On the Greatest

It was a typical Monday morning at The Ambrose School. Students had trickled in slowly, and a small handful were left in the hallways, grabbing their books and stuffing coats into their lockers.

The conversation of two girls, their lockers a few lockers apart, caught my attention.

Girl 1 (warmly): “Good morning, Abigail!”

Girl 2 (sleepily): “Good morning.”

Girl 1: “Have a great day!”

Girl 2: “You, too!”

You might be scratching your head at the above exchange and wondering why it was praiseworthy. Great question.

The conversation, simple in itself, was made beautiful by its context. The girl who initiated the brief exchange was a senior, a House leader and a star athlete, a leader in our school community in every way; the second girl was an eighth grader, a member of what in many other schools would be that lowly caste of junior high kids whose sole station in life seems at times to be the object of scorn from high school students.fullsizeoutput_66b

Not so in our hallways.

In Matthew 23, Jesus describes a view on leadership, saying, “[H]e who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” In this passage Jesus completely inverts the world’s view on leadership; He takes it and flips it on its head. The world presents a leader as the one who garners the most servants or followers; Jesus presents a leader as the one who pours out his life most fully in service to others. Examples of the world’s view on leadership are easy to find: the CEO who gets the covered parking spot nearest the door, every fraternity hazing ritual, every freshmen football player carrying a senior’s pads, etc.

The Christian view of leadership can by more difficult to find, especially amongst teens. I’m blessed to be in the place that I am, where I get to see such things on a daily basis.  The View from the Golden Wood is truly beautiful and encouraging.

When a Scale is Not Enough

Each November our students fill out what we call The Student Culture Survey. It is a simple 12 question survey, administered anonymously, that gives us a brief and fleeting view into the collective mind of our students. The survey asks students such questions as:

  • Do you feel like your teachers want you to do well?
  • Do you look forward to coming to school?
  • Are you proud of your school?

As you can imagine, responses to these questions vary widely. If you have a teen at home, you likely know that adolescence makes one a bit fickle: they are known to swing from loving to hating the same thing, often on the same day; the speed with which those $150 shoes that only yesterday were essential to life itself become anathema to a teen can make the head swim! This characteristic of the teen years is amplified by all the dynamics that surround a school.

Keeping all that in mind, we resolutely distribute the surveys and ask students to share their experiences with us. We drop the results into a spreadsheet with colorful charts and graphs and search for trends. We share the results with faculty and pray for classes as they go through our school. We celebrate where there is joy and we carefully consider where it might be absent. We share the results with other schools like ours across the nation and search for trends in our movement, youth culture, and the broader culture.

Student culture SurveyOn occasion, the survey reveals something truly praiseworthy. This year was no exception. Teachers had collected the surveys and had turned them into the office. Our registrar was compiling the results when she stumbled upon a survey from the 7th grade class, where a student took it upon himself to edit question #4, which reads: “It has been obvious to me that my teachers really want me to do well – in school and out of school.” The “1 to 9” scale wasn’t sufficient for this student to share how confident he was that his teachers really wanted him to do well; he needed to add a “10.”

Keep in mind this is an anonymous survey filled out by a 13 year old. The student wasn’t being a sycophant; he didn’t stand to gain anything. He just really feels secure in knowing his teachers care about him, and he wanted to share that with anyone who would listen. That is something to celebrate.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, Paul urges us to, “recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” My experience after having worked with them for nearly 7 years is that our students do this better than most adults, myself included. Almost without exception, our students esteem very highly in love the leaders that God has placed over them.

Sometimes “esteem very highly” even requires going beyond the “1 to 9” scale.

Be Content

It was just about the most beautiful fall morning imaginable: leaves were golden all along the river, the dawn was crisp and clear, and an electric anticipation energized our cross country team.

The State Meet had arrived.

Our entire girls team was there, an underdog to bring home a trophy for the first time ever. While I was excited for them, most of my attention was on Blaine, our lone boy runner.

We were all aware of Blaine’s story. A senior, Blaine had prepared for this moment for years. He was well-positioned to challenge for the individual state championship, having a season best time in the top 3 in the state. He had worked tirelessly, pushing himself in practice and meets, all to get to this day.

