Upper Canada College’s best students were rewarded for their academic achievements in Grades 8 through 11 in the last school year during the annual Prize Day ceremony on Oct. 9 in Laidlaw Hall.
Academic dean Julia Kinnear welcomed students and many parents to the ceremony before head steward Ben Mahon introduced Marshall Webb, who graduated from UCC in 1968 and has been teaching English at the school since 1975. As an Old Boy and faculty member who has spent close to 50 years at the school, he has a unique perspective that he shared with the audience.
Webb’s words were met with a generous round of applause, and the wind ensemble followed with a performance of Henry Filmore’s “Go” that also drew a warm response.
It was then time for the presentations, with head of the Prep and Upper Schools Don Kawasoe announcing the winners and Webb and principal Jim Power congratulating them and giving them their prizes. It was a proud moment for the boys who received the awards, who were invited to a post-ceremony reception with their parents in the student centre, and provided incentive and something to strive for to those who didn’t.
Webb’s speech was so inspiring that we thought we’d share it with those who weren’t on hand to hear it in person. Please take a few minutes to read it:
“It was July 12 this past summer. I wasn’t fully in summer mode. I hadn’t turned my school computer off and that little white sleep light was blinking, daring me to open emails from school. A few students querying their June marks. Nothing new there, but one email caught my eye. From Mr. Williams. Subject: prize day.
“Prize day was months away. What could he possibly want? My finger hovered over the delete button. But curiosity prevailed. ‘The principal and I were wondering whether …’
“I froze. My immediate reaction was: ‘You’ve got the wrong person. What could I possibly have to say?’ You’ve got the wrong person because … and here my mind flashed to a Prize Day in 1968 when the guest speaker was former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson. Previous speakers I recalled had included a governor general, a lieutenant-governor, distinguished military leaders and university presidents.
“So why me? Is this an act of revenge on Mr. Williams’ part? Revenge for something I had said casually to him last year. You’ll recall the exuberant sports assemblies of last spring. They were full of spirit; house cheers and jeers, pew banging (even without a song) and a general celebration of all things athletic. I told Mr. Williams how energized those assemblies were.
“’Did you notice,’ he stated, ‘that when we asked all the boys involved in sports at the school to stand, about 60 per cent of them stood up.’
“’Yes, that was great, “ I replied. ‘But 100 per cent of them are students.’
“Later, I mentioned this conversation to Dr. Power and added a challenge: how do we make Prize Day as sexy as sports assemblies?
“Am I the answer?
“In addition to wondering why me and why am I here, I also wondered why I am here. Why am I still in this place where I’ve been teaching since September 1975?
“It had never crossed my mind in high school that I’d be teaching here or teaching anywhere. The moment of possible career choice occurred in a European history lecture at Middlebury College in my second year. Marjorie Lamberti — the diminutive, dynamic professor — had been asked by the campus newspaper to write an article about why she taught. She told the class that she had refused their request. She then emerged from behind her lectern, her long thin arms gesticulating, her fingers asserting her passion for teaching.
“‘How can I explain the joy I have? I relish discussion in the classroom.’
“I’d never known that relish could be a verb but, mesmerized by her words, I decided then and there I was going to become a teacher — or at least give it a try.
“So here I am at Prize Day 2014.
“Obviously, I agreed to Mr. Williams’ request. But once I’d agreed, I had to find a topic. That was hard. For the past few months my brain has been flooded with ideas. Summer was unsettled. The perfect speech kept recording itself in my brain, but nothing on paper. Eventually I found the germ of an idea while visiting the Harlem Studio Museum in New York City in July.
“In 1975 at a Harvard commencement, Muhammad Ali had just finished his address when someone from the audience shouted ‘Give us a poem!’ After a pause, he spoke what may be the shortest poem in the English language: ‘Me we.’
“In 2007, the acclaimed Afro-American artist Glen Ligon took these words to create a neon sculpture called ‘Give Us a Poem’ that hangs in the museum.
“I’m going to take the sculpture as a launching point for some ideas I’ve been thinking about. I hope they will be of interest to you.
“Whatever Ali might have meant or Glen Ligon intended, I take these words as a call to be an individual — still to be part of the whole (‘we’), but the ‘me’ can’t get lost. And as I’ll suggest later, I think there’s a threat of losing the ‘me’ in the ‘we.’
“Shortly after seeing Ligon’s sculpture and wondering if I could do something with it, I happened to hear on the radio this great composition by Beethoven. It dates from 1824. Here is an excerpt from his ‘Missa Solemnis,’ the credo section I believe. Beethoven never heard a note of it for, as you may know, he was stone deaf. But the full force of his creative power comes through in this storm of conviction, a belief in a higher power but not necessarily in religion. In fact, the work he created is too big to be performed in a church. While still working within the tradition of the mass text, he is raging against the conformity of church religion, declaring this is what I believe and this is how I believe it.
