This speech scares me a little. It’s one of those speeches at the end of the year or the end of your high school career in which an adult who has at least mildly succeeded at something is supposed to tell you some sort of thing that will carry you into the future. And that thing that this person tells you is supposed to be original even though thousands of people are giving speeches like this right now.
And there are people in the audience who have heard their fair share of these. So, as I was thinking of what to say, I imagined the most senior Stones Chapel attendee, Mr. Barton, as my audience. And this imaginary Mr. Barton and I had a conversation in which he gave me the advice, “Never underestimate the power of a well-timed joke.” I assured him that I have never underestimated my ability to make a joke. Not once. I might sometimes overestimate my humor. So how can I be a little bit funny and say something a little bit important to all of you and to the real Mr. Barton? A tall task.
So what is there to say?
Well, I could tell you about the friendships you’ve made here, and that you’ll never encounter another time in your life like this one. But I think you know that, and it’s kind of sad to talk about right now.
Or, I could tell you to seek out those who seek out gratitude and change. And to remember that the two can, and often do, go hand-in-hand. And that you don’t have to dwell in complaint to be a part of progress.
Or, I could remind you that you are talented, and you are brilliant, and each and every one of you has the capacity to change some part of this world, if not all of it. But lots of people are reminding lots of people of that at this time of year.
Or, I could ask you to reflect on the privilege of this particular educational experience and all that it’s given you, and tell you that knowledge is power and that with great power comes great responsibility, but I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.
Or, I could tell you what I’ve learned from my time here, from people like Mrs. Pfenninger whose way of moving through the world taught me that organization and a lot of positivity can accomplish almost anything. But if you’ve watched her on this campus, you’ve already learned that yourself.
So instead of trying to think of some one thing to tell a bunch of people who happen to be at the same high school, I thought about what I might want my younger family members to know. About life and about the world. If my 11-year-old niece asked me for some piece of advice, what would it be? When Livi inevitably turns to me and asks a question that shakes my understanding of myself and this world, which some days feels eons away and some days feels like it might happen tomorrow, what will I want her to know?
And then I thought about the things that I often have to remind mySELF, and I realized there’s a LOT of overlap among all of these messages, and that maybe there’s not a ton of difference between what an 11-year-old and 37-year-old and a collection of high school students should hear.
In the end, I settled on three things: (1) Do the little things because you never ever know when it will change someone’s day; (2) Be kind to yourself, especially when that feels impossible; and (3) floss. Every day. Even when you don’t want to. Even when you’re tired or in the woods or having trouble just standing up, or in someone else’s house, floss. Because flossing is really an act of self-love.
And these three things are about this moment of transition that, in many senses, the seniors and I are sharing. We’re all leaving this place, and we’re all about to have to find new dentists and probably admit to them that we don’t floss every day.
But this cycle is probably less new to me than it is to the seniors. Teachers do this thing every fall, and really throughout every year, when we look up and think we see a student on the other side of a quad, and we get ready to say hi, and then we remember that we’re about to say hi to someone who graduated three years ago. And when we get close enough, we probably realize we’ve never met this new person at all and we’re just trying to wish people back into our lives. Educators live cyclical lives from late August to early June, and quite frankly, the cycle can hurt. Every year someone important leaves us. And we know that every year that’s going to happen, but we still do this job. And I think we still do it because of the kind, little things that you all do that change our days.
It sucks that the system we live in, the pace of our lives, keeps us from hearing about how we impact others, how the little things that we do that seem like part of the flow of life can actually provide so much good. It’s kind of like flossing.
But today isn’t about floss, it’s about stones. And each of your stones is small compared to the wall (except for maybe Bryce’s cinder block or Alec’s boulder), but the wall is becoming something big. Today, your stones will look like they’re at the top of this wall. But if you come back in twenty years and look, your stones will likely be holding up others. They’ll be the foundation for those who come after you. They’ll work together to build something as a group. Some may tumble and need some help to find their place again. Some may fade into the background, but the whole wall would topple if we tried to pull them out.
This mix of responsibilities, mix of personalities and roles, is what makes us a community. When I moved here, I was coming from a place where the phrase “Can I help you with that?” was actually just an empty question. If you were asked it, you were supposed to decline– “that’s okay. I got it.”
So when I got to Holderness, that’s what I did. Whenever I was carrying something heavy, unloading a car, cleaning something up, I declined help. And do you know what happened, every time, without fail? People helped anyway. It didn’t matter the task, if they’d flossed that day, or what they were in the middle of–they helped. If you take anything from this place, take that. Be the one who helps anyway even when someone politely declines.
And the disconnect between my previous experience and this community is a complex lesson on perspective and the fact that each of us lives in the world through our own experience. And that we can never tell what someone else has gone through or is going through or is about to encounter. But it’s a simple lesson on kindness. On the little choices we make in our interactions with others.
If I were going to end with an analogy, I’d say it’s like the complexity of trying to be kind to yourself versus the simplicity of flossing.