Fall Family Weekend Convocation

Eric Gross
Eric Gross CdeP 1985, P '23 offers his perspective on what current Thacher students should look forward to in life.
What Comes Next?
Finding Your Lead
Eric Gross
Good morning. I am Eric Gross, CdeP 1985, and the parent of an embarrassed child sitting among you. I was inspired by the improv actors on Friday night and thought we could all ad lib this speech together. My profession is education, so I’d like to use this time to address the students, especially the seniors who are experiencing their final family weekend here and are on the verge of a major transition to life after Casa de Piedra – a transition I made 3 decades ago. Okay, almost 4 decades ago. I also hope to share some perspective with the families who support those students. As is often the case, I’d like to talk about something I know nothing about: the future. Fortunately for me, none of you has any basis for critiquing my thoughts because you are as ignorant as I am about something that doesn’t yet exist. It is important to think about the future during the present because by the time it is past, it will be too late.
As with formal dinners, one shouldn’t be late.
First, the bad news: as someone who experienced being a Thacher student firsthand, I’m pretty sure that your immediate future will be more difficult than the present. The workload will increase. Papers and homework will pile up. Deadlines for college applications will loom ominously. Leadership responsibilities will mount: Prefects will move quickly past the welcoming phase, and tricky issues may arise in the dorms. Being the captain of a team will be more than a popularity contest, and you will be expected to actually lead the team, especially when you are losing. And you will probably sometimes lose because you and your teammates aren’t at Thacher on athletic scholarships. While being the president of a club was actually a good idea for your college applications, you now have to facilitate meetings and organize events. There is real work to be done. And all these things will be due at the same time. Sorry.
The good news is that we – your parents and teachers – are confident that you will be up to the task. And by spring you will get to enjoy the fruits of your labors. And deservedly so.
Celebrate the acceptances to colleges. Sure, you will likely get rejected by some schools, but you only need to be accepted by one. Forget about the others. They won’t matter anymore. Revel in that. Take a moment to feel pride in:
The tests you passed.
The events you organized.
Exult in the goals you scored and the games your team won.
Notice the progress you made in a myriad of skills, both academic and extracurricular.
Reflect on the growth you have made in all areas:
Did you make an announcement at an assembly? Good for you. Public speaking, ahem, is most people’s greatest fear – 75% according to Google.
Did you perform on stage? Encore!
Did you take a course outside your comfort zone? A+.
Did you scale Jameson Rock? Climb on!
I’m certain that you tried a lot of new things and learned a great deal in the process. Remember to tell your parents about these accomplishments! We want to celebrate with you.
Before you reach the end of the school year and perhaps the end of your time as a Thacher student, I suggest that you ponder what it will mean to leave this place. What do you want your legacy to be?
What will you leave behind for the toads and tadpoles who follow you?
What impression will you leave on the applicants that you guided on tours?
Did the prospects find you friendly and articulate?
What lessons did you teach the greenhorns*?
Did you help them find their lead?
How did you inspire and comfort the smuts*, who were probably scared and uncertain?
Did you learn the simple value of a munch out?
What skills did you impart to JV players who simply didn’t know how to do something well yet? Did you teach them how to cradle a lacrosse ball and execute a split dodge?
How did you impart toad culture to your charges in the dorms, who hadn't yet learned the unique ways of Thacher?
Did you instruct them how to tie a tie or how to sing the Banquet Song?
How did you provide a good example to others just finding their way?
Did you model integrity?
Before you graduate, you should know about an interesting research study. Parents, this part is more for you than your kids. About 15 years ago, a Stanford psychology professor hired a graduate student as his secretary. The secretary seemed to be ideal – he worked quickly, accurately, and happily. But after a while, the professor became annoyed by his secretary. He asked himself, why am I so annoyed by someone who does such high-quality work? I’m an accomplished psychology professor; I should be able to figure this out! He finally pinpointed what it was that was bothering him. It was the music that the secretary listened to as he worked. The secretary listened to a different genre every song. He would listen to punk, then classical, followed by jazz, then folk, metal, rap, pop, show tunes, Tuvan throat singing, barbershop, and Christmas carols. It was never the same style twice in a row. In contrast, the professor listened to the same genre – reggae – every time. In fact, he listened to the same musician – Bob Marley, and even the same album – Greatest Hits – every time he listened to music.
Clearly, they had contrasting approaches to listening to music, but how did that come about?
That question became a research question. Who listens to what music and why? He directed his secretary to call radio stations all over the US and ask them who their audience was. The answer was unanimous: “break-out + 20”. What did that mean? The average listeners to radio stations are 20 years older than the date of the musician’s break-out hit. So, for example, if a radio station played top 40 hits from 1985 like Madonna and Wham!, then the target demographic would have been 20 in 1985 and therefore the listeners would be about 57 years old. The reason is that most listeners find the music that they listen to for the rest of their lives during their impressionable and formative 20s. That’s what happened to the professor. He discovered Bob Marley in his 20s, liked it a lot, and was never interested in other music after that. He was happy to keep listening to the same album indefinitely. His secretary, on the other hand, listened to a wide range of music during his 20s, so he kept listening to a variety of genres for the rest of his life.
The professor wondered if a similar dynamic existed in other aspects of people’s lives, so he had his secretary call mid-western sushi restaurants and ask them who their customers were. They all answered, “people who tried sushi as young adults. If they ate sushi when they were in their 20s, they would return for the rest of their lives, but no one older than their 20s who hadn’t tried it while younger was willing to experiment with unfamiliar food.
Then he had the secretary call tattoo and piercing parlors and ask them who their customers were. They all answered, people in their 20s, and older people who had gotten their first tattoo or piercing when they were in their 20s. But people who hadn’t gotten a tattoo or piercing in their 20s wouldn’t try it later.
The psychology professor then asked a colleague who was an anthropology professor about small tribal communities. He asked why they are small. The answer was that they tend to average about 150 people because that was enough to allow for a sufficient degree of specialization to do the necessary work, but also small enough to enable everyone to know each other fairly well (kind of like Thacher). How did they maintain that ideal population size? When the tribe got too big, some members leave to start another community. Who leaves? The young adults - tribal members in their 20s. Who stays? The elders, whose function is to keep the cultural traditions alive.
He then asked a colleague, who was a biology professor, what happens when there are too many animals of a given species in a particular habitat. The answer was that some of those animals leave in search of new habitats. Which animals leave? The young adults. Who doesn’t leave? The animals that have become stuck in their ways – the older adults who won’t change.

