Convocation 2020: Message from Jim Neill

Landon’s opening day ceremony, Convocation, was held virtually on Monday, August 31. Please watch our virtual Convocation video. This excerpt is from remarks by our Head of School Jim Neill.

Good morning all and welcome to the 2020-21 school year here at Landon, the start of our 92nd year.  This tradition of gathering as a single school community, regardless of School Division – while not in person or in the amphitheater this year -- is an important way to begin and connect as we launch the year with certain foundational themes and thoughts.  Also, it occurs to me that holding this event online allows a group to be here that we can’t typically include due to space in the amphitheater – namely, our parents and guardians – and to all of you I say good morning and we are glad you are here as well.

For those who are new to Landon, I say a hearty welcome.  Like each year we have a large group of new students – this year 48 in the Lower School, 63 in the Middle School, and 37 in the Upper School.  We are glad all of you have chosen to be Bears and look forward to getting to know all of you and to you sharing your gifts with Landon.  I also want give a special acknowledgement to a particular group of new students -- our third grade, the class of, dare I say it, 2030, who begin what we hope will be a decade long journey here at Landon. 

To the rest of you I say welcome back – this will be a unique year and I hope all of you are as ready to go with this new school year as our faculty and staff are and to face whatever it will hold for us. 

To our Lower Schoolers, please know that these years of 3rd – 5th grades are important foundational ones.  Learn and live out the Lower School motto – do your best; be honest; help the other fellow – and you will make the world a better place.

To our Middle Schoolers, 6th-8th graders -- or as we say it here, Grade 6, Form I, and Form II – the classes of 2027, 2026, and 2025 – realize that Middle School is time of transition towards young adulthood when you start to face important questions about the persons you want to become.  Lean on one another, be good to one another, rely on your teachers, and abide by the code of character as you work hard to ready yourselves for the Upper School and years ahead.

To our Upper Schoolers, Forms III, IV, V, and VI – the classes of 2024, 2023, 2022, and 2021.  High School is a defining and crucial time in a young man’s development as a student and as a person – as are the relationships developed during this time.  The challenges you face will expand as will the opportunities presented to you -- the frontier beyond Landon will grow closer and closer and at the same time the horizon wider and wider.  Those who are successful in the Upper School are those who make the most of their opportunities and embrace new ones; who are open to new ideas and activities; who treat mistakes as opportunities to learn.  Engage fully in all the school has to offer, in what your teachers and coaches put before you whether in person or virtually, don’t cut corners, live our core values, and know that the time to graduate and move on to college will come all too soon.  You will look back on these years, we hope, with fondness, so don’t be in a hurry and seize each day. 

And to our seniors, the class of 2021, a special acknowledgment to you and congratulations for the good work that has brought you to this point.  I extend thanks and encouragement for the leadership we will need from you in many and different ways over the coming year. 

We also have faculty and staff who are new to permanent roles on the staff of Landon this year, whom I wish to acknowledge and welcome.

Together as a community, I also want to thank all of our faculty and staff for the work they have done to prepare for this unusual year and for their commitment to the Landon mission and all of our boys.  They give of themselves so that you, the young men of Landon, can grow into the persons we know you can become.  Their dedication to you Bears is a certain and powerful thing for which we should all be grateful.

It was a pleasure to have most of you students here on campus over the course of last week as we got the year going in your smaller groups with both in-person and virtual activities and orientations.  The week went very well, and at the same time we learned things regarding the best ways to implement logistics, operations, and technology that will enhance the year ahead.  The week also supported our having started earlier this year and our approach of easing into the school year as there is so much that is new this year.  There are too many people to thank right now individually for their hard work in getting us ready to launch, so I will simply note that last week was a team effort from faculty, staff, students, and families.  And the year ahead will be as well.  The collective engagement and supportive spirit of all in the community has been and will continue to be one that serves us well and that we need.

We have shown last year we can do this.  We can embrace new and different ways of doing school.  We can make this work.  And this past week reaffirmed this belief.

Before we make our way into our day of academics, allow me to share a few reflections on this moment.

We have watched this summer in many ways a world on fire – whether that fire be the devastating actual conflagrations in the hills and forests of California, or whether it be the social inferno about equity and race, a fire in many ways anticipated in James Baldwin‘s prescient 1963 work The Fire Next Time about the place of race and the effects of social injustice in the American story – a book that in meaningful ways foresaw the current moment with its frustration and calls for justice and equality, to this devastating pandemic that has forced us to rethink, redo, and appreciate so much about how we live our lives and how we think about our obligations to one another.  And to top it off we have a Presidential election this fall which has already shown itself to be one of the most complex and divisive in generations – one that is marked by -- or perhaps is bringing to light – deep strains of social cynicism and the flames of discord.

To put it mildly, this is not an easy time. 

