The Timelessness of Hope, Pride & Possibility

John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_photo_portrait,_looking_upLast week’s 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas marked a day that remains shrouded in dark mystery in modern American and world history. I spoke to our high school students about the Kennedy legacy at this week’s assembly because few had any sense of its context.

There are a lot of reasons that Kennedy and his assassination have left an indelible imprint on both American and Canadian psyches. At 43, he was the youngest president ever to be elected into office in 1960.  He brought a youthful vigour to the presidency. He was also the first Catholic president; a big issue at the time because of fears that during his presidency he would be heavily influenced by the Vatican. This related especially to issues like access to birth control and the legal status of divorce.

Kennedy is also remembered for being the first “telegenic” president.  An effective presenter on TV, he was perfectly suited to the short sound bites we have all become so accustomed to. Kennedy helped usher in the modern media age where it is no longer just content of the message that matters, but also how it’s presented. Today national leaders in the USA and Canada focus intensely on nationally- televised electoral debates that make or break their campaigns to win voters trust.

While in office, Kennedy actually was not successful on all fronts.  However, his historical legacy has certainly been forged as one that addressed big issues.  Many experts would describe his legacy as having had a focus on getting the country moving again and building optimism, hope and possibility in America and throughout the free world. In his famous inauguration speech in 1961 he made an important plea for Americans to commit to community service, stating, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  This lead to the creation of the American Peace Corps and a new idealism that young Americans could lead through service in the poorest countries of the developing world.

Kennedy was also a close friend to African Americans and an advocate of proposed civil rights laws that would see greater equity in America, especially in the deep south which at the time was still very segregated.

The early 60s were also dominated by the Cold War nuclear standoff between the superpowers. During the tense 13-days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Kennedy came under enormous pressure.  He was surrounded by hawkish military advisors who insisted he respond forcefully to the presence of missiles in Cuba. During those intense days in October, Kennedy managed to avoid a nuclear conflict and was able to convince the Russians to remove their weapons from Cuba. Historians still consider his Cold War diplomacy a significant achievement.

Kennedy also initiated major spending on the space race with the Russians which eventually led to the Americans being the first to successfully put a man on the moon and  literally reach for the stars.

When Kennedy was assassinated in November1963 his work was cut short.  Many Americans wondered what he could have achieved, and the shooting represented a violent collision of hope and possibility with the reality of violence and sheer evil that also exists in the world.

The official version of the assassination concluded one gunman acted alone. However, multiple conspiracy theories still abound about whether larger forces were behind the killing. These include allegations against the mafia, the Russians, archconservatives fighting against Kennedy’s proposed new equality, and civil rights laws. We will probably never know; Kennedy’s death will likely remain shrouded in mystery.

But at the 50th anniversary ceremony last Friday in Dallas, presidential historian David McCulloch reminded the audience that Kennedy was a confident optimist who was eloquent with his words. Kennedy knew that words matter and those that come from the mouth of the president have a special capacity to inspire and change lives.  Quoting from Kennedy’s famous “New Frontier” speech presented when he won the presidential nomination in 1960, McCulloch stressed that Kennedy focused on challenges not promises and appealed to the American people to focus on their pride in a world of possibilities.

Hope, pride and possibility: If those are the core of the Kennedy legacy, then we should all aspire to see that modern civic life embodies all three, whether in the USA or here in Canada. In essence, Kennedy’s message is timeless, because it is hope, pride and possibility that will carry each of our students forward as young leaders. I see them in action at school and beyond. I am proud to say that I have confidence in them as doers and in their capacity to help build a better tomorrow in Canada and globally.
—Chris Shannon, Headmaster




The Power of the Word

I saw something special in his eyes yesterday… something that was not there before.  In a word, I would call it resolve… a kind of confidence by American President Barack Obama to be a little grittier, a little edgier, perhaps a little wiser in the next four years. President Barack Obama has now officially begun his second term in office and analysts are already debating what we might see from Obama 2.0.  On the heels of reading the public opinion tea leaves, I believe Obama will show resolve on gun control—and carry his election mandate for health care, education, the environment and support to the middle class confidently into the messiness of the American political policy arena.

