Who are you?

Chapel Talk: Who Are You?
Tony Szymendera
Delivered in Upper School chapel on Jan. 10, 2018

I am pretty sure that chapel has never opened with The Who.

Before being used as the theme music for one of the shows in the CSI TV franchise, “Who Are You?” was known for being one of the all-time great rock and roll songs. Released 40 years ago this coming July, the song was written by lead guitarist and primary Who songwriter Pete Townshend. It came about after Townshend spent a long, exhausting day haggling with music executives over song royalties.

After leaving the music offices, Townshend ran into Steve Jones and Paul Cook members of the legendary Punk rock band The Sex Pistols. Jones and Cook apparently adored Townshend for having paved the way for their rebellious music and the movement that was only beginning to peak. While honored, Townshend was also unnerved.

An icon of rock and roll who had broken the mold and scared adults by kicking over his speakers and destroying his guitar on stage, he stood before the leaders of a new generation, who he had inspired with his writing, playing, and antics, with a big, fat check in his pocket. Was he really the leader of a band who had stolen the show at Woodstock, who had created the concept of a rock opera, who turned concept albums into multi-faceted portraits of humanity in all its frailties, or was he simply a sellout who was cranking out pop tunes and putting on a front or show for money, women, and fame? Was he legit or was he a fraud like the people he so often wrote about?

In typical 1970’s rock and roll fashion, Townshend, an alcoholic, drank too much with Jones and Cook that night and was awakened the next morning by a friendly NY City policeman as he tells us in the first verse:

I woke up in a Soho doorway
A policeman knew my name
He said, “You can go sleep at home tonight
If you can get up and walk away.”
I staggered back to the underground
And the breeze blew back my hair
I remember throwing punches around and preaching from my chair.

And then, the song’s familiar refrain, Townshend angrily asking the policeman:

Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who.)
I really want to know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who.)
Tell me who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who.)
Because I really want to know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who.)

Interestingly, Townshend’s frustrated and angry intent becomes more the prayer of a desperate man when voiced by lead singer Roger Daltrey. Daltrey sings:

God, there’s got to be a another way
And later
My heart is like a broken cup
I only feel right on my knees.

Even as he questions those he encounters through the song, “Who are you?”, Townshend’s lyrics are clearly nihilistic in nature. He desperately wants to know, “Who am I?”

The question, “Who are you?” confronts us throughout our lives. Our seniors may know this better than anyone else at present. They have spent the last few months answering some version of that question on their college applications. The prompt may have been phrased differently. It may have asked them about an important experience in their lives. It may have asked them to explain their best attribute. It may have asked them about how to solve a campus or societal problem. In the end, it really was asking, “Who are you?” and, of course, “why should that matter to us?”

I loved The Who growing up. I thought their music captured so much of the angst, excitement, helplessness, hopefulness, anger, wonder, and more of growing up. They seemed to hit the highs and lows of it. They did it year after year, album after album, song after song. They did it with more thoughtfulness than most. They did it with power and clarity in their playing and performing. They did it as the world’s loudest rock and roll band ever.

Even a few years removed from teenage angst, the lyrics of “Who Are You?” still resonate for me today. Who am I? I might answer, I am . . .

Head of Upper School in a nice independent school. Yes.

Baseball coach. Sure.

Husband of Heather. Father of three. Absolutely.

Son of Tony and Connie. Brother of Annette and Paula. True.

The boy who grew up at 3160 Chatham St. in the 19134 zip code. Yep.

Full blooded Polish American. Proudly.

Native of Philadelphia and its most historic square mile in the world with the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’ House, Franklin’s Grave, and more. Guilty!

Proud fan of the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers, Eagles, Big 5 basketball, and the Mummer’s Parade. Yes, yes, yes.

Enthusiastic consumer of cheesesteaks wit’ (that means with fried onions), soft pretzels with mustard, hoagies, and water ice. I miss those things dearly.

Graduate of Northeast Catholic High School for boys on one side of the city and proverbial tracks and Haverford College on the other side. Wow, yes.

That partial list provides you with a great deal of information. But does it tell you who I am? In the past week, we have encountered two situations where the question of “who are you?” has been raised in some fashion. One week ago Mr. Hudepohl passed away. In the following days, his family had to deal with that question as they pieced together his obituary, a formal announcement to the world of who you are. Teacher. Mathematician. Coach. Trip leader. Part owner of the Green Bay Packers. The titles or descriptors tell us what he did, but they don’t tell us what lies deeper.

They don’t relay how he wouldn’t give up on this student trying to learn math, no matter how weak the student’s skills might be. They don’t tell you about a conversation after practice challenging or encouraging a player to find his abilities. They don’t tell the story of his going the extra mile to make a trip financially possible for a student who he knew he needed in his life. They don’t reveal how he would offer a St. Christopher’s medal to someone he thought might need or appreciate having someone looking out for them in their travels, even if those travels were just growing up. Who are you, who, who.

And of course, this past weekend, as Dr. Fisher spoke about so eloquently on Monday, the Church celebrated The Epiphany. Meaning “manifestation,” the epiphany is literally God revealing who he is to us. “Who am I?” I am God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all that is seen and unseen. You have known me since Abraham and Moses and all the prophets. Now I come to you as Jesus, the Christ, so that you may know me. The precocious boy in the Temple? The carpenter’s son? The brother of James? Yes, yes, yes, but as we know, so much more than the list of things he did or places he was from.

Again as Dr. Fisher noted, He came to drive out the darkness, to bring a great light to the world, to show us the good that we have in our hearts and allow it to drive out the dark. He wants to give us a chance to decide our true nature. Who are you, who who.

So, Who are YOU?
I am . . .
A St. Christopher’s student
An honor roll student
An athlete
An artist or musician
An athlete and artist
A resident of the West End, the East End, the Fan, Goochland, Petersburg
A UVA fan, UVA hater

And that’s your homework from chapel today. What? Homework from chapel? Absolutely, always reflect on what is said and done in this space. It is supposed to challenge you and make you think. So today or tonight, reflect on who you are. Don’t be afraid to make a list if you want. Who are you? Who are your parents? Where are you from? But beyond making a list, consider what those items actually mean or convey about you and your community.

In a little more than 24 hours, you will have the chance to consider how who you are can impact this city. Mr. Reggie Gordon, the city’s Director of the Office of Community Wealth Building and Mayor Levar Stoney will be our guests on campus. Their charge will be for you to consider who you are and how that can impact this city. Do you just live here? Or are you a force for change? Are you a leader with the capacity to bring positive change for others for the community?

Dr. King, a contemporary of Townshend and The Who and from a different world in many ways, asked us “Who are you?” Our work tomorrow kicks off our celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and leads us into Black History month, a time when we are all asked who we are, not just African-Americans, but all of us. Who are we as individuals, as a community, as a nation? So take some time tonight and start that process.

Come on and tell me, who are you, who who, who who….

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  • Zack Matzanias says:

    What a fantastic speech!

    Zack Matzanias ’87