Lowell’s Opening Address to Upper School Students

The other day my wife Melissa was going through a pile of papers that my mother had collected and found a couple of my high school report cards.  She couldn’t wait to read the comments aloud to me, to my kids, to my nieces and nephews, to my neighbors, really to anyone who would listen.  While she seemed to be amusing herself, I was reminded of a reality that I rarely bring up and generally try to not to think about too much, which is that for much of my high school career, I was a distinctly mediocre student.


I am going to read you a couple of samples of my teachers’ comments to give you an idea of what I mean by “distinctly mediocre.”  At my school, at the end of each marking period, teachers submitted grades and comments to the guidance counselor, who then created a report card that listed the grades and summarized each teacher’s comments.  Here are a couple of comment highlights:
  • Mr. Rogers feels that Lowell put forth a steady effort in English but really wasn’t interested.  He did a rather poor job on the grammar section of his exam.
  • Mr. Reeve states that he believes Lowell will improve in his science work next year.  He could have done a better job this year.
  • Mr. Teerlink compliments Lowell on having an exceptional talent in mathematics.  He hopes that Lowell will use it more to his full ability.
  • Mr. Beauchamp comments that Lowell wrote one exceptional paper for him, but the rest were average or below.  He did not participate very frequently in class discussion.
  • Mr. Blackburn comments that he has been delighted to know Lowