Building Bridges of Understanding

INTRODUCTION BY TIM CURDT '90, ENGLISH TEACHER AND CURRENT PARENT (THOMAS '18, PETER '20)

This past November, SLUH senior Delton Utsey provided a wonderful example of the best type of innovative thinking and design from our students when he presented as a keynote speaker at the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In Conference in Washington, D.C.

Delton was accompanied by a full contingent of Jr. Bill students and faculty as he delivered his address titled “Diving Into the Deep Waters of Sonder” to an audience of more than 2,000 people from Jesuit high schools and universities across the country.

Several weeks earlier, Delton had been a part of a large group of SLUH students who, under the mentorship of Mr. Frank Kovarik and Mr. Erwin Claggett, had led the entire SLUH community of students, faculty and staff through a series of honest, prayerful reflections designed to help process the difficult news of the verdict in the Jason Stockley trial and its effect on the St. Louis area. Inspired by his work as a leader for this group at SLUH as well as his work in the community to promote justice and human dignity, create interracial connections, and increase understanding on complex and potentially divisive issues, Delton applied to be a presenter at the national Ignatian conference and was enthusiastically accepted.

Over the next month, Delton and a team of faculty mentors and fellow students prepared for the conference, which after two full days of presentations, educational sessions, and communal prayer, would conclude with a full day of advocacy on Capitol Hill with Missouri senators and representatives on the pressing issues of criminal justice and immigration reform.

Along with fellow faculty members Ms. Meg Beugg, Mrs. Mary Michalski and Mr. Craig Hannick, I was graced with the opportunity to accompany Delton as he earnestly prepared for his talk, sweating over revisions, line by line. He struggled to link his thoughts on the racial difficulties and issues in his hometown with the insightful concept of “Sonder,” an idea that had fascinated him since he learned about it during his junior year. As Delton articulated in his talk, “Sonder” (not a real word, but found online in the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” database) is the call to embrace the reality that “each random passerby lives a life that is equally as vivid and complex as your own.”

With each successive draft, Delton worked to make meaning out of the emotional chaos he encountered as a young African American male in times of racial conflict in his own city and to synthesize his churning thoughts with his commitment to social justice and the Ignatian concept of the “Magis” (roughly translated as “the more” or “the better”). Like his classmates and generations of Jr. Bills before him, Delton had been formed in the concept of the Magis, “seeking to do more” in service to God and others, and it was a delight to see his innovative mind at work linking these powerful concepts to the most difficult and pressing social problems of our time.

As a Jesuit educator in the 21st century, I am continually charged with cultivating in myself and my students a creative, collaborative, problem-solving spirit. Many times in our culture, however, such a challenge is articulated solely in terms of celebrating technological or scientific innovations that will continue to serve humanity and our world in the future. As important and necessary as this work is, Delton’s presentation reminded me of one of the most valuable aspects of our formative intellectual work with our students.

By combining his personal pain, idealistic passion for justice, and reflective spirit, Delton gave us all a perfect gift in these polarizing times when simplistic thinking and sound bites can too often force our communities to retreat to their respective corners. With his thoughts, words and actions, Delton created an intellectual scaffolding to help us all build a bridge of understanding out of the chaos of seemingly insurmountable and intractable racial divide and conflict in our world.


Following are remarks from Delton Utsey '18 at the Ignatian Family Teach-In. He began his talk by recounting how the student body learned about the Jason Stockley verdict over the PA on the morning of September 15, 2017.

The announcement ended and everyone rushed to their lockers, seemingly unfazed. Like a number of students, I felt neither angry, nor hurt. Officer Jason Stockley had shot and killed a black man, Anthony Lamar Smith, after a high speed chase in 2011, but now, six years later, would officially face no legal consequences for Smith’s death. I was indifferent because I had honestly become accustomed to the idea of murder without consequences…

It was not until I heard the remark “Yes! I’m so glad Stockley got off!” from a fellow student in the hallway that I became angry and upset. I could understand why people in my school might be indifferent about the murder of Anthony Lamar Smith, but I could not understand why some people actually seemed happy. Did somebody really say “yes” to the loss of a human life?

Overwhelmed with rage, distraught, and disappointed in my own apathetic attitude, I entered our chapel to attend the meeting of people who were as upset as I. In the chapel, I watched as my SLUH community came together to display a true feeling of empathy, sorrow and grief at the loss of a life unjustly taken. The fallen tears and gut-wrenching gasps of my fellow SLUH brothers and teachers fueled the passionate fire in my heart.

I decided to make use of my feelings, so I went that night to join the protests.

I have to say, the experience at the protest was beautiful. I remember the warm feeling I had chanting in the middle of a normally very busy street when our activist group met up with hundreds of protesters coming off the highway. The sight of such a large and diverse group of people would normally be intimidating, but instead was reassuring. More than a thousand St. Louisans were as upset and outraged as I was at the injustice of it all.

