6/1/11

Sharp Edges and Fiddly Bits

Last week, I had the honor of giving an address at Upper School Awards Evening. I talked about my experience as a Saint Michael's student: finding a home there, going out into the wide world, and coming back as a teacher. In my effort to convey the uniqueness of the Saint Michael's experience, my metaphors meandered through fishponds and geometric objects, and the phrase "sharp edges and fiddly bits" really did occur. Several times. 
Upper School Awards -- May 26, 2011 
It’s been five years, almost to the day, since the last time I stood at a podium to address the Saint Michael’s Upper School student body. It was commencement, and I was delivering the valedictory address. Five years ago, we didn’t have this chapel. I was looking out over my friends and classmates from the lectern at Saint Andrew’s church, but the view from here is almost identical. It seems aptly symbolic of my return to Saint Michael’s: the scenery is different from where I stand now, as a teacher rather than a student, but everything feels wonderfully familiar. 
I confess that I am just as nervous tonight as I was five years ago, though I have stood up to speak in front of many you nearly every day for the past nine months. Math is comfortingly factual, and there is plenty of solid evidence that will (hopefully) convince you of its importance to your education. What I want to say to you tonight is more personal. I want to tell you how my experience as a Saint Michael’s student has shaped me and taught me many things that are far more metaphysical than my knowledge of math.  
I arrived at Saint Michael’s in eighth grade, fresh from nearly two years at Caldwell Middle School and an abortive six-week attempt at homeschooling. My mother and I love each other deeply, but being in each other’s constant company wasn’t what either of us needed. As it turns out, Saint Michael’s was exactly what I did need. Now, as far as I’m aware, there are no Episcopalians in my background. I grew up attending the Presbyterian, then the Methodist church, and went to school through fifth grade at First Baptist in Caldwell. The Episcopal tradition is so familiar and wonderful to me now that I can’t remember how I felt that first day in chapel, but I imagine it involved a fair amount of bewilderment and suspicion at the formal language and high church traditions.  
Those of you who know me now may find this hard to believe, but I also arrived at Saint Michael’s with the deep-seated conviction that I couldn’t carry a tune in a brass bucket. I didn’t enjoy singing at all. Gilbert & Sullivan drew me in: the very first alto line I ever sang was “the eggs and the ham and the strawberry jam and the rollicking bun,” painstakingly mastered over Christmas break. And then the Episcopal hymnal seduced me, I joined the chapel choir, and as you may have noticed, I just can’t bring myself to leave!  
All the reasons I thrived at Saint Michael’s were the same reasons I had failed to thrive elsewhere: I love nerdy things like algebra, etymology and the Dewey Decimal System. I know many of you feel the same way. But I also know that no school – and indeed, no group of human beings – is small enough to be exempt from social pressure, the desire to be like everyone else. It’s tough to stand out in a crowd when there’s barely a crowd to stand in. I have been you, too. My first year at Saint Michael’s wasn’t all roses and Gilbert & Sullivan arias. At first, I still felt like an outsider among outsiders, the nerd even nerds picked on. “If I can’t fit in here,” I thought, “where can I fit in?”  
And that is when I discovered why Saint Michael’s is so amazing, though I’m not sure I was precisely aware of it at the time – as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I had been going about it all wrong. I never started “fitting in” at Saint Michael’s, because here there is no mold to fit. I never became just like the other people in my class – and yes, I remained significantly nerdier than some of them. But I soon made friends with a sixth grader I sat next to in Latin class, who remains my best friend to this day, and soon enough my classmates and I worked out how all the sharp edges and fiddly bits of our personalities fit together, rather than how any of us “fit in.” I truly believe that nowhere but Saint Michael’s could I have found a group of friends who were all so uniquely themselves, and in most ways not like me at all. So if you are, like I was, trying to “fit in” here, please, stop trying! Give it a little time, and the sharp edges and fiddly bits will start to fit together, and the person you thought you just couldn’t get along with may turn out to be your best friend. Such is the grace of our school.  
But your time here will not last forever, though it will also never truly come to an end. One day – in the very near future, for some of you – you will arrive on a college campus, and no matter how small a college you choose, I can state with confidence that it will be bigger than Saint Michael’s. During my first few weeks at Middlebury College in Vermont, I heard many of my peers talk about going from being the “big fish in a little pond” to a “little fish in a big pond.” In many ways, I understood the feeling – everyone I met had an impressive resume of academic achievements and extracurricular activities. But as time went on, I started to realize that at Saint Michael’s, I had been a big fish in a tiny pond inhabited solely by a veritable rainbow of other “big fish” – no matter how big the pond you toss us into, Saint Michael’s students will stand out wherever we go.  
Every person you meet at college will be well rounded. Students who aren’t well rounded don’t get into college these days. Armed with this knowledge, guidance counselors at many schools work, factory-like, to churn out polished, beautifully rounded, identical spheres. They fill in gaps with an AP class, patch over rough places with a lead in the school play. Don’t misunderstand me: the students they round out get into amazing colleges, are wonderfully interesting people, go on to do incredible things, and in many cases became my best friends in college. But here at Saint Michael’s, we are not in the business of producing perfectly polished spheres. We believe in texture. At college, you will meet dozens of people who sang lead in the school musical; you will meet very few who sang lead in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. You will meet many a prom queen; you will meet precious few Queens of the May.  
Not every Saint Michael’s student is a singer, or a May Queen, or an AP student, or a student council member. You may be all of these, or none of these, or another collection of things entirely. You have unique opportunities as a Saint Michael’s student, but the way you put them together is up to you. You are not an unfinished sphere with holes to fill in and rough places to patch over. You are a brilliant three-dimensional construction, with bumps and protrusions and sharp edges and fiddly bits, and you will stand out in a crowd of spheres.  
None of this is to say that Saint Michael’s makes you better than everyone else; it simply makes sure that you become you. Consider, for a moment, how incredible that is. Many people spend their high school years waiting it out, hoping college will give them the opportunity to finally be themselves. Saint Michael’s is not a place to wait it out, to hunker down and hide and hope that you can get by unnoticed. It is a place for you to build and expand and embellish yourself into that magnificent, not-at-all spherical construction of a person. No matter what, college will be a place where you grow and change, but I know that I entered college with a strong sense of who I am, and being a Saint Michael’s student was and is no small part of that identity.  
Saint Michael’s has brilliant academics; so do many schools. It offers a plethora of extracurricular activities; there are schools that offer more. In the end, for me, a Saint Michael’s education was not first and foremost about the academics and extracurriculars, though I would neither have been accepted to nor succeeded in college without them, and as your teacher I am in no way discounting their importance! But as your fellow Saint Michael’s student, what I am trying to convey to you about why our school is so special is simple: there is no mold for being a Saint Michael’s student. We do not all look the same, or act the same, and we certainly do not all think and believe the same. The only quality that definitively marks a Saint Michael’s student is the quality of being fully you, and no one else.  
As an Episcopal school, we have a special reverence for tradition, for honoring what has come before and participating in its continuation. I have returned to Saint Michael’s to, yes, teach you French and math, two things I am passionate about – but first and foremost because this is the place where I became fully me, and just as my teachers did for me, I am here to watch, guide and encourage you as you construct yourselves into the breathtaking creations you are and will become. That is my greatest passion.
Afterwards, several people asked if they could obtain a copy of the speech, so I am posting it here in Google docs form for anyone who would like to read, download, and use as they please -- all I ask is that you attribute properly.