All School Meeting Address: Sexuality and Healthy Relationships

The text below is of an All School Meeting address of September 22, 2015.  Warning: I use graphic language below.

Good morning, Andover.

Yes, you did hear right: this morning, we are going to talk about sex in this chapel. I realize that might sound awkward to some of you, but I ask for your close attention in this All School Meeting all the same. What I have to say involves every person here. That includes our faculty, who are with us this morning to underscore the importance of this topic to our community. This issue is universal.

What I am about to say may be more than awkward for some of you; it may be downright upsetting. At the end of my remarks, we will introduce members of the community who are specially trained to talk with you on these matters, and I encourage you to do so.

Before we get to the matter of sexual development and healthy relationships, let’s start by stepping back a bit: Why are you here? Why are we all here? I don’t mean it as an existential question – why are we on this planet – but rather, why did you choose to come to Andover? What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

Most people say, one way or another, that you came to Andover for the “excellence.” That excellence might mean a fabulous learning experience in physics, English, music, or the arts. Maybe you came to Andover to pursue great academics as well as excellence in lacrosse or drama or in playing the flute; maybe seeing Eight Bells in the Addison blew you away on your revisit (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please go find out before you graduate). These are all good reasons to come to Andover and to be at Andover. I’m proud of what all of us – faculty and students alike – can and do accomplish when it comes to these kinds of excellence.

Today, let’s focus on an equally important form of excellence: how we relate to one another in this community. I mean in particular how you as students relate to one another when you make the decision to have an intimate relationship with another person, whenever that time might come, and whatever that might mean to you.

While I suppose it has not been often that heads of school have talked about sex in this chapel in the history of this school, it is a topic fully in step with our mission as a place of teaching and learning. As you know by now, more or less everything we do is grounded in our founding principles. In this case, the principle in question is the idea of knowledge with goodness. In our Charter, Samuel Phillips and the other founders told us that:

[… A]bove all, it is expected, that the Master’s attention to the disposition of the minds and morals of the youth under his charge, will exceed every other care; well considering that, though goodness without knowledge – as it respects others – is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.

In modern-day terms: “knowledge with goodness” has to do with how you treat one another – how you care for one another.

We often talk about how Andover is the most diverse community in which most of us will ever live. We are proud of that fact and we seek to build upon that diversity all the time. One important skill that we want you to learn is how to get along with one another in an extremely diverse community. We come from different faith traditions and different family backgrounds, among many other forms of difference. Being excellent as a student here means caring, respecting one another, being in partnership with one another – not despite our diversity, but in keeping with it.   This diversity means that you will come to any relationship with potentially very different beliefs about what is morally right.

Let me pause here – on this topic of moral perspective – to address one possible concern about sexual education, lest my message this morning be misconstrued. Some adults worry that more talk about sex with kids means an encouragement to be sexually active sooner than you otherwise would. I don’t believe that any of you would hear me that way, but let me make it plain: regardless of your gender or your age, you have every right to abstain from sexual activity. We, as adults in this community, strongly support that decision. No one is obligated to participate in a hook-up culture; no one is obligated to make a choice about your sexual development that is out of keeping with what you believe is morally right. As you leave this chapel today, I trust that each one of you will feel that we, as adults, are here to support you as you work through what is a especially challenging part of teenage development – including supporting your sound decisions not to engage in intimate relationships during your time here.

Just as we emphasize academic integrity with your pursuits in the classroom and personal integrity with regard to following Blue Book rules, this topic too is about integrity.  We want you to make decisions and engage in activities while you are at PA that honor your integrity—in line with your personal values and ethics. You need to support one another as you make these important choices in your life, whether here at Andover or once you are in college.

Put another way: we do not encourage sexual activity at Andover, but we do acknowledge that some of you choose to engage in sexual intimacy while you are here. It is our job as adults in your life to help you make safe choices and to ensure that you know where to turn for support.

I want to share with you today, in terms as clear as I can make them, our community expectations when it comes to healthy relationships and sexual activity. Some aspects of this topic are clear and obvious; others are a bit more complex.