We continued to march on and chant as cars honked in approval. The moment was so peaceful that people were literally waving at us from the windows of their houses, showing us so much love and support. Once we made it to our destination, in the middle of a very affluent neighborhood in St. Louis, we sat silently on the ground in the center of the street for six minutes to draw attention to the six years that this case had gone unnoticed. I was proud to see that not only my SLUH community could come together, but that my St. Louis community could as well.

I would like to share a concept with you. It is the idea that each random passerby lives a life that is equally as vivid and complex as your own. This concept is sonder. Sonder is a word I hold so dear to me I’d tattoo it on my own heart.

This concept is not a real word, but comes from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, an online database with concepts used to help express emotion. Sonder may be a difficult concept for some, so let me propose a thought experiment.

If you would, take a moment and close your eyes. Imagine your life is a movie, starting from your birth. Picture your experiences and the people who are essential to your story, and how they’ve shaped you. Like most movies, there will be people in the background of your story. Zoom in on the people in the background. What are the experiences and who are the people essential to their story? You can open your eyes. Sonder is focusing in on the people in the background of your story and striving to learn theirs. It is realizing that they are too complex to simply be an extra in your movie, but actually the main star of their own.

When I came home from the protest that night, I watched the news and saw a mob of angry people attacking the house of the mayor. Once again, the media had failed to display a peaceful protest, and instead left all the viewers seeing only the negative of events of that Friday. I almost cried as I watched all the beauty, love and peace I had experienced with my community go completely unrecognized.

I refused to accept defeat and instead saw sonder as a way to experience life within my city and my country. Because of sonder, I see Anthony Lamar Smith as more than some “urban drug dealer” or criminal who deserved to be gunned down by the police. Through the lens of sonder, I understand that what he did deserve was not death, but life and a chance to be understood by Officer Stockley. He had a family who loved and cared for him like many of us do. Anthony Lamar Smith was complex.

Officer Jason Stockley is complex as well. Honestly, in my own personal experience as a young black male, it is hard for me to relate to a white police officer because I am legitimately afraid of them. I have seen all the worst aspects of police officers on TV and social media, only reinforcing my bias against police. I find myself worrying that police will see me through the lens of stereotypes and will end up shooting me dead because they fearfully mistook my graphing calculator for a gun.

It took my rowing deep into the concept of sonder to understand that Officer Jason Stockley is a person, too. Just as Anthony is too complex to be labeled as a black criminal, Jason Stockley is too complex to be merely labelled a white racist cop. I still struggle with understanding Jason Stockley, but I recognize that while I cannot excuse Jason’s murdering of Anthony, I can at least understand that just as Anthony is a product of a system that has disenfranchised and disadvantaged his community, Officer Stockley is the product of a system that has cultivated his “pervasive cultural implicit bias.” Thank you, Fr. Bryan Massengale, for that phrase. Officer Jason Stockley is complex, and his story deserves to be understood as well.

As attendees of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, I feel we are all called to leave the shores of comfort and row into the deep unknown water of sonder. We must dive deep below the surface of petty labels and stereotypes that polarize us and find our way into the complex world that is human dignity and deeper understanding. Ideals of simplicity and complicity get us nowhere, but sonder can lead us to magis.

It is here at this Teach-In that Magis meets Justice. As Pope Francis tells us, magis is “the fire and fervor in action, awakening those who lie dormant.” At first, I was indifferent and my fire was dim, but with the spirit of sonder and Christ, the fire in my heart grew. Once we see the  beauty and value of each life, we can light the dim flames of all those who lie dormant, and, as a result, go forth and set the world on fire with equity, justice and love.


Delton Utsey '18 was recognized by the Archdiocese of St. Louis in January 2018 with the MLK Model of Justice Award for his commitment to social justice. He received a full scholarship to attend Washington University in St. Louis in the fall.


DID YOU KNOW?

SLUH is committed to furthering equity, inclusion and social justice through a variety of programs and activities. Some of these include:

  • The Association for Cultural Enrichment at SLUH (ACES): Seeks to promote discussion and awareness of diversity issues at SLUH and to make all students feel welcome
  • Student-Teacher Association for Racial Studies (STARS): Book group that brings together faculty and students weekly to discuss issues of racism
  • SLUH for Gender Equality (SLUH4GE): Club formed by SLUH students seeking to address sexism and gender inequality both at our school and in our culture in general
  • Pax Christi: Works to promote the culture of peace and social justice throughout the SLUH community through prayer, reflection and service, listening to the call of Christ the peacemaker
  • SLUH Students for Life: Welcomes students toward building and strengthening a Culture of Life in our school, in our community and in our world; organizes the annual March for Life trip to Washington, D.C.
  • Ignatian Family Teach-In and Arrupe Leaders Summit: Every year, SLUH sends teams of students to these leadership events sponsored by the Ignatian Solidarity Network


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You may know that many Jesuits experience an impactful, inspiring and at times terrifying experience of being sent on a “pilgrimage.” Young novices with little money or direction are sent into the world to encounter the holiness of the people they meet, directed and protected only by their faith and the Holy Spirit. With life’s comforts removed, these young men in formation are placed in a strange land, and like St. Ignatius on his journey to Jerusalem, they encounter powerful experiences and formative lessons. Jesuits are taught experientially, though it may seem random at the time, that God is living in the intense care and generosity of strangers encountered along the proverbial and literal road...

