Be Both Tough and Tender: Headmaster Brennan Opens the Winter Term

In a virtual Opening of Winter Term Hall on January 5, Headmaster Kerry Brennan welcomed students and faculty back from winter break, ushering in the new year and the hope that it may represent. At the heart of Mr. Brennan’s remarks was the notion—and the imperative for RL boys—of being both tough and tender. “Often the rhetoric of our school goes whizzing by… Today I want to pause on a phrase that can be found in our publications and on our website, but on which we rarely dwell. I say it when we are hosting prospective students and their parents at open houses. Others of us utter it too, as we describe our school: ‘We want our boys to be tough and tender.’ Today I shall dwell on that unlikely pair.”

Through personal stories—of attending the funeral of a student’s parent, of admiring a student who struggled mightily yet persevered, of being with his own father when he died—Mr. Brennan offered descriptions of individuals who exhibited both grit and goodness, fortitude and empathy. He contrasted those against depictions of how masculinity used to be portrayed in films and on television—through gangsters and greasers.

“Our signals about toughness don’t come from idolized movie characters or even the actors who played them…. Thankfully, our understanding of that term and our capacity for embracing it has to do with the realization that to be tough does not require that one not be tender. Not only are both possible; both are preferred.”

“While it is not usually a matter of life and death, you exhibit toughness by persevering at RL through seemingly endless days with outsized demands of you physically, intellectually, emotionally… You seem to know that you can do it, and surely show that you want to. And somewhere within us there is the faith that whatever we suffer now will be in service to greater goals realized later, and, in part, the result of what we have been trained to withstand—with focus and determination and without complaint. Additionally, you are often tender. You dare to give evidence of being moved—at the Glee Club senior concert, at the end of a memorable athletic season (whether in the waning moments of a victorious or losing contest), in the way you reach out to reassure a down classmate, in choosing not to boast of an accomplishment—like a college admission—because that might be hurtful to those whose results were less sunny, and in countless other moments when, usually privately, you express discouragement, sadness, hopelessness, doubt. You also are spectacular at signaling a concern for a classmate who himself is on the brink of despair. You are tough in your willingness to make the classmate mad by reaching out to a helpful adult, but appropriately tender in your eagerness to right a sinking vessel, to save a friend’s life.”   

“When we say that RL boys are tough and tender, we are not saying that each one of you is as tough or as tender as you are going to be, or as you would ideally be. As with all things, we are works in progress. Our aim is in the direction of becoming our best selves. And these qualities would contribute unfailingly to the realization of lives lived with purpose, with conviction, with compassion, and with effect. Having made the case for why it is best to be tough and tender, I not only hope that you will be both. But I give you permission to be that very thing. On the threshold of the New Year, what more could I wish you than that?”

View the entirety of Headmaster Brennan’s address.