Dear WA Families,
Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of addressing our community at our opening Convocation. This was the second time I addressed the community in this capacity. Last year, speaking from the steps of Warner Theater, I introduced the notion of making one of our Core Values the theme each year and suggested that we start with Personal Growth. This choice made sense to me as we had undoubtedly sacrificed some opportunities for Personal Growth during the pandemic.
This summer brought unexpected turnover here on the Hilltop and in businesses everywhere. In early July, we welcomed five new administrators to our senior team. As this new team gathered for a two-day retreat, we structured an activity around our Core Values, just as our students do in advisory, and spoke to the Core Value that was most meaningful to us in the moment.
Several of us talked about the concept of Honor, about how needed it is in this world today — about how our youth need examples of people living honorable lives, especially right now as many people seem to “get ahead” through dishonorable actions and without consequence. Eventually, after a robust discussion, we decided Honor would be our theme, but some worried that our students would find the concept antiquated. Would the students reject it, they asked, seeing it as old-fashioned or hard to grasp?
I understood the concern and was also keenly aware we were gathered in Abercrombie House. I asked whether we had an obligation to make a case for the virtue Dr. Abercrombie so valued. We agreed to focus on Honor as our theme and to discuss with our students what it means today when we aspire to Achieve the Honorable.
As I addressed the students on opening day, I told them that one way to understand an abstract concept is by “defining its opposite.” From there, I made a case that littering was an action that impacted many people in a negative way while benefiting no one, thus making it a dishonorable act. I then broached the topic of plagiarism and suggested that cheating does more to damage the reputation of a school than any other action, and that is what makes it so dishonorable.
By showing some dishonorable actions, I hoped I had given the students some sense of the meaning and importance of Honor, but I knew I needed more, so I turned to Cicero for help. I studied Cicero in graduate school and recalled he often wrote about Honor, so I was certain I would find a suitable quotation. Ironically, in addition to finding several quotations, I could see that all those years ago, Cicero worried the concept of Honor might feel too ancient, too out-of-date, and therefore too hard for his readers to understand.
Imagine that, at the height of another great republic, the concept of living honorably was losing its luster. That got me to thinking. Perhaps the concept of Honor falls out of favor during periods of prosperity, not because it is poorly understood or old fashioned, but because it is inconvenient. So, I decided to challenge the students to overcome the inconvenience of Achieving the Honorable by focusing on his famous quotation, “Ability without honor is useless.”
The following is the conclusion of those opening remarks:
Today, I will focus on a few small things we can do to uphold our tradition of Achieving the Honorable. For students, the first thing is easy: Don’t cheat. Cheating robs us of our ability to call ourselves an honorable academic institution.
So that’s number one. Number two is this: Respect the spaces that make our school special. The Capozzoli Family Megaron is a part of our history, an iconic building made new through the generosity of Ron Capozzoli, a graduate who wished to honor a space that was very special to him in the 1940s. By taking up your dishes, and caring for the furniture, you honor Mr. Capozzoli and other Hilltoppers, including Daniel Abercrombie who envisioned the building, and felt that the students deserved a beautiful space of their own.
It is my privilege to welcome you back to newly restored spaces. In adding leather sofas and an 85” inch television, we are saying to you: “We trust you with nice things. In honoring those nice things, you, in turn, are earning our trust.”
So, in closing: Yes, honor is a tough word to define but it is not an obsolete virtue. Honor begins with three things: presence, respect, and accountability. You heard a bit about accountability from your Senior Monitors, so I will end with a word about presence. Be present for others. We honor each other through our presence in key moments. Therefore, honor is never off-duty, and is never someone else’s job.
Parents and guardians, this is just the second time I have written to you this year, and it seems strange to be so self-referential, but I want you to know that your children are at a school that is still unapologetically committed to helping you raise good citizens, young people who understand that “ability without honor is useless.”
I’ll be honest. When I left Rowe Court after convocation, I did not know whether the students had listened. It was the first day of school, the microphone was crackling, the gym was especially warm, and I was talking about an abstract virtue. But just yesterday, a faculty member was walking with her daughter, a Middle School student who is new to the community. Inadvertently, the faculty member dropped a wrapper on the ground, and her daughter quipped, "Come on, Mom. You know littering is dishonorable."
Here's to forming a strong partnership with all of you this year, as we seek to graduate students who aspire to Achieve the Honorable.
I will see you on the Hilltop.