by Brett Stewart, Founding Dean & Musical Director
My high school water polo and swim coach was relentless. Notoriously. He was known for either throwing something IN the pool or pulling someone OUT of the pool, always with some variation of fury. More than once my parents received a 6:00 AM-ish unapologetic phone call from him, asking why I wasn’t at practice yet. They made a career of reminding him that I was attending seminary at 5:15 AM in order to make it to practice each morning, and that I would be a little bit late. I’ll never forget the times he tore off his shirt and threw himself in the pool (all in a very dramatic manner) to demonstrate some technique or drill that we were slaughtering (usually out of sheer laziness). He just didn’t tolerate anything but 100%. He garnered the respect of his students, because even though he was our parents’ age, he could still play his sport—well. As I watched his temper flare and then the perfect demonstration of how it was supposed to be done, I remember thinking, “You’re insane. And, you rock!” His tactics would never fly today. But two decades ago it delivered results, in many ways.
Aside from titles and championships, he taught work ethic to thousands of youth. He deliberately made the way difficult so that the prize was earned and deserved. It fostered self-awareness and self-esteem. I haven’t come across a past student of his that doesn’t respect and love that man (even the smart alecs who bore the brunt of his wrath). Most look back at those years with fondness because a mentor went out of his way to turn entitled, immature youth into young adults with purpose and promise.
I was not a dedicated piano student. Several days before competitions I scrambled to finish memorizing and polishing my pieces, trying to convince myself that it sounded better than it did, or that I could, with my deplorable lack of preparation, wow the judges with my raw talent. Mom had a way of keeping things real. “Signing up for this competition was a waste of money,” she’d say. “You haven’t practiced and you’ve left it all to the last minute and it sounds awful. There are mistakes all over the place.” By the time we arrived at the competition, she would soften her message with something like, “Just concentrate and do your best. Hopefully the judges will look past all the mistakes.” Thanks for the pep talk, Mom!
I somehow always pulled through with a 3rd place or Honorable Mention win, which I could have falsely interpreted as a reward for my efforts except that I had my mother there to keep things in perspective. “Well, you pulled it off again, Brett. You know, no one plays with as much musicality and passion as you. If you’d practice you’d actually win.” I always knew that my Honorable Mention was due to sheer talent, not hard work, and that if I simply worked hard I would enjoy the greater prize and the satisfaction of having really earned and deserved it.
Instead of blaming our parents for their tough-love approach and brutal honesty, my siblings now sit around at family gatherings and laugh about these things. We thank God for parents who focused on reality, even when it was painful. We are grateful for the fact that we had to earn our success—that we had to work hard. We attribute our success and our ability to function as responsible parents and citizens and members of our church and community to the fact that we always knew where we stood, and that praise was deserved, not fabricated. Self-esteem was earned, not gifted.
A NATION OF WIMPS
While teaching high school I came across the article “A Nation of Wimps,” in which Hara Marano, Psychology Today’s Editor at Large, candidly spells out the disastrous effect of parents and mentors coddling youth in today’s society. Even though I have seven children, I am a novice parent. A typical response to my children’s complaints is, “You can tell your therapist all about it when you’re an adult, and you’re welcome to blame all of your issues on your mom and me. Now, go clean up the dog poop.” I can’t say that I have the best parenting approach, because I’m sure I don’t. But my concern isn’t centered on the perfect parenting; it is centered on kids being competent and tough enough to function in this great big world without having success handed to them on a silver platter. My concern is that kids will not blame their problems on imperfect parents or mentors but will have the resolve and tenacity to stop focusing on their problems and reach outside themselves to make a difference in the world. My concern is that kids will understand reality in a world that is increasingly fabricated.
THE CHALLENGES FOR YOUTH
Three truths are widely accepted in the world today:
- Youth are in a spiritual war. They are being spiritually challenged more than at any other time in the history of the world. Satan and his forces have opened the floodgates. We are in the middle of a cultural revolution and the influences are overwhelming.
- Youth are being raised in a ME society. Today, the “other gods” spoken of in the first of the Ten Commandments are clearly ourselves. We live in a world of selfies. My feelings, my choices, my rights. Society has created the problem. It is now so difficult to get into a good college that otherwise fantastic youth are hyper-focused on their schooling, their grades, and their test scores to the degree that there is no time or even innate desire to reach out and serve others. While our grandparents were enlisting in the most devastating war the modern world had ever known, our youth are enlisting in themselves and their future. They are marrying and starting families later than ever before. The focus is ME.
- Youth are entitled. They have less physical demands and more comforts than any other generation in the history of the world. The rigid labors and harsh social/religious climates that existed for thousands of years until the 20th-century advancements are extinct, at least in their comfortable sphere. They have never experienced the literal building of a nation through war and conflict. They have never experienced real, life-altering religious persecution. They have never suffered through a devastating economic depression. And technology is paralyzing youth physically, socially, and spiritually.
Despite these challenges, it is my personal belief that God has saved his strongest spirits to come to earth in these troubling last days. These youth must be given opportunities to work hard, be pushed, and accomplish something great as a result of their own efforts. And if that accomplishment benefits someone other than themselves, bonus!
GOD SAVE AMERICA
As one of MCO’s founders I work to provide a power-packed combination of the experiences of the mentors described above, founded upon the principles of discipline and hard work, where the reward is the satisfaction of having really earned and deserved something. Even better, it does all of this while exposing youth on a weekly basis to what prophets and apostles have deemed the most powerful conduit to the Lord than perhaps anything except prayer—sacred music. And the result is shared with thousands who come to be spiritually fed and uplifted by singers and instrumentalists who have perfected their craft in order to deliver excellence. While researching repertoire for MCO’s “To Be American” album, I came across an old American hymn, “God Save America.” The title haunted me. I thought if “God Bless America” was the American rallying cry of the 20th century, “God Save America” ought to be the clarion call of the 21st. People of all religious, social, racial, and political backgrounds have their own ideas of whether America is suffering and how. But, as revealed in the studies referenced in “A Nation of Wimps” and elsewhere, one of the most concerning reasons America is suffering is the way we are raising her youth. Obviously, God is the only being that can save America—or the world, for that matter. But we can assist as we raise America’s youth. As I explained to the youth last year when they recorded “America the Beautiful,” it is the anti-self anthem. If we could teach youth to “more than self their country love, and mercy more than life,” or that all their “success be nobleness, and every gain divine,” or to “confirm [their] soul in self control, [their] liberty in law,” we just might help God save America.