My Journey, My QUEST, My Pomfret
Identity. Community. Service. Legacy. When Mr. Richards charged me with creating a student life program for Saturday mornings, I wanted to create something that consisted of a certain mental and emotional fiber that would feed the hearts, minds and souls of our students. Though I took my direction from Mr. Richards and the student life team in creating the pillars, I got to focus on developing the name and the guiding questions for what became Q.U.E.S.T. Those guiding questions were:
Who Am I?
Who Are We?
What Do I Bring?
What do I Leave?
I believed then, and I still believe, that these are important questions for all of us to ponder as we travel our individual journeys to what’s next. Though QUEST was designed for the students, the hope was that, as adults, we would engage and reflect on those questions as well and help model what a transformative journey, and a deep dive into ourselves could look like.
This Chapel speech is a part of my reflective journey through Pomfret: my personal QUEST.
I guess I just wasn’t ready to leave. I was born on a Thursday, two months after I was supposed to be born. Yes two months; I was actually 11 months in the womb. If I were to have been born on the actual day that the doctor predicted, I would have celebrated my 44th birthday last Friday. However since stubbornness is native to my DNA, I held out. I would like to believe I star-fished myself in my mother’s womb, sort of like this, (show star fish motion) demanding that I would stay there until world leaders made true changes for peace, equity, and justice. That would be the way I would have love to come into the world as, the baby who stood his ground despite the consequences. However, the truth is that I was severely breached, and the midwife who worked with my mother did not feel the need to force nature at that point. In those two extra months, I grew to be a pretty big boy, but by no stretch did I grow to be pretty. In the womb, I grew a full head of hair, almost as white as the hair currently on my chin and my skin started scaling. And on my mom’s birthday, they decided to make me a caesarian because I was literally killing my mother, as I was dying myself. Thankfully, we both survived, and the only long-term physical effect of my extended stay is my crooked neck. Nope, I haven’t been sleeping funny for 43 years, nor did I pull something, I was just born that way.
Growing up, especially during my four years at Pomfret I was the recipient of a lot of jokes targeting my neck and my other “abnormalities,” like my lazy eye, my gap in my teeth and what my mom called a “heavy tongue.” Even teachers made fun of my heavy tongue, because it impeded my speaking. They would say things like ENUN-CIATE , A-DOLL-PHUS. That didn’t feel great when we were reading aloud in class, but I learned to thicken my skin, and I developed a quick wit and a sharp tongue. So if you have ever been at the wrong end of my sharp tongue, you can thank some of my teachers and many of my classmates.
Nonetheless, my crooked neck, my lazy eye, my gapped teeth and my heavy tongue were not the only uncontrollable things about me that I was made fun of for; I was also “teased” about my skin color. I remember wishing that my parents had more money when I was a kid, so that I could have gotten braces, eye and neck strengthening therapy, and speech lessons. But my skin color, there was no therapy for that, there were no braces that could make my blackness normal in this immense sea of whiteness. High school is unfortunately a place where we often strive for someone else’s normal and we sometimes strive for fitting in rather than demanding the “belongingness” that we all deserve.
What else makes me? What makes you, authentically you?
As we continue to engage in the wonder of this life, and of the world that we have inherited, I believe that the question of “Who am I?” is a lifelong love story between your outward self, your authentic self and whatever world you choose to engage in. I love this question because though our parents, our friends, our teachers, or the world may try to answer this question for us, it is our honest relationship with ourselves that truly allows us to answer this question. One of my goals for the rest of my life is to help inspire authentic relationships, so please try this exercise with me as I hope it will help you further a more authentic relationship with yourself.
Okay, everyone please close your eyes. Please try to keep them closed until I ask you to reopen them. Now take one deep breath in through your nose and hold it; now breathe slowly out of your mouth.
Now that you are a little more centered and with your eyes still closed, I want you to imagine that you are looking into a full-length mirror. Take your time, and really examine yourself in this mirror. As you look deeper, I need you to understand something important about this mirror, it only reflects the things inside of you that make you, authentically you. What are you looking at? Or much more importantly, what are you looking for?