First, a crystal-clear statement: we cannot and do not tolerate sexual assault of any kind at Andover. If you are worried that what you are engaged in is sexual assault, then stop. If you have experienced something that you wonder was sexual assault, seek help – more on that from Mrs. Elliott shortly.   If you don’t know what I mean when I say we cannot tolerate sexual assault on campus, please come talk to me or any of us up on the stage today.

Also in the category of “clear:” the law in Massachusetts says that you cannot consent to sexual activity if you are under 16 years old. If and when we learn of sexual intimacy between students where one or both student is under 16, we are required to report it to the police and to the state of Massachusetts; we also discuss it with your parents. This requirement is not theoretical. For those who might be wondering: oral sex counts as sexual activity for these purposes. This is not my opinion; this is the law in our state.

Third: consent to any degree of physical intimacy on this campus must take the form of an affirmative “yes.” The Blue Book spells it out clearly: we are a “yes means yes” school. That’s new and that can be awkward. But it is very important. It is a shifting of a burden from one person to say “no” to both people to say “yes.” If you are not sure, at the start or at any point during an intimate encounter, you must ask and you must hear a “yes” from your partner before you continue. If you hear a “no” or see or feel anything that resembles a “no” (or anything less than an enthusiastic, unambiguous “yes”), it’s on you to stop.

There’s a rule of thumb that might help in respect to consent. You no doubt have heard of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Consider instead a Platinum Rule in the context of intimacy: do unto others as they would choose to have done unto them. That said, I’d also urge you not to think of sexual relationships as being about what you do “to” someone else – which makes it sound adversarial – but rather “with” someone else. These are distinctions that can make a big difference in changing a culture.

One point that is more subtle: Gender and sexual orientation are unmistakably a part of any discussion about sexual health, but the conversation should not be thought of as exclusively heteronormative.  OK – there were a lot of big words in that sentence.  Let me unpack.  By that, I mean that a discussion of sex is not only about a dynamic that exists between boys and girls. It is hard to have a conversation about sexual health, and especially about differences in expectations and power dynamics, without talking about differences in gender. I’d urge you, at the same time, not to let stereotypes dominate these conversations. On our campus, we have community members who are boys; we have those who are girls; and we have those who do not self-identify as either or who are in transition. (My PGP is: he/him/his.) And we have a range of sexual orientation at Andover. Every student is learning about their sexuality during this period of life, but not everyone is experiencing the same thing. That diversity is important. We respect everyone equally at Andover.

The bottom line is that everyone has a right to feel safe and respected on this campus – regardless of your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, your moral perspective, your faith. As many of you have pointed out, too many students, here at Andover as elsewhere in the world, have suffered from unwanted sexual encounters. The New York Times reports this morning that 1 in 4 young women have experienced sexual assault at some of our most prestigious colleges. As a community, we shouldn’t stand for that. In fact, we must stand for something very different – respect for one another, support for one another, caring for one another. At this high school, we should all be part of the solution.

What I call upon us today to do – adults and students alike – is to step up. Andover, it’s on us. We need to be courageous in talking about sexual intimacy and sexuality. This dialogue must honor each one of you during your time at Andover and set you on a course of healthy relationships for your entire life – much in the way that our academic excellence at Andover education always has set up students for productive lives of work and service.

Andover, we can do this. I know it’s awkward. We can make our community better and healthier, day by day, Saturday night by Saturday night, relationship by relationship. We owe it to one another to do just that. Everyone has a role in defining this type of excellence at Andover and in building a positive culture of healthy relationships. We can show that we care about one another and respect one another. This kind of learning – this essential kind of character development – is, in fact, why we are all here.

To close this morning, Mrs. Elliott will share with you some thoughts about those people on campus who are special resources on this topic. She will also give you a sense of what you can expect in terms of discussions in your dorms, and in classrooms, in the weeks to come on this topic.

Mrs. Elliott: over to you, and thank you for your very strong leadership on this important topic, building on the work of many others who have been committed to these issues for a long time here at Andover.

All School Meeting Address: Winter Welcome 2014 and Discussions in the Wake of Ferguson

Good morning, Andover!