Why am I telling you about this professor’s study? Because when Thacher students graduate and leave this place, they will begin to enter this crucial stage of their lives. Either they will find what they like and stick with it for the rest of their lives, or they will experiment with diverse experiences and tastes, and continue to learn and grow for the rest of their lives. The next few years are crucial.
Parents, your children are at an age, or about to be at an age, when they are biologically meant to venture into the unknown and to experiment. Let them do what they are meant to do. Don’t try to force them to become rigid. Bob Marley is great, but there is other music out there that they should hear. All too soon, you too will become alumni, and you will have a new & different role vis-à-vis your alma mater.
Support Thacher:
Those who came before you have supported you in ways that you are not even aware of. Soon, it will be your turn to take up the mantle. Focus on your homework for now - you will learn your role when it is time. For now, just be willing to step up when asked.
Represent Thacher: live your own life and be successful in whatever interests you. There is no template. Just do us proud. What will guide you as you find your way in the larger world?
Apply the Thacher moral compass – honor & fairness & kindness & truth – to all situations. It is a good guide. Help the school live up to its ideals when it falters. Hold it accountable. Strengthen it.
Use the life lessons learned during your time at Casa de Piedra:
Cultivate an insatiable appetite for learning.
Try something new. Then try something else.
Ask questions. Then question the answers.
Seek out the best mentors.
Pay attention to what they say and do.
Embrace the challenges: shy away from what is easy and lean into what is difficult.
Do your homework. Be a skeptical researcher. There are many falsehoods out there. Know how to tell the difference between scams and reality. Help others to see what is behind the curtain.
Get messy. Make mistakes. Larry Heights, my art teacher here at Thacher, used to say, “if you spill, don’t clean it up right away. It might be your best work.” If you aren’t making at least some mistakes, then it is too easy for you. Try something harder. You’ll grow more that way.
Fall off your horse. Then dust yourself off and get back in the saddle. Fall off again. Repeat as often as necessary. Heed the admonishment posted above Camp Supply: hope for the best, prepare for the worst. And not just when camping.
Let nature have a significant impact on you, but don’t you have a significant impact on nature.
Chuck Warren, my physics teacher, and the outdoor program director, used to say, “if you got yourself up there, you can get yourself back down”. Maddeningly, he always seemed to say that when we were perched precariously on some ridiculously dangerous cliff, and we were sure we were about to die. Even more maddeningly, he was always right.
Make the effort necessary to maintain the friendships that you value. When you were little, almost all your friends were from your own neighborhood. Now they are from all around the world. Go visit them. Invite them to visit you.
The older generations have made a mess of the world; don’t be afraid to provide the leadership that is needed to fix it. You won’t do any worse than those who preceded you. We need you. Really.
Keep doing all these things after you leave this isolated community at the base of the Topa Topa bluffs. Don’t stop being a toad after graduation. Commencement isn’t the end. This is a prep school. The idea is to prepare you to go further.
Eventually, it will be one of you giving this talk. Grizzled and gray, you will wonder what wisdom you have to impart to the assembled. Hopefully, you will be wittier, more inspirational, and, I hope, funnier.  I’m confident that you’ll do fine. It is the prerogative of an old alumnus to indulge in nostalgia, just as it is the temperament of the young to impatiently endure a long speech. But if you take nothing else from my ramblings, I hope you can appreciate how good you have it here. There really isn’t anything else like it out there beyond the gate.
Return after you graduate. It won’t be the same place that you left, nor should it be. It will be better. And it will be better because you helped improve it. By the time you attend your first reunion, you will have come to understand why some things about Thacher should not change.
Like alumni before you, you will realize that:
Boarding school isn’t just about dorm life.
The horse program isn’t just about riding.
The outdoor program isn’t just about camping.
The observatory isn’t just about stars.
Formal dinner isn’t just about eating.
Eventually, you will understand why your parents paid so much money so that you could shovel manure.
I won’t expound further. I’ll simply leave you with just that hint so that you can enjoy the epiphany of realizing those cryptic mysteries on your own. For now, I’ll just promise you that you will keep learning from Thacher even after you have left Thacher.
Lastly, be sure to honor and thank those who have helped you along the way - faculty, staff, family, and friends – by doing the best work in the world that you can ‘til the best you can do is all done.
I’ve since learned that these terms are no longer used. That’s one of those things that should have changed and adds to the faith I have in the current generation of Thacher students.
Eric Gross is CdeP '85, P '23

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