(a speech given in the Honor Roll Assembly)
Good morning, everyone! I want to begin by thanking Student Council for inviting me to talk to you all today. I’m grateful for the chance to do so, and will do my best to live up to your faith in me.
Before I jump in, I just want to tell any of you who might want to engage with me about anything I say today, whether in person or online at the school’s blog, that I would love to have that conversation and I would love to learn from and with you.
What I want to say to you today is entitled:
Honor Roll of the Soul
It was a beautiful morning, and my favourite Humanities 7 class of 2009-2010 was having one of those random and deep conversations so typical of all my favourite Humanities 7 classes, whatever the year. We were talking about the notion of specialness when one student suddenly straightened and leaned forward and said, “Yes! I’ve always wondered about that! Because if we’re all special, doesn’t that mean no one is special?”
Like all questions, you can take that one in any number of directions, one of which leads to the concept of being “a special snowflake.” I’m imagining some of you just rolled your eyes, or wanted to, or at least thought about it. And I totally get it. Prize assemblies that artificially reward students for things like “coolest plaid shirts” make me roll my eyes as well. When I’m feeling polite.
Only, what if being called a special snowflake could actually be meaningful? What if you knew you had a teacher who knew you well, cared deeply about you, had your back, and helped you bring out the best in yourself? What if that teacher let you know they were proud of you, and why? Those are moments students may remember years and years later. Teachers too.
So with that in mind, how do we make that happen? How do we get to that point where you are taking genuine pride in what you have accomplished and you know that people have noticed?
Ultimately, of course, it starts with you. It’s not remotely random that I just now chose the phrasing “helped you bring out the best in yourself.” I’ll often talk of teaching as in large part recognizing and making space for the power of students. And, as my favourite Humanities 7 class of 2014-2015 and I were discussing last week, the power of learning comes from both experience and reflecting on experience. Without any experiences, you don’t have the raw material for learning. But without reflection, you don’t know what it all means, nor do you have much of a chance of remembering it. Combine a series of experiences with a series of reflections, and learning becomes a path with no end - or at least it does if you’re doing it right. And at that point in time, learning is a way of being.
So, you’ve made learning a natural and everyday part of your life. Is that enough?
I’m going to say, “no.” ISIS, as I understand it, has learned to use social media as a recruiting tool like few other groups, and yet I doubt any of us here are going to applaud their skillful use of Twitter to create more terrorists. Learning needs to be grounded in your most deeply held values, but I believe that, for everyone, those values must include respect and dignity for all human beings, as I believe they do for all of you.
So now you are not only learning daily but also using your learning in ways that express who you uniquely are as you make your way in the world and seek to make a positive impact. Now we’re ready to turn outward and think about the perceptions your actions create. And here’s where an unexpected question muscles into my brain - does honor roll mean something different in a girls’ school than in a boys’ school or a multi-gender school?
I’m going to say, “yes.” Today, anyway. And here’s one reason why.
Society as a whole, wherever you may live, has some very specific and strong expectations of girls and women. They may differ from country to country. Moreover, your families may feel differently, your friends may feel differently, and certainly I believe your school feels differently. But that doesn’t make that cultural bath of expectations evaporate completely away.
I remember when my favourite Humanities 7 class of 2011-2012 were working on their self-reflections for their first student-led conferences, and one girl didn’t know what to put. I asked if she maybe knew what she wanted to say but wasn’t sure she should say it. Her body relaxed but her face grew tense, as if it was both a relief to hear the question and a worry to have to answer it. She said, “I just don’t want to seem like I’m conceited.” I pointed out that if she genuinely felt she was doing well and had evidence to back it up, that did not sound at all to me like being conceited. A smile flashed briefly across her face and she bent down and started writing.
Gloria Steinem once said, and it has become one of my touchstone quotes, “Hierarchy is based on patriarchy, and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” While some people might quickly argue the point, saying, “but people aren’t all the same and we can’t pretend they are,” I would quickly argue they are completely missing the point. Ms. Steinem, to my thinking, is not denying different people have different skillsets and may excel at one task or another. Rather, she is simply saying both “no one person is better than anybody else” and “even if patriarchy privileges the masculine.” In other words, we may all be, no matter what our gender, special snowflakes. However, none of us, no matter what our gender, is any more special than anyone else.
Pride in what you do comes from within, and is completely within your control. Perceptions about what you do come from outside you, and realistically, you have no control over them. However, you do have complete control over your actions, and those in turn help lead to those perceptions. So if you are able to take genuine pride in what you do, perceptions will generally follow.
Still and all, at the end of the day, you have to live with yourself. How well you are able to remain true to what you believe in, knowing you’ve done your best, knowing too you’re still making mistakes and learning and growing, that is the honor roll inside each of you.
That may not be the only one that matters. But it is the one that matters most.