to be wise but you don’t have the right knowledge, these are just opinions. Opinions are not wisdom. And if you have all the facts but no analysis, no interpretation, you might as well be a computer or a robot, and in your life-times, you want to be sure you can do something a computer or robot cannot do, that is what makes you, you, and you are indispensable.
So, to take on this mission, this job of creating something from what you learn this year, you will have to overcome some obstacles. If it were easy everyone would be doing it, but it isn’t easy. This is why you are here, at Moravian Academy, to learn how to overcome these obstacles. We can help you learn time management and organization. We can help you spread out the work, if you are in Middle or Upper School, think about taking a course in the new academic summer term in 2020 – that is a way to space the learning out to take more time on excellence rather than on the stress of just “getting it done.” Looking for ideas? There are many around you, start trying one on and see what fits. Looking for more motivation? Want to make a difference but not sure how or where to start? Well, this is what mentors are for. We are surrounded by mentors, those people who are ready to show us what we don’t know, to motivate us.
Here’s a story about another Moravian student, an alumna named Gini, who graduated some years ago. Like Henry. Gini was a student at Moravian Seminary for Girls in the 1950s. She was not very excited by what school was about and it was a tough time in her life. She was plenty capable but just was not sure where she fit in. Gini told me that it was the headmistress at Moravian, Miss Turman, who would catch her doing something she was not supposed to be doing and as she redirected her to back to her studies, she would say, in effect, “I’m not going to let you do this, you are too special, you belong in college, you have important things to do in life.”
Well, Gini didn’t believe that at first, but because Miss Turman walked with her and didn’t just lecture her, Gini came to believe that she did have a place in school. She graduated in 1956 and went off to college, and then to more schools. She became a doctor, a school psychologist. And do you know what Gini is doing now, in her retirement after a successful career? She works as an advocate for children in the foster care system in Sacramento, California, where she intervenes in the lives of teenagers who are not successful in school, she counsels them, helps them through the toughest parts of their lives by walking with them, not just lecturing them. She sees them being tempted by what is said online about them or what other people say about where they are going in life and she tells them to ignore all that, to reject that disrespectful nonsense, and instead she tells them that they are worth more than they think they are. That they belong and have something important to do. Gini is a mentor like Miss Turman was to her.
So think about what you will learn this year. Think about why it is important to you. Those answers are yours and yours alone. My charge to you is this: Be a Gini. Be a Henry. Be a Miss Turman. Be Moravian.
Watch the full Opening Chapel: