Q.E.D. - What is Greatness?

We asked Associate Director of Student Success and School Counseling, Katherine Kistner who is also a coach on the varsity soccer team; Associate Director of Admissions and Head Varsity Hockey Coach, Larry Rooney; graduating senior, Cole Bulger ’24; and Assistant Head of School and Head of the Middle School, Brian Palm to find the distinctions to this premise and say where greatness fits into life, our school, and the larger perspective.

When Alexander III of Macedon died at 32, he ruled a territory that spanned three continents and covered nearly 2 million square miles. Not only was he king of his native Macedonia, but he was also ruler of the Greeks, the king of Persia and even an Egyptian pharaoh. Was he “great”? Absolutely. But what about everyone else? Very few can attain the reputations of Alexander the Great or Muhammad Ali or George Washington. But does caring for a family or giving one’s time to help communities or serving one’s country make people any less great? We asked Associate Director of Student Success and School Counseling, Katherine Kistner who is also a coach on the varsity soccer team; Associate Director of Admissions and Head Varsity Hockey Coach, Larry Rooney; graduating senior, Cole Bulger ’24; and Assistant Head of School and Head of the Middle School, Brian Palm to find the distinctions to this premise and say where greatness fits into life, our school, and the larger perspective.

The question is set. All the panel needs to do is demonstrate its truth, hence Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

What is it about this word “greatness” and the value associated with it that makes it so powerfully true and yet at the same time so cliched?

Brian Palm: I was thinking about who I consider to be great and taking the example in the introduction of Muhammad Ali. Ali’s career was a great one and then there were moments that you might pick out that were great as well. It’s this interesting sort of battle between the little things and then the one big thing.

Cole Bulger: I think in some ways, it can be both. I see it as a maximization of potential. When you look at Muhammad Ali’s career, there were moments in which he did everything he could and took everything out of it. And that became a body of work that many would argue made him “The Greatest.” But the term is still overused. Your everyday life applications, which you really don’t mean are “great,” exist somewhere on that spectrum of “okay” to “very well done.” And I think that’s an interesting dichotomy between those two definitions.

Katherine Kistner: When we’re looking at our students, whether they’re entering at grades seven, eight or nine, we are hoping to develop great men of character. And regardless of where they’re starting from, when they come into CM, we’re trying to maximize their strengths. How can we help them understand what those talents are and build them up as little pieces over time, so that when they graduate, they themselves have championed and molded their own version of greatness.

Larry Rooney: I see greatness in the ordinary, everyday acts. I see greatness in people that are here at CM. I admire Dr. Mickey Corso (theater director and theology teacher). I think he’s great because of how he is with people…all the words that he uses… the way he treats people. He inspires me. And that’s just a very simple example of somebody in my life who I think is great. At CM, what is our definition of greatness?

Palm: I would suggest that there are 1,000 different opportunities to be great on a daily basis. And to your point, Larry, I think it’s how we apply the term greatness, not just to that catch in the end zone in the fourth quarter with time running out, but how it applies to concepts like empathy, leadership, humility, compassion, and I think that’s something that we endeavor to do here as a community.

Bulger: It’s recognizing opportunities in your life in which you can be great. It’s the idea that you’re working towards being your best.

Kistner: If we’re looking on the flip side, yes, every little moment we have is an opportunity to put our best foot forward and still there are moments when we fall short because we are imperfect humans. As a community, we have adults who are holding high standards of our students. And we have students who are holding high standards of their peers. But it’s holding that level for students and raising that bar for them to say, I need to step forward into that moment. And when I don’t, it is okay, but now how do I reflect and recognize that so I can still move forward in my own growth?

There is also the idea of greatness applying to a collective rather than an individual. Take for example the “Greatest Generation.” They made sacrifices that ranged from the tiny things like going without due to rationing to making the ultimate sacrifice by going to war and fighting.

Rooney: I think about all those banners hanging in the Perry Gymnasium. The championship teams, the individual numbers that are retired like Ted Donato, or Ronnie Perry Jr., or King Gaskins and they did great things as individuals. But there was so much more. They were part of the teams that made them great. I think more recently about current senior Patrick Blomberg: a national champion in declamation as part of our speech and debate team. He could not have done that on his own. It was his teammates, it was Brother Cavet, it was other teachers and moderators that put him in that situation. There is so much more to it than just the individual.