Over the Thanksgiving break, I wrote to you all an email, asking that you take some time to understand what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri.  A few members of the community — a student and a parent, in particular — wrote me back, respectfully, with deep concerns about what I had written, along with Dean Murphy [our Dean of Students] and LCG [Dean Linda Carter Griffith, our Dean of Community and Multicultural Development].  I wanted to respond to those concerns and also to explain why I think this attention and this discourse are so important.  [The original email is here.]

I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, not because I want you to think something in particular. In fact, while I do have a point of view on this issue, and I’m happy to share that view with any of you anytime, I very much do not want for 1129 young people to think what I think – what a disaster that would be!  In fact, let’s agree to start from a perspective of valuing intellectual freedom and the importance of being open to hear every voice in our academic community.

I asked you to pay attention for two reasons. One is that, despite the common phrase, we do not live in a “bubble” in Andover. We live in a community that is deeply connected to the world outside our beautiful campus. We live in a world where students are required to go off-campus – whether home or elsewhere – during breaks. We live in a world in which all students have friends and family who live outside of our little world here. And we live in a world that is increasingly complex – more global, more interconnected, more diverse, and moving ever more quickly.

The other reason I asked you to pay attention to what happened in Ferguson is because I think it matters a great deal in an historic sense. It matters to every single one of us – Latino/a, Asian, Black, White, regardless of the race, or races, or ethnicity or ethnicities, that you claim. It matters to each person, perhaps in a different way. But it matters to all of us because it stands for a few important things. It stands for the difficulty we continue to have in talking about race and difference in the world. I know, in what I will say to you today, I will offend one or more of you; or perhaps I will stumble badly over my words.  We must each run that risk — of offending one another, of saying the wrong thing, on the way to the truth and to productive dialogue.  This issue also stands for the very real challenge of effective law enforcement and global security — which we must accomplish with real effectiveness — and to do so in a world in which it is not possible to ignore the inequities between people in our society.

I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced the policeman, Darren Wilson that night. I would not have wanted for the world to be in the position that faced Michael Brown that night — and I know, because of the color of my skin and other factors, that I am highly unlikely ever to be. I would not wish on anyone the job of being on that Grand Jury. My heart breaks for every one of their families and friends. Ditto for what happened in Staten Island, in the death of Eric Garner. Ditto for hundreds, if not thousands, of similar cases in recent years. This is hard, and this is heart-breaking. These events happen all too often in this country and in countries around the world.

We need to be better – and it starts here, in this august high school. We need to do better – and we can. We can prove that we can be empathetic toward one another. We can prove that such a diverse community can work, that we can listen and learn from one another, and that we can work toward a more just and sustainable world.

More broadly, these matters speak to more than race. These matters call the question: What does it mean to be a citizen in a republic? What it means to me is that you must have a point of view. There is a cost of freedom; there is a cost to having a say in who governs and how they do it. That cost is that you must engage. You must learn. You must listen. You must come to have a point of view on issues that matter; we cannot govern ourselves if we do not. And you must act upon it. You have no choice.  That might mean that you start a new journal, as some of your colleagues have recently done, on matters of fiscal policy; it might mean that you organize a forum and a candlelight vigil; it might mean that you put yourself into the public arena with a point of view on something else that matters to you.  But to make democracy work, you must find your path toward being a true citizen.

It may be that one of us in this room will be in the position of Darren Wilson one day; maybe one of us will be in Michael Brown’s shoes; in America, we will all be on that Grand Jury; we will all be their friends and family. Not in exactly the same way, and – we pray – not with the same outcome. But when we sign up for life in a republic, we sign up to do the work of being a citizen — to being on that jury, to making those hard decisions, to figuring out how we can have effective law enforcement and global security in a way that is consonant with the Constitution and with international norms of human rights. That work is hard; it matters; and it is all of our work.

I could not be more proud to live in this country; I could not be more proud to be an American.  I could not be more proud to live and work at Andover; I could not be more proud to be your head of school.  Neither America nor Andover is perfect. Neither one is completely exceptional. But on their best days, they are both completely wonderful.  We can and must make both of them better – and with them, the world at large. Andover, it starts here – it starts with each of us and with our community.  We can show that democracy works in the context of free, open, orderly discussion on topics that matter — whether they relate to what is right in front of us or what is occurring in the world at large.

