On Prizes, Loose Balls, and Santa Claus

By Jim Power

Good morning and welcome to our Prize Day Assembly, an annual ceremony during which we recognize all of those who have achieved academic distinction. It is a special time set aside each year for us to praise those who, as our school motto suggests, “merit the palm.”

As someone who, as a student, managed to live a “palm free” existence myself, I can only marvel at the many accomplishments of those we honour this morning. For those who will not make the trip to the front of Laidlaw Hall today, I’d like to share one thing I got completely wrong when I was in high school, in the hope that you might learn from my mistake.

When I saw other boys being honoured during assemblies such as this, I made the terrible mistake of thinking, “Those guys are lucky!” I would tell myself that, if my teachers were just a little more generous with their grading, if I had been lucky enough to remember the day of the math final, if Clint Eastwood week didn’t happen to fall the week of exams, then I would be getting a prize too.

In hindsight, I realize that the academic prize winners were no more lucky than the lucky lad who played the lead in “Hamlet” or the fortunate fellow who played first violin in the orchestra. It’s not luck at all, of course. Their success was a combination of natural talent and will power. That will power – that commitment to work, that commitment to excellence — is what we are really recognizing today.

Next to the local gymnasium, there is a billboard featuring an impeccably toned torso with the caption, “There are some things Santa can’t give you.” (I’d like you to think that I was the featured model for that ad, but I’d also like you to think that I’m just too modest to pose!)

That advertisement underlines a most basic premise: the cause and effect of life. If you want to get in top physical condition, you have to work at it. If you want to achieve success in Geography or Mathematics, you have to work at it, too, because good intentions just aren’t enough.

A few years ago, I coached a UCC basketball team, and we were chock full of talented players: we could dribble, pass, shoot, and run with the rebels. The one thing that we couldn’t do, though, (and I confess I couldn’t figure out how to coach this) was dive for loose balls. We played hard, but we just weren’t inclined to “bite the wood.”

The problem with a loose ball is that you can’t send your best buddy, your kid brother, or even Uncle Charlie in there to get it for you. You have to leave your feet. You have to do it instinctively. And you have to do it yourself.

What prompts a sane person to dive on an unforgiving slab of hardwood in order to grab a leather ball? It has to take more than just desire, because a lot of folks would like to have the ball. No, what makes someone leave his feet is that combination of passion and will.

UCC’s motto, “Let he who merited the palm bear it” taps into the importance of the power of will, and emphasizes the necessity of digging deep within yourself to do the task at hand, regardless of the odds or risk – to follow Nike’s advice and “Just Do It!”
No, life isn’t always fair. Effort doesn’t come with a 100 per cent money back guarantee. Occasionally you may work hard and not attain a desired result. In general, though, effort extended through a distance is the best way to merit the palm. It is the only way to get a loose ball. And it is that real virtue, whether you call it diligence, perseverance, or commitment to the task at hand, that we honour this morning.

To all of those who merit the palm, congratulations! Santa didn’t give this to you. You earned it. May your good work inspire our best efforts!

Appointed in 2004, Dr. Jim Power is the 18th Principal at Upper Canada College, a leading independent boys school in Toronto. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., he has a Bachelor’s degree in English from College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, a Master’s degree in the Art of Teaching from Boston College, and an Ed.D in Educational Leadership from Boston University. He also attended Columbia University on a Klingenstein Visiting Heads Fellowship. Dr. Power started his career in independent schools in New England and taught at both the elementary and high school levels. For 11 years — and preceding his move to UCC and to Canada — he was Head of Georgetown Preparatory School, a boys’ school in North Bethesda, Md.

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