The official inauguration actually took place in the “Blue Room” of the White House on Sunday —January 20th as outlined by law. Yesterday was a repeat of the oath to office that has been uttered by all presidents, but more symbolic and ceremonial… outdoors in Washington on Capital Hill, looking out over what’s called the “Mall” leading down past a host of monuments, museums and statues to the Lincoln Memorial.  Close to a million people are estimated to have attended yesterday’s ceremony.  Events began on Saturday with a National Day of Service, including service by the president and his family at a renovation of a local elementary school.

Obama is the 44th American president and the 20th two-term president. Interestingly, Obama actually won more votes in his second term than any president in the past 50 years. The first since Eisenhower in 1956 to earn at least 51% of voter support in both elections.

A US president’s second term can be challenging, as by law Obama cannot continue beyond this term and politicking will begin in earnest in three years, so he has a short window to affect notable change.

Some critics question the importance of the pomp and circumstance of inauguration days. Yes, I agree it can go overboard, but I believe that the symbolism and the ceremony are actually important. The Americans do this part very well.  But it is also a public display of the peaceful transition of political power: orderly, celebratory—even in the face of great complexity with so many important issues at stake.

In terms of symbolism, note that yesterday’s ceremony occurred 150 years after the emancipation proclamation that freed American slaves and yesterday was also Martin Luther King Day—an American civic holiday—exactly 50 years since the famous civil rights march on Washington under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. Both of those iconic American leaders have been very influential in President Obama’s life and thinking.  For that reason Obama used three bibles for the swearing of the oath of office—the Obama family bible, Lincoln’s bible and Martin Luther King’s Bible— reinforcing Obama’s modern vision and hope for a nation where freedom and equity of opportunity reign.  Also note that Abraham Lincoln (also from Illinois – as is Obama) was a two-term president. During his first inauguration the Capital Dome was unfinished due to the strife of the Civil War between the north & south. Lincoln decided to finish it in the middle of the Civil War – completing it in 1863 as a symbol of the strength of the American Union in difficult times.

There are many unfinished jobs in America, and much of Obama’s speech yesterday stressed the need for belief in possibility, innovation and faith in America’s future. Obama stressed Americans to seize the moment and asked all citizens to define hopes of this generation and capacity for more equality in America and less economic inequality.

Obama chose as Inaugural Poet Laureate Richard Blanco: a gay Cuban immigrant.  Obama asked him to write three poems and Obama chose one entitled  “One Day.”

Blanco says being named poet laureate for the inauguration personally validated and stitched together several ideals against which he long measured America… the essence of the American dream: how a little Cuban-American kid on the margins of mainstream America could grow up with confidence, have the opportunity to become an engineer thanks to the hard work of his parents who could barely speak English, and then go on, choosing to become a poet who was asked to speak to, for and about the entire nation.

I know you all read poetry in your English classes.  So in honour of the power of words, I would like to share Blanco’s inspired poem to his fellow citizens and the world:

—Chris Shannon, Headmaster


One Today

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper — bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives — to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind — our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me — in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always — home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country — all of us –
facing the stars
hope — a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it – together.

Time to Renew

SpringrenewalLast week we saw two major celebrations on religious calendars—Easter in the Christian calendar and Passover in the Jewish calendar. Both of those spiritual traditions focus on elements of rebirth, survival and renewal. For those that do not subscribe to either of these religious traditions, this past weekend was also about renewal. We all were blessed with a long weekend where the weather was stunning and our whole society emerged from the interior caverns of winter shelter and spent time outdoors. Together we welcomed the warmth of sunshine and the stunning beauty of spring.

I’m always somewhat in awe at this time of year: the sheer beauty and wonder of the natural world amazes even the greatest cynic. Welcome to spring—buds on the trees, flowers pushing up through the—until recently—frozen soil, and grass turning from brown to vibrant green. This is indeed a time of renewal. It’s a time of emergence and becoming; what I like to call the season of possibility.
In keeping with the spirit of this season in the natural world, I urge all students: decide how you want to emerge. How do you want to renew an interest, a skill, or an initiative that somehow never really moved forward. Decide what’s important, take a risk or two, and try something new at school. It’s spring. We can all feel the positive vibes in the air.

The next few weeks are about possibility, getting outside, reconnecting with friends and nature. In terms of your life, consider how you want to emerge, to renew, to grow. ’Tis the season! —Chris Shannon, Headmaster