I will end with a quote that I love.  I know that there are valid critiques of this quote, but I love it – for its spirit and for what it calls on each of us to do. It is a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States. He almost certainly did not have in mind as inclusive a community as I do today, but he got the call to engaged citizenship just right.  Where I say “man”, you can choose to hear “person.”  Otherwise, please just listen to it for the spirit and the challenge it presents:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

All School Meeting dismissed.

Remarks for Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration 2014 at Andover

I am glad to see you all back here, safe and sound, in Cochran Chapel so that we can look ahead, look to the kind of community that we want to build.  We come together today to celebrate both community and diversity, the pillars of what sets Phillips Academy apart – a school proudly built of youth and faculty from every quarter, a student body that comes from dozens of countries and nearly every state in America, regardless of anyone’s ability to pay tuition.  I am deeply grateful to our colleagues in CAMD, especially Linda Carter Griffith, and all those student moderators and organizers, for their leadership and hard work to make today possible.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is one of the things that Andover does extremely well.  I love the idea that we don’t take the day “off” — though we don’t hold regular classes and practices — but we rather take the day “on,” to explore what Dr. King’s legacy means to us today in this community and more broadly.  We are especially fortunate to have Maria Hinojosa — Emmy-award-winning NPR journalist — here with us as our keynote speaker this morning, to lead us and to help us think about the importance of voice and narrative.

Often, when we at Andover talk about diversity and when we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy, we talk about our commitment, enshrined in the school’s constitution of 1778, to educate “Youth from Every Quarter.”  That term has long been our guide, and is alive and well.  We are deep into this year’s admissions season, as our good friends and colleagues on Team Shuman and faculty readers are sifting through another extraordinary group of applicants, those who wish to be a part of Andover’s future.  This weekend, we were blessed with 1,200 guests — young people and their families from every background who are considering joining our community — for the Day at Andover.

Today, though, I wanted to emphasize another of our founding phrases – the idea of Knowledge with Goodness.  You will recall that our Constitution tells us that Knowledge without Goodness is dangerous.  As the Phillips Academy Constitution says, when Goodness and Knowledge are united, they “form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”  I take this phrase to mean that it is not enough for us merely to teach you the tools that you will need to thrive in a 21st century.  Surely we need to teach these things – surely you ought to master core academic disciplines.  You need to learn critical thinking, how to work in teams, and how to be creative.  But you must also learn to combine this knowledge with goodness.

What, you might ask, does Knowledge with Goodness have to do with Martin Luther King Day, or with community and diversity?  To my mind, it has everything to do with this day of celebration and reflection.  Today, we ask ourselves what it means to be an individual in a community.  It has to do with how we act at Andover and who we want to be.  It has everything to do with character.

What does it mean to have Goodness along with all this Knowledge that you are acquiring here at Andover?  Goodness is a character trait.  To me, this goodness is, at its core, about how we relate to one another.  It is how we use our gifts both for ourselves and for others.  We see this goodness, this character, all around us.

In the last week, I found this goodness, this strength of character, in the speech that Meera gave about her homeland, Syria, rocked with war and torn by the geopolitics of our age.  I found this goodness in the performances of all those students who created a stunning production of Dido and Aeneas from scratch: the six student instrumentalists; the voices of Fidelio and the soloists, Caroline and Adam and their friends; the graceful movement of the dance team and the Graham and Emily in their starring turns.  I found this goodness in the dedication of the performance to a teacher, friend, and faculty spouse whose passing we mourn together.  I found this goodness in the way that our fans cheered our boys hockey team to an amazing comeback against St. Sebastian’s – down 4-2 with two minutes left, they tied the game and then won in overtime, their friends pounding on the plexiglass with every dramatic goal, ending at 5-4.  Ditto for the cheering and dancing led by Varsity SLAM, leading on the Girls’ Varsity Basketball in their come from behind win on Saturday.  I found this goodness in the stacks of the OWHL, where a senior was walking another student through some science homework that was far beyond my own comprehension.  I read it again in a senior’s email to me (Samantha) asking me to say “happy birthday” to her roommate (Emilia).  Happy birthday, Emilia!

