2019 Convocation Address - Acting Headmaster Jon Downs '98
Integrity: A commitment to the search for identity
Show up. Turn it in. Turn it up. If you remember anything I say throughout this school year, please do not forget this advice: Show up. Turn it in. Turn it up.
As we formally recognize the beginning of Millbrook’s 89th school year, we explore, examine, and celebrate integrity, the most complex of our community values. In its simplest form, it is a noble cliché. Be true to yourself. Be, on the outside, who you are on the inside. Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy. A synonym of honesty. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “Before I can live with other folks, I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Despite my family’s obvious affection for the character of Atticus, I have to wonder, what if hypocrisy defines a person’s conscience? That is, cannot something evil, perhaps the devil himself, have immense integrity? Consider Hitler. He wasn’t trying to fool anyone about who he was and what he was trying to do. From all I can tell, he was the same on the outside as on the inside. So if he can have integrity, then integrity is not bound to morality. And if integrity is not bound to morality, then why do we value it?
I believe we value integrity because we are acknowledging a great privilege that we have at Millbrook. Here we are given the time and space and guidance to find ourselves. Integrity here means the search for understanding better, maybe a little, maybe a lot, of who you are. It means that you have the opportunity to explore, create, and ultimately shape your identity. Who are you? Who do you want to become? What a luxury it is to ask those questions! When I was a student here the dean of faculty, Rita McBride said, “The physical separation from your parents that happens in boarding school is an opportunity. With this physical distance, you are now free to think intellectually, morally, and spiritually on your own.” In that same year, a young Mr. Casertano said, “Never again in your life will so many people be dedicated to helping you succeed.” The juxtaposition of these two statements illustrates exactly how the exploration of integrity comes alive. The only way to have integrity in high school is to commit to this search for who you are. Be open to possibilities that are right in front of your face – and those that may be invisible. And the best way to explore – the BEST WAY – is to show up to everything. Marsh mucking. Dishwashing. Dorm duties. Community service. Practice. Rehearsal. Assembly. Class. Show up. And when you do, do what’s asked of you. Turn it in. Turn in everything you are ever assigned. Do the reading. Be ready. And when ready, turn it up! Jump in the marsh with gusto. Write the 5th draft. Always push to be your best. Resist the temptation of the snooze button, whether literal or metaphorical. Show up. Turn it in. Turn it up. This summer our faculty read Born A Crime, the book many of you have read or will read by Trevor Noah. In it, Trevor Noah says, “I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.” This feeling resonates with me – and I bet with many of you. I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering if I belong. I bet you do too – maybe even right now in the first week of school. I felt that way here as a student. In college. In graduate schools. In every job I’ve ever had. While I cannot speak for the rest of the world, I believe, at the very least, we all fit in here.
You – all of you – belong at Millbrook. Trevor Noah also said in his book, “the greatest gift in life is to be chosen,” and all of you have been, in some way, shape, or form, been chosen to be a part of this team, this school, this community. We have become fond of asking, “What makes Millbrook, Millbrook?” There’s a simple answer. You do. Over the past ten years, I have served witness to thousands of students who so badly wished they could be a Millbrook student, but couldn’t because they didn’t get in, couldn’t afford it, couldn’t convince their parents to let them go, among many other reasons. You are here and you are chosen. Even if you do not know what that special “it” is in you, yet, I’m telling you, there are answers here. So go get IT.
In an attempt to model one’s search for identity, I would like to share a little bit of my story with you. Before I came to Millbrook in 1994 I was the middle child of 5 boys in a middle-class family in central New York. I never thought about my identity. Ever. I just thought my life was normal, or weird, or inconsequential. Who cares? It is not until we burst our own bubbles that we begin to realize how unique we are.
When I was granted the gift of coming to Millbrook, I began to ask myself questions in the context of the world, not just my family’s dinner table, or neighborhood. Today I want to reflect upon three lenses of identity that one might examine while thinking about an individual’s place in a diverse world: socioeconomics, religion, race & ethnicity.
Socioeconomics. My mom grew up her entire childhood on welfare and government cheese. My dad was the son of a doctor and teacher – upper-middle-class. I went to an inner-city school where over 80% of students had reduced or free lunches. That school has since closed because it was among the worst-performing schools in the state of New York. There, as a middle-class kid, I was among the richest in my school. My parents were not rich, but relative to my classmates, we were. I would hide what we had, so I wouldn’t be teased because of it. Despite the fact that my parents worked hard for every penny they earned, and lost, I still felt the need to be secretive in middle school. I felt shame, because of my advantage. Never wear anything that’s too nice. Get picked up where our Ford Taurus wouldn’t be seen (most people there didn’t have a car). The fact that I felt shame was a shame in itself. Let me pause here… Don’t ever feel shame for what you have.