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It's not often a Jesuit high school turns 200. Just as infrequent are spontaneous, personal encounters with the Pope. The odds of both happening at the same time? Providential.

Athletics: Tradition Never Graduates

Following racquetball's incredible eighth consecutive national championship, spring sports featured lots of excitement and achievement, including volleyball and water polo state championships.

Laughlin Leaves Lasting Legacy
  • Features

For the past 13 years, David Laughlin has led SLUH as the first lay – and longest serving – President in the school's history. He leaves a lasting legacy as he begins a new chapter as President of Rockhurst High School.

Man for Others: Building the Common Good
  • Alumni

Dr. Paul Young '68 always knew he wanted to become a doctor, but he could not have imagined how a service trip to Africa in 1999 would impact his future and affect the lives of many in an underdeveloped part of the world.

Students Showcase Creativity

Jr. Bills illustrated a broad spectrum of creativity – ranging from fun and whimsical to reflective and stoic – at the annual art show and in the newest release of Sisyphus.

What are We Doing for Christ?
  • AMDG

Fr. Ralph Houlihan, S.J. '52 reflected on what we are doing for Christ relative to SLUH's 200-year history at the Bicentennial Mass.

Dolan Brings Courage, Joy to SLUH

The Fathers Club has been blessed with many great speakers over the years, but perhaps none more prestigious than His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

History Worth Preserving
  • SLUH Archive

In this and future issues of the SLUH Magazine, the SLUH Archive presents 'From the Archive' to keep our rich history alive, while inviting contributions of artifacts, materials and memories.

A Venture Worth Pursuing

Tom Purcell ‘61, known for his leadership and vision in revitalizing St. Louis, was involved with the development of Laclede’s Landing and the surrounding area decades ago, and more recently with MetroLink and regional economic development. Today he is still going strong, working on an innovative community startup that may have far-reaching effects on how our metro area embraces urban agriculture – one that may serve as a national model in sustainability in the future.

Innovation as Tradition

Dear St. Louis U. High Community,

Happy Birthday, to all of us...200 years old!

I find myself thinking about different decades of history in our 200 years and what has taken place in our local, national and global history. St. Louis University High School has truly lived through many changes over the years. Always, I think of the people in those times. I think of school leaders, faculty members, parents, students and benefactors. We stand on their shoulders...

Merits of Intellect

In addition to 13 seniors being named National Merit Semifinalists this semester, SLUH had one student who earned a family hat trick with a top score on the ACT.

Celebrating through Service
  • Features

On October 20, all students and faculty/staff dedicated more than 3,000 service hours to 20 organizations in the metropolitan area in gratitude to the City of St. Louis for 200 years of partnership and support.

Science Program Gets Boost

SLUH's improved lab space provides flexible seating and tables, state-of-the-art monitors and projection, and new lab equipment.

Rising Above
  • Features

For more than 50 years, Upward Bound has helped thousands of young men prepare for the rigors of high school. Today it continues to adapt, grow and flourish, illuminating the school's Jesuit mission of working for the Common Good.

SLUH Launches INSIGNIS Podcast
  • Features

SLUH's new INSIGNIS podcast features lively interviews with members of our school community engaged in a variety of roles and fascinating projects "down the hall, across the Metro area and around the world" in support of our mission. 

Bull in the Ring
  • Features

Joe Castellano's new book reveals the tragedy, triumph and resilient spirit that defined SLUH's remarkable, even unlikely 1970 football championship season.

Fall Sports Update

The cross country, football, soccer and swimming & diving programs featured stellar performances, new records and exciting competition.

#2centuries2words | Marty Hagan

Several Class of '64 RifleBills recently met for a mini reunion, after which they assembled a video that is nothing short of compelling and heart warming.

Impressions & Alumni Events
  • Alumni

Check out upcoming events, including our alumni art exhibit that is open now and culminates with a reception on November 30.

Parents Go Back to School

A group of parents recently formed the AMDG Ignatian Spirituality Group to deepen their faith in the Ignatian tradition and to form friendships with others.

From the Principal: Working for the Common Good

Dear SLUH Community,

Like any organization, SLUH strives to remain focused on mission. Incorporating our Ignatian tradition, we find that being reflective and deliberate in our decision-making process helps us to hold course...

Media Gallery: Alumni Reunions
  • Alumni

Alumni classes ending in 2 or 7 celebrated reunions this fall, with the Classes of 2002, 2007 and 2012 celebrating over Thanksgiving weekend.