Do you see the hard-working young man who gave thirty minutes of himsef to a sad dorm mate, or do you see that same young man who is in such “need” of his Juul, that he keeps it in his sock for the first chance he gets to go into a bathroom?
Do you see the young woman who scored the game-winning goal, or do you see the young woman who posts hurtful things on her Finsta about a friend?
Do you see the adult, that spent three hours at the emergency room with a student in need, or do you see the adult who lacked the courage to stand up for a friend and colleague, because you didn’t want to lose the precious social and professional clout you have amassed over time?
Do you feel conflicted because both of those people are in the mirror staring back at you? Is the vision of who you are hazier than you would like?
Please open your eyes. When we look authentically at ourselves, we all experience a very similar conflict. We are complicated. None of us are perfect, and we all have moments where we do amazing things and moments where we are not the best version of ourselves. It is in the full acceptance of those moments, good or bad, where we find our shared humanity. When we can own all of our blemishes, both internal and external, while also striving to feed that good wolf, we can begin to accept the full stories of all those who travel with us.
This belief in the importance of authenticity is why I am rarely, deeply offended by anyone’s true beliefs, once those beliefs don’t physically infringe on the rights of others. I believe that everyone has a story to tell, and just as important, everyone’s story matters. It doesn’t matter if I agree with their message or not, they must be allowed to tell their story and be their authentic selves. I would much rather engage with an authentically open bigot or sexist, than with one who is dangerously closeted. And while I must admit, I do find it a little scary, emotionally jarring, and maybe just a little humorous, that a person who has lived much of his life in northeast Connecticut chooses to fly several confederate flags on his vehicles and his property, I would much rather have that than the teacher from Ohio, who was in charge of teaching and caring for a diverse group of children, but had a private website and podcast dedicated to white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and racial hatred.
So please lets go back to that mirror that helped us see what was truly on our inside. When I look deep, I see both moments of feeding the bad wolf and feeding the good wolf; I am working on starving the bad wolf, but he is one hungry dog. But I see other things; I see a cisgendered heterosexual male, I see a social liberal, and a confused and hopeful Christian.
And as I continue to be authentic with all of you, I have to tell you that I also see a person who is happily, culturally black. I am guessing that some of you may not surprised by this, but I feel good about finally saying it out loud on this campus that I have lived more than half of my life on. Biologically, the difference between my skin color and Mr. Deary’s is about as significant as the height difference of the Slanetz twins. However, especially in this country, the difference in our culturally-racial experiences are more akin to the height difference between Pablo and Mrs. D’Angelo.
Let me define for you, in exactly 100 words, what it means to me to be culturally black. Please note that this definition is mine and not that of Dr. Tsemo, or Mr. Davis, or Angel or Thos, four people with similar pigmentation and some shared experiences, but who may reflect on their blackness in a much different way than I do.
Here is my definition:
“Being black is a complicated existence for me, as I have had to defend myself from both ends of the “racial spectrum.” I have lived in environments since I was 14 years old where my blackness was always in play. Except for a few summer programs, conferences, or meetings my skin tone has always been definitively in the minority. And even in the most accepting spaces I am still not afforded the “luxury” of being “raceless.” My race is important to me because I identify with the beauty and the struggle of what it means to be Black in America.”
Being black at Pomfret is a similar struggle, but in some ways even tougher. At Pomfret I have watched colleagues shake their heads and roll their eyes whenever we have had any form of diversity programming that focused on race. At Pomfret, I have learned to not raise my voice, because I’ve learned that some students and faculty members, who don’t really know me at all, say that I am unapproachable and scary. I have been called a bully when I have disagreed with what others have said; it feels like disagreeing while black is a real thing. I try to be forgiving because I recognize that many in this room have had few real interactions with black people, especially with black people who are in a role of leadership or power.
You, the collective you, will never fully understand what it means for me to be black at Pomfret or anywhere else, until you investigate what it truly means for you to be white; or Hispanic; or Asian; or even your own version of black. If you were uncomfortable with, or indifferent to Jisu or Alexsa’s stories, it is likely because you haven’t spent the time to get to know what it truly means to be you. Could you, right now, write 100 words on what it means to be white? Or heterosexual? Or Christian? Or anything else that the collective we seem to think is “normal.” I challenge each of you to take the time and try to reflect on your own personal definition of what it means to be whatever you readily claim to be, any box that you have to check. It’s a liberating exercise that will allow you to more deeply deliberate on your true identity and truly discover who you really are.
