Scott Small Shares Wisdom at Prize Day

Head of Upper School Scott Small took a few moments to share words of wisdom with ninth- through 11th-grade students at their annual Prize Day on May 17, 2024. Here are his remarks.

If you step back and take the sum of all we celebrated today—from intellectual curiosity to work ethic to care for community—we are really circling around an even bigger imperative: what it means to be morally courageous. Moral Courage is firmly embedded in our Mission Statement—being brave enough to meet the challenges of this world with confidence, being brave enough to embrace ALL its people with compassion, being brave enough to think critically and resolve to stand for what is good and right.

I want to share briefly with you an historical example of moral courage and some potential connection points to today’s recognition ceremony and the aspirations we have as a learning community. Who has heard of the Freedom Rides? Early 1960s—In order to push the federal government to hold itself accountable for creating a more perfect union and pursuing equality for all its people, interracial groups would ride interstate together and use facilities in southern bus terminals in violation of southern segregational practices, but in affirmation of federal laws (the Black freedom riders would go into facilities marked for whites only and their white allies would use the facilities marked for African Americans).

The first Freedom Ride ended in such overwhelming violence (riders met by a rabid mob, a fire bombed bus, and police forces unwilling to intervene to protect them and often jailing them instead) that the group that had organized the rides, Congress on Racial Equality – CORE, ended the freedom ride campaign entirely. Dr. Martin Luther King tacitly supported the cessation of the rides, telling one participant they would have never have made it through Alabama.

And that might have been the end of it if it had not been for the young people within the movement. One frustrated student activist, Diane Nash, argued that if “we let them stop us with violence, the movement is dead.” So the Freedom Rides didn’t stop. They didn’t stop because the Freedom Riders got younger – the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee replaced CORE in overseeing the Freedom Rides and the majority of participants in the second enduring wave of Freedom Rides were between the ages of 18-28. Young Americans, not much older than you, from new college freshmen to recent college graduates, southern and northern, Black and white, came together and exercised the moral courage to stand up for what they knew to be good and right. Enduring beatings, imprisonment, and the threat of death, they prompted the federal government to truly effectuate its laws and a country to think more deeply about the difference between being a bystander and an upstander.

I share all of this because the need for morally courageous leadership is as great in this moment— your moment—as it has ever been. Many of the challenges of the 20th century have bled into the 21st and been compounded by a new host of daunting circumstances. Just as it took a group of students a generation ago to ensure the success of the broader American Civil Rights Movement in that moment, it is up to you as to whether our school community continues to live into its mission, our country continues to live into its promise, and our world successfully meets the challenges it faces. It will be you and that is what and why we celebrate today, that is what we draw our hope towards.

I know the push back: Mr. Small, you are making too big of a deal about this and we only have four days left in the school year, can’t we just enjoy the afternoon, and professional dress on a Friday, really? Maybe those are fair points, so if I have miscalculated, let’s start with the more immediate: moral courage is working to support those around you rather than expecting them to simply bend to your wants, moral courage is not taking shortcuts in your learning that both threaten your integrity and rob you of opportunities for growth in the process, moral courage is standing up and speaking out when you see friends saying things online that tear down others, moral courage is not posting those things yourself, moral courage is not just in the great big moments—and its potential is in almost every action we take or do not take.

Today, we have celebrated so many wonderful achievements and aspirations. To our deserving award recipients today, I congratulate you on your many accomplishments and offer the gentle reminder that what you choose to do with these opportunities going forward will define your moral leadership. To all of our students, those recognized today, those worthy but who did not receive public recognition today, as well as those still working to find strength of action to match potential, we are grateful for who you are and who you will become. Now more than ever, this world needs every one of you.