IMG_2071 3.JPGThere was also a powerful undercurrent of emotion that lay just under the surface for Blaine: Blaine’s mom Karmen, a talented athlete herself who ran cross country in college and competed in the Boston Marathon, had passed away years before when Blaine was only 9. Running is an important connection to his mom, and this made the day of the State Meet even more important to Blaine.

You never would have guessed looking at Blaine as he stood at the starting line, composed and confident. The gun sounded, and the runners were off.

Blaine was fast out of the gate. A cluster of runners quickly separated themselves from the rest of the pack, and Blaine was right in the heart of them.

They made the first loop, and Blaine was right where he wanted to be: drafting behind a few other runners, well within striking distance of 1st for his final kick.IMG_0983.JPG

I hurried over to the last turn, anxious to see Blaine run down the other athletes in the last stretch. I waited anxiously, more excited than I’ve been in years.

And then life threw Blaine a curve.

Runner after runner passed me, and Blaine was nowhere to be seen.

Blaine had fallen down amidst the jostling of runners, and  was outside the top 20. By the time Blaine got to the final turn, raw emotion and disappointment were evident on his face. My heart hurt for him, and I cheered him on before hurrying over to the finish line, hopeful I would get a chance to encourage him.

As He so often does, in that moment of personal trial, God showed me something beautiful.

When I found Blaine, he was sitting on a cooler as our athletic trainer helped him with his timing chip. Another runner had come over to talk to him, and I saw Blaine muster a smile and offer the kid a fistbump. Their conversation went something like this:

Other Runner: “Good race! Today you helped me achieve a life-long goal!”

Blaine: “Oh, congratulations. What was your goal?”

Other Runner: “To beat you!”

Blaine, a fierce competitor, smiled and made some small talk with the other runner before the kid finally wandered off. No one thinks the other runner was trying to be malicious or hurtful, but you can only imagine how Blaine must have felt in the moment.

I kept a close eye on Blaine as he got up and flitted about from group to group, hugging his parents, encouraging his teammates, and fellowshipping with other runners. Never once did he appear sullen or petulant. The graciousness and depth of character Blaine showed that day humbled me.

In Philippians 4, Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound…. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” As Christian educators and parents, we must not lose sight of this truth: our hope is that our students mature to the place where they can be content in whatever situation they find themselves; that they can, in fact, flourish in any trial through Christ Who is their strength. Our prayer is that they will be able to do just as Blaine did: look one of life’s many disappointments straight in the face, offer it a fistbump, and give God all the glory for it.

You see, more often than not, winning in life means infinitely more than just finishing first.

Earthen Vessels

On occasion a parent will approach me with the notion that our school is only for the exceptionally gifted. They are concerned that the only way for students to succeed at our school is with a Newtonian intellect or a Faustian bargain. Neither is true.

One of the most inspirational students I’ve met in my seven years at Ambrose is Ana. If you haven’t met Ana, you need to: Ana is from rural Mexico, and she transferred into our school mid-year of her sophomore year. She learned of The Ambrose School through her aunt and uncle, and her cousins who attend school here. In her hometown in Mexico, Ana’s secondary education was limited to vocational training, and her family wanted more for her.

When Ana transferred to Ambrose, her English was really good for someone working in their second language, but it wasn’t at the level of a native English speaker. In her own words, “Thucydides was the first book I read here. It was really tough!” What Ana didn’t know at the time is that Thucydides is a really tough read for a native English speaker – how tough he must be for someone reading him in a second language!

Yet Ana is flourishing in every way. Through hard work and a never-quit attitude – by her own report Ana studies 2 to 3 hours each night – Ana has a gpa far north of 3.0. Her English fluency has grown by leaps and bounds.

While I know Ana has worked incredibly hard to engage with Aristotle in her second language, that hasn’t stopped her from maintaining balance in her life. Ana is a very talented and dedicated tennis player, investing about 12 hours a week in practice and tournaments. She also plays on The Ambrose School varsity basketball team this season, and her enthusiasm and determination on the court have earned her the loving nickname “El Tornado” from her teammates.

