Head of School Blog: That Good Infection

Now that most of you know me, it may not surprise you that as a kid, I led a relatively solitary existence. Among a number of nerdy pursuits, you’d find me reading The Chronicles of Narnia, out of which a few awful movies have been made.  The author of that series, C.S. Lewis, had a term that I think applies to my message … he called it “spreading that good infection.” That is, when it comes to influencing others to do the right thing, to lead healthy and balanced lives, to be joyful and positive presences here at school and there at home, each of us is more powerful than we think and, collectively, all of us are more powerful still. Consider, then, what might happen if we consciously chose to spread that good infection, what might happen when the practice of being our brother’s or sister’s keeper goes viral at Falmouth Academy?

As most of your know, last week we hosted Kevin Rosario, Director of Community Outreach at Gosnold Treatment Center, for an educational assembly on the risks of youth substance use and abuse. If you have not already spoken to your children about what they took away from that session, please do, and be sure to read the related post co-authored by Mr. Earley and Ms. DiFalco in this very same Mainsheet.

Anyway, to set the table for that assembly, I shared a two-minute clip from that mother of all reality television series Candid Camera. It’s known as the elevator prank and you can watch it yourself here. But, if you’re too busy, here’s a quick summary: hired actors enter an elevator that a regular person is taking and they stand facing the back of the elevator. At various times, they slowly pivot to face other directions, even taking off and putting back on their hats. As you might have guessed, the person who is not in on the joke bows to the social pressure and begins mimicking the movements and gestures of the others.

The temptation is to view this prank as an indictment of mindless compliance. And it is. But rather than demonize the prank’s patsy, perhaps we should celebrate the potency of the surrounding actors, their capacity to influence a complete stranger. In processing it with the students, I asserted, “You are similarly powerful. Every day, someone walks into your elevator and looks for signals as to how one behaves here.”

You recently received or will shortly receive your copy of The Bookworm, our annual collection of faculty-reviewed books. I will have more to say about the value of being a lifelong reader and of the culture of reading I have observed at Falmouth Academy in a future post, but I reference it now in order to add one more title: Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, which chronicles the travails of the crew team from the University of Washington. In it, Brown describes what rowers call “swing,” describing it as, “a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews,” he continues, “never really find it. Others find it but cannot sustain it. It only happens when all eight oarsman are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of the others.” Similarly, our willingness to sublimate our individual goals to those of the boat–our school community–will determine in large part what kind of school we are. Each member in the boat has, to some degree, her own particular function and identity and if she falls out of sync with her crewmates, the entire boat slows and that fleeting concept known as swing, eludes them.

Falmouth Academy is at its best when we are all rowing together, when we recognize that we are all part of this delicate organism called a school community and that what happens to one us happens to all of us. So, to reference the fairy tale, are we building houses made of bricks– character, hard work, doing the right thing? Or houses made of straw–high wire acts of self-interest, easy pleasures, short-cuts, and self-delusion?  Imagine what kind of school we would be for all of us and for each of us if the phrase, “Everybody’s doing it” weren’t an errant and exaggerated perception of various antisocial or self-sabotaging behaviors, but instead referred to the more common behaviors I see happening here every day–doing your best, helping a classmate, speaking up, listening, empathizing, and inviting someone to be themselves. “C’mon,” someone might say to a peer deciding on his next move, “Empathize. Everybody’s doing it.”  The culture here is palpable. We create it in overt and subtle ways every day, with every proverbial stroke we take. And even if every external social convention dictates otherwise, even if someone has spent a lifetime doing what he or she thinks “everybody’s doing,” our collective decision to do the proverbial 180 can make the difference in a life. Now that’s a good infection worth spreading.


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