Chapel Talk, Again

The Webb Gate at Mabry Hood Road

When I was at Webb School back in the 70s, we had to give a Chapel Talk every year.  From seventh grade up to twelfth grade, with note cards in hand and knees knocking.  I was glad during my senior year to have delivered what I was sure was my last Chapel Talk, but this past Friday I got a chance to return to Webb and give another Chapel Talk.  

I got to speak to the Lower School and the Middle School earlier in the morning.  Then Margaret Roddy, sister of Trinity's own new teacher and Webb alumna, Katherine Roddy Lavine, gave me a full tour of the place.  My how it's changed!  Here I am with Margaret, all decked out for Spirit Day in her field hockey uniform.  She was the best tour guide, and I got to see several classes where the school's 1:1 iPad program was in evidence.  

As I was walking around the campus and noting the changes since I left in 1976, I realized that Webb was about the age of our current Trinity School when I graduated.  I think of Trinity as being so young, but the Webb I attended did not feel young to me, a student.  I'm reminded how differently we all experience the same thing.

Here's my most recent Webb Chapel Talk.  I was especially honored that Mrs. Webb, wife of the late founder of the school was there.  

Webb School of Knoxville
Address to Upper School
September 20, 2013
Chip Denton

I first arrived on the Webb campus in the fall of 1970.  I had never heard of Webb School before my parents sat me down, sometime during my sixth grade year at Bearden Elementary, and asked me how I would like to go to a school called Webb.  That decision has shaped my life in more ways than I can say.  I remember when I graduated in 1976 I did not want to leave—this was a good place for me.   I am happy to return today, and I am especially glad that my parents can be here.  Thank you, Mom and Dad, for sending me to Webb.  I’d like also to thank my wife, Desiree, who has heard me talk about Webb for over thirty years, and I’m glad she can be here to experience the school for herself today.  I’d also like to acknowledge my enduring respect and gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Webb.  Mrs. Webb, thank you for being here today.  Forty years after coming to this school, I now have some inkling of the sacrifice and love you poured into this place, and what it must have meant to Mr. Webb and what it means to you.  Thank you.

One of my earliest memories is on the back seat of one of the old busses with Kenan Smith and Doug Traver, classmates whom I had just met, and would later come to know as friends.  We were sitting in the back of the bus and we were sizing each other up, the way seventh grade boys did back then and the way they do now too.  During my sixth grade year at Bearden Elementary, I had gotten ahold of a book called Fight Like a Falcon, the story of a young man who has a dream to attend the Air Force Academy.  I was inspired by the protagonist’s drive and work ethic, and I set my sights on getting into shape.  I did push-ups and sit-ups, and I mapped out a course in my neighborhood and started running regularly for the first time in my life.  So when Doug or Kenan asked me,  “What do you run the mile in?” I panicked inside (I had no idea!) but I was proud of myself and pulled something out of thin air: “About five minutes.”  I’ve forgotten a lot about my time at Webb, but I’ll never forget how Kenan and Doug just laughed out loud. 

My second story comes from the other end of my Webb experience.  The magnum opus of junior year at Webb back in my day, was Mrs. Graf’s term paper.  We had to pick a person (I chose Bob Dylan), do extensive research in primary sources at the UT library, and write a substantial paper, complete with footnotes and bibliography in correct form.  Mrs. Graf was the Queen of Correct Form, and she never met a perfect paper.  What’s most remarkable about this apocalyptic event in the life of Webb juniors, Mrs. Graf would take every paper, camp out in the UT library, and check every footnote.  Every one.  I kid you not.  She was the original TurnItIn. 

I want you to think with me about these stories because they are a picture to me of what a good education does for young people.  A great education—and Webb gave me a great education—gives a young person something outside himself, to measure himself against.  There is the self, and there is reality outside the self.  We can try to adjust that reality to ourselves, or we can work hard to shape ourselves to suit and fit the true, good, and beautiful realities we discover in the world beyond ourselves. 