And don’t feel shame for what you don’t have. When I came to Millbrook, I was among the poorest in the school. If I had ten bucks a week for the snack bar, that was it. No credit card or asking for more. I worked every summer and every break. Vacation was a vocabulary word my family never used. While I experienced these relative realities of socioeconomics as a child, I never thought about it at all. For me, in a world without cell phones or the internet, what was out of sight, was out of mind. Now, in retrospect, I have come to deeply appreciate how much Millbrook attempted, and continues to attempt, to make one’s experience, while here, feel level—level for every child in the room because we all live in the same dorms and eat the same chicken patties, share the same bathrooms, and squeeze into the same pews no matter what have or do not have. Here, we gain currency by the work we do and the character we exhibit. There’s a purposeful leveling in this rural boarding school. A Millbrook meritocracy of sorts.
Religion. I am the product of Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, and Native American Spirituality. My dad’s family is Jewish and Catholic. The symbol on my grandparents’ gravestones is star of David embedded in the Celtic cross. Yet, my mom is a baptized Mormon. I spent several summers at the Hill Cumorah Pageant, which is the Latter Day Saints reenactment of Joseph Smith discovering the golden plates. While my mother found solace in Mormonism, I have no doubt she feels more spiritually connected to, and thus identifies with, the teachings of the Iroquois Nation. The Onondaga reservation is five miles from my childhood home. For reasons of which I’m proud, and other reasons which make me roll my eyes, my mother gravitates towards the spiritual wisdom of the Iroquois. When I examine it now, the exposure I had to multiple faiths as a child made me spiritual without being dogmatic or righteous. I love that we have students from so many faiths, practices, and religions here. Yet, I will admit that my personal puree of spiritual exposure often leaves me in want of more conviction at times. I am curious and inspired by the faith and sense of belief that many of you possess.
Race and ethnicity. Embedded within that Star of David in the Celtic cross on my grandparents’ gravestones is a shamrock. There’s a lot of Irish on that side of the family. My mom’s family is far more complex. I have white, black, Native American, and Latino first cousins. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was biracial: half white and half black. My mom hasn’t ever met him. My mom’s mom, my grandma June, was an orphan. In and out of orphanages and foster care until she was 16.
Before I came to Millbrook in 1994, I was a white minority in a predominately black and Latino inner-city school. Shea Middle School: My 6,7,8 grade experience. 14% white. That was my daily school experience. By all measures I am white, and I am often aware, and likely at times unaware, of the benefits I receive from the societal and systemic privileges of being white in America, but, I must say, I often feel like there are these unexposed chapters of my family, my genetics, and my and past – that how I might look does not begin to illustrate who I am and the experiences I have lived.
So I try, yet regularly fail, never to make assumptions about anyone, because, I see a lot of life through my mother’s eyes. Her life, for me, has shed light upon those who are adopted, or abandoned, or orphaned, or lost a parent, or those who cannot trace genetics and don’t simply fit in a categorical box. I think about you – and there are many of you among us – all the time. You know well that the very notion of considering one’s identity is a privilege in itself.
I repeat Trevor Noah, “I was everywhere with everybody, and at the same time I was all by myself.” In a community as inclusive and inspiring as Millbrook, I hope we feel encouraged enough to share our cultural, familial, racial, and ethnic connections and differences. Of course, there’s a lot more to each and every one of us, but I selected those lenses because they are difficult for people to discuss. It is our differences, as we look hard into this mirror Millbrook provides, which may be what ultimately unites us, and makes this experience, and our journeys beyond this place, all the more beautiful.
So why do I share a part of my background with you? I want you all to talk – to explore and share your stories – so we can keep learning from one another, so we can develop empathy for one another, as we create a community defined by love and understanding. That’s what I hear when I hear respect, integrity, service, stewardship, and curiosity. Some of you, like me at 14, think there is simply nothing special about you. I know there is because I know most of you, have interviewed many of you, and at the very least I have thoroughly read your files. Here, at Millbrook, is where you’re going to begin to figure this special “it” out. Give it time.
I love to learn, and I love schools – especially this school. Millbrook was my springboard from one of the worst-performing schools in New York State to the some of the finest education the world has to offer. I want you to see Millbrook for what it can be for you—an opportunity that is afforded to very few people on this planet. You have an intentional, challenging, and safe opportunity here to explore, discover, and create yourself. Reverend Hardy says you’re on “the edge of possibility.” Own that. Embrace your search for self in this place, especially in moments of discomfort. Learn to accept what you cannot change – and learn to love and cherish what you can change. Author your identity, here. If you show up, turn it in, and turn it up - that is - if you give yourself fully to this place, this place will give you fully back to you – and then you will understand precisely why we value integrity.
I am honored and thrilled to make the most of this school year you. Let’s go get it. -THANK YOU