Finding Strength and Opportunity from Vulnerability
Mr. Ranger, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, and most importantly, seniors – welcome. We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to honor and say farewell to the graduating class. This is a time for looking forward and for celebrating all that you – Class of 2015 – have accomplished.
As many of you seniors know, I started my career at MBS the same year that you all were freshmen. Since my official start date was July 1, 2011, I knew all of the faculty and staff by the opening of school. I had also met quite a few students who were participating in pre-season athletics. So in September, when I decided to go up to Camp Bernie to participate in your 9th grade orientation, I was feeling pretty comfortable in the community.
It was a beautiful day, and as I strolled around watching the various activities, you seniors—then ninth graders---were friendly, happy, and welcoming. I ended the morning by walking over to the Alpine Tower. As I arrived, Thomas Rago was scampering up the Tower with relative ease, while others struggled a bit. I saw a group of girls sitting in the shade, so I decided to go and engage them in conversation. After my initial greeting, one girl who will go unnamed, (thank you, Mahdiyyah), looked up with a polite but blank expression and asked, "Who are you?" That certainly put me in my place!
It also made me feel vulnerable; many of you Seniors, no doubt, understand this feeling as you anticipate going to a new school and unfamiliar surroundings. So, I thought I would talk a bit about those moments in our lives when we all feel vulnerable.
This spring, I received my 360-degree review as Headmaster, which, as the title indicates, is basically critical feedback from every direction. I must admit that I felt a little bit like I was back in your shoes, applying to college, because I was being evaluated by everyone, from my administrative assistant to the Head of the Board of Trustees. Although my evaluators were focusing on my professional role as Headmaster, it was hard not to feel as though they were also analyzing me personally.
For example, I had to take a series of personality tests, which I hate, and I even had to take a test that measured my ability to draw inferences and determine likely outcomes based on a set of statements. I felt as you graduates probably felt not too long ago, taking the SAT or ACT – it made me feel truly vulnerable, not a particularly good feeling. Ultimately, though, the process provided an excellent opportunity for me to reflect on the last four years, to celebrate my successes, and also to think about areas where I can improve.
So today I want to talk to you about how vulnerability, especially if you recognize and acknowledge it, can actually empower us and create unexpected opportunities.
In our culture, so much emphasis is placed on strength, domination, and power. We are afraid to show our weaknesses because we fear failure, defeat and rejection. But we can rarely get anywhere in life if we don't face our shortcomings head on. What I want you to remember as you move off to college is that your vulnerability can ironically be your greatest strength and can open up new opportunities.
I learned this paradox from the person who taught me the most about embracing vulnerability, my youngest daughter, Lucinda. In my family, we often joke that her first words were the lyrics from the 1952 film Singing in the Rain. Through much of the spring when she was three years old, we had incessantly watched Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds sing the title tune, and although Lucinda could not articulate words that we could understand, she began singing that song constantly—or at least singing the melody and approximating the words as best she could.
Even though she was three she could not say very many intelligible words, but she would not be silenced. She communicated vigorously with her voice, her eyes, her facial expressions, and her body. And, as a young woman now, she is exceedingly expressive, and she developed this talent, in part, from her early difficulties with speech. In my mind, her vulnerability transformed itself into a very distinct strength – an acute ability to read social cues and express herself effectively.
Lucinda's transformation happened gradually. When she was five and six, she would write little notes to herself with pictures of what she needed to remember for the next day. At night, she would carefully lay her clothes on the floor in the shape of her body so that she would be prepared for school. She was remarkable in the creative ways she used her strengths to address the things that challenged her.
When she was seven, because of her delayed speech, we had her tested for learning differences and the psychologist recommended that she never take a foreign language because English was ironically already her foreign language. However, when she was in ninth grade, despite our cautions, she signed up for both Spanish and Latin. Her challenges made her ferociously determined.
Lucinda had a productive high school career academically, athletically and socially. A natural athlete, she played her first organized lacrosse game as a 9th grader and was a High School All-American as a junior. In 2010 she went off to college.
During her first two years, everything was going well. She was focusing on double majoring in American Studies and English and playing Division I lacrosse, although we noticed a change. She was not as light on her feet, she often complained that her stomach hurt, and she felt as though she was running in water.
Then, in the winter of her junior year of college, she collapsed from an unknown illness. Her vision was greatly impaired; she was extremely debilitated, suffering from a constant headache and stomach pains, and she could barely walk more than several yards.
With no alternative in sight, she took a year off from college. When none of her doctors could determine a diagnosis, she went to a clinic in Switzerland, where she learned that it would take 2-4 years to recover from the failure of over half the systems in her body due to her liver detox failure, the neuropathy of her gastrointestinal tract, her severe intoxication of heavy metals and bisphenol A, chronic virus infection, multiple food allergies and, to top it off, maldigestion.
The doctors explained that because her liver did not detox properly, she had gradually been poisoned by pesticides, heavy metals, and other toxins that are increasingly prevalent in our food and environment.
A few weeks ago, Lucinda graduated from Brown University. In her final year, she did not play lacrosse, she did not major in American Studies, and she did not graduate with her beloved Class of 2014, but she accomplished much more.
Forced to face her vulnerabilities head on, she turned her attention to writing a 75-page medical narrative that she hopes will help other people like her, people who have had to face undiagnosed illnesses. Since she could no longer devote her afternoons to lacrosse, she began working with inner city children. In other words, although she was deprived of the things she loved, her challenges opened new opportunities that she would never have discovered.
I think we can all relate to Lucinda's narrative in some way. We have all had moments where our weaknesses seem to hold us back, even when we feel supported by friends and shielded by familiar surroundings. As you move beyond the safety of the familiar, however, you might feel your shortcomings even more acutely. Do not panic and shy away from acknowledging your vulnerabilities, but rather face them head on because from them you can develop your strengths and find new opportunities.
We don't, in fact, know what jobs will be available to you when you graduate from college – some of these jobs have not even been created yet. So I do not have advice in terms of a career. What I can say with certainty, however, is that by understanding your vulnerabilities, embracing them, and turning them into strengths you will have a head start in your pursuit of leading lives of purpose. And, if you have a sense of purpose in life, you will ultimately find personal satisfaction and success.
Think, for a moment, of what we have accomplished over the past four years – you, during your high school years, and I adapting to a new environment and position as Headmaster. We have come a long way – I mentioned to you at the beginning of the year that your goal should be to leave MBS even stronger than when you arrived. I think that, collectively, we have done just that.
Good luck – we are proud of you and will miss every one of you. We are excited about what lies ahead for you. Come back to visit us often, hopefully not at the Alpine Tower in Camp Bernie because you have already worked through those feelings of vulnerability, but rather here on this campus surrounding Senior Circle where you have grown both individually and as a class.