Despite all this, Ana’s academics and balance are not the things I find most remarkable about her. What I find most amazing is how Ana has embraced our community. The nature of a K-12 school like ours can sometimes make it difficult for students to integrate; many of our students have known each other for 10 years or more by the time they graduate. Add to that the mid-year transfer and the obvious language barrier, and Ana had every excuse to remain on the fringe.

I was worried.image1

I’ve never been more wrong.

Ana immediately invested herself in the community, attending House every chance she could, going to sporting events and group study sessions, and making friends quickly with her characteristic joy and easy smile.

Our community also invested in Ana. Her homeroom teacher made sure a welcome basket was ready for her on Ana’s first day of school. Students wrote her letters and emails before she even made it to the States. There were movie invites, letters of encouragement, and friendly smiles. Lots of smiles.  Ask her, and she’ll tell you: “My favorite thing at Ambrose is the community. I love how the House program brings us all together. If you walk down the hallways, everyone knows your name and says ‘hi’ to you. I love that!”

Ana is now a pillar in our student body, so much so that I can’t imagine our school community without her.

Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 4:7, wrote this: “[W]e have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Paul was writing of his own circumstances and how the life of Christ was made manifest in his own trials, but the same principle applies to us. So often we fall into the trap of honoring the wrong things: when we get that promotion at work, we honor our own hard work instead of honoring God; similarly, when our students have success in the classroom, volleyball courts, or in their friend groups, we honor the gifts instead of the Gift-giver.

The excellence of all we do is from God and not from us. It took a teenage girl from Mexico coming to our school mid-year to study Thucydides and Chemistry in her second language to remind me of that fact. For that, I am immensely grateful.

Born for Adversity

Two freshmen boys approached me in the hallways.

They said, “Hey Mr. Browne, can we talk to you?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“We’ve noticed that Bobby has been to your office a few times this week,” they said. “Is there anything we can do to help him?”

This from the hearts and minds of two fourteen year olds.

Our school is still small enough that it is nearly impossible to repeatedly make bad decisions that result in multiple office visits without the rest of the student body realizing it. But by my lights, that’s actually a good thing.

Sanctification is a process that we are all in the midst of: some of us might further along, but we’re all far from the finished product that God has planned for us. This is certainly true for me, but also for teenagers, even those at The Ambrose School. The world puts incredible pressure on our teens to think and do wrongly, but we serve a God who has overcome the world, and as such through the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives our students can also overcome the world.

IMG_1087One of the ways this happens is through Christian community. None of us are an island, and through the constant process of iron sharpening iron – one brother or sister in Christ encouraging, exhorting, and providing accountability for another – we grow in maturity, character, and our love for Jesus and His Church. I get to see this process in the lives our students almost daily.

Proverbs 17:17 reads, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Adversity comes to us all in one form or another, occasionally through things outside of our control, but often from circumstances of our own making. It is our hope that The Ambrose School will be first and foremost a Christian community where students are surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ that are there to support each other in the face of such adversity.

The poet John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” This is especially true for us as Christians classically educated. May we all be surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ on whom we can rely in times of adversity.

 

 

Love Thy Neighbor

I’ve become captivated by cross country meets. It seems to me that the entire sport is built around one’s ability to suffer well: “run three miles as fast as you can.”

The essence of the sport is to push your body to the very edge of utter physical exhaustion. Our varsity cross country coach (whom I know fairly well) has a favored saying: “if you get to the finish line and you aren’t bleeding, crying, or vomiting, then you had something left in the tank.”

I have my own saying, “There are two kinds of people in this world: those who openly admit running is miserable, and liars.” (I jest. Mostly.)

As such, the drama involved in a cross country race is compelling. Runners approach the end of a race and they are in the very throes of physical anguish. This makes crowd participation even more important than for most sports. Cheering for and supporting all runners up to the very finish line is essential.

However, cross country is like most sports: there is a wide chasm between the elite runners and those who finish last. As you might expect, there is always a huge crowd gathered at the finish line for the elite runners who are competing for 1st place finishes; when the last runners come through, which can be 10 to 15 minutes later, it is typically only coaches and parents who linger to cheer them on to the finish.

Sometimes they’re not even around.