Think about my Webb stories.  I imagined myself running the mile in five minutes, but all it took was a couple of Others—even if they were, like me, knuckle-headed thirteen year olds.  But they knew enough about stopwatches and world records to bring me face to face with reality.  Not what I imagined I could run the mile in, but what was really possible.  Athletics at Webb did that for me in so many ways, for which I am thankful.  I dreaded the sight of Coach Tarvin, in his Webb Green coaching shorts, standing at the base of the hill that rose from the practice field located, roughly, where the Lee Athletic Center is today, to the driveway that ran just alongside the Upper School.  I can see him now, with a whistle in his mouth, yelling, “Hill climbs!”  We would all line up at the base of the hill, and he would blow that hated whistle, and we would lug ourselves up that steep hill as fast as we could.  And then back down to do it again, and again.  That hill was a reality we had to measure ourselves against.  And Coach Tarvin wisely knew that it was good for us to face that reality several times a week, before we met the more important reality called Catholic High School on a Friday night. 

Mrs. Graf held us accountable to another reality beyond ourselves.  She was draconian in grading those term papers.  “I feel pretty good about what I wrote” was not going to cut it in her class.  She wasn’t really interested in how you felt about your writing.  She wanted to check your footnotes.  Every one of them.  Reality check.

We come into the world thinking that everything revolves around us, but education teaches us, through many experiences, that the world is not at our beck and call.

Think about music education.  We learn to play music by subjecting ourselves to the hard realities of the span of keys on a piano, of the embouchure required by the trumpet, of the physics of string and bow.  When my youngest son took Suzuki violin, I took it with him.  I made it through Book I, barely.  I wasn’t bad at remembering the notes, but I could never get the bow hold right.  Such things are not subject to the whims of the human will, but are the fruit of 10,000 hours of practice with reality.  And it helps to start young, when one’s capacity for adjusting to reality is still supple and nimble.

Think of the difference between a violin and Pandora.  (I’m not judging—I’ve got my own customized channels.)  A violin conveys reality through its own inherent qualities, but Pandora adjusts to our shifting psychic needs.  A violin is arduous and demanding in a way that Pandora is not.  I have to adjust my mind, my fingers, my grip, my attention to the violin; but Pandora is constantly adjusting to my autonomous self.  There is no “Like/Unlike” button on a violin.   Or on the 400 meter dash, or on the quadratic equation.

Learning a foreign language is also a good dose of reality, an authoritative structure outside ourselves.  As Iris Murdoch says, a foreign language “Leads me away from my self towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal”  (The Sovereignty of Good, 87) 

So also with the moral education that goes on in any good school.  “Virtue,” says Murdoch, “is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”  Justice, we know, is symbolized for us as a blindfolded woman with a scale.  She is no respecter of persons—you can’t manage or play her, not in her ideal form anyway.  And the Hebrew prophets conceived of righteousness as a plumb line, which like the carpenter’s tool never lies but delivers the brutal truth: Are we crooked or straight?

This was a question I remember meeting in Mr. Webb’s senior Bible class, where I first really read the book of Romans, Paul’s profound reflection on the human predicament.  As Paul puts it, “we all hold the truth hostage in unrighteousness.”  It took me another year or two into college to see that Paul’s predicament was my own predicament, and to understand and embrace Paul’s solution to this intractable moral problem.  But my debt of gratitude to Mr. Webb and my Webb education is recorded in the red underlinings that I still find in my copy of the Oxford Study Bible.

Let me close with three practical conclusions, which I started learning at Webb and have continued to learn throughout my life. 

The importance of honesty.

Conforming the self to reality means being honest.  When we lie or cheat, we are essentially pretending that the world can be what we want it to be, not what it really is.  The Honor Code was at the center of our school life when I was at Webb, and I am glad to learn that it is still a vibrant and essential part of this school.  Your Honor Code is not just an addendum to your education, but at the heart of it.  By it you pledge to shape yourself according to what is real and true.

Our Athletic Director at Trinity School is a former Duke golfer, and she says that one of the most important things she can teach her players is to keep an honest scorecard.  Par is not of our own making.  When we sloppily or intentionally miscount our putts, we are bending reality to ourselves—making ourselves and others think something that is simply out of touch with reality.