It is in part why coming together like we do in this ceremony – even if short and even if as a webinar – matters.  For it is events like this that call on us to recognize not our divisions, but our connections, our commonalities, our singularity of purpose as members of this community.  And while each of us may be different, none of us is alone in moving through this these challenges – indeed in being here today we are actively choosing not to be alone – we are choosing to be with and for one another in this particular community, and I believe we are privileged with this choice.

For this school community is one that by the very words on its crest – virtute et non vi – virtue over force -- articulates the primacy of righteousness – the primacy of virtues such as respect and honor, of inclusivity and kindness, of civility and honesty, of courage and perseverance, of teamwork and responsibility in how we choose to live.  This is a community in which we are always striving towards these principles – it is one in which we see the importance of character and leadership and critical thought – it is one in which, I hope, we refuse to abide by the many false choices presented to us today in our ideologically polarized world but instead recognize that, again to reference Baldwin, that the purpose of an education “to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions.” 

Many important issues are playing out in our world today, stemming from the various fires mentioned above.  They call on us to examine so many questions about ourselves and how we relate to that world.  But perhaps at their core, they boil down to just a couple simple ones:  How are we going to treat one another?  How are we going to think about our responsibilities to one another?  How are we going to relate to one another as human beings who are at once different but who also share the same fundamental needs, aspirations, and hopes?

These are weighty questions with application everywhere.  They challenge us to examine how we respond to those whose interests are different from one’s own, who think differently, whose politics are different, whose identity is different, and indeed, who look different from oneself?  Certainly, there is an urgency about these things, not least of all because we are now entering as a diverse community into this new school year that, as I have said on many occasions, will be unlike any we have known. 

For me, a central word in the Landon experience – one of our primary values – helps us to frame these questions and challenges.  And that word is respect.  All last week I mentioned this word at every event and gathering at which I had occasion to speak.  It’s a small word that is bandied about in sort of self-serving ways but that, in truth, carries a heavy burden. A small word that opens up windows of opportunity when it is authentically present – that enriches communities defined by it.  It’s also a small word that is not always easy to live into.  But live into it we must if we are to become the best versions of ourselves – if we are to answer those questions about how we are going to treat one another in life affirming and hope-filled ways.  The key to a better world is held in its fulfillment. 

For respect calls on us to listen more and listen better than we perhaps have.  Respect calls on us to appreciate one another for the gifts we bring to the collective table and to understand the inherent worth in each member of our community.  Respect calls on us to strive to understand the experience of others – to examine our words and actions to ensure that ours is an inclusive mindset and affirming approach to others.  Respect means that we accept differences in viewpoints and values and visions, as long as those differences are themselves authentically respectful in their essence.  Respectful disagreement will get us somewhere ideological division will not.  Respect calls on us to treat others with decency – as we would want to be treated.

In a similar way, respect by its very definition calls on us to condemn mindsets, belief systems, and actions that deem others as unworthy of appreciation – as lesser.  This spring and summer has brought to the public eye in powerful ways deep-seated ways in which disrespect is ingrained in distressingly persistent ways in our world, with the tragic killings of black citizens such as Ahmaud Arberry and George Floyd as two awful examples of that.  We see that disrespectful and dehumanizing mindsets and associated actions prove to be distressingly enduring in our world. 

As a community built on respect, our call is to condemn any mindset that brings such actions to bear.  Our call is to condemn any mindset that deems some persons to be of greater worth or value than others simply because they have a lighter skin color.  As a community of respect, our call is to condemn racist thinking and actions not only as false, immoral, and deeply wrong, but also as being without place here.  As a community of respect, our call is to affirm meaningfully in word and deed, for anyone whose life experience is lessened because of disrespectful mindsets – and in a particular way, brown and black members of this and every community -- that their lives matter and are important -- despite what seems like a relentless string of social evils that would suggest to the contrary.  As a community of respect, our call is to seek and demand respect for others, as much as for ourselves. 

This kind of communal support for one another is the way we respond to divisiveness and the way we answer the question of how we are going to deal with the challenges that seem so intractable today.  And it is well embodied by the motto our seniors have chosen for the year of stronger together, for it speaks to the betterment that comes from such a community orientation.  I think sometimes of the wisdom shared in a simple phrase said by our former Lower School Head and Director of Admissions and Diversity, Len Armstrong, who would often suggest as words of respectful guidance, “Assume good will.”  It is a way in and not a barrier to relationship.  It is a statement of belief in others.  It is a mantra of hope. 

And hope is the business we are in here at Landon.  Hope in you young men, in your futures, and in the good we know you will bring to our world – a world we hope will be more defined by respect for your having been in it and for your having been here.

In closing, I would simply note that the weather yesterday was uniquely beautiful and maybe, just maybe, as we embark upon this year, it was a harbinger of good things to come for you young men and for Landon.  I choose to think it was. 

With that, let us move ahead with courage, confidence, hope, and indeed, respect, into this new year recognizing we are stronger when we do so together – both for and with one another.