A traditional story in the Confucian tradition explains how Ox Mountain—once beautiful, full of foliage and animal life, and abundant with rich soil—became a bald and barren eyesore on the horizon. The story relates this fact: Ox Mountain did not come to exist in this manner by its own doing. Only through repeated hunting and logging, the constant picking of flowers and taking of fruit and, thus, the absence of decomposing material to give nutrients to the soil, did Ox Mountain become anathema to nature and what it once was. Ox Mountain became less of its true self because of the inconsiderate short-term interests of others.
Life at Deerfield Academy does not have to be hard. Life at Deerfield Academy does not have to be stressful. Life at Deerfield Academy, truly, is life at Deerfield Academy. It is what it is, and these facts are not in question: We are sheltered; we are safe; we are well fed; we are well taught; we are well behaved; we are in a place of privilege; and we can easily acknowledge the good fortune that has allowed us to be dropped off in this place just after Labor Day, and picked up just around Memorial Day, each year.
I cringe a bit when I hear about stress in such a place. To be motivated and challenged, and to be pushed to excel, should not be replaced with the poisonous idea of stress when we have the comfortable trappings of life that few in this world even know about, let alone will ever enjoy. I offer this comment for you to refute: ideas like stress are nebulous and, unfortunately, infectious. If we hear that others are stressed, we like that song. If someone coughs stress, we wonder if it has breached our defenses and if we have caught it.
Much like social pressures, an idea like stress is imposed on us from the outside, being absent otherwise on the inside. Evidence that stress is not our own: it emerges because we are surrounded by that word, which is loaded with assumptions about how we should respond when challenged.
We only get stressed because we hear that others are stressed. Stress is an external construct that we feel pressure to welcome into our souls because, truthfully, it is an easy response to a situation that instead should call for resilience.
Some time ago, we all heard the challenges our community has faced with the presence of drugs in the dorms, and drugs being distributed among our students. I am going to plead and advocate naïveté in this comment, paraphrasing the little green master Jedi mentor so many of us know and whose wisdom we should heed: Drugs does not a drug problem make.
Our community, understandably, at times, needs to confront the presence of temptation—for example, online pornography, or vile language behind the closed door of a dorm room, or virtual anonymity, or weed—but what we really need is to be, at times, reminded of the great blessing of a life we lead here, and the naming of the bad choices that cloud our judgment to believe that certain temptations need affirmation and assimilation because these are real problems beyond our walls.
Our few problems, in such a wonderful place, are not specific to a particular temptation. Instead, I believe that they actually emerge from the simple moment when we somehow assume that stress is real, or drugs are a rite of passage in adolescent life, or good sex should be violent, or plagiarism has long-term benefits, or, in summary, that I matter more than the collective community.
These problems can emerge from convoluted images of an advertising-heavy world that beat down on us from the screens that stare back at us for so many hours each day. These ideas emerge from explicit media and demeaning music that Deerfield Academy students will never proudly share with their teenage children (I can guarantee this).
We don’t ask community members to put down their phones on Albany Road because we want to interrupt a conversation. We ask all of us to do it because we need a break, and so do you, and so here we are and there you are. Hello.
Drug-Free Johnson is a simple initiative that started on a lark; and candidly, I hope the joke is not on me. Forty-five boys in the dorm came to me, looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and said, “I am committed to a drug-free Johnson.” I was moved to make this request—not requirement—of the boys while carrying the memory of my emotional plea to the same group of boys last year when they put their selfish interests ahead of the caring considerations that should have been offered to a friend who was walking down a dangerous path.
Again, the main problem to confront at a place like this is when someone believes that they matter more than the community. This can be as simple as the pervasiveness of exemptions in athletics, the unexcused absences at School Meeting, the phone on your ear when in company, the indifference to a napkin on the floor of the Dining Hall—or as complicated as watching eight friends sit in front of a Disciplinary Committee knowing the sad truth that they will carry this setback with them going forward, and you or I should have been the one to help. If DFJ does nothing else than honor the abundant, beautiful and bountiful other and dull the smug self, then some degree of success can be measured.
Remember the story of Ox Mountain. Remember that its original nature is beautiful, varied, lively and life-giving. Remember that individuals, in not caring about its original state, tore life from it of their own volition and for their own benefit.
So when someone comes to us and says, “I am SO stressed,” respond by saying, “It sounds like you have many great opportunities; let’s talk.” When someone comes to me to say, “I am checking in to Johnson,” I say, “Drug-Free Johnson?” When you are in the room and someone yells the f-word five times in the brief moment it takes to make 10 passes in FIFA, say, “Hey, I am sitting right here.”
When someone brings something to campus that does not belong, or asks you to participate in something that makes you less proud and more empty, say, “Hey, remember the story of Ox Mountain?”
Our true and beautiful selves can be reclaimed if the damaging ideas of the outside world are named for what they really are and kept where they belong.