Headmaster’s Orientation Talk 2019

The founding headmaster of this school is a man named Alan Hicks and he was a serious intellectual, a student from the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas University, a student of John Senior, who some of you may or may not have heard of, but who you should learn about some day because if Alan Hicks is the father of our school, John Senior is really the grandfather of our school.  But that’s another story for another time.  Right now we are talking about Alan Hicks, the first headmaster of our school, that serious intellectual with glasses.  He once gave a description of this school, our school, your school, that I would like to share with you.  Better yet, let’s see if you can guess what he said: Anyone?

OK, I’ll make it a bit easier for you: I’ll give you a few choices:

  1. A school is a place where morality and philosophy and rugby are taught.
  2. A school is a place where one learns to love what is good, what is true, and what is beautiful.
  3. A school is a place where students have a good time.

So which one is it?

Well, the right answer is the the last one, C: “A school is a place where students have a good time.”  What Mr. Hicks actually said was, “I want St. Gregory’s to be a place where students have a really good time.”  Is anyone surprised or even shocked that he would say that?  Another teacher and former headmaster of our school, Howard Clark, (who was also a student of John Senior — that grandfather of our school I mentioned to you earlier, that someday you should get to know) echoing Alan Hicks phrase, was fond of saying, with mock seriousness,

“Boys, have a good time, all the time.”

Now this may sound silly and foolish to you: but I wish to propose that in the guise of foolishness we are looking at deep wisdom here.   Gregory the Great Academy is a place where you should have a good time, a really good time  – and learn how to do that all the time.

About a year ago, I spoke to a recent graduate of the Academy, and he told me that when he was a student here he always went to bed with a sense of completion and happiness because he had done so many good things that day.  It didn’t matter whether it was a weekday or weekend, just by going about his day starting with chapel in the morning, chores, breakfast and conversation, classes, sports, study hall, free time for fun or more conversation, and then night prayer, he found himself entering into and participating in a rich world of actions and events and ideas that brought him both happiness and joy.

There is a modern novel called the Unbearable Lightness of Being that is about the strange predicament of modern man, where man experiences in himself a lightness of being but not in a good way.  Not light as in “Let there be light – and there was light.”  But light as in “Bud Lite.”  The kind of lightness of being where one doesn’t even feel that one is real anymore: Man has become something so being-less, so insubstantial, that he is not sure whether he even exists or not, and has vague fears that he will float or fade away.  Living a life that is not rooted in what is real: in what is good, in what is beautiful, and in what is true, is actually unbearable: it leads to this feeling of fading away; it leads to boredom, sadness, and anxiety.  But we don’t want you to go down that road. We don’t want anyone floating away out the second or third floor windows.  No, we want boys with density, substance, and character.  And why?  Because we want boys and eventually men who are happy, who have gained a deep and abiding sense of joy in the gift of their existence.

Plato, the wisest of the ancient Greeks, thought that the only way you could explain why people choose to be bad, to be evil, and thus to become less who they are, less really human, and thus less happy, was due to ignorance.  If people truly knew the good, had experience of it, they would always choose it, he believed.  There is a good deal of truth in Plato’s view.  And I think the world today is starving for those realities that will make them good, make them happy – realities that they in fact do not know because they have not truly experienced them.

The hope of our school is that you will experience many good things here  – that in fact your days will be filled with them – and that in giving yourself to these goods, you will learn what and who in fact you are.

Our hope for you here is that by giving yourself to this education, you will learn to be a maker and a builder by making useful and beautiful things out of leather, wood, and clay.  You will learn what it feels like to create and to see anew common things of the world once you have become a creator of them.

You will learn to be a farmer by learning not only how to eat food, but how to grow and care for food (like chickens, eggs, and bacon), and then how to prepare it.  All of this will teach you how to truly enjoy the depth and mystery of food and to participate in the sacred ceremony of eating.

You will learn to be a musician, a singer, and perhaps even a poet: one who can give voice to beauty and the mystery of life through words, music, and song.

You will learn to be an athlete: a kind of warrior of the playing field.  One who learns the discipline of strength, agility, quick-thinking, endurance, and sacrifice for the sake of a common goal.

You will learn to be a juggler: one who can bring gratuitous joy to friends and family with the deft manipulation of ball, clubs, diabolos, devilsticks, and unicycles; you may even learn through this art, how to survive without money in a foreign country.

You will learn to be a philosopher which means a lover of wisdom: one who is not a know-it-all, but one who, through listening and reading and thinking and writing, has begun to see and love and to interpret the order of truth by which all things are made.

