First Assembly 1112
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Mr. Geoff Roberts' First Day assembly speech:
Good morning, and welcome back.
Crescent, like all schools, is a unique social environment. Unlike many social constructs, we have an opportunity each September to begin again, to reinvent oneself – if one needs reinventing – to be that successful, happy person we all aspire to be. This year could be the very best year in your life; imagine that. This could be your year. You could be what you dream to be. You could achieve your lofty goals, and people around you could see you at your best. You have that capacity – but it’s going to take a little work on your part and a whole lot of courage.
And I’d like to talk about courage a little this morning, because it can be confused with bravado and ego and posturing – and that’s as far away from real courage as wisdom is from foolishness.
To frame what I mean by courage, I’d like to tell you two personal stories – one of which you might remember I told many years ago at this assembly, and the second I’ve told no one until this morning.
Many years ago I was involved in a house fire. I was in fourth year university at the time and living at home. I had gone to bed and was just about asleep when I heard a strange crackling noise outside my room, which was in the basement. I got out of bed, and saw flickering orange light playing on the wall outside my room. I went into the rec room – which was wood-panelled – and saw in an instant that the fire – which seemed alive and was whirling with a noise that sounded like a huge intake of breath – was out of control. I had to get out quickly or I would die.
Upstairs, two of my younger siblings were sleeping. My parents were out. I ran upstairs into my brother’s room, yelled at him to get up which he did quite quickly, and I told him to go out the front door. I had turned on the bedroom light when I entered, but the smoke was so thick already that we could barely see one another. He did what he was told, ran to the front door in his pajamas and got out. The door slammed shut hard behind him.
My younger sister was in a more remote part of the house, and I ran to get her. She was quite young. I woke her up, picked her up by her arms, and ran with her to the front door. I tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge. The impact of the door slamming and the rising temperature inside the house had caused the door to swell so much that there wasn’t a chance that it would open. I picked her up again and hustled to the back door. It was not an option. The flames from the basement were licking at the back door which made it impossible to reach. My sister began whimpering, “Geoff, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.” Well, neither did I, so I picked her up, we rushed back into my brother’s room, I opened his window which was on the first floor, punched out the screen, put my sister on the ledge, and told her to jump. There was a moment’s hesitation, and I gently pushed her out. She landed safely on the lawn.
I got onto the ledge myself and jumped out, ran to the neighbours’ house and asked them to phone the fire department.
I’ve told that story a few times, and people have used phrases like courageous and heroic – but it was nothing at all like that. I did what was necessary, and I was protecting family. I reacted; there was no moral decision to be made. There was also self-preservation in what I did, hardly a noble moment. So that’s not what I mean by being courageous.
My second story might be more helpful, and it begins at recess when I was in Middle School. My friends and I were heading outside to play a little football, something that we did every recess. We were going out towards the field, when I heard my name being called, and there was a tone of desperation in it. It was a boy who had called out, a neighbour, not so much a friend as an acquaintance, but we knew one another well enough. His name was David, and he was being whipped around at the end of long chain of kids. It was clear to me, at that instant, that he didn’t want to be there, that he was a victim, that he was being bullied, and that he was terrified and asking for my help. He knew that I could stop it. I knew that I could stop it. It was an opportunity for me to step up and exhibit moral courage to save David and to do what I knew was right.
But I turned away. I walked away and began playing football with my buddies. And the last thing I remember is seeing David’s face full of absolute dread of what was about to happen, and his shocked and horrified realization that I had abandoned him in his moment of need after he had called out to me to help him. I am still haunted by the look on his face. I am still ashamed of my lack of courage at that moment.
I learned at that moment and forever that we are accountable for what we do and also for what we choose not to do.
Courage, we can recognize, is derived from the same Latin root that gives us the French word, “coeur”– which means heart. In its simplest form, then, when we do what our hearts tell us to be right and good and true, we are acting courageously, and I think that that’s the purest definition of true, moral courage – and it’s so incredibly rare. We admire it in others when we see it, we often pray for a little bit of it at difficult moments in our lives, and we are very thankful at those rare instances when we exhibit for ourselves and others true moral courage.
We will be all faced, at times in our lives when we need to be courageous, especially when those around us have lost their way. Recently, we have seen riots in Vancouver and England where people who are of sound mind and body lose control of both in the heat of the moment, people who go along with the crowd without thinking about the implications of their actions. The morally courageous thing would be not to participate, and perhaps even discourage others not to do so as well. Everybody knows that in their hearts, but we don’t always activate our best selves. That takes courage – and that’s not easy. I can attest to that.
I started this talk this morning with the idea that each September is a new start. Let me start the year by asking ask you to add another element to you becoming a Man of Character. I ask you to put courage in your heart, because without courage we will never dare to act on our core values of Respect, Responsibility, Honesty and Compassion. Without courage, those will be reduced to merely words on a wall and abstract ideas in your brain - and nothing else. You must hold the core values in your heart and have the courage to act on them in those moments in your life when they are called into question.
This year, and every year following, have the courage to be your best self. We all know what the right thing is to do; sometimes, however, like me, we lack the courage to act on what we know is true and right. We aren’t perfect, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to become better each and every day.
In closing I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to dare to be your best self. Listen to your heart, and dare to be courageous.