About
Head of School
Head of School Blog

The Boys in the Boat

Earlier this summer I read a story that I could hardly wait to share with you. The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., Executive Director of NAES (the National Association of Episcopal Schools) wrote of this story in one of his weekly meditations. I read his message and was intrigued enough to read the book, explore the story, and re-tell it here. It's the story of a great Olympic race, one you may never have heard of; most people haven't.

Earlier this summer I read a story that I could hardly wait to share with you. The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., Executive Director of NAES (the National Association of Episcopal Schools) wrote of this story in one of his weekly meditations. I read his message and was intrigued enough to read the book, explore the story, and re-tell it here. It's the story of a great Olympic race, one you may never have heard of; most people haven't.

The overarching story is that in 1936, nine American rowers took on a Nazi crew in front of Hitler and 75,000 screaming Germans. Even though rowing was considered an elite sport, unlike their Ivy League competitors, the crew from the University of Washington was composed of kids from working and middle class families. These working class boys overcame obstacles in life, both physical and emotional, which few of us have had to imagine. They shed their Depression-era shackles to become an extraordinarily powerful and disciplined crew. Largely untested, they journeyed across the ocean to take on the world with only their trust and determination to sustain them.

In his book, The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown described the challenge facing their rowing coach, Al Ulbrickson, with the following words, "The trick would be to find which few of them had the potential for raw power, the superhuman stamina, the nearly indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique. And which of them, coupled improbably with all those other qualities, had the most important one: the ability to disregard his own ambitions, to throw his ego over the gunwales, to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull, not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat."

In the opening pages of this highly regarded book, the author interviews a dying team member, Joe Rantz, then in his mid-seventies. Rantz spoke of oars and shells, long cold days under steelgray skies out on the water, and the tactics and techniques of building a finely tuned team, but his emotion and passion peaked when he talked about "the boat." The reader first thinks when Rantz and his teammates speak of "the boat” that they are referring to the racing shell. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the term means so much more. "The boat" refers to neither the shell, nor the team. Rather, as Brown put it, "I realized that 'the boat' was something more than just the shell or its crew...it encompassed but transcended both-it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience-a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love." "The boat" was the shared experience. And the shared experience was what allowed this team, nine young men of raw talent, to triumph in the face of immeasurable odds.

Reverend Heischman wrote of this story with these words, "School is not just a building, nor simply the people in it. It is something far more: to use Brown's time, something more akin to a 'shared experience, a singular thing' that, in this case, keeps us coming back to it each year in this particular season. Episcopal schools are fortunate to be able to think about, further refine, and continually make reference to that transcendent element, that something more, that binds us together. As we experience its draw, its power in these early days, we are invited to ponder its mystery throughout the rest of the school year."

At St. Martin's, we have the privilege of a shared experience which, as I step into my third year, I see continuing to gain in strength and purpose. Our talent, stamina, and love for each other, and our singular goal, that of preparing our students for life, has us all pulling together, determined and resolute. But, if you will indulge me one more moment, I have a concern, one perhaps not intended in the telling of this story.

My fear is that our students might one day mirror those left standing at the dock: the ones who were poised and expected to take their places in the race because of their standing in the world, but who lost out to those who had more grit; an indomitable spirit; the drive to climb their way to the top over any obstacle, physical or mental, standing in their path. We stop just short of our intention if we fill our students with all the knowledge they need to be successful, but fail to teach them how to achieve it. Life tests us all. And resilience can only be gained by meeting the challenges those tests pose to us. So I entreat us as parents, teachers, and mentors to let our students deal with the adversity that comes their way, whether it be a failing grade, a starting spot on the line, or a leading role in the play. Encourage them to stand tall in the face of strife and failure, and to dig deep for success. As described in Coach Ulbrickson's vision for his team, let's instill in them the potential power, the stamina, the nearly indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique. And let's couple the teaching of all those improbable qualities with the most important one: the ability to disregard their own ambitions, to throw their own egos over the gunwales, to leave them swirling in the wake of their shells, and to pull, not just for themselves, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat. If together we strive for that, then our young people will be truly prepared to meet life head on, rejoicing in the successes that extraordinary efforts bring.

Merry

Boys in the Boat Trailer Video
Back

Share your StM