Headmaster’s Notebook — Finding Our Place

I was talking with one of our seniors this week about the things he has learned at Cate in his four years. The young man is currently trying to decide where he will go next. Pretty much every school to which he applied wants him, and with good reason. He is brilliant and kind, generous and community minded, well-intended and highly motivated. He also has a remarkable story, one that includes being left by his mother as a toddler and growing up with a father who struggled mightily to make ends meet.

That path alone did not make this young man a candidate for admission at Cate or at the colleges and universities to which he made application. His compassion and intelligence along with remarkable maturity and uncanny resolve did that. He earned his opportunity at Cate in the same way he has earned his college choices, by the quality of his character and the character of his achievement.

But his answer to my question was not about working hard or proving himself in a very different world from the one he knew as a child. His answer was about identity. “I learned,” he said, “how important it is that I share my story. No one can really understand me without knowing where I come from.”

I was thinking of that comment when I read the recent New York Times article about USC, which focuses on the dynamics of a school trying to marry an historical association with wealth and celebrity and social excess with a more recent and laudable commitment to inclusion and equity. USC is not unique in wrestling with these questions—most of this country’s schools and colleges are facing similar challenges—but USC is notable because the polarities are especially dramatic.

What is most telling in the personal anecdotes that are peppered throughout the article is the inevitable orienteering each student must do, but especially those who come to the school from backgrounds like our Cate senior’s, whose first real taste of privilege and opportunity comes when they step on campus for the first time. All come to USC expecting to quickly find their place, yet for a host of reasons few do.

I was reminded as I read the article of a statement David Hicks made in an essay for The American Scholar. Dr. Hicks was the rector of St. Paul’s in New Hampshire and he takes issue with the “egalitarian myth.” Human beings strive “not for equality but superiority,” he writes, which if accurate may explain the experience of those students at USC and perhaps even our Cate senior. A campus full of students motivated by self-interest or self-promotion is unlikely to be welcoming or inclusive to anyone, let alone to those who receive some form of tuition assistance.

I don’t hold with Dr. Hicks’ assessment of human nature or school communities, but we have not yet—through the construction of our communities and the evolution of our institutional cultures—proven him wrong. Our senior worked hard to build his place at Cate, noting that it took the better part of two years to do so. And that, he said, was the lesson he would take with him to college. “I know how things work, who I have to support, and how.”

We would like to believe that every student who comes to Cate can quickly make it home, regardless of where or what circumstances a student is coming from. Yet it seems that even finding one’s place is a learned skill. Thankfully, the young man I was speaking with had, in fact, learned his way, but I’m not sure we taught him so much as we compelled him to discover it on his own. And that is not a viable long-term strategy nor an indication of the “spirit of this place.”

So as our senior moves on with his classmates to a new community, we have the opportunity to continually renew our own, to learn from the insights of all who come here, and to further craft a journey that is dominated by a common quality of experience even though each individual path to Cate is unique, distinct, important and varied.

Only in such blending of possibilities and pathways is our mission truly fulfilled.