The importance of challenge.

I am ashamed of something in my own education, and I will admit it here because I think it might help some of you.  My math course of study at Webb was pre-calculus my junior year, and I chose to study other good things my senior year but did not take a math course—I didn’t need it to graduate, and apparently I didn’t need it to get into Emory University—things have changed, haven’t they?  When I arrived at Emory, I signed up for a calculus course, but the first day I knew I was in deep trouble and instead I took a statistics course to satisfy my math requirement.  I was an English major, and I didn’t have to take more math.  I’ve regretted that decision ever since, and one of the things on my bucket list is to take an online calculus class.

It’s not that I really use integrals and derivatives in my work as Head of School.  But I do think I would be a better school Head if I had stuck with that calculus course.  Not only because it would help me manage better the complications of math education in our day, but also because of the virtue of sticking with something that seemed beyond me.  For the education of the self is not just about mastery of content; it is also about developing grit.  Even if I had stuck with calculus, I doubt I’d still remember how to produce the derivative of a function; but I’m sure I would remember what it took to push past that barrier.  It would have been worth the stain on my GPA.  

The importance of failure.

Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary is said to have declared, “No one should be allowed to work in the West Wing of the White House who has not suffered a major disappointment in life.”  A good education teaches us that the reality of failure can lead to real success.

With this point, I will close by telling you a couple of stories of my own failure, my own encounters with the brutal reality that would not bend to my own imagining, and the happy ending that ensued.  When I was in my early thirties and finishing up my graduate work at Duke, I began looking for a job.  I explored two directions.  One was to teach at a seminary—my degree was in New Testament and Early Christian Studies.  The other was to plant a church.  I interviewed at seminaries but got turned down.  That was a hard No.  And so I went to what they call an Assessment Center, where they run you through all sorts of exercises to see if you’ve got the right stuff to start a church.  I failed the Assessment Center.  They said I wasn’t suited to start something.  So I did something else—I worked in a church that someone else had started, and I enjoyed what I did very much.  But then my wife and I found ourselves starting a school, and before long some people were asking, “Why don’t you become the Head?”  I tell you this story to encourage you.  Reality has a way of blocking our plans.  I ran into a cul-de-sac or two along the way.  But here’s what’s fascinating to me: If I had taken either of those other roads, I would not have started a school and wouldn’t be Head of Trinity School today.  And while in my baser moments I might like to say “I Told You So” to the folks who said I shouldn’t start something, in reality I find that the memory of that No keeps me honest and grateful.  My “failure” at the Assessment Center was a real failure, but it didn’t define the rest of my life.  Except that it did shape my life, because hardly a day goes by that I don’t realize how different my life might have been.  I hope you have some really fine failures in your life too, and that you learn through them and end up a better person for all that.

As I toured Webb this morning, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the many new things that are here.  Amazing improvements.  But any alum who returns after decades will also find things missing.  It’s hard to find some things around here.  Where, for example, is Mabry Hood Road?  I used to drive it every day to school.  And it has a special place in my memory: On the first day of school, a half day without lunch, the football team took the bus to Harriman’s Truck Stop, the only lunch option nearby, at the intersection of I-40 and Mabry Hood Road.  Wade Sample and I must have been dilly-dallying somewhere in the convenience store—we missed the bus back and had to walk two miles down Mabry Hood Road to get back to practice.  And now I can’t find it!  And where is Mrs. Hudson’s seventh grade classroom?  The classroom where I first encountered really great teaching at Webb, where this master teacher taught me to read the Odyssey, where I first believed that the inside of my head might actually be an interesting place?  Now that classroom is buried deep inside renovations and master-plan designs.  Yes, things are missing here at Webb, but I think I can still find what is most important: learning that measures itself against the steep, hard, unbending realities that for centuries have been called the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

I am glad to be working at a school.  Schools can be very good places to live and grow.  I love the school where I work now, and as I stand in this assembly I remember that I have always loved this place too.  I hope you love it as well, for it is a good place to move outside yourself and join the world as it really is.  Thank you for having me today.   


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