TOAD Talk: The Best Year Yet, Part II

"There is no other school in the country that is capable of being what Thacher is capable of being."
An honor and responsibility for the TOAD (teacher on active duty) most Mondays is to give what’s called a TOAD Talk at the day’s Assembly. The topics of each talk are completely up to the TOAD and have ranged from sea slugs and feminism to vampire bats and glitter. A recent talk by Tim Sullivan (English Department Faculty, Upper School Dorm Head, and Boys Lacrosse Head Coach) focused on what we can do to make this a place of inclusion, a place that feels like home to every member of our community. Read on for a transcript of his talk.

I’d like to pick up right where I left off. Those of you who heard my Toad Talk last year will recall that I had the privilege of speaking the day before an intense and high-stakes election. 

My message at that time was relatively simple: no matter what the world looks like on the outside, no matter who our political leaders are, no matter how overwhelming the scale of the issues we face in the world at large—covid, systemic racism, patriarchy, climate change, etc.—we few, we happy few here today in this space, can create at Thacher the world that we want. We can make this a place of inclusion, a place that feels like home to every member of our community. 

Almost exactly one year later, I stand by what I said back then. We CAN make this place whatever we want it to be. But I fear that I let you down last year by keeping things vague, by reminding you of the power you have without giving you any idea of how you might use it. So today, I’d like to get a little more specific.

These last years have caused many of us to think about Thacher and our places in it, and as I’ve gone down that path on my own, and in conversation with Mrs. Sullivan, there’s a single theme to which I keep returning: There is no other school in the country that is capable of being what Thacher is capable of being. This school is so unique that when Thacher’s at its best, there’s no place like it.

For starters, look around. Look at where we are. Have you ever watched the sun set over Upper Field? Have you hiked up Twin Peaks and looked out on the Pacific? Who here will ever forget sitting in the Dining Hall a few weeks ago and watching that thunderstorm crash over the southern horizon? In the year before Mrs. Sullivan and I moved to Ojai, I spent hours scrolling through the photos and videos of Thacher on the website. Truly, this is a special place.

But what makes Thacher special isn’t about old mountains and new buildings. What makes Thacher special is the relationships that develop here and the moments that make them: it’s countless mafia games on a camping trip; it’s entire classes of mine that know more about my horoscope than I’ll ever care to know, or have for some reason decided I’d be better off if my name were Teddy instead of Tim, or that settle into each block with a five-minute meditation; it’s the fact that my seven-year-old dreads graduation every year because he knows that’s when some of his “big kid” friends will leave; it’s the time two years ago when I showed up to an Upper School dorm meeting just after my daughter was born, and found the whole dorm waiting for me with a tiny little dress, a matching pair of socks, and a sign that said, “Welcome to the Family, Hannah.”

When Thacher is at its best, it creates bonds like no other place in the world—and of course it does. There are so few of us, and we live in such a close community, and we take on hard things together and have fun together in a place that is absolutely magnificent. It creates bonds based on love and respect and trust. 

These last few years have been difficult everywhere, but they’ve been especially hard here because the struggles we’ve faced have cut right to the heart of who we are. They’ve made it harder for us to trust one another.

While covid and the murder of George Floyd and the MTO report have played a part, we can’t lay it all at the feet of these “unprecedented times.” 

So let’s have some straight talk. 

Adults haven’t always communicated as well as we should have: we’ve made rules, changed policies, created expectations without always being clear about how and why, and we’ve become defensive when you’ve challenged us. Agree?

Students aren’t off the hook: there’s been less proactive honesty, less taking responsibility for your actions, more evasiveness, more looking for excuses, more unclaimed messes in the dining hall and the weight room and the dorms, left for others to deal with. Yes?

So we can all be better. 

The good news is this: I believe we all want to be better, and because we all want it so badly, I’m confident we’ll do the work necessary to get there. Because here’s the thing: the change we want won’t happen unless WE are all bought in. We’ve been lucky to have a number of incredibly talented and qualified experts come in from outside our community to share their expertise, to help us move through this rocky time, to pass on what inspires them in hopes that it will inspire us. Those visits are wonderful, but as I said last year, I believe the real work to be done has to be done within this group, among those of us sitting here right now. It’s going to take work and intentionality and patience and commitment and courage and listening and love. 

Specifically, we need to meet this moment by leaning in directly to the things we know can make a difference in terms of our community life. We need to make bold choices, we need to be willing to sacrifice for what we want, for what we know makes this place unique.

It won’t happen overnight. But as a first step, I’m going to ask you today to do something for me. Not for me; with me.

It is a demonstrable scientific fact that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. I know this to be true for two reasons: 1) I want it to be true, and 2) I read it on the internet. And to paraphrase 21st century philosopher Michael Scott, “The internet is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.”

Assuming that’s true, let’s look at the calendar. Today is November 1st; we leave for Thanksgiving break on November 20th. It’s not exact, but it’s close to those 21 days we need. 

Here’s my question: Can we all commit, for the next 20 days, to doing everything we possibly can to make this community what we want it to be? Can we make a habit of inclusion, make a habit of going out of our way to connect with one another?

Yes? Great. Don’t forget that, because I’m going to ask you in a minute to put your money where your mouth is. 

For years, ours has been a school that has prided itself on being a face-to-face community, but we’ve taken a few steps backwards in recent years. This is important, because while it may seem like the most memorable moments we have are EDTs and class events and dances and Open House and food trucks, the truth is that community is built one conversation at a time, and those conversations often happen in the in-between spaces: the ten minutes between classes, sitting in the Commons on a free period, waiting to be checked-in at the end of the day.

So can we all choose, over the final three weeks of the term, to place a special emphasis on keeping our phones put away when we’re not in our dorms? Does that seem like a sacrifice worth making?

Great. To make that easier, I invite you to join me in taking out your phones, right now. Now, before I go on, let me just say that participation here is entirely voluntary. You don’t have to do this, but I hope you will.

As I said, in order to make it easier to stay present, I hope you’ll join me in deleting your social media from your phone. I’m talking about your Instagrams, your Snapchats, your Facebooks, your TikToks, your Musiclys, your mySpaces, your Twitters, your Google+s, all of it. I’m going to delete mine right now. Peer pressure is encouraged here: the more of us do this, the less we’ll have to worry about feeling left out because we’re not on Instagram or Snapchat for a few weeks. Go ahead. Once you do it, get your friends to do it too. 

If you’ve participated, thank you. I’m going to send out a survey after assembly to invite you to get on a mailing list for the next few weeks, so that we can stay in touch about how our commitment to putting this community first is going.

And if you’re still on the fence, remember: I’m not asking you for forever; I’m asking for 20 days. You don’t have to delete your account: when you head home for break, it’ll be right there waiting for you like Richard Marx in 1989. But for the next few weeks, let’s make it a little harder to go down that rabbit hole of doom scrolling from 11pm to 3am on a Wednesday, and a little easier to strike up a conversation in those 10 minutes between classes. 

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Notice of nondiscriminatory policy as to students: The Thacher School admits students of any race, color, national, and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national, and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other School-administered programs.