Good morning and thank you, Matt, for inviting me to join you all, and thanks also to Dave Langston for his leadership and kindness in organizing this service. It is wonderful to be here, in this inspiring Chapel, where I sat as a camper and a leader, and where I return often in my mind when I am searching for peace and meaning. You will do the same, I bet. As the Camp hymn promises, Dudley will live in your heart.
The title of my talk this morning is “Parables of the Other Fellow.” Parables, as you probably know, are short stories that offer moral lessons. Jesus taught in parables, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which we just heard. It is the Biblical passage that, for me, most clearly reflects the Dudley motto. And my guess is that the motto was created with this passage in mind. Think back to it for a minute:
A fallen man, a person in desperate need, is ignored by two passersby before a third comes to his aid and takes care of him. Simple enough, but here’s what is often missed in this parable: the Samaritan is the least likely of the three passersby to want to help. The fallen man is a Jew, and Samaritans and Jews generally despised each other. One of the passers-by is identified as a Levite–a Jew, like the fallen man–but he doesn’t stop. Another is a priest, whose very business is supposed to be kindness and mercy, but he doesn’t stop either. Finally, the Samaritan stops, takes pity on the fallen Jew, bandages his wounds, takes him to an inn, and then pays the innkeeper to continue his care, saying he’ll come back and add to the payment if there are additional expenses.
Now that’s putting the other fellow first! And remember: it is not a friend helping a friend. The Good Samaritan is a person stopping to help his supposed enemy, after supposed friends have passed him by. At the end, Jesus asks simply: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the [fallen] man?” “The one who had mercy on him,” is the answer. “Go,” says Jesus, “go and do likewise.”
I like parables, and I often look for them in my own life and work. I live and work at a boarding school, one attended by two current members of the Dudley leadership ranks–George Wells and Mike Somerby, and I witness parables being played out around me all the time. I have two of them for you this morning–two “parables of the other fellow.”
The first one starts in a math class. It’s small–maybe fourteen students, but still there is a back row, where the posture is slouched, attention wanes as the minutes pass, and there is often a whispered, sidebar conversation.
The whispered conversation is focused today on the attractiveness of the teacher–a young woman, new to the school. She is idealistic, eager to connect with her students, a bit naive, and much too forgiving. The boys in the back row should have been tossed out of class weeks before and told that they could continue their private conversation with the dean.
They are not bad kids; they’re actually well-behaved in classes where the teacher is demanding. One of them–let’s call him John, is quite a good math student and is sitting in the back row for the first time. John struggles with social relationships–tends to say the wrong thing at the wrong time–the kind of guy who meets a casual fist bump with a much too eager high five, realizes his mistake and offers an awkward fist instead, too late, so that it hangs in the air and is left to search for a pocket.
As I said, John doesn’t usually sit in the back, but he has been included today, and he finds himself among the whispers about the teacher’s best and worst features. They are getting loud, and girl in the row in front of them turns around and glares at John. He rolls his eyes at her, eliciting snorts of laughter from his right and left. This is completely new to him, and he is intoxicated by it.
John has his laptop open. He often uses it in class to take notes or work on a problem introduced on the board. And now he has a cool idea. He begins to make a spreadsheet of the things said, detailing the various bests and worsts of the teacher’s physical appearance. The back row loves it.
Later, at lunch, John is welcomed at a table with the kids from the back row, where he has never been welcomed before. The other guys are leaning toward him, laughing and offering new data–best and worst features of other female faculty. John opens his laptop and dutifully transcribes the crude phrases into his neatly ordered spreadsheet. By dinner time “The Chart,” as they have come to call it, includes nine different female faculty.
In math class the next day, John moves back to the front row. He greets the request to continue working on The Chart by saying he needs to pay attention; there’s a test coming up. The back row registers disgust, a painful contrast to the approval John felt the day before. One of them says, “OK, well at least give us The Chart so we can finish it.” John shrugs and, with a few quick keystrokes, emails the spreadsheet to the three guys in the back row.
Two hours later, through the geometric power of email forwarding, The Chart has been viewed by the entire student body and most of the faculty. The faculty is outraged, the students can’t believe John would do this, and the boys from the back row and the lunch table are all saying, with plausible deniability, that John is the creator, the original distributor, and the sole author of The Chart. Two days later, John’s parents arrive to pick him up and take him home, agreeing with the headmaster that it is best for him to leave the school.
