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An Ask for Civility: Opening of School Year Letter

J. Ross Peters
August 17, 2016

The following letter was sent by head of school J. Ross Peters to the St. George’s Independent School community.

While this summer for the Peters family has been replete with chances to reconnect with friends and family, and we have enjoyed opportunities to spend some time on familiar ground in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, my enjoyment of the summer has been tempered not only by tragic news in Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Dallas, and Nice, but also by our national struggle to remember that we share more in common than that which separates us.

As I think about the troubling momentum of our recent headlines, Psalm 133 seems relevant. Its first verse —“Behold how good and pleasant it is/for God’s people to dwell together in unity”— is particularly evocative for me as its first three words, Ecce Quam Bonum, provide the Latin motto of my undergraduate school, and it has become a habit of many of my Sewanee friends to sign cards and emails to other graduates with the letters EQB. The rest of the Psalm points out that “dwelling together in unity” places us closer to God and is indeed a gift from God.

Placed in relief by the frightening events of this summer, Psalm 133 reveals that we have a rare opportunity in this school, and rather than warn you against the dangers of squandering it, I would like for us to think about how we might strengthen the ties that bind us. I believe we can use that strength to serve and to lead students so that they might become servant leaders in communities that will always have poignant need for them. I do not know the future, but I do know that, whatever way it tilts and spins in the days, months, and years ahead, the world will need such people as St. George’s strives to graduate (SGIS Portrait of a Graduate). It will need them not only to meet the world’s gaze but also to engage it with strength, empathy, determination, and integrity. It will need them, not only to recognize the issues that may divide us, but also to know how to engage people who see the way forward differently than we do.

After this long preface I have an ask for all of us – teachers, parents, friends and students: make a commitment to civility and to civil discourse within our school community. Please make this commitment even as we witness its opposite day in and day out in media, in political campaigns, on athletic field sidelines, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat threads. We cannot ask young people to be civil, much less to value civility and civil dialogue if we are not able to meet the standard ourselves.

The most highly charged issues of our time are alive in the conversations our students are having with and without us every day. We know that they are watching us carefully. Interestingly, even when as parents we believe our kids are not listening to us or valuing our opinions, there is no source of insight they trust more than us. They are listening to what we say and how we say it. They are using us to formulate their opinions and to calibrate their character. They are testing boundaries in order to find the lines within which they will operate as adults. In our national dialog we are struggling to post appropriate boundary markers for young people regarding civility, so in our community, the SGIS community, we have an obligation to be counter-cultural.

Preparing students, our children, for the “real world” does not mean emulating its worst characteristics. The best preparation for young people includes setting a far higher bar so that they grow into the very people who are ready to help raise standards above the lowest common denominator. At SGIS, the call to be counter-cultural in this area is not new; however, the immediacy of its relevance has never been more clear. St. George’s has always sought to bring people together, and our three-campus model drawing from over fifty zip codes is a testament to both our faith that we can navigate the spaces that separate us and our determination that we must. I request that all members of our school community deepen our commitment to civility even as the world around us may seem determined to undermine the effort. Civility involves acts of will and thus reflects our character both as individuals and as a group.

So as we begin a new school year, one with such promise for all of us, I will strive to keep Psalm 133’s call in the front of my mind: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for God’s people to dwell together in unity.”

Read the original letter in its entirety at Ross All Over the Map.

J. Ross Peters is head of school at St. George’s Independent School in Memphis and Collierville, TN.

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