When you attend a New England prep school like St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire, you become acutely aware of certain truths. Tradition, for instance. It can be both comforting and terrifying. The latter, because you sense the penetrating stares of those who’ve come before you, sometimes centuries before you, and can feel the weight of their expectations for you. The former, because once you’ve successfully followed in their footsteps, you join their august ranks.
One such tradition at St. Paul’s is the Chapel talk. It can be as intimidating a crucible as there is for any teenage student. You stand before the entire school — classmates, faculty, and the ghosts of alumni alike — in a soaring, neo-Gothic structure that looks as if it were uprooted from medieval Europe and transplanted in modern-day America: the Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul. In this sublime space, you stand at the lectern and speak your mind, your voice echoing, it seems, directly to the Heavens. As you do, you fear not so much the judgment of the Almighty, but that of your potentially merciless peers.
Chapel talks take place every morning that the school assembles before class, but students are not required to give them. Usually, a guest is invited to speak, but students can petition to do so themselves. Many of my fellow Paulies did so during my four years at the school. Whether I liked them at the time or not, I always admired anyone who possessed such courage.
Twenty years after I graduated from SPS, I gave my first Chapel talk. Perhaps I never did so back then as a student because I lacked the confidence. Or maybe it just took me that long to find something of substance to say.
Regardless, it was a fulfilling experience, at last, to be part of so wonderful a tradition.
Below is the text of my speech, and here is the live audio version.
Arrogance vs. Confidence
Erik Thomas Scalavino ’90
September 28, 2010
Opening Hymn: Abide With Me
Reading: Luke 14:1, 7-14 (“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled …”)
Erik Scalavino ‘90 was a four-year student at St. Paul’s during the late 1980s and a three-year letterman in football. He went on to play three seasons of college football and is now employed by the New England Patriots, but he believes his greatest athletic achievement came here, as a member of our historic 1989 football team. With that squad as a backdrop, he would like to share with us a story, and some life lessons he learned along the way that may be helpful to all of us today.
We were undermanned, undersized, underage, and…more than anything …underestimated.
Yet, somehow, our 1989 Big Red football squad defied those considerable odds and won all eight of our games … nine, if you include a preseason scrimmage against Holderness. That spotless record made us Independent School League champs and secured our place in the New England Prep School Athletic Council title game against mighty Phillips Academy Andover.
I was a 16-year-old Sixth Former, who wouldn’t turn 17 till after the season. Many of our other key contributors were Fifth Formers.
Meanwhile, almost all of Andover’s starters were 19-year-old post-grads. They were very talented individuals who hadn’t lost a game either that season. In fact, they crushed most of their opponents.
The so-called experts thought they’d do the same to us. Other ISL coaches were calling up our 31-year-old rookie head coach, Doug Dickson, to protest, telling him he was insane to accept the challenge. Peter Tuttle, one of our assistant coaches, told me a few days later that eight Boston Globe sports writers had predicted the outcome of the game in the paper that week. Seven said Andover would win…big.
Just one foresaw a St. Paul’s victory, by a score of 14-13.
The game was held…at Andover…on a sparklingly clear, frosty November Saturday night – about a week before Thanksgiving – at the end of which, we boarded our Concord Trailways bus and headed back to New Hampshire as NEPSAC Champions, having beaten Andover by…you guessed it…14-13.
There were so many reasons why we won that game, not the least of which were the collective brilliance of our coaching staff and countless outstanding individual efforts by our players. I could pop in the DVD and break down the film for you all day …
As I see it, though, there was but one major underlying factor for our victory.
Quite simply, they were arrogant, while we were confident. The Goliaths of Andover had no respect for the Davids of St. Paul’s…and they suffered the consequences.
It’s very difficult to distinguish between the two, sometimes – arrogance and confidence. They are identical twins, aren’t they? Equally blessed in every way, yet discernibly different only in their personalities.
In preparing this speech, I took stock of all the most heartbreaking failures in my life, and I came to realize that, more often than not, my colossal arrogance was to blame. Conversely, whenever I’ve enjoyed success, my silent, abiding confidence has propelled me.
