In his remarks, Becker referred to this summer’s all-school reading of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” a book by Peter Wohlleben, and a metaphor introduced at the end of the spring term, which compares the school community to the ecosystem of a forest, comprised of parent and child trees, who support and nurture each other to grow. Becker challenged the students to consider how, collectively and individually, they will shape and be shaped by the school community in the year ahead.
“The thought I want to leave you with tonight as we begin the year together is that we as a group will either leave this school to next year’s school better than we found it or worse than we found it. Which do you choose and what are you going to do about it? That’s a question for each of us individually and all of us as a whole,” Becker said. “So much in today’s culture invites and directs us to think only of what’s in it for us. Every experience we have online and on our devices is tailored by algorithms to appeal to us, to flatter us. We’re told that if we don’t look out for ourselves and our goals and our needs, we are going to lose. Someone will beat us out for the place at the college we have in mind, or on the team, or for a starting role, as if those are the places where happiness and joy reside. But ask anyone with more experience than you and they’ll tell you that that’s a lie – that to go through life focused primarily on our own needs and what’s good and comfortable for me as an individual leads instead to an impoverished life.”
Frederick Gunn knew this, and charged his students with the responsibility of becoming active citizens, both in the school community and in life. “Mr. Gunn knew that there is no such thing as the rugged individual responsible only for herself or himself, that to fully understand ourselves and to be fully alive means to understand ourselves in relation to others and to the place and time where we find ourselves; to think about the influence we have on one another and on our place and time,” Becker said.
The following morning, students and faculty would gather to commemorate the planting of four new trees on campus – one dedicated for each class. “Most of us will not benefit much directly from these trees but future generations of students will,” Becker said. “They will provide shade and a place to gather, and just beauty. When the Thomas S. Perakos Arts and Community Center opens later this year, we will all get to enjoy furniture created out of wood from beautiful old trees that we took down to make room for the building. We are sad to lose the trees but so glad to enjoy them in a new way. We inherit, we steward, and we pass on.”
“I am excited to create this year with you. I hope you are too. You each have so much to contribute and we all have so much to learn,” he said.
Emily Gum, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning, introduced the top scholars for the previous academic year: Grace Noh ’22, Karen Zhu ’21, and Jolie Kaplan ’20. Gum also spoke to the students about what Mr. Gunn would have valued in the classroom and provided three examples of academic excellence demonstrated by each of the top scholars last year. “One form that this takes is curiosity,” which requires students to step outside of their comfort zone and try something new, Gum said. Another is docilitas, the Latin word for “teachability.”
“It means you don’t know everything. You just need to be open to showing up and figuring out how to grow,” said Gum, whose third measure of excellence was for students to just go for it and do the best they can. “Excellence is sometimes just giving it your all, really putting yourself out there,” she said.
Following her remarks, Seth Low, Associate Head of School, introduced the new Head Prefect, Andrew Byrne-King ’20, and Becker recognized those faculty who will hold endowed faculty chairs for this year:
The Tisch Family Chair for Excellence in Teaching is held by Kevin Clemente of the math faculty.
The W. Hamilton Gibson Chair for the Humanities is held by Roderick Theobald P’09 ’14 of the English faculty.
The Wallace Rowe Chair in Critical Expression is held by Melissa Schomers of the English faculty.
The Noto Family Chair for Dedicated Service is held by Jeff Trundy of the science faculty.
The Class of 1955 Distinguished Teacher Award was presented to Steven Bailey P’09 of the science faculty, who was joined at the ceremony by his wife, Jane, their sons, Kurt ’09 and Garrett, and daughter-in-law, Eri, who traveled from Richmond, Virginia, for the occasion. The annual award brings with it a requirement that the recipient share some of his or her wisdom in the form of the Convocation address.
In his speech, Bailey acknowledged those students who are new to The Gunnery this year. “I have a pretty good idea of how you might be feeling as you wonder what your life at this school will be like,” he said. “Thirteen years ago I came to the Gunnery to teach physics. I had had a full career in the Navy as a submarine officer and spent time after that working as an engineer at NASA. Yet when I arrived at Gunnery in August of 2006, I felt both scared and anxious. As I ran from class, to sports, to study hours, to dorm duty and back again, I spent a lot of time wondering, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
He shared a story of something that happened years ago, before he arrived at The Gunnery. He was living in Virginia at the time, and one “cold and slushy night,” heavy, wet snow was falling outside his house. Bailey recalled looking out his window just in time to see a tree branch break and fall on the power lines, sending sparks “flying like fireworks.”
The local fire department arrived to extinguish the fire while a crew from the utility company worked on the power lines. After a while, all of the trucks left, except for the big hook and ladder, which weighs anywhere from 15 to 20 tons (that’s about 18,000 kilograms). It was stuck in a ditch on the side of the road, so Bailey went outside to talk to the fireman and see if he could help.
“I told him I had a large plywood board in my garage that might work as traction. He didn’t think it would work but was worth a shot. We placed the board on top of the snow and slid it down the embankment to the rear wheel, wedging it behind the huge hook and ladder tire. The driver slowly put the truck into gear and the wheel rolled onto the board and up and out of the culvert. The fireman was thrilled to be out of his predicament and happier still that he didn’t have to call his fire chief. He thanked me profusely for being there and bringing the wood. I wasn’t a hero, I didn’t save a life; I only brought the wood. That simple piece of wood made a difference,” Bailey said.
Addressing the students, he continued: “Right now, many of you are feeling anxious and scared. You might be worried as I was: What can you bring to your classes? Your teams? Your dorm? Am I good enough?”
“Mark Bezo says in his Ted Talk, ‘A Lesson from a Volunteer Firefighter,’ “Every day you may not get a chance to save someone’s life, but I promise you that every day you can change someone’s life.”
“It’s the simple things we do – as a mentor, classmate, teammate, or just as a friend to provide an ear or shoulder when needed – that can make a difference. All I ask you to remember every day is to ‘bring the wood.’”