At the district meet this past week, the varsity girls race was nearing the end. All but 2 runners had finished. The boys varsity race was ready to start, and virtually all the spectators had migrated over to the starting line. Mr. Velasco was headed that direction when he noticed the last two runners from a competing school struggling towards the finish line: none of their teammates, coaches, or even their parents appeared to be there to support their final struggle towards the finish line.

That’s when Mr. Velasco heard it:22519508_10154727157167331_5064391673815005944_n

“Come on! You can do it!”

“You’re almost there! Finish strong!”

“Good job! All the way home!”

Cheers. Love. Support.

A group of ten Archer runners – all Jr. High kids – had remained at the finish line to cheer the final two runners on to the end. Mr. Velasco may have been the only adult to witness it, but I promise you the two runners noticed.

22492017_10154727157202331_5846043773300361182_nMatthew 22:36-40 contains God’s two greatest commandments to us as Christians; the second of those states, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This cuts against the grain of everything our hedonistic culture tells us to do: “be yourself,” “do what feels right to you,” “have it your way,” etc. This is a hopelessly selfish and narcissistic philosophy, but it provides a powerful opportunity to us to be the lights of the world. When the world sees us first loving God and, out of that, loving them, they will notice.

Especially when that love comes at the very edge of misery, like at the end of a three-mile run.

The Light of the World

The Bob Firman Cross Contry meet is one of the largest high school sporting events in Idaho: 4,900 athletes representing hundreds of schools from nine different states plus Canada descend upon tiny Eagle Island State Park for a single day of running insanity.

Amidst such insanity, there are many moments for our students to shine the light of Christ to people they will not likely meet again. One such story came to me via text message from a friend whose wife works at one of our rival schools:

“At the Firman Meet – 493 middle schoolers – most chanting dumb things, singing songs, etc….”

I work with those lovable middle schoolers fairly often: “most chanting dumb things” sounds like an understatement. But it was the rest of my friend’s text message that was refreshingly rare.

“Then Ambrose chants: ‘God, Family, Team, Self! I have chills.”

There are two things about this story that I would like to draw to your attention. First, this is not something the Jr. High cross country team does in isolation: the idea that Christian rightly order what he or she loves so that the right thing is loved to the right degree is a regular part of our classroom conversation. The chant itself has its roots in a decade of Coach Hosier reinforcing rightly ordered affections to his varsity basketball boys: “The Big Five” as he called it, in order: God, Family, School, Team, and then Self.

The second thing I’d like to point out is my friend’s reaction to our runners’ prerace chant. It should surprise no one that he was emotionally moved by what is really a very simple thing. As the culture around us grows increasingly secular, the opportunity to be a light in a darkening world similarly grows. Something like a simple prerace cheer can become an inspirational moment.

Matthew 5:14-16 reads in part, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden….  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” At the center of the Christian life is the truth that the world around us will notice as we live our lives for Jesus. The Christ-centered life is in its essence counter-culture. As our students grow in virtue and mature character, they will necessarily be different than their peers; they will be lights in a dark world.

The light will shine in every place, even in the moments before a Jr. High cross country race: “God, family, team, self!”

Faithful in Little Things

It was arguably the most important day of our school year: the entire gym was converted into soup packing production lines, and our students and staff were on target to package 60,000 meals to be distributed to needy families in our community.

But before any of that could happen, we hoped to point the hearts and minds of our school community towards God Who makes it all possible. We planned to do that with our first morning hallway hymn sing of the year, but there were some hurdles to overcome: Mr. Warmouth, our beloved Grammar School Dean who is so skilled at leading the hymn sing recently had surgery and was sidelined; students were in jeans and t-shirts for the Feed the Need day and as such were more restless than usual; and it was our first hallway hymn sing of the year, so the community was out of the habit of doing it.

Since so much was riding on the hymn sing, we had planned to have our student group The Boethius Quartet accompany the hymn sing. The group has been sacrificing their own lunch hour to gather and practice the hymn, and as of Thursday night was ready to go; however, come Friday morning, one of our seniors and the de facto leader of the Quartet, woke up ill and wasn’t able to make it to school. Her mom frantically tried to email and text Mr. Bryant and I, but the busyness of the morning had us unreachable.

