Convocation 2018: Remarks by Shayna Appel '78

September 05, 2018 by Guest Faculty Bloggers

Welcome friends! It is so good to be with you again at the outset of a new year, with a new Head of School and so many hopeful expectations! Welcome Stephanie, because I have not yet had the chance to publicly say that! It is a real joy to have you here with all of us, and the culmination of a decade’s worth of hard work!

Welcome students! Those just arriving and those who are returning. Welcome class of 2019! I know May seems like a long way off today, but it will be here before you know it so, slow your roll and savor these days!

Welcome faculty, staff and administrators. We stand here today at the foot of a very long and steep hill. There is so much to do in a school year. Won’t you take a deep breath with me? Good. Remember to do that now and again. It really does help.

Welcome returning parents and new parents. Welcome to all family members joining us today. I can feel your anticipation…and your angst from here. You breathe too! Together, we’ll get through this!

I want to begin this morning with a reading from a book of wisdom known as Bossypants. Hear now the words of the prophet Tina Fey from a chapter titled, “Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*.” Our Lady of Holy Hilarity writes:

The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?

The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.

To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.

The next rule is MAKE STATEMENTS. This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers.

In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag…

MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. No one wants to go to a doctor who says, “I’m going to be your surgeon? I’m here to talk to you about your procedure? I was first in my class at Johns Hopkins, so?” Make statements, with your actions and your voice.

Instead of saying “Where are we?” make a statement like “Here we are in Spain, Dracula.” Okay, “Here we are in Spain, Dracula” may seem like a terrible start to a scene, but this leads us to the best rule:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.

Here ends the reading!

[*Improve will not reduce bellyfat!]


My friends, here we are… some of us for the very first time and some of us “again.” Standing at the precipice of another school year. But this isn’t just any other new year. We have a new Head of School, which means we have bid farewell to our former Head of School, and so we are, in a very real sense, standing on the edge of a new beginning. So, I thought now would be a good time to let you in on a deep, sacred truth. For as long as we live, for as long as we have breath within us, every moment of every day finds us standing on that very same precipice. Every moment of every day we hover in the possibility of possibility, at the forming edge of a new beginning. The past is behind us, the future is unknown, so all we have is now. But now is enough. In fact, it is more than enough.

So, if we have to make this up as we go, why not take a few lessons from a master in the art of improvisation?

Say “yes.” If someone suggests a new way to do an old thing, say, “Yes!” Try it. If it doesn’t work you can do it differently the next time. Try new things. Dance, ski, ride a horse, take an IB course, get involved in working for social justice, go to church…even if it’s not the one you’re used to. Make friends with people who are different from you. Try new foods. Be there when someone needs your ear or your heart… or both. Say, “yes.”

Say, “yes, and…” Don’t be afraid to contribute, and most importantly, don’t be afraid to fail. Bring your whole self into this community. Anything less is a waste of your time…and ours! Each and every one of you has gifts to offer. Don’t be stingy with them. Say, “yes, and…”

Next, remember to make statements now and again. Questions are good for learning, but don’t get stuck in them when it is time to accomplish something. Be part of the solution. We all know the questions by now. “How can a small group of people impact this world for the better?” “Where are we supposed to find the time?” “Why do we have to do this?” “Do I really need to know this for the test?” “Do I really need to know this to get into college?”

Questions are legitimate, but posing them without offering solutions will get you no where. Punt! Make it up as you go along! Find others who are engaged in the work you are interested in and build partnerships. And don’t be afraid to offer the wrong solution. The wrong solution gets you closer to the right one… so long as you keep playing.

Finally, remember that there are no mistakes! If you try something and it bombs, hone the idea, learn from what went wrong, maintain a good sense of humor, and try again!

As American artist Bob Ross is wont to say, “There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.”

Should it turn out that there are, in fact, mistakes, we can always revert to the wisdom of the great Irish playwright and political activist, George Bernard Shaw, who said, “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” (And I’m pretty sure the school’s disciplinary board will agree with me here!)

My friends, today is a day for new beginnings. Tomorrow will be one too. And so will the day after that. Stay flexible. Try new things…so long as they’re legal! Engage with your whole self. And have fun.

You’re all improvisational geniuses. Just get out there and play!


Written by Guest Faculty Bloggers

Occasionally we feature guest contributions from members of our faculty. Their voices provide an exclusive view into the classrooms, halls, lounges, and residence halls that make Stoneleigh-Burnham School such a great place to live, work, and study. To find blogs exclusively from our faculty members, use “The Faculty Perspective” category.

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