Zebra Tales
Trey '21

My Chapel Talk!

In their Sixth Form year at Groton, every student has an opportunity to give a fifteen-minute speech to the extended community. Chapel Talks, as these addresses are called, are an integral part of life on the Circle, and on the morning of April 29th, I had the chance to deliver my own. Now, I’m excited to share my speech with all of you!
Typically, students arrive in St. John’s between 7:50 and 8:00 in the morning, but the speaker shows up a few minutes earlier to practice their most important lines. As music from the organ reverberates around the Chapel walls, the speaker’s closest friends take their seats near the pulpit, in what Grotonians have naturally dubbed the “fan section.” Other attendees sit together with their formmates further back in the pews. At around 8:05, the chaplain says a prayer, a chapel prefect (student-leader) introduces the speaker (and their selected reading), and then the Chapel Talk officially begins.

Below, I have included a transcript of my speech and a few pictures. I hope you enjoy.
The Man in the Arena
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
-Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic” (1910)

Saying goodbye has never been, and will never be, an easy undertaking. Two weeks before last year’s virtual Prize Day, I moved out of my home in Palmer, a small farm town nestled in Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley. Packing up my belongings, taking AP tests, interning on a campaign, and attending 5AM Zoom classes distracted me from the ramifications of my departure, and when the eleventh hour arrived, I felt disoriented. After thirteen years in the House that Built Me, I had thirteen minutes to reflect on all that had transpired within its doors.

So, I sauntered outside, sat on our now-barren back porch, and stared out toward Pioneer Peak––trying to brand a silhouette of the Chugach Mountains onto my brain. When I was called to the car, I stood up, took a rock with a serrated edge, and carved my initials into one of our Chokecherry trees. I was overcome by an irrepressible desire to leave something behind.

I guess in some ways, this chapel talk serves a similar purpose. Perhaps circumstance has made me sentimental, but in my final Groton moments, I feel bogged down by the bittersweet implications of flipping the page––of stepping into the fog of what my future may hold.

Before I stroll out of this chapel to fling my boater into the air, I have a tale left to tell––a lesson in leadership that I hope might influence this community’s morale in a more profound way than a forgotten name on a Schoolhouse wall ever could.

Because what is a name, if not a legacy persevering? What is a title, if not a culmination of character? Whether you love or hate the man in the arena, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,” you know what he stands for all the same.

Many of you here know me by my moniker, Trey, but my full name is Charles Thomas Whitehead III, which I admit sounds more like the title of an obscure English prince than that of a gritty Alaskan transplant. While I enjoy entertaining the thought, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Charles Thomas Whitehead is a family name––a promise––that stands for something greater than its twenty-two letters and five syllables.

Integrity, resilience, and fortitude––the men for whom I am named exemplified these values. My great-grandfather served in WW2 and Korea. My grandpa fought in Vietnam, and my dad flew KC-10s and C-17s for 20 years in the Air Force. They are my heroes, but not because of their individual accomplishments within the military. They believed in something bigger than themselves––risking their lives to protect those around them. They answered the call to service, and their courage and their selflessness inspire me every day.

My grandfather, a boisterous and warm family man, was the first Charles. We all called him “Choo-Choo” because of his forty-year railroading career. With his infectious smile, he used to regale us with stories from his time on the tracks, and later in his life, with his experiences in the 25th Infantry Division too.

Dad is the second Charles, and his resolve distinguishes him. He never complains—never stops working—and I can always rely on him to be my compass when I need advice. I hope that one day, I can be the type of father to my kids that he has been to me.

What defined the men before me was a will to never give up on themselves and those they loved. They were born into socioeconomic mediocrity––into rural, blue-collar, working- class lives––but the travail of my Texan forefathers has given me an example to embody––a set of ideals to shoot for. I am the product of my family’s American Dream––the fruit of their sacrifices––and I speak to you from this pulpit today––a representative of a middle America that for over a century, was largely missing from Groton. To me, Charles might as well be a royal title; I feel honored to share my name with two of the greatest men I have ever known.

And although I often fall short in following their precedent, I will spend the rest of my life enthusiastically striving to be like them––striving to serve and to lead as they did. I have never been the smartest student nor the strongest athlete here, but I have never given up––not on a paper, not on another person, and not on the school I envision Groton one day becoming.

Before lowering the American flag on Tuesday and Saturday nights as a part of my Color Guard routine, I often gaze at the horizon line, where in the vermillion twilight, the outline of my beloved Pioneer Peak materializes.
Mountains, both the physical and the figurative, have always attracted my interest, but in order to properly express this sentiment, I feel compelled to borrow the words of a far more poetic man than me. George Mallory was an esteemed British mountaineer who attempted to summit Mt. Everest three times in the early 1920s. In 1922, he wrote in his journal:

“People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mt. Everest?’ and my answer must at once be. . .If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy.”

Knowing that I have exerted my fullest effort––that I have invested my all into something, whether that something be a Court and Constitution brief or a hockey practice or a family member––triggers a tremendous sensation of fulfillment within my heart. This is the mindset of Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” ––the man who “knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and who spends himself in a worthy cause.” This is the mentality embedded in the name that I will one day earn; this is the Whitehead way.