Again, though…how can we tell them apart, when they are so similar? Often, the margin between arrogance and confidence is as thin as… one point … as Andover discovered.
Arrogance is a quality that convinces us to take on seemingly impossible challenges without fear.
Confidence, too, is a quality that convinces us to take on seemingly impossible challenges without fear.
Where they diverge, I would suggest, is at their source.
Arrogance is a product of hatred, of anger, of jealousy…Confidence stems from love, support, and encouragement.
Arrogance, you see, repels others…Confidence attracts.
Arrogance is boastful…Confidence, demure.
Arrogance scorns, ignores, and looks down upon the less fortunate…Confidence sympathizes, comforts, and lifts them up.
Arrogance laughs at others…Confidence laughs at itself.
Arrogance is selfish and self-centered…Confidence is generous, altruistic.
Arrogance is vindictive…Confidence forgives.
Arrogance refuses to admit when it’s wrong…Confidence is contrite.
Arrogance makes excuses for its shortcomings…Confidence simply accepts them.
Arrogance dwells on what it lacks…Confidence gives thanks daily for what it has.
Arrogance is a sense of entitlement…Confidence takes nothing for granted.
You all are the best high-school-aged students in the world. That’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. You wouldn’t be sitting here today if that weren’t true. I’m not the first person who’s told you that, and I’m sure I won’t be the last. You have a caring, committed faculty and all the best resources. My God, if we had that amazing swimming pool of yours when I was here, I’d be doing laps in that thing every day!
You have, by far, the most gorgeous campus on Earth.
You have money…most of you… and influence, and freedom, and talent – abundant talent, I might add. You have your health and your youth and a community of people who love you and want to nurture you.
There are future Ivy Leaguers among us today, maybe even a few Rhodes Scholars.
You are better at most things than most people, young or old…but just because you’re better atsomething, doesn’t make you better than anyone.
And it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always succeed in these great adventures that we call “learning” and “living.”
Like you, I was a precocious student, but I was also a pretentious one. I thought most of my classmates were unfriendly, but it was me who was reclusive for far too long. I refused everyone’s help…even when I knew I desperately needed it, because I had all the answers, that because I was young and smart and gifted, like you, that I could tackle this great big world all by myself.
That because I was a football recruit, from Providence, who went to this prestigious institution, that I was destined for my college of choice, my hometown Brown University. Heck, they told me as much.
“We’re always looking to welcome people like you to Brown,” I was told, flat-out, by the sweet young woman conducting my admissions interview.
I was arrogant. I took it for granted. I didn’t even apply to any other Ivy League schools because I was so sure I was going to be a Brown Bear. I allowed hubris to be my guide, rather than humility. I exalted myself, and I was humbled. I didn’t get into Brown, and it has haunted me ever since.
I came back to Millville a few months ago for my 20th reunion, and got to talking with this one guy who wasn’t particularly nice to me back when we were students. He was asking me about my family and upbringing and such, and at one point, he stopped me and said, “Wow, Erik, I never knew that about you…I wish I had been a better friend.”
That, my young friends, is the difference between arrogance and confidence.
Why am I telling you all this? So you don’t have to wait 20 years.
So you can be good to one another…and to yourselves…right now. Sixth Formers, take every Third Former under your wing, not just the one assigned to be your Newb.
Be curious and confidently ask questions…everything about this world is interesting. Take full advantage of this unparalleled liberal arts curriculum that St. Paul’s provides. Study as many different subjects as you can – study abroad, even – not because I said so, but because you wantto. Give everything you have to everything you do, just like we left everything we had out on that football field all those years ago. Most of all, take nothing for granted.
Is this school perfect? No. Is anyone here perfect? Certainly not… only God is. But perfection should always be your goal. Pursue it with confidence, and you just might find it…you just might find Him. Humble yourselves, as Luke’s Gospel implores us, and you will be exalted.
God bless you all, and may He continue to bless St. Paul’s School.