After you have significantly, and hopefully curiously grappled with your personal identity, you then earn the privilege of tackling what I believe is an even more beautiful question, “Who are we?” I find this question to be beautiful because there is no one right response, and the answer is constantly shifting as we grow as individuals and as we grow together. As human beings our sense of “WE” is formed through myriad connections and varied relationships. WE are our families, our neighborhoods, our school affiliations, our religious groups, our sports teams, our countries, etc. And while our commonalities are essential to that togetherness, learning about, respecting, and discoursing our differences is essential to our shared humanity. To achieve a greater humanity, we must first decide to truly travel with our neighbors, regardless of our many differences. And if we enter that journey with hope and wonder, and with goals of joy and understanding, we will discover the greater commonalities and interconnections that make us all human.
With this question, I would like to talk less globally and more locally about the WE that I believe is Pomfret. A couple of years ago, I was told I represented the “old Pomfret.” That comment led me to some deep reflection on what Pomfret really is.
I have a unique relationship with, and vantage point of, this amazing school. I don’t know of too many individuals in the history of our school who have been a financial aid recipient, four-year student and an advisor, teacher, coach, dorm parent, Form Dean, college counselor, Dean of students, admissions counselor, etc. My twenty-three year relationship has given me some insight and, I believe, some authority to answer the question, “What is Pomfret.” Over my tenure, I have come to realize that the Pomfret I choose to represent has less to do with the beautiful buildings, amazingly cared for facilities, shifting schedules, athletic offerings, or academic requirements. The Pomfret I hope that I represent has everything to do with its most precious, and most constantly changing resource, the people. Pomfret is the people, and the important and authentic relationships and bonds that are created amongst us.
My softball team has chosen to chant “Ohana” after every practice and game to remind us that we are connected. Ohana is a word from Hawaiian culture that simply means family. Not necessarily just our relatives by blood, but all the others we choose to fully cooperate and build relationships with. And while I also think of Pomfret as a family, I am going to revert to my time here as a student and use a phrase that we ended our practices with, “We are… ”
We are the truly authentic connections of a group of unnamed people gathering around the proverbial, if not the actual, sundial for nearly 125 years. We are an amazingly talented artist and teacher whose huge heart, inclusive spirit, and selfless attitude has served as a guiding compass for over thirty years. We are a collection of students who returned to the hilltop to remind us that one poor decision does not define the young man or woman we become. We are 6, or so, friends who have built a life together, and when friendship is questioned we respond, “Namaste Yall.” We are cancer survivors, who braved a terrible disease while staying strong for their families and for our school. We are people who sometimes leave trash and worse around our campus because we forget that others matter. However we are also the people who pick up that stuff and have the courage to call out those who left it there. We are a “true” dorm mother whose full and engaging presence in a dorm full of sophomore boys, is more important than anything she’ll ever need to teach in a precalculus classroom. We are a husband and wife team that has been opening up their home nightly, for over 20 years to anyone seeking math help, or a surrogate family to call their own. We are a coach that has won three championships in 10 years, and still her humility is only matched by her beauty. We are people who travel thousands of miles from home and give greatly of themselves to a place that doesn’t always attempt to speak their name correctly. We are people who didn’t feel safe enough to say whom we voted for because of fear of judgment, and we are also people on the other side of that same vote who cried because we felt our value was being diminished. We are a football coach whose team didn’t win a game, but by the way he coached and led, he managed to teach me how to be a better man and eventually a thoughtful and caring, educator and coach. We are a school president and vice-president who refused to take, “Because I said so,” as a suitable response to asking for change. We are republicans, democrats and independents and some of us are respectfully, and often silently, communist and socialist. We are from families of millionaires, and we live in homes where our families can’t afford to pay the electric bill. We are adults and kids who don’t work for recognition, but take humble joy when the work that we do is seen and appreciated. We are brand new contributors with a deep passion for a school we barely know, and we are institutional memory in a bottle, ready to be opened when asked. We are Pomfret; Ohana.