In 1924, Mallory tried to climb Everest a third time, and to this day, no one knows if he made it. His frozen body was recovered in a ravine seventy-five years later––sun-bleached and mummified. Regardless of whether he reached the top, he died doing what he loved––pushing the limits of impossibility at Earth’s extremes. His death was a unique kind of martyrdom––a martyrdom that I have enormous respect for.

I firmly believe that no one enters this world with that type of monumental fortitude, in the same way that no one has ever been born a leader, because the strongest leaders, like the tallest mountains, emerge from the application of pressure, heat, and stress over time. Groton is like a tectonic plate boundary, and while some of my peers may disagree with me, I stand by Roosevelt’s doctrine of the strenuous life too––the “life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.” The hard times, wrought with late nights, major commitments, and frequent mistakes, challenge us, but it is our resilience––our leadership in times of trial and tribulation––that defines who we are, and who we are going to be. It is our attitude that can render us Herculean.

In Alaska, home was always a place where the only thing more rugged than the mountains were those that lived in their shadows, and where a temperature of forty below might cancel recess, but not class. I was raised in a society of pioneers—by those who stared into the abyss of improbability and never let the odds phase them. Ever since the age of five, I have looked up to those Alaskans. They are my heroes.

In 2007, Dad was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base, so we moved from Sacramento to Palmer to begin our Alaskan adventure. Within the first week, however, our expectations for life in the Last Frontier—borrowed from the Discovery channel—were upended. Survival meant studded tires, snow shovels, and having enough Sockeye in the freezer to last through the winter; we had been led astray by reality television.

From the start, the wilderness treated us with harsh contempt. A 7.1 earthquake shook our foundation—both physically and emotionally—and when Mt. Iliamna erupted, volcanic ash blanketed our entire valley. Twice, I returned from hockey practice with second-degree frostbite on my ears, and every morning in the seventh grade at Teeland Middle, I hiked a half-mile through knee-deep snow drifts to take Algebra 2 at the nearby high school. With each stumble, my family learned to walk, and when we fell, Palmer was there to pick us up. We relied upon our neighbors for warmth when the world grew cold, and eventually, they counted on us for the same.

Broadly speaking, to be a leader is to emanate warmth in the numbing cold––to find sunshine in a valley of negativity––and I have been lucky enough to learn from several Grotonians, Alaskans, and Texans who thrive in this regard.

To AJ, Brian, Mitch, and the rest of the Buildings and Grounds Crew. To Ms. Colleen, Ms. Willard, Suki, and the entire dining hall staff. To the people who work in the dark to make this school run in the light, thank you. You have shown me nothing but kindness in my three years here.

To Mr. Riley, Mr. Funnell, Headmaster Maqubela, and the rest of the admissions team, thank you for taking a chance on me. Up until the seventh grade, my Cajun great-grandmother, who was unable to speak English throughout her childhood, could not afford shoes; she had to drop out of school at the age of twelve so that she could work in a diner to support her nine brothers and sisters. Amidst her struggle, however, my great-grandmother felt lucky. For the first time in her life, she had a pair of shoes to wear––a pair that the diner had issued to her. Grand Memere, as we affectionately called her, was a special lady. She passed away a few years ago, but I can only imagine the joy it would have brought her to know that her great-grandson was attending a place like this. My gratitude knows no bounds for the opportunity I have received, which is why I have tried to give my best back to Groton. I hope that I have not let you down.

To Mom––the unsung superhero of my life. Your capacity for empathy––for unconditional love––is nothing short of astounding. In order to raise, educate, and care for Berkeley, Braxton, and me when Dad was deployed or flying through the sky above us, you forfeited your budding career and every minute of your free time. Now, I’m both college and military bound. Braxton’s a professional hockey player at sixteen, and Berkeley is on track to be far smarter, sweeter, and undoubtedly prettier than either of her older brothers. Your mountain- moving selflessness––your sacrifice––brings tears to my eyes as I reflect upon it now. Just always remember: no matter how far I may roam––no matter how much my summits may change me in the years to come––I’ll always be your son. I love you, Mama.

I place my faith in people––in the strength of the ordinary individual to do extraordinary things––and in the lively eyes of my most beloved friends, in the encouraging gazes of the Riley’s Dorm third formers, and in the glare of the camera lens, where I know Braxton and Berkeley are watching from afar, I detect enormous potential. I see the leaders of tomorrow.

As a sixth former, I find myself on a well-trodden trail, but one that I have yet to walk, and in the coming weeks, my departure from the Circle will emerge from the haze of this Spring––another ridge line for me to scale. Yet, the peaks in my life orient my direction, and I have no doubt that my sense of positioning will devolve into the mist of memory following Prize Day.

Like I remarked before, saying goodbye has never been, and will never be, an easy undertaking, but it’s worth remembering that sadness is a relative emotion too. I am distraught to leave Groton––the symbolic arena of my high school years––because battling alongside my dearest friends here has brought me true and unbridled happiness.

So, I implore you all…don’t squander your chances to grow, to lead, and to climb your own mountains in this life. Find sheer joy in the adventure itself––in the challenges you may encounter––and leave trail markers behind you for those that may follow.

And as future Grotonians wander down the hallways of our home, may they see our stories, our legacies, and our names etched into the marrow of the Schoolhouse walls and may they remember us, not as the children who fell, but as the leaders who got back up.

Dare greatly, my friends. Thank you.