The hallway hymn sing and our related goal of redirecting our students’ affections towards Christ first thing on our big day all hung in the balance.

Enter the remainder of the Quartet: the three did not panic, but instead took the responsibility and the initiative to solve the problem. Without needing direction from any faculty member, they recruited another talented violinist to fill out their Quartet. I wasn’t even privy to what had happened until well after the fact when I gathered the quartet together to thank them and they weren’t the quartet I was expecting.

Screen Shot 2017-09-30 at 8.06.28 AMThe hymn sing was the best I can remember in my seven years at the school, and the musical accompaniment was no small reason why.

In the Parable of the Unjust Steward found in Luke 16, Jesus says, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much.” This is an important educational principle that resonates in almost everything we do at The Ambrose School: if we can train students to be faithful in little things – things like wearing their ties and sweaters on formal days or processing into exordiums quietly, then we know that when God places big things before them – things ranging from organizing music on that most important day to remaining dedicated to their spouses in difficult times – they will similarly be found faithful.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, men and women of virtue and mature character are not formed in an instant. It is a slow and steady process of training them to be faithful in little things.

Despising Youth

It was 7:15 a.m., and I, still half-asleep, had just walked into the building.

“Chris, you’re not going to believe what is happening in my room!”

Mr. Velasco was obviously excited. While he is famously given to hyperbole – everyone knows this! – “Papa V,” as he is affectionately called by the Upper School community, is not overly excitable. I wondered immediately what was afoot.

“There are 12 Upper School boys – juniors and seniors – singing hymns in my room!”

As I asked further, it turned out that a group of male upperclassmen have been meeting in Mr. Velasco’s room for weeks to do a Bible study and sing hymns together. They meet first thing in the morning, and the Bible study is entirely student organized and led. The Bible study and hymn sing are led and attended by the leaders of our school: juniors and seniors, House presidents, and star athletes.

Every school has an “alpha male,” a student who sets the tone and drives the culture for the rest of the school. That student can be a force for good or ill; he or she can point students towards the True, Good, and the Beautiful, or away from those things. God is raising up young leaders who will use their influence to build His kingdom instead of their own, and this student-led Bible study is a shining example of that.

In 1 Timothy 4, the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy the following: “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity…. give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” It can be easy for older generations to despise the youth of others, but how beautiful and inspiring it is when young people take seriously Paul’s exhortation to be an example to older generations!

These are the church’s future leaders, and the faculty and staff at The Ambrose School feel humbled and grateful to be a part of their molding and shaping.

Walk with the Wise

It was one of those things that is so easily overlooked. It was Friday at lunch time, and The Providence Room was abuzz with students: a group of boys at one table, a group of girls at another, two boys sitting on the couches, and a table of girls out on the patio. It all seemed so ordinary for a high school.

However, if one took the time to notice, the scene was far from ordinary. A second glance revealed a beauty absolutely foreign to most schools: not one, not two, not even three, but all six tables were filled with juniors and seniors having lunch with 7th graders.

mentorshipPause and reflect on that for a moment: juniors and seniors were having lunch with 7th graders.

These were not only House leaders, but also other junior and senior students, all sacrificing their lunch hour and valuable time with their own peer group to invest into the lives of younger students: to pray together, to do a Bible study, or to just talk about life.

As those of us who attended one can attest, typical high schools are deeply segregated. The athletes hang out with other athletes, the cool kids hang out apart from the nerds, and the upperclassmen don’t go anywhere near freshmen, let alone junior high kids. It is an oppressive caste system that is at its core self-serving, demoralizing, and breeds all that is bad about human nature.

As a Christian community, our school is inherently different. We endeavor to be a school community walking together in the light of Christ. We want our students to walk out the Great Commission: to go out into the world and make disciples. This starts in our classrooms, our hallways, and in The Providence Room.

Proverbs 13:20 reads, “He who walks with the wise will become wise.” The Christian life is at its very foundation relational. Virtue is caught rather than taught. We cultivate an affection in younger students for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty by bringing them into relation with our older students, the wise leaders in our student body who are striving to live for Jesus.

One of our primary goals for all our students is that they become wise; in order to do that, they must walk with the wise.