'Stay true': Thoughts on the new school year

Headmaster Jim Neill and Student Council President Justin Herbert '18 shared the following remarks with faculty, staff and students at the September 5 Convocation ceremony that kicked of the first day of the 2017–18 school year.

The call of duty
Remarks by Headmaster Jim Neill

Good morning all and welcome to the 2017–18 school year here at Landon. This tradition of gathering together in this amphitheater is a wonderful way to launch the year. For those who are new, I say welcome. For the rest of you, I say welcome back. To the Class of 2018, our seniors, we look forward to your leadership as you embark upon your penultimate year here at Landon. And, to you all, I say here's to an exceptional year at Landon. Allow me share a few reflections as we embark upon this year of growth and transformation together.

This summer I came across a book called Five Presidents: My Extraordinary Journey with Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. It is former Secret Service agent Clint Hill's account of his almost 20 years of service protecting, as the title suggests, five different U.S. presidents. Hill, whose image is well known as the Secret Service agent who leapt onto President Kennedy's car in an effort to shield him and Mrs. Kennedy at the moment of the president's assassination in 1963, later became assistant director of the Secret Service before retiring in the mid-1970s.

The book provides an interesting insider's account of the lives of these presidents across a period of tremendous change and upheaval in the United States. But that is not what struck me as I read through this book. What struck me was how frequently the word duty comes up. Over and over, Hill references in unassuming ways the term and, more importantly, the idea of duty. It is clear how fundamental duty to country and, in his case, to the Office of the President, was to Hill's career as a Secret Service agent. I think that perhaps the term stuck out to me because it is not a word used today as much as perhaps it once was, which is a shame for we all have personal and moral obligations to others and to various principles, and it is crucial that we not lose sight of them if we are to be the best persons we can become.

There is a scene in the acclaimed 1998 World War II movie Saving Private Ryan that speaks powerfully to the notion of duty. As those of you who have seen the movie know, it tells the fictional story of a group of soldiers who have just made it through the D-Day landings on the shores of Normandy, France, only to be sent by Army leadership to find and remove from harm's way an individual paratrooper named James Francis Ryan. This Private Ryan is missing in action somewhere in the midst of the chaos of the 1944 French countryside, and, needless to say, this group of soldiers is none too pleased with the dangerous, needle-in-a-haystack mission on which they are sent. They ultimately do find and save Ryan, but in the course of doing so, the original nine soldiers sent to find him all lose their own lives.

Near the very end of the movie, the commanding officer who has led this group on its quest to save Private Ryan, turns to Ryan and says, simply, "Earn this. Earn it." The movie then fades to the present day where we meet Ryan, now an old man, many years later paying respect at the graves of the soldiers who had given their lives for his. The older Ryan turns to his wife asking for some affirmation that he has been a good man — asking if he has earned the sacrifice of those who saved him. It is a moving moment that speaks to the nature of our personal and moral obligations to others and to the need to do something with what has been given to us by them. It is a powerful message about the enduring and identity-shaping nature of duty.

And so what does this mean for us as we start this new school year? I guess I bring this up because I think this idea is central to the overall well-being of the extended Landon community. For we, by virtue of our presence here today, have meaningful responsibilities and obligations to ourselves, to those around us today, to those who have been here before us, and to the very idea of Landon that are, while perhaps not exactly matters of life and death like in the stories above, nonetheless very real and very important. For whether we are students, or faculty, or admin, we are not here entirely of our own accord. We are here because others have gone before us — some of whom we will never meet — who have made the Landon experience possible for us. And to all of them we have an obligation. To them we have a duty to experience Landon in a way that advances the legacy of the place. And so I say, we need to earn it — we need to earn the privilege that is right now before us by giving of ourselves every day and by living out the ideals of ethics and honor and civility and perseverance in ways that build up not just Landon, but the communities of which we are a part. As members of the Landon community, we have a duty to do this.

I am mindful that not all live lives showing a commitment to the high-minded principles we set out for you here at Landon. We can find in the news or in our daily lives examples both large and small of people living, acting, and speaking in ways that are contrary to the principles that we as Landon community members have a duty to uphold. I know this. You know this. Indeed, we start this school year only a few weeks and some 115 miles removed from terrible incidents in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which demonstrators marched to advance malicious messages of racism, antisemitism, and hate. We know, of course, that these ideals have no place at Landon and run fully counter to everything we represent here or, for that matter, at any place of civilized discourse and human decency. Living out the Landon Code of Character means that we are called — that it is our duty — always to strongly reject and act against such morally bankrupt, wrong-headed thinking and rhetoric wherever we encounter it. To do anything else would be to demean our duty to one another and to this place.

But we can also find in the world around us examples of persons living out commitment to high-minded principles. Many of the stories that have come out of the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey are examples of people acting on their personal sense of duty to care for others and their obligation to strengthen the bonds of humanity that connect us all.