“I was trying to link Ligon and Beethoven. In that attempt, I realized that a book I was reading might somehow relate as well.
“The book is Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood by Joachim Feist.
“It is the memoir of the German historian who went on to write an acclaimed biography of Hitler. The book covers the early and middle years of life in Nazi Germany. Feist’s father, the principal of an elementary school in Berlin, would not join any Nazi league that was required of him. Nor would he allow his children to join the Nazi Youth. The father was fired from his post, his attempts at tutoring were thwarted and the family was reduced to poverty. But despite pleas from them, the father would not give in. One day he called his children into the study for a serious talk. He instructed them to write down this Latin phrase: ‘Etiam si omnes-ego non.’
“’Even if all the others do, not I,’ which equals ‘Just because everyone else is doing it, I won’t.’ The individual ‘me’ will not succumb automatically to the will of the ‘we.’
“I wonder if it’s hard to be an individual today. We live, you especially, in an unfiltered world increasingly controlled by Google and Facebook and Apple gadgets and Amazon. We live, you especially, in an increasingly corporatized world where everything can be monetized and measured. We live in a world where money seems to trump morality and dignity. We live in a world where an unintended result of our fascination with technology, measurables and monetization is conformity.
“In the years 2008 and 2009, the student body at UCC began to change. That was the time of the creation of a laptop school; it was also the time of the great recession. Both events, I believe, have changed the school. After 2008, courses in the arts and history saw their enrollments decline and world cultures disappear. Enrollment in the sciences and economics increased. These were deemed the practical courses — that is, they would lead via professional school to jobs.
“This academic conservatism coincided with UCC becoming a laptop school. Technology has changed students; it has changed the classroom. This is a topic for a much larger discussion and it’s a topic that appears weekly in newspapers, magazines and online discussions: the growing homogeneity of society.
“What is happening slowly and pervasively is what Orwell might call ‘groupthink.’ The greatest tool of the modern era filled with rich resources often isn’t used to mine that richness. We demand entertainment, not knowledge; information, not analysis.
“As the New York Times writer Frank Bruni has noted on more than one occasion, ‘the Internet has proved to be one of the great ironies of modern life. It opens up an infinite universe for exploration, but people use it to stand still, bookmarking the websites that cater to their existing beliefs and customizing their social feeds so that their judgments are constantly reinforced.’
“Ask a class to do research and the default is to Wikipedia, Sparknotes or Yahoo Answers. If we are all on the same page and find the same answers — which we then highlight and paste without really reading them — how can we have a discussion? How can one relish conversation if there isn’t any, but only a collective nodding of heads?
“As an English teacher, I find that YouTube contains a wealth of possibilities for research. I am constantly surprised what is available on it. But the YouTube recommendations are far more entertaining and provide much more fun in no more than three minutes. Of course, we all want diversion; we need it on occasion. But YouTube offers a literal world: no symbols, no metaphors, no questions, no challenges — just a social conformity.
“In another summer column, Frank Bruni wrote about the ramifications of our Internet world, which include ‘an impulse to edit the world to the comfort of the student.’
“He wondered about our age of conformity: the dynamics of caution and conformity in our classrooms where failure and disappointment are sometimes dirty words. When teachers inflate grades, they’re making education a feel-good enterprise rather than a feel-rattled one. Bruni worries that when students march in lock step toward certain majors (economics, for example) and certain professions (finance and consulting), they’re missing out.
“As distinguished Canadian artist and writer Douglas Coupland (who wrote Generation X) has noted, the Internet is neutrally homogenizing us as a species while making us all drink from the same waterhole.
“A final word to Frank Bruni: ‘We risk,’ he writes, ‘living in a tidy, cozy echo chamber of affirmation and conformity.’
“Ligon, Beethoven and Joachim Feist reject that echo chamber of affirmation and conformity. Ligon’s ‘Give Us a Poem,’ Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis,’ Feist’s Not I.
“Art, music and literature: three media that cause us to wonder, to ask questions, to ask why. Therein lies the beginning of education. Art loosens our eyes and opens our minds to possibilities, but it can make us uncomfortable because it asks questions but doesn’t give answers. Those lie inside us. We prefer to avoid the uncomfortable and awkward. By doing so, we avoid developing, we avoid creating the ‘me.’
“If ‘I’ prefer to reside in the ‘we,’ then I may never know fully who I am. The arts therefore should be more than just extracurricular activities. As Leon Botstein, the highly regarded president of Bard College, has noted: ‘The performing and visual arts are not a luxury in a free and democratic society, but symptoms of its existence.’
“Life, like teaching, is a creative act. It is not about finding yourself as if you exist in some neat package, retrievable one day at the lost and found. Rather it is about yourself creating the ‘me,’ the individual still in and of society but capable of being apart. A work in progress. A work that goes on until your last breath.”
—Photos by Paul C. Yelle, CanGrad Studios