GIFTS AND SERVICE
I am a huge superhero junkie. I’ve seen all the major superhero releases, typically a day or two after the premiere. I saw what was a very average Justice League movie in IMAX, I saw Black Panther twice in less than two weeks, and I recently got a little teary-eyed when they decided to move the new Marvel movie release date to April 27, up from May 4th. I binge watch shows on Netflix, like Luke Cage, the Flash and Jessica Jones because, I love superhero origin stories. However, I prefer characters like Green Arrow, the Punisher and Batman, because they prove that all you need to be a superhero is a set of skills, a passion, a super-work ethic and a desire to help others.
We can all be heroes. Each of us has a distinctive blend of talents, advantages, capacities and experiences, that allow us to be uniquely gifted to thrive and contribute in a world that is in desperate need for problem solvers, a world that needs leaders and heroes. This campus is filled with people of all ages with immense and important talents. I think of Leslie’s ability to paint beautiful pictures with the written word and Alexsa’s ability to tell a beautiful story with pictures. I am in awe of Colin’s ample gifts that allows him to thrive in the classroom by day, while making balloon objects with his hands and music with his feet at night. And there is Henry Linhares’ gentle way of expressing great humanity through humor and Mariella’s soul-lifting empathy that has been raising her classmates since her freshman year.
And of course there is a wealth of talent in the faculty. By the nature of being older, members of the faculty have been polishing their super-powers for years, and some of them even have names.
Weezy Jones: A soft-spoken woman with apparent omnipresence around the Pomfret Universe and a boundless energy, which she dedicates to the betterment of the students, alumni and the school.
The Standard Bearers aka E-Fish and B-Mart – This dynamic duo, one a soccer coach and mom, the other a green-thumbed biology teacher, set what feel like unreachable bars and through modeling, and expecting, dedication, grit, and accountability, help the unsuspecting reach that bar.
Rowe-Metheus: (Waddy Rowe) This faculty member has a perpetual youthfulness that he uses to help him to inspire a fiery joy for learning, engagement, and participation in students, players and colleagues alike.
Green Pollen and Honey Bee, aka Annie O and Mrs. Wells: the first is a mild-mannered environmentalist who spreads hope for a better world by creating little minions of good doing while the latter assembles a legion of humanists with a sweetness that creates champions for liberty and justice for all.
And then there is the Enhancer, aka Martha Horst. This hero is very powerful in the Pomfret-Verse as she helps to locate and enhance the talents and powers of others, while making it her mission to “make everybody feel like a somebody.”
I am still in the process of developing my superpower, but I already have what I believe to be a pretty cool origin story. Three years ago in the midst of a gratitude project I wrote an amazing woman named sister Mamie the following note:
“Sister Mamie, I am writing to say thank you for your generosity, love and support for my family and me during some very crucial years of development. Back during my days in middle school, my mother, Sister Clinton, used to bring me, and some of my siblings, to your Camp Street Church to volunteer to sort clothing and food and help serve the needy. Ironically, we were also needy so some of those blessings were also bestowed upon us, and often made me feel like we were “wealthy,” as we were able to have things that we couldn’t otherwise afford. At my immature, and selfish, age, I didn’t love the idea of service, as I would have rather be home on Saturday morning watching cartoons and playing with friends. However my parents made me go and though I didn’t like it, I was always in awe of your positive energy, generous spirit, and your big heart. Not only did you orchestrate the many volunteers, the deprived masses and thousands of items, you did it with kindness and purpose. On those Saturday mornings I learned what true selflessness looked like. I was also often privileged to watch you bring even more passion and purpose to Sunday mornings as you played the drums for what seemed like hours on end. When I went off to boarding school, the kindness didn’t end as I often received care packages from you via my parents. I remember my parents bringing soap, snacks, laundry detergent, clothing etc. and telling me that it was sent courtesy of you. I was at a school that was a bastion of privilege and the things you sent made it possible for me to fit in and not feel as deprived as I otherwise would have. I am sorry that it has taken me so long to give you this formal thank you, but I want you to know that it truly comes from the heart. Thank you so much for giving me so much, Adolphus Clinton.”