Certainly, one thing that has been amazing beyond the sheer magnitude of this natural disaster has been the scale of the selflessness of those who have come to help those in need. The image of boat-owners from as far away as Oregon and Idaho all convening on the flooded regions to save persons whom they have never set eyes on before has been a powerful one. I heard an interview last week with two men who had trailered a boat from Louisiana to Houston in which the interviewer called them heroes. One of the men looked at the reporter almost dismissively and said, "We're not heroes. These people just needed help." Such examples are inspiring and remind us that the Landon Code of Character also calls on us to lift up others when and where we can — and not so that we can receive a gold star or some sort of adulation, but because, like the man in the interview, a sense of duty impels us to do so.

So as we begin this school year together, I encourage all of us to think about the great good fortune we have in being here and of the responsibility that accompanies that good fortune — of the obligations we have to others and to this place. And I ask that you seek out this year paths that live up to our duties to Landon and its ideals. Because we make up this community and benefit from being part of it, we have a duty to ensure that Landon remains a place:

  • Where honor and decency and integrity come first;
  • Where hard work and perseverance is embraced without whining or complaint;
  • Where accepting responsibility without excuses is the norm;
  • Where brotherhood means that every member of the community is cared for and included;
  • Where others, whoever they may be, are valued and respected;
  • Where competition and achievement are esteemed but never at the expense of honor or fair play or respect for others;
  • Where civility of engagement and decency always supersede meanness;
  • Where teamwork and a desire to build others up through our own efforts is present in all we do;
  • Where human relationships matter — where we look each other in the eye instead of just burying our gaze in a cell phone;
  • Where we care about and consider the needs and views of others right along with, if not ahead of, our own.

Let us do these things not only because they represent the right thing to do, but also because we feel a duty, an obligation, and a responsibility to earn the privilege of being known as Landon men, as Landon faculty, as Landon staff — and to advance that name in everything we do. Let us, to use the seniors' motto, Stay True to all that Landon offers us and represents. And, in so doing, let us make this place an example of how to be, and a place where each day, through our words and actions, we live up to our collective potential.

Here's to an excellent year ahead.


Truth is at our core
Remarks by Student Council President Justin Herbert '18

Welcome all new faculty and Bears, and welcome all returning members of the community.

I hope you all had a relaxing, productive summer and are ready to have another great year in the White Rocks. Here at Landon, we want people to feel valued and accepted, so let's make sure we get to know the new students. This is an inclusive community — it's like a big family — and everyone deserves to feel comfortable here.

Now, I came to Landon in ninth grade, but the time I've been here has been so full of memories that it has seemed even longer. This school opened my life up to so many paths, from acting to engineering to now... student government. Landon makes anything possible, and you'll never know where you'll end up. The people you meet here, be it faculty or students, will undoubtedly have a major impact on your life. They help you find who you are as person. This community is constructive, we strive for excellence in education and character, we value art, we value strength, and we value integrity. Coming to Landon is one of the greatest decisions my family and I have ever made, and I will always be grateful.

The faculty here are the some of the most helpful people in the world. They teach more than just the curriculum; they teach you about values, morality, and life advice. Through sports I've learned the importance of detail and discipline. Through academics I've learned the value of hard work and dedication. The world doesn't always need the strongest or the smartest person; it needs the person who will make the best decision, and the faculty here help us become well-rounded, capable men.

Don't let opportunities pass you by. Immerse yourself in the culture we create together: Join clubs, act in plays, try a new sport — hold nothing back. Don't let this time pass you by... be yourself, get out of your comfort zone, and take a chance. Trust me, it's worth it.

I'd like to address my own Class of 2018. We're finally at the top, our last year at this special place. We've been through a lot together, be it funny or sad, and I'm proud to say and mean it that I love every single one of you. We are always there for each other, and the bond we have is one of a kind. We started the legendary JV juice football team with Parker Swensrud and myself on the unstoppable NASCAR package. [Sam] Taishoff and Spencer [Davis] brought improv to a new level for some of the funniest moments of my young acting career. I've never seen a guy in a penguin suit cause so much destruction in my life. From "joaning" on Mo Sillah's haircut to rap battles at lunch, we always have a way of coming together and making the best memories.

That said, at our base our grade is genuinely a family. It's natural for us to get along. We don't have to change or pretend to be kind; we just act like ourselves and the best results follow. That's why our senior class chose the motto "Stay True." We will stay true to the hard work that has brought us here in the first place. We will never let the temptations or evils get to us. We will always stay true. Stay true to your school, stay true to your family, your friends and most importantly yourself. Truth is at our core as a community — we don't lie, cheat or steal because we stay true to our virtues that we hold so dear. Having "Stay True" as our school motto lets the Landon community know that we are very grateful for the time and education they have given us and that we would never turn our backs on the school or our brothers. We will stay true to Landon forever.

In closing, go Bears and let's have a great year!