By Bob Whelan
Head of School
The following is a talk Head of School Bob Whelan shared with GFA students and faculty during the schools annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Assembly.
This spring, our eighth graders will travel to Washington, D.C., and like our Upper School students before them, they’ll visit the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King. The MLK memorial is powerful; when you stand in front of it, you’re looking up at something almost three stories high.
When I was a first grader, a middle school student, and a high school student, prominent figures in history often seemed superhero-esque. How could I relate to someone whom greatness had been cast upon? I was trying to figure out (and often fumbling through) the basic things in my life that were important to me at the time - my friends, schoolwork, sports, music.
Dr. King wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Garment of destiny — that sounds very superhero-like, right? He went on to say, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” That sounds a lot like our GFA motto, "Each for All."
So, as we turn our thoughts today to Dr. Martin Luther King, I invite you to think about the ties between us — all of us in this room — ties to our communities beyond GFA — and to Martin Luther King.
When Martin was a kid, he loved sports, particularly playing football. He enjoyed reading, and he played the violin. Martin wanted to be a fireman and then a doctor. Several experiences had a profound impact on him when he was young that shaped his life and I thought I might touch on one of those.
When he was a boy growing up in Atlanta, GA, in the 1930s, Martin had a best friend whose family had a store across the street. Martin’s best friend was white, and Martin was black, and for several years they would play outside together almost every day. Now when it came time to start school, there were laws in the state of Georgia that required that white students only go to school with white students, and black students only go to schools with black students.
After the school year began, Martin came home from school and went outside to play in the neighborhood, but his best friend started coming out less often. And after a while, his friend stopped coming out to play with Martin altogether. This was confusing to Martin, as it would be to any of us. So, he went to his friend and asked him what was going on. His friend told him that his parents had said they could no longer play together because of the difference in the color of their skin.
At dinner that night, Martin shared this story with his parents, and for the first time, he became aware of what his parents had experienced as people of color in Georgia. Martin was angry. Who could blame him? He was angry, mad at a system that would allow him to be broken up from a best childhood friend because of the way he looked on the outside rather than who he was as a person.
Throughout his life, Dr. King experienced a great deal of injustice. Over time, he decided that choosing anger and resentment was not the answer because anger and resentment eat us up inside. He decided that hanging onto resentment is like picking up a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone; but you’re the one who gets burned. To respond to injustice with anger and hate was like taking the bait from the trolls. The way forward was with understanding and love.
In a talk Dr. King once gave to middle school students, he encouraged them to think about the blueprints or the plans they might create for their own lives. Each day, we have an opportunity, and the responsibility, to create the best versions of ourselves through the choices we make and the actions we take. In seeking the highest good, finding it through kindness, finding it by standing up - not standing by, meeting injustice NOT with anger and resentment, but with understanding and compassion.
You all notice the world around you. You can see that there are problems to be solved and that perhaps the world and the rules that adults have created are not always perfect. As you create your blueprint, choose to be the best of whatever you are. Choose to be kind.
Each of you has a great deal of power regarding how you help create the world around you - let’s choose to make a positive difference in the world.