Before I could deliver this letter to her she unfortunately passed away, it was literally a few days before. However though these words missed her ears, her legacy lives on in me as I think of how best to serve the world. A few months ago I wrote a “Why Statement” using a process defined by Simon Sinek. My statement is: I want to change the world and I believe my purpose in life is to inspire people of all ages, but especially young people, to want to make a positive contribution to their world.
I am blessed with means and privileges that aren’t bestowed on others and I recognize that as a member of the human family I have a responsibility to make myself better, by helping others in ways they can’t always help themselves. Sister Mamie did that selflessly and I hope that the legacy I leave will inspire others as she has inspired me.
In his bestselling book “The Road to Character,” author David Brooks wrote, "Life is not like navigating through an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gifts of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation."
While I do have a pretty good memory, I don’t remember a lot of what I learned during my freshman year in ancient medieval history. However I remember Mr. Brush’s frenetic passion for the subject and his willingness to give of himself to all of his students.
I don’t remember the final score from any of my basketball games, but I remember Mr. Hinchman championing my growth and success, holding me accountable for my own progress, and being direct with me when I wasn’t giving my best.
I don’t remember what sets we built when I was using stage crew as a way to hide from my artistic limitations, but I remember Mr. Sloat’s immense kindness, professionalism, and full regard for the show and all of the actors and crew that made it possible.
I don’t remember exactly what I did every Sunday of high school, but I remember Marshall and Ginny Eaton opening up their house and taking amazing care of so many of us, because they knew that there is always family in a home where there is love.
None of them did this because it was in their contract or because they were trying to rise on some hierarchical totem pole. They did this because they understood what it meant to truly educate a student and how to care for and nurture the soul of an institution.
In June, three legendary faculty members, who have committed themselves deeply to this institution will be saying goodbye after a combined 101 years of Pomfret service. To put that number in greater perspective, the 40 most recent hires on the faculty will have totaled 110 years of service to Pomfret in June. I am not slighting any of those faculty members, some of which have served decades at other institutions, however I want you all, especially the students to think about what a gift it is to have these three in our midst for the next two months. They won’t be remembered by swarms of alumni, because we will count those years, they will be remembered because how they have made those years count.
Later in the Road to Character, Brooks goes on to say that, “What a wise person teaches is the smallest part of what they give. The totality of their life, of the way they go about it in the smallest details, is what gets transmitted.” To me, what has been transmitted by them is a dedication to the craft of education, the School, and most importantly, the nurturing and development of young adults. They have consistently sacrificed the me, for the we, while always aiming to do a good job, the right way, with a grace and humility that I will always remember and always strive for.
But what have I transmitted? What do I leave?
I can’t really answer those two questions because more important than what I have tried to give, is what you received. In my 19 years, sometimes to the detriment of my relationship with family, friends, and colleagues, I have tried to put students first. I have tried to see the world through their eyes while asking them to try to see a better world and a better future. I have asked them to feed the “good wolf,” to leave it better than they found it, and to be the change that they wanted to see in the school and the world.
My last five years in the Deans’ Office were the best of my professional life. In that time I got to work with a wide group of young people who were all at different stages of their own journeys, and I made a valiant attempt to try to have at least one real conversation with each of them every year. To me, a real conversation was a conversation that helped me to truly get to know them better, and in the process helped make them feel like they belonged at this school. Sometimes the conversation was tough because they had violated a school rule of some kind, but I made sure to always go back and have a follow up conversation where we focused on moving forward. The conversation is the relationship. I try not to have too many shallow conversations, because I don’t have the time or the inclination to engage in shallow relationships. Lunch tables and bus rides with me are really hard if you don’t want to engage and go deep; the conversation matters because the relationship matters. So I hope what I leave is a connection with you that will transcend our time together. I was here, and so were you.
When these seniors were freshmen, I would periodically, after study hall, read Dr. Suess books to the girls in Kniffin. So to you ladies, the rest of the senior class, all those who are moving on to other quests, and to those we leave behind,
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”