“Certa Viriliter” … “Strive Valiantly”

Parents and Guardians Welcomed to the Hilltop for Fall Family Weekend 2011
Excerpts from Head of School Tim Richards’ Welcome Address
October 29, 2011

“Certa Viriliter” … “Strive Valiantly”

I have been asked more times than I can count what my vision, or master plan, for Pomfret is. That is still coming into focus, and I will certainly keep you posted as it evolves. Today, however, I borrow a line from American writer Jonathan Lethem, who said:

“Discomfort is very much part of my master plan.”

Sounds a bit malicious for a new Head of School, but Lethem makes a great point that I’d like to explore.

I hope that the seats in this wonderful old room are comfortable. At Pomfret we like our guests to be comfortable. The welcome that so many people here extended to Anne and me when we first set foot on campus just over a year ago was a central reason behind our decision to accept the offer to come to Pomfret – we just felt really comfortable.

At a very genuine level, I hope too that your children are relaxed and at ease here as well. The Pomfret community is an unusually open and welcoming one; we have comfortable dorms, a very comfortable student union, and great comfort food in the dining hall.

But at the same time, I truly hope that your kids will feel some real measure of discomfort this year. Please understand that my wish for their uneasiness comes from a good place.

I believe that there is a real benefit in seeking discomfort, and I have long felt that one particular variety of discomfort has real value. An old friend of mine referred to this state as one of “constructive discomfort.” It’s an intriguing idea, if not terribly original.

Though you may have read or heard about me, one thing that is not widely known is how much I dislike dancing. It’s a long-standing hang-up of mine that occasionally drives my free-spirited wife crazy. She loves to dance. And so imagine my surprise – and horror – when the senior class made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, an offer to dance – ALONE – in the middle of the baseball field – in front of the entire student body and faculty on Mashamoquet Day. It was one of the more conspicuously uncomfortable moments of my life.

American psychiatrist M. Scott Ward once said:

“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable. . . For it is only in such moments, prop, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

While I am not convinced that dancing terribly in front of the community could be described as one of my “finest moments,” as I think about it now, the discomfort I felt allowed me to “step out of a rut” and find that “different way” Ward referenced.

The dance humanized me; it showed this community my willingness to laugh at myself and to invite others to laugh with (or at) me. The students and faculty know me a little better as a function of my willingness to publically demonstrate my complete lack of rhythm. Was it uncomfortable for me? Definitely. Was it constructive? Unquestionably.

Many of you may have seen the documentary “Race to Nowhere,” which portrays the increasing stress that teens are living with in the 21st century. While I agree with the basic premise of the film, at the same time I worry that many young people are increasingly disinclined to lean into discomfort in a constructive way. There are real benefits to confronting discomfort, and our children will be poorly prepared for life in the 21st century if they don’t learn to confront adversity.

Pomfret provides an antidote to the notion that the path of least resistance is the best path to take. This school will provide your kids with the chance to develop the foundations to lead, as our mission statement says, lives of productivity and fulfillment. But this will happen only if they are willing to embrace discomfort.

The opportunities provided at Pomfret, however, do not guarantee a good outcome. They simply provide the chance for your children to roll up their sleeves and have at it. I hope in some respects that nothing comes too easily to your kids. It is through hard work and struggle that they will begin to forge the productive and fulfilling lives that our mission statement hopes for them.

One benefit of being Head of School is that I get to attend classes whenever I want. The other day I went to a ceramics class, I watched as three students worked on the pottery wheel. It is a challenging task requiring unusual dexterity and focus. For the better part of an hour, one student struggled to center and shape a plate. It was a joy to watch her confront the challenge so creatively – time after time she tried different approaches, but during this particular class period, none of them worked. At the end of the class, she had to throw her piece away. Unbowed, she smiled and said “I guess I’ll try something new next time.” It was a teacher’s dream. She had embraced the discomfort of failure, and she had emerged stronger for it.

I am pleased to report that our daughter Lucy ’15 has had to confront some discomfort during her transition at Pomfret. She has had a good start to the year, but it has not been without some challenges. Her early struggles forced her to re-distribute some of her energy and focus, and in recognizing where the challenges lay, she was able to face the discomfort and make real progress. In time I believe that she will value the adversity and the discomfort she has faced and will become a stronger, more self-confident student and person in the process.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir put it beautifully when she said:

“You’ll never find a better sparring partner than adversity.”

What a perfect way to look at the path to self-improvement and growth.

In the end, I hope your kids find tremendous success and a justified feeling of satisfaction with their lives at Pomfret.

So embrace your kids when they face challenges, but let them figure out solutions by themselves. If they didn’t make the varsity team, or if they are struggling in a class, or if they haven’t yet been able to attain a leadership role on campus, help them see the value in attempting to overcome – on their own – the discomfort they are facing. They’ll be better for it.

And so I leave you with a final quote that in its simplicity nicely sums up my message. It comes from Benjamin Disraeli, the one-time Prime Minister of England and a respected literary figure. Disraeli said

“There is no education like adversity.”

We are all about education at Pomfret, in all aspects of your children’s lives. To that end, and heeding Disraeli’s words, I promise that we will continue to provide benevolent adversity to your kids as they navigate their way through Pomfret so that they will be prepared for whatever uncomfortable obstacles may lie ahead.

I love our school motto “Certa Viriliter” which, loosely translated, means “Strive Valiantly.” It is a simply motto, but it has far-reaching meaning for today’s students. If they can learn to strive valiantly in the face of discomfort, they can achieve great things.

About Pomfret School

Founded in 1894, Pomfret is an independent co-educational college preparatory boarding and day school for 350 students in grades 9 through 12 and postgraduate, located on a scenic 500 acre campus in Northeastern Connecticut.
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