Delivered at the Upper School Honor Roll Assembly on March 28, 2017 by Kristen Peterson, Dean of Students at the request of Student Council.
We gather here today to celebrate the academic achievements of all of our students and to highlight those students who have earned honor roll or higher. I am honored to serve as your speaker today, though -- to be honest -- I feel a bit intimidated to be the one to speak on such academic achievements.
As a child, my mind sought out adventures in the woods and wandered little to the publishings of great writers, poets, or philosophers. The books I read contained classifications of animals, plants, and other living species. My curiosity guided me to our greenhouse to wait day after day for our newest lamb to be born and my mischievous side convinced me to sneak the baby sheep into our basement for easy viewing.
I come from a family where neither of my parents went to college. They had to work seven days a week to earn even a small living. Though I don’t remember being hungry, I do recall the stress on my mother’s face as she beheaded yet another chicken in our backyard because there were few options for dinner.
Not wanting the same life for her children, my mother’s message was simple - I may not be able to give you much, but I can give you an education. Though she did not have this first hand experience herself, she had the wisdom to know the ticket to a life out of poverty was to have a seat in the classroom.
She was right. The opportunities afforded to me because of my education are undeniable. I’ve had a paycheck every single month since I graduated from college in 2004. I’ve also never had to question whether or not I could afford to go to the doctor’s office or to buy a prescription to treat an illness. These are just some of the immediate benefits that come from having an education -- benefits that my parents and millions of others, not only in our country but around the world, will never know.
Now that I am a mother, and I reflect on my mother’s message to me, I ask myself, what message should I be giving to my own child? My mother’s beliefs were inspiring and powerful and I feel responsible to continue to spread her message, however I now want to take it one step further. And this is what I want to talk to you about today -- the responsibility that comes with having an education. I believe not only are you responsible for your own education, you now have an additional, and I would argue more important, role to play.
Nelson Mandela said, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
We do not live in a world where there are equal opportunities for everyone. In light of this, there is a moral and social responsibility that comes with education. Yes, education is about bettering oneself, but it is also about being an engaged citizen in the world. You are not just doing it for yourself, you are doing it for those who haven’t had the privilege of opportunities like these. By becoming an engaged citizen and being a critical thinker, you accept the moral responsibility of advocating for those people who can’t advocate for themselves. You can be the voice for those people.
This has never been a more important time than now. A recent example of this is the current immigration ban being led by President Trump. Refugees from around the world -- women, men, and children seeking asylum from violence and war, were detained against their will at airports across the country because of where they were from and what they believed.
These people did not have a voice, nor did they have the option to stay in their own countries without the risk of starvation, violence, or death.
Good people from across our country came to their defense, protesting the injustices in airports and cities. Civil rights and immigration lawyers offered (and continue to offer) free services for those who do not have the background to protect their basic human rights.
This example illustrates one of the best possible ways of how and why, we as educated and privileged individuals, must stand up for and advocate for those who do not have a voice.
You might be thinking, well Mrs. Peterson, I do not have a law degree - how can I help? My answer to you is BE INVOLVED. BE ENGAGED! Participate in movements such as the Women’s March, volunteer at organizations such as the Literacy Project or Big Brothers/Big Sisters, or simply read the news every day so you know what’s going on in the world.
I want to go back to Mandela’s quote. He said, ““A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
Another important facet of Mandela’s words are to have both a good head AND a good heart. My beliefs are deeply rooted in this conviction. If we can lead our thinking through the lens of kindness and compassion, we can build relationships that transcend differences.
The Dalai Lama said, “When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.”
Simply being educated is not enough. We must also take great care in educating our hearts. To continue with the word of His Holiness, “Compassion can be put into practice if one recognizes the fact that every human being is a member of humanity and the human family, regardless of differences in religion, culture, color, and creed. Deep down there is no difference.”
So what is my message? What do I want you to take away from this speech today?
Whether you are at Stoneleigh-Burnham for one year or six years, you have a moral obligation to use your education for good. Apply your opportunities to enable those who are not as fortunate as you are. Embrace and love all people -- no matter the color of their skin, where they are from, or what they believe. As the Dalai Lama said, we are all part of the same human family.
I am grateful for the foresight my mother had in pushing me to become an educated woman. What my mother didn’t foresee in her vision for me what how I would use my gifts, my opportunities, to help inspire and empower young minds to stand up for those individuals -- like my mother -- who were never afforded opportunities of their own. Stand up for what’s right. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” Let’s think beyond ourselves, and beyond our own academic achievements about ways we can ensure all human beings can live lives where they feel safe, happy, and loved.
It is essential you are part of this effort. As you go through your time at Stoneleigh-Burnham, practice treating those around you with kindness and compassion. For anyone who has ever taught or coached knows, you are what you practice.
I want to congratulate those students who will be honored at today’s ceremony. But I do not want to lose track of what our greater purpose is for becoming educated individuals. It is up to all of us to help shape the world in a positive and productive way.
I want to end today by sharing a quote from Malala Yousafzai, who is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate, “Let us remember, one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world.”