Embracing Courage

by Michael Wirtz, Head of School

Over the last three years, Hackley Head of School Michael Wirtz grounded his Convocation remarks in a children’s book. This piece was adapted from his message to the full K-12 community, delivered at the start of the 2018–2019 school year.

At Convocation, Community Council President Zaya Gooding challenged the K-12 student body to make the most of the opportunities offered by Hackley. “I didn’t start out thinking I wanted to lead clubs or become Community Council President one day,” she said, “but thanks to what Hackley offered me, leadership is now a big part of my life.” Zaya spoke to the life-changing value in having the courage to try new things, telling her fellow students, “This year, I challenge you to do something that will affect your journey at Hackley. Why sit and wait for your life to begin when your life is happening right in front of you?”

Zaya Gooding ’19, Hackley School Community Council President

Zaya’s message was an important one for us at the start of the year, as it highlights the essential role courage plays in our growth as individuals. The book Courage, by Bernard Waber, opens with the following lines:

There are many kinds of courage. Awesome kinds. And everyday kinds. Still, courage is courage — whatever kind.

Often, we think of courage in grand contexts. Service members in the armed forces, police, firefighters, and other first responders display courage in their daily work. We are grateful to them for the courage they display in keeping us safe. Those are the “awesome” kinds of courage to which Waber refers.

As we launch the new school year, however, I am less focused on the “awesome kinds” and more on the “everyday kinds.”

Courage is riding your bicycle for the first time without training wheels.

I like this example of courage, because it is defined by a willingness to try something new, an important reminder at the start the year and in line with Zaya’s thoughts. For many, just being at Hackley is new, whether as new students or new faculty and staff members. Others are returning to a familiar campus, yet are in a new division as 5th graders or 9th graders. Some are taking a class in a new discipline or playing a new sport this year. In each of these ways, individuals are demonstrating the personal courage required to try something new.

Other examples of courage cited in the book are equally relatable to school:

Courage is the bottom of the ninth, tie score, two outs, bases loaded, and your turn to bat. …

Courage is a spelling bee and your word is superciliousness.

Designing and building boats out of corrugated cardboard with classmates 9th graders didn’t yet know on First Friday took courage — but persevering in laps across the pool as boats disintegrated around them took even more!

It is easy to imagine moments this year when each of us might be called on to demonstrate courage in these ways and others. Maybe performing on stage, either as part of chorus, or musical ensemble, or in a theater production. Perhaps participating in debate. These examples and others led me to reflect on the core work that occurs in our classrooms on a daily basis.

Students are called on to “perform” by participating actively in the intellectual life of the school. They are asked to share thoughts and ideas through writing, by developing computer code, by drawing and painting and creating sculptures, by formulating editorials, and most frequently, by contributing to class discussions. Each of these examples requires a small act of courage; sharing one’s and talents means making oneself vulnerable to others…an act of courage. These moments, while “everyday” in magnitude, are essential to each student’s learning and that of their classmates. I want our students to notice and celebrate these acts of courage in themselves and others, sharing their talents and hard work, and taking risks on assignments. In short, I want our students to be intellectually courageous.

Waber also points to other examples of courage that I find essential, especially in a community that emphasizes the importance of personal character:

Courage is nobody better pick on your little brother.

Courage is being the new kid on the block and saying, flat out, “Hi, my name is Wayne. What’s yours?”

Courage is being the first to make up after an argument.

These lines speak to the courage of one’s character, those personal traits and values that form the basis of our decision making, words, and actions. Often, this form of courage is the most difficult to summon, especially when the challenge is based in our relationship to others. We often talk about this as “doing the right thing” even when difficult or unpopular. As we each go about our work in the school, our collective willingness to make the right choice — to demonstrate our own moral courage — is what keeps us together as a community.

Waber’s message of courage is one we at Hackley collectively embrace. Personal courage, intellectual courage, and moral courage can be found in Hackley’s Portrait of a Graduate, the aspirational vision of a Hackley education developed by our faculty last year that articulates the core values inherent to our mission statement. In sharing this book with the community, I particularly liked the fact that Waber’s book lacks a main character. Instead, the story is a collection of people doing things both ordinary and extraordinary. In a sense, we — members of the Hackley community — are the characters.

Because it is this collection of individuals that builds and sustains this school, I found the book’s closing line particularly wise: “Courage is what we give to each other.” Beyond all else, this is my hope for each of us as individuals and for us as a community: that we give each other courage, that we build each other up, and in turn, build up Hackley.

As our students head into classes, and practices, and hallway conversations this new school year, I hope they will be aware of moments that require courage, either their own or that of someone around them. I look forward to seeing them celebrating acts of personal courage in trying something new, honoring moments of intellectual courage and the consideration of new ideas, perpetuating acts of moral courage in standing for matters of principle, and giving courage to others.