One of my Head of School privileges is addressing the entire student body during Opening Assembly. St. Luke’s Honor Code is always a focal point and this year I shared pointers for an often overlooked form of honor: the apology.
Below are my notes and a video of the address. Your thoughts are always much appreciated.
Opening Assembly Address 2015
Each year, at this assembly, I talk with you about the St. Luke’s Honor Code. We need to do this at the beginning of the school year, when we’re thinking about how we want to conduct ourselves for the next 9 months. As we look forward to the school year, let’s remember that our school’s motto – “Enter to Learn, Go Forth to Serve” – makes both learning AND caring for others our highest priorities. We see world around us filled with people at war, with prominent people cheating or breaking the law for personal gain, with angry politicians yelling at each other, and with millions of people insulting and mistreating each other on social media as standards of civility continue to decline. As we watch all of this, let’s remember that here at St. Luke’s we can take care of each other – every day. Let’s remember that at St. Luke’s our efforts to become our best selves bring us closer together, and the Honor Code asks us to be honest, respectful, kind and responsible. Let’s remember that, here on the Hilltop, we have a special obligation to think about others and to act in ways that make our own community – and the world – better.
Many years ago, St. Luke’s students created the Honor Code, so it comes from within us. Next week, each of you will review and sign it in your advisory. Read it and talk about it before you sign. Understand it. Because all of us need to live it. It says:
As members of the St. Luke’s community, we will maintain and encourage integrity at all times. We will be honest in what we say and write, and we will show respect for ourselves, each other, and all property. We will treat everyone with kindness, and we will accept responsibility for our actions.
Honesty. Respect. Kindness & Responsibility.
We demonstrate good character – and we uphold those four pillars of the St. Luke’s Honor Code – not simply by avoiding dishonorable actions such as lying, cheating and stealing. As important as not doing those things is to good character, we complete our character by what we DO – telling the truth, respecting each other, being kind, and taking responsibility for our actions.
For example, how do you take responsibility for your actions? (Certainly not the way Kanye West did it last week at the VMAs….) Telling the truth is part of it, but usually not enough to regain the trust of others.
I’m guessing all of you have heard the legend of the young George Washington, our first President, and the cherry tree. (In the actual book that promoted the legend, George Washington’s father said “George…, do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?…Looking at his father with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”
I remember learning that story growing up, and never knowing if George actually felt remorse for his misdeed. Sure, he told the truth. But was he truly sorry? And did he offer to make amends for chopping down that beautiful little cherry tree? Not anywhere that I’ve seen.
Since it’s actually a legend, I looked around for other versions of it.* Maybe the cherry tree story actually went something like this:
“George, did you chop down that beautiful little cherry tree?”
“I think you are lying.”
“No, no, no! I swear I did NOT chop down the cherry tree.”
“Son, (your brother) saw you out here with your axe. Your punishment will be much worse for you if you lie. Now, tell me the truth!”
“Dad, I answered your question truthfully. Still, I must take complete responsibility for all my actions. While my answer was legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. Indeed, Dad, I did cause the cherry tree to be lying on the ground. To do this was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible. I know my answer to you gave a false impression. I misled you, my own father. I deeply regret that. I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors.
“ What I did, Dad, was use a saw to cause the cherry tree to fall. Only after the tree was already down did I go get my axe to chop off individual branches. So, I chopped off branches, but sawed down the tree. Look at the saw cut on the stump and the axe cuts on the branches. Therefore, legally, I told the truth. I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of this fallen tree and to return our attention to a solid family relationship. After all, who’s going to remember a cherry tree as a symbol of my character and ability to lead?”
There are so many things wrong with that answer. We can avoid taking responsibility for our actions by using slippery language, or legal logic, or a lack of genuine regret – in other words, telling the truth but not expressing the actual truth and remorse the situation calls for.
In fact, since our lapses in behavior and judgment tend to either hurt others or call our character into question (or both), a good apology might be the best way to take responsibility in those situations.
But, all too often, rather than a genuine apology, we make a “non-apology apology.” Some people, especially politicians throughout my lifetime, employ the passive voice. Rather than saying “I made a mistake, it’s my fault I’m so very sorry, how can I make amends?” they say something along the lines of “Mistakes were made,” which is a way of acknowledging an error while not taking any personal responsibility for it. In American History class you might learn about President Nixon’s famous use of this passive voice device when he non-apologized for his role in the Watergate scandal. But Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush also did it. With examples such as these from our highest leaders, it’s no wonder so many of us use the passive voice. Rather than use the active voice, as our English teachers urge, we use what language hawk William Safire called the “passive-evasive.”
Other people qualify their apology by using the simple two-letter word “if.” For example, “I’m so sorry if what I said offended you.” That’s very different from saying, “I’m so sorry that I said something offensive,” or “I’m so sorry that I made that hurtful comment, and it’s a cousin of the similar statement, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Using “if,” or saying I’m sorry you feel that way, suggests that maybe you didn’t actually say something offensive or hurtful, and that the recipient of your comment is actually acting overly sensitive about the words you uttered.
A good apology helps us to own our words and actions. It makes an important statement about our character and starts the process of regaining the trust of others. It allows others to forgive us. In short, it preserves our relationships. There might even be times in your life – there certainly have been in mine – when you think someone has overreacted to something you said, and yet you decide to apologize. Not with a non-apology apology, which someone will see through right away, but with genuine remorse, because you value a relationship more than your need to be right. That’s super-hard. I’m constantly trying to improve in that area…J
So what makes a good apology? In addition to being genuinely felt and carefully avoiding passive or qualifying language that avoids personal responsibility, it seems to me that a good apology has three parts:
3 parts of a good apology
- I’m sorry
- It’s my fault
- What can I do to make it better?
The first two should be obvious, and I’ve talked about how most people obscure the first two through passive-evasive or qualifying language. But almost everyone forgets Part 3, which might be the most important part. Having done wrong, what can I do to show that I understand and will atone for it?
We typically think of atone as meaning to make up for a wrong. While that’s right, in a basic sense, the original meaning of atone comes from Middle English, where it meant to become united, or reconciled.” When I learned that, it deepened my understanding of taking responsibility as the act of reconciling with the person – or persons – whom I had either let down or hurt or offended by my actions.
After saying “I’m sorry I said a hurtful thing,” or “I’m sorry I copied that paper,” if you add “and while I know it might not be possible, I want to do everything in my power to make things better between us” – if you do that, you will have begun the process of reconciliation, of repairing a broken relationship. That is the most human of actions. That doesn’t mean you can avoid the consequences of your actions, as you might serve a suspension or detention, or get a zero on the paper, or find that certain doors become harder to open. But you will discover a couple of very important things. First, that people are looking for these behaviors because they want to forgive you and preserve their relationship with you. And second, that you, the person who will walk through all the doors of your future, have gained self-respect, confidence, and the character to handle even tougher challenges and temptations.
*Several website contain variations of the “modern day” George Washington and the Cherry Tree story. I used this site’s version—though I customized it a bit for my audience.