I see this goodness in classrooms that I visit across the campus.  To embrace diversity and difference is not to accept lower standards.  In our classrooms, we embrace the strength and necessity of difference in our increasingly complex, interconnected world.  We see this strength and excellence in page after page of Out of the Blue, the book that tells the story of today’s Andover better than any other text we have.

Most of all, I find this goodness all around us at Andover as I see your smiling faces on the pathways, making your way from class to sports to activities and back to your dorms and homes, making your mark on this school and this community.

Today, at Andover, we refuse to look away from the challenges of living in a diverse community, in a diverse world.  No matter who you are, you may feel uncomfortable in talking about diversity.  It is a crucial form of knowledge with goodness to be able to express your views about diversity – to tell your own, beautiful story and to struggle with it along with your peers and your teachers.

As you read Out of the Blue, you may find a piece of yourself in a particular essay or poem. You might be the writer who asked why girls are not allowed to swear the same way that boys can.  You might be the boy who identified with Hamlet as he struggled with coming out as a gay male.  You might be the gentile who goes to a camp for Jewish kids or you might be the Jewish student who asks whether your own community takes enough action these days.  You might be the student from a “small, infamous town” who wrote, “People are always surprised when they see how hard I work in all aspects of my life.”  You might be the student who explained to all of us what it means to be a student at Andover who comes from an Asian family.

I want to reply to an Out of the Blue author, who wrote an amazingly powerful statement, which also included a question.  You wrote: “It’s important to have diversity.  40% students of color.  Is that why I’m here?  For diversity?  To help some rich kids cross ‘ racial barriers’ they created?”  My response is both “yes” and “no.”  Yes, you are here for diversity, but you are not alone in being here for diversity.  We are all here for diversity, whether yours will be the first generation in your family to go to college or whether your family has been attending Andover since it was founded.  That’s why we are all here and we all have to grapple with it.  As a white male of privilege, I know that I struggle with what my own identity means – especially in this role as Head of School.

The bottom line is that we all come to Andover to live, learn, and work together as an intentionally diverse community – for many of us, the most diverse community we will ever live in.  We are not perfect; no one of us is perfect; we are all a work in progress, individually and collectively.  As our former Associate Head of School, Rebecca Sykes, wrote in her essay in Out of the Blue, the point is not that we are great at diversity at Andover; it is that “we do not shy away from the hard conversations” about race and other topics that can either divide us or join us together as a community.

I am struck, as I read back through our Constitution, by how well the ideals of this school hang together, 235 years later.  There is profound beauty in how these founding principles intersect.  We are blessed with ideals that support one another.  Non sibi means that we think not just of ourselves – which is inevitable – but of others.  Knowledge with Goodness means that we choose to apply our hard-earned knowledge and skills in pursuit of not just our self-interest, but the community interest.  Youth from Every Quarter means that we draw strength from the diversity of perspective, race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion in our community.   Excellence in academics, athletics, and arts means not the pursuit of a single truth but accomplishment across a vast range of things that you come to master during your time at Andover.  Excellence means accomplishment and goodness in a diverse community.

I’ll close today with one of my favorite passages.  I urge you, by the way, to read Out of the Blue cover to cover.   On p. 211, one person concluded an essay with these words: “Day by day, I think I am doing better and better and I love Andover more and more.  I have learned so much from people around me.  Andover is a place where people always love you back if you love them.  Over time, I felt very much part of the community.  I am grateful that I finally blend in and have such great teachers and friends.  My heart is full of happiness right now, because I have a lot to treasure.  My mom says when people grow up, they do not simply receive more happiness; they learn how to find it.  I think I have found my happiness at Andover, and I am looking for more.”  I don’t know whose voice that is, but whoever you are, I’m grateful to you.  I send you my love for what you wrote.

I wish everyone a wonderful Martin Luther King Jr. day for 2014, here at Andover.  Thank you.