Here’s my question: which one of these guys are you? The one who does something morally reprehensible to win the approval of others? Or are you one of the back row boys, who encourages the other fellow to do that reprehensible thing while keeping your own hands clean? There’s a third type, who isn’t explicitly presented in the story as I’ve told it, but he’s there. He’s always there. It’s the guy who knows what’s happening, sees John being led quite literally away from himself, and yet does nothing. Are you ever that person? I know I have been.
I wish there had been a Good Samaritan in this situation. Someone one who saw John falling down and picked him up, even if he was not one of his friends. Someone who had said, “Very bad idea, buddy. Delete the file. And come sit at our table.” Are you someone capable of that kind of courage? Are you capable, when it takes guts, of putting the other fellow first?
I’ll conclude with a briefer and happier parable. It’s springtime, which should be about warmer and longer days, the greening of the baseball and lacrosse fields, blooming flowers, and budding trees. But for eleventh graders at my school, the second week of May is much more about Advanced Placement tests–the dreaded APs.
It is the end of a grueling stretch for Sam, who has taken six APs and has one more to go–AP Latin–the next morning. After a tough lacrosse practice and a quick dinner in the dining hall, he makes a phone call to his mother.
“Oh, Sam! How are you?”
“Tired. Really tired, and I still have Latin tomorrow. I had two APs today and I barely slept last night.”
“Well, you always do well in Latin.”
“Yeah, but I’m not ready, and I have so much to review. Maybe I should just go to sleep and punt the Latin AP.”
“Oh no, Sam. It’s just one more, honey, and you know how important these APs are for college. They can make the difference. Put in a few good hours of studying and then get a good night’s sleep. You’ve worked too hard to shoot yourself in the foot on your last AP.”
“OK, Mom. I’ll do my best.”
He hangs up, guzzles the last two diet cokes in his fridge and heads for the library. Sitting down at one of the large tables, he draws three books from his backpack–Horace, Catullus, and Vergil, flips open his notebook, takes a deep breath, and dives in. Before he can get through the first of Horace’s famous Odes, there’s a tap on his shoulder.
“Hey Woody.” It’s Haywood, a tenth grader who is on the lacrosse team and who is, frankly, a bit of a pain.
“Hey you’re in AP Latin right?” He gestures to Sam’s books.
“Well I’m in Latin 4, and Ms. Bradley is giving us a quiz tomorrow on this passage from The Aeneid, which I see you have right there. I just can’t get it. Can you just help me with a couple of lines?”
Sam looks at the clock on the wall, looks at his books, and then looks at Woody. “I’ve got an AP tomorrow, Woody, and my parents really care about this whole college thing…” He stops himself, thinking about his own struggle through Ms. Bradley’s Latin 4, and changes his mind. “Grab a chair. Which passage?”
It turns out that Woody is truly lost, and it takes more than 90 minutes for Sam to walk him through the lengthy passage. Just as they are finishing, there is an ear-splitting series of beeps. It’s the fire alarm, which means that the whole school will spend the next hour standing outside the building while the fire department arrives with lights and sirens, checks all the rooms, and confirms that, once again, somebody burned popcorn in the microwave.
As he is standing in the dark, cursing his fate, Sam feels another tap on the shoulder, “Hi, Sam?” Sure enough, it’s Woody. “Thanks a lot. I mean, that was really nice of you. Good luck on your AP.” They stand outside in the dark until 10pm, time for dorm announcements and checkin. At 10:30, Sam sits down at the desk in his room opens the top book once again, and in ten minutes falls asleep, face first in Horace’s Odes.
At precisely 8am the next morning, the exam proctor says “Begin!” and Sam, with a block of ice in his stomach and a tennis ball in his throat, opens up his Latin AP. He gasps audibly, and the proctor looks at him, mouthing a stern “Everything OK?” Sam nods vigorously, and then with a wide smile, he dives in. The entire first half of the AP is based on a famous passage from The Aeneid–the same passage that he walked Woody through for 90 minutes last night.
This is a true story, I promise. It is worth noting that life does not always reward the Good Samaritan so immediately or so neatly, but I assure you the rewards do come.
Sometimes it’s easy to put the other fellow first, and sometimes it’s hard. The question I want to ask today is can you do it when it costs you? I ask myself the same. Let’s make a pact, in the spirit of this magical and memorable place. Let’s agree to try as best we can to be true to what it stands for. The Other Fellow First, especially when it costs you.
Thanks for listening.