And most important of all, by giving yourselves freely to all this goodness, truth, and beauty, in the smallest and the greatest of deeds, you will learn to become a child and son of God, a good son of our good Father in heaven, a man who puts himself confidently and lovingly in God’s hands because he has learned to know and to trust and to love God and all that God is calling him to.

This, I believe is how one goes about having a good time, a really good time, all the time.   Welcome to Gregory the Great Academy.

The Carnival of Chickens: Boys Viscerally Experience the Sacrament of Life

“When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away. Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.”

A five gallon bucket half full of feed swinging from the arm of a teacher as if a censer of incense in front of a religious procession. A student juggling fire clubs behind, two more jugglers but with bright red, yellow, and blue clubs floating through the air, a wooden cross of victory from the days previous competition. A senior prefect holding a large box surrounded by his roommates, nine other prefects behind him, each holding a similar sized box, each surrounded by his roommates, everyone belting: “Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.” Beginning from the large red barn with silver roof, the procession wended its way up the driveway, through the parking lot, around the basketball court, and into the first field above the great red-brick building we call our school.

“Old Mc-Donald had a farm ei-ei-o, and on that farm he had a chicken, ei-ei-o, with a bock-bock here and a bock-bock there, here a bock, there a bock, everywhere a bock bock…”

In the field in the top corner before the brush line stood a wood-framed structure, with criss-cross wire and metal roof, only two feet high, but twelve feet long and ten feet wide. “Seniors, come forth! Room 21!” The teacher shouted out, took the box from the prefect of room 21’s arms, opened the box, and lowered it into the pen. “Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!” Out came fifteen little chicks. “Room 22!” “Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!” Another fifteen little chicks came forth. “Room 23!” Again, fifteen two-week old chicks slid out and hazarded the jungle of 4 inch tall grass. “Room 24!” and onwards came all the rooms with all the chicks.

On this grand day, September 14th, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, before the banquet in its honor, these small birds were led from their walled brooder in the barn out into the pastures where they ranged for six weeks on fresh forage, fresh bugs, and a hearty portion of feed each day to help them grow into healthy big breasted chickens. These chickens served as the main course for the next great banquet of the year — the Feast of All Saints.

By the beginning of Christmas break the boys, with the help of Mr. Burger, had raised, slaughtered, and butchered over 325 chickens and fourteen turkeys. The underclassmen of each dorm room worked chicken chores for a week at a time. Every morning at the break of dawn members of the room met Mr. Burger in the back parking lot for chores. The boys filled five gallon buckets with feed and water, after which they made their way up to the chicken pens. First they took out the feeders and waterers. Then they very carefully lifted the pen (enduring an annoying turkey peck here and there) a couple inches off the ground and proceeded to move them to a completely fresh area of grass. If the ground was in a low spot with standing water, then the pen was moved to higher ground to ensure a healthy happy chicken. If a chicken had crippling foot problems from the extremely wet ground this fall, then they were brought to the barn and put into a hospital pen to recuperate under a heat lamp while being fed extra riboflavin and beef liver. Many resurrected, but some did not. In every case, the boys learned that life, suffering and death are real and powerful…even when it’s a chicken.

When the chickens reached eight weeks of age Mr. Burger led different groups of boys in teams of ten to process the birds. Each session began with a prayer of thanksgiving to God, the author of life. Then Mr. Burger proceeded to show the boys how to properly slaughter a chicken so that it bled out completely. Three boys kept the kill cone station moving in a timely fashion, one boy scalded the birds, four boys plucked the birds, and two boys worked with Mr. Burger eviscerating the birds. After a little over an hour the boys rotated positions so to ensure everyone the chance of learning the different aspects of the butchering process.

For Robin Hood Days in October, the freshmen class slaughtered and butchered 35 birds for the Saturday feast. The boys working as chefs roasted the chickens over a fire of coals. For the All Saints Day banquet in November, the sophomore class slaughtered and butchered 75 birds for the banquet, and did a fabulous job cooking and serving our autumnal feast. In several sessions over the course of the following weeks, the underclassmen processed all the final batches of chickens and turkeys. By the beginning of Christmas break, the last turkey was put in the freezer. These birds will continue to serve the boys as meals for several hearty dinners to come.

Whether we have partaken in the slaughter of the animals we eat or whether we have not, a sacrifice was made every time we eat the carnis or flesh of an animal. The life of a creature was taken whether we remember it or not. As Wendell Berry writes: “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.” This autumn’s maiden voyage of Gregory the Great into the fields of agriculture gave the boys the visceral experience not only of raising their meal, but slaughtering and butchering that which they raised–sacrificing an animal’s life so that they and their brothers might have more life, and live richer lives: lives full of remembrance, lives full of gratitude, lives fully embracing reality, lives fully embracing the truth. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

“Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly, I’ll fly away.”