Bulger: Yeah, it really shows how individual greatness can come from group greatness.

You can say that greatness is about the team behind the individual but there are people who work their tails off, have a great team behind and still never attain that state of greatness. Is it just something you are born with or is it God-given?

Kistner: I don’t know if this is answering the question. It’s like having one of our students who is commuting from over an hour away in a single parent home, who helps take care of their siblings, they are putting up a tremendous fight even before arriving to our doorstep every day. And I think that’s the cyclical effect of self-belief and the external support that helps someone fuel that self-belief in order to continue to show up. That to me is like Ali’s battle in the ring because that student I’m describing understands that this school and our community is going to set them up for greater success.

Rooney: You know, I thought about what was said about Muhammad Ali giving everything he had and the student who comes from a challenging background and these two examples describe not just giving everything they have, but giving something that they didn’t know that they had. And I think that’s what our coaches and teachers do best is getting things out of our boys that they don’t even know they have.

Cole, is there a difference between the way you understand what greatness is being a generation, or two, younger than the rest of the panel? Does your definition differ?

Bulger: I certainly think that there is a generational difference. I think part of that is when you look at famous figures from the past and famous figures now. A lot of young people aren’t considering whether someone is great based on one great thing or one great action. You don’t have to have this great moment in your life, this “epitome.” You don’t have to have a game winning touchdown; you don’t have to have a perfect academic record. You can be great by just maximizing what you can do in any moment. It doesn’t just have to be school. It’s not just academics. It’s being a friend, it’s being a good person, it’s caring. And I think that’s the well-roundedness that a great character should possess.

Palm: And I think that’s probably a healthier way to look at greatness, rather than it being of a monumental or epic quality that one must achieve, which for most people might never come.

Rooney: One of the concerns I have as an educator or coach is students or athletes, comparing themselves to others, and not feeling as though they are living up to somebody else’s goals or levels of greatness. And I would want them to be able to look in the mirror and say, “I don’t need to be that person. I need to be the best that I can be.”

Mr. Rooney and Ms. Kistner, with you both being coaches how do you harness a team’s determination, effort, and belief to win, beating other great teams to become that season’s number one?

Rooney: Sometimes it doesn’t happen in any one moment. But you see some sort of greatness start to appear. Sometimes, you see it in one player, sometimes you see it in five. But there’s certain moments in the season, that you start to see greatness start to add up. And obviously, you might measure yourself to the fact of whether you won a championship. I don’t think having a great season necessarily means you won a championship. If every one of your athletes improved and got the most out of themselves, and were really good teammates, sometimes, that’s what that season provided you with.

Kistner: I would add to that, because I think it goes back to Brian’s comment about the culture and habits and setting high expectations for students. Before you click into that next stratosphere of making something special on the field, you need those healthy building blocks as individuals. And I think we do that a really good job of that here.

I agree. Sometimes when we we’re talking about these great moments or that great team, there’s a sprinkling of magic dust that happens to put that team into a realm of greatness. And sometimes that magic dust produces happenstance: the lucky bounce of a puck that is the difference between winning a state championship or not winning. But that shouldn’t diminish all of the other ingredients that went into making a great team.

Bulger: That’s really the idea that you have your great moments, and you have your great teams. And I think that that’s exemplified when you can look at our hockey program, you can look at the game winning shot by Eddie McElhaney for the hockey state championship in 1986. That was a great moment in CM history. But then you walk into the Perry Gymnasium and look around, there’s a lot of great hockey teams on those banners. It doesn’t mean that the ‘86 team was any greater than the others. It just means that that one moment happened.

Rooney: Since we’re on the topic of hockey, I want to talk about a great moment I had recently with my team. I have a lot of new seniors this year. And in my normal distribution of numbers to new players it starts with those first-year seniors who have yet to play varsity. They get first choice in numbers. And this past Friday, we were in the locker room and about to hand out shirts and Colton Manorek, a new senior and varsity lacrosse captain said, “Coach, I’m a one-year senior and I want to start with the youngest kids and give them the option to have a number longer than me.” I’m hoping we can look back on the year and we’re able to say leadership happened right there in that moment…and we’ll see where it takes us.