Reflections During Sit-Down Dinners

The tradition of a formal Sit-Down Dinner offers students and faculty an opportunity to practice sharing a meal with others, engage in some rather unique and thought-provoking conversations outside of the classroom and get to know each other on a more personal level. Earlier this month, Dr. Darryl De Marzio shared his thoughts on being “A Man for Small Audiences.” Fr. Paschal spoke from the heart about managing the pressures of life and his message that “God wants you to be all that you can be" was reemphasized by Head of School Matt Walter in his closing remarks. We thank Dr. De Marzio for letting us share his words.

“I want to thank Mr. Walter for inviting me to speak to all of you tonight. Naturally, I accepted his invitation gladly and without hesitation. It is quite an honor. I thank you.

Soon after I agreed, it took just a few minutes for some serious self-doubt to creep in. As someone who has studied and taught philosophy for a long time, I thought it shouldn’t be difficult for me to find some wisdom to impart to all of you. But I then realized that my role as a teacher of humanities and history is rather to lift up students, to stand them on the shoulders of the greatness of others—great minds and spirits like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Jefferson—in order that students might see farther and more clearly than before. I am humbled to think that now I might have to lift you upon my shoulders even just for a few minutes.

But here goes. And who am I, really? Well, I was once a boarding school student too. Like you, I had many great teachers and coaches and made several lasting friendships. And to be quite honest—I think I was pretty cool back then. I was confident, popular with teachers and kids, interested in great books and great ideas, I played sports and music, performed in plays; I wrote poems and short stories. I was somehow part counterculture and part establishment. My dream then was to be a writer, a great novelist like Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac, or a cultural critic like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, or P.J. O’Rourke. I wanted to be read by thousands, perhaps millions. To be well known by a large audience.

One of those lifelong friends from boarding school, my freshman year roommate knew this about me and wrote in my senior yearbook: “D-dawg, Don’t let me down! Be famous!”

Now you have to remember that what being famous meant for a high school student in 1992 is something completely different than what it means today. The command to “be famous” then registered as truly improbable. Who was I or anyone else to think I could become famous? Perhaps one could dream it, but to truly realize such an ambition? Impossible.

Nowadays, of course, anyone can become famous, whether they wish it or not. We’re all seemingly just one viral video away from thousands upon thousands of views, likes, and subscribers. Needless to say, I am not famous nor known to a large audience. As for my old roommate, he did achieve some level of fame. He became a hedge fund manager and once went undercover for the FBI and helped stop an investment fraud scheme, and the story of his investor-by-day, crime fighter-by-night adventures appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and on cable news. I became, on the other hand, a teacher.

Rarely does someone confuse being a teacher with being famous. However, these two ideas were juxtaposed beautifully in one of the greatest films ever made, A Man for All Seasons, which dramatically depicts the conflict between Henry VIII and the Catholic martyr St. Thomas More. Counseling the young and politically ambitious Richard Rich, Thomas More, one of the most important men living in England at the time, tells Rich: “Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.” Despondent that the famous More could think so lowly of him, Rich replies: “If I was, who would know it?” To which More says, “You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”

I used to think of this scene as reflecting the Renaissance humanist More’s approval of the academic life—that the life of the mind is far nobler than the affairs of the world. And there remains a great deal of truth to this reading, but today I am inclined to see it as a praise to the value of small audiences.   

Rich is not really interested in who knows if he were to become a teacher; he is interested in how many would know, and teaching could seem a disheartening prospect to one who seeks notoriety and fame like Rich. But More knows the truth: that it is the who of your audience that matters most. Rich’s desired audience while unlimited in number, is limited in scope. More’s public is limited in number but unlimited in scope.

I like to think now that more than just being destined to teach, I was really destined for small audiences. I hope that I am a humble recipient of my humble gifts. What I have to offer has little mass appeal, perhaps, but has a depth of reach for those whom I am able to reach.

The most off-center of these gifts is that I am a huge fan of the music of the legendary rock band, the Grateful Dead. Now, I’m not just a fan—a Deadhead—as they are often referred to. There are lots of them. Rather, I know the Grateful Dead in ways that very few fans know them. I know and appreciate their music in a quirky way, like the way a mystic knows a sacred text. If you played for me just a minute from one of their over 3,000 bootleg concert recordings, I could almost certainly tell you the year, and sometimes even the exact date and venue of that performance. I could talk endlessly about the nuances of their 23-minute performance of “Dark Star” from February 27, 1969, and compare that to their 30-minute version from October 26, 1989. I’ve been wrestling with the question of whether the Dead were better in 1972 or in 1977 for over thirty years, and I’ve just recently come up with a theory as to why 1976 is the most underrated, yet most important year in the history of the band. But, alas, there is a very, very, small audience for such eccentricities, and one that grows smaller as the years roll by.

Before, arriving here at Portsmouth Abbey, I hosted and produced a two-hour weekly radio show for a very small college radio station in Scranton, Pennsylvania. There I would get the chance to play and talk about my peculiar love for the Grateful Dead to a very small audience indeed. But a few of my listeners would reach out to me every now and again—Wendy from Dunmore e-mailed the studio to say she would paint while listening; even a former Scranton native who moved to Hawaii would stream the show live every week. Old high school friends would pick up the show now and then. Even the family would too. Not a bad public, that!

My point tonight is not to tell you not to become famous, not to achieve notoriety, recognition, or fortune. I hope that you all do. Instead, I want to remind you that what matters most is the quality, not the quantity of your audience. The who above the how many. Each of us here is known to ourselves, to our families, to our friends, and to God. That is true for all of us, no matter how popular or famous, no matter how big or small our audience is. Always remember to honor that public first and foremost. Whether you are starting on varsity, or coming off the bench for JV-B; whether cast in a leading role, or stage crew; each must perform to a small audience. It is to them you owe your gifts, even the humblest and most peculiar.”