Leaving Things Better than You Found Them (or The Grace in Picking Up Somebody Else’s Trash)

All-School Meeting Remarks on September 9, 2021
Chris Kolovos, Head of School

Chris Kolovos

Good morning. I find myself deeply moved at the sight of us gathered as a community like this. It feels like the first spring day after a winter that lasted far too long.

All-School Meeting is a sacred time for me. It is a physical manifestation of — in the language of our mission — “our caring high-school community.” These meetings are a chance for us to share, celebrate, and laugh together in good times, to mourn and comfort one another in hard times. It is especially fitting that we gather in this space, which for its first sixty years served as Temple Israel.

Today, we’ll start a tradition where I address the school at the start of each academic term. I hope to offer thoughts beyond the day-to-day.

That tradition comes from my upbringing. When I was a boy, my head of school gave talks like this several times a year. They were solemn occasions, often involving singing in Latin (which I loved), and were somewhat risky; chair seats were sloped backward at the perfect angle for coins to roll onto the floor and echo through the chamber. That noise would be greeted by a steely gaze from our head of school, Mr. Jarvis.

I’d like for you to know a little bit about him. Mr. Jarvis passed away a few years ago. Aside from my parents, he was the person who had the biggest influence on me and, in many ways, is why I am doing what I am doing today.

He was tough. Picture an Episcopal priest in a dark suit, collar, an impeccable part in his hair, and perfect creases in his pants. I vividly remember being called into his office after penning an editorial for the school newspaper criticizing the choice of outside assembly speakers. He opened with “You’ve embarrassed yourself and all of us.” When I accepted a prize from him on Prize Day, but had failed to button my top button and cinch up my necktie, he pulled me close and whispered in my ear: “Don’t ever do that again.”

And he loved us. He would grab us firmly by the arm in the hallway, look us straight in the eye and say, almost accusatorily, “You know that I love you.” He was talking about what the Greeks called agape: unconditional love with no expectation or desire for anything in return. As intimidated as many of us were of him, we knew he loved us. That was unshakable, even if he did sometimes admit, with a glimmer in his eye, “We love you. We just don’t like you very much right now.”

The messages he shared with us in assembly twice per year felt important and often heavy. Many of those talks are collected in a book I keep close by: With Love and Prayers. In one talk, he offered the following: “Let me, then, summarize the bad news: you are not perfect just the way you are and the world was not created to satisfy your every need and desire.” In another: “Try to imagine yourself at your own funeral.” At 7:30 in the morning before a Geometry test, that felt like a lot.

But his words stuck with me. The messages he shared and the example he set have shaped so much of my life. He never once talked down to us. Instead, he addressed the most important questions. Why are we here? What is expected of us as members of our community and our world? What does it mean to live a good life?

I am not him. I will not try to mimic his mannerisms or mold our time together to match the culture he created. But I feel the responsibility to ask those same questions with all of you in a way that is authentic to me and to this culture. I know you are thinking about these fundamental questions already and deserve the chance to process them as a group.

My talk today is about leaving things better than you found them. If you are looking for a more pithy subtitle — the dessert that writers treat themselves to — I’d suggest “The Grace in Picking up Other People’s Trash.”

I mean that in a literal way. I was in the schoolhouse late Friday evening and walked through the student common spaces. They were shockingly neat! I’m not entirely sure how a playing card found its way behind the copier, but that mystery aside, I was impressed with the state of things. I know the excellent BU cleaning crew was not the reason, since they come very late in the night. The reason is that some of you are not only picking up after yourselves but leaving those spaces better than you found them. I’m reminded of the student last week who found me outside the gym and asked, somewhat mysteriously, where he could find a broom. In no time, he and I and some of his classmates were cleaning up a small mess that somebody had left on the gym floor. That attitude is the opposite of the that’s-not-mine attitude you sometimes hear. There is grace in picking up somebody else’s trash.

That habit carries over in a less literal way. Think about the hundreds of little interactions you have over the course of a school day — with classmates, teachers, staff at the GSU, riders on public transportation, and family members. Approaching those interactions with kindness, empathy, and generosity leaves the people around you better than you found them. I was struck last fall watching a group of 10th graders walking the halls introducing themselves to new 9th graders because those sophomores remembered what it was like to be new. If you see somebody eating lunch alone, say hi. Hold the door for somebody behind you, even if you’re running late. And when we have visitors on campus, take a moment to introduce yourself and help them find their way — even if that means being late to class. There is grace in those small kindnesses

At the end of each day, when you lay your head down on the pillow, I encourage you to ask yourself this question: Did you leave anything — or anyone — better off today?

Taking a longer view, another question: When you walk across the stage at graduation, how will you have made this school and your communities better? What will your legacy be?

A few days ago, I met with two students who have a passion for sustainability and are preparing a grant application to improve an overgrown outdoor space between the school’s parking lot and the gym. They hope to clear and terrace the space, adding native plantings for pollinators and to filter the water before it finds its way into the groundwater table and the river. They are not alone. The Student Council has done wonderful work strengthening this community, including an initiative to make textbooks more accessible. Students are part of our diversity, equity and inclusion committee, engage in regular service work in Boston and other neighborhoods, taught Boston middle schoolers in video game design camp this summer, and do so much more.

Schools and adults sometimes make the mistake of thinking that we are preparing students to make an impact later. That’s wrong, or at least incomplete. You students are capable of making positive change today. I know that because I see it all around me.

There is one other moment I’d like you to consider. I took one of Mr. Jarvis’s quotes out of context earlier. Here is the full paragraph: “Try to imagine yourself at your own funeral. What is it that you want people to say about you? That’s the question you have to answer if you want to find a long-range vision for your life.”

A few years ago, I got a call from a student I taught early in my career. After high school, he attended a highly selective, prestigious college. After that, he attended an equally famous graduate program and was working at one of the top consulting firms in the world, making a healthy salary. He shared with me that despite having achieved all those things, he was unhappy — and he did not know why.

He made the mistake that I made at around his age. We both assumed that achieving “success” — prestigious schools, lucrative jobs in high-status careers — would automatically bring happiness and fulfillment.

We know a great deal about the things that contribute to a happy, fulfilling life. I return often to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and the literature that work has spawned. The central insight is that purpose — not status, wealth, or even passion — is the key factor in a happy life. And we find purpose most often in relation to others.

Mr. Jarvis, who was a man of the cloth, told this story: “I visit several older people on a regular basis as part of my duties as a clergyman. They are people for whom the prospect of death has now become real — as it will for us someday. I’ve noticed that when these people reminisce about their lives, they rarely brag about making a lot of money or achieving some high position. If they speak with pride or with joy about their lives, it is almost always to talk about something they did for someone else.”

We talk a great deal, perhaps too much, about you students finding your passion. It is helpful to think about areas that you find interesting. The key, though, is finding where that passion intersects with others; where you can use your gifts, follow your heart, and make an impact. The education you receive here gives you that option.

What do you want people to say about you when you are no longer here?

At this point you may be wondering, “How did we get from picking up trash in the common room to a life vision and a happy death?”

Small actions become habits. Habits take hold and become character. You begin to identify yourself as a person for others and take pride in that identity. In the process, you’ll not only make your communities better but, in so doing, find deep, personal fulfillment.

I’ve spoken to nearly all of your families and can say for certain that what they want most for you is what we want as well: that you are happy and fulfilled in your lives, now and in the future. You’ve often heard me recite the biblical phrase: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” We expect a great deal from you because you are supremely capable. But it is also because reaching for those high expectations is precisely what will lead you on that path to fulfillment and joy.

Thank you, and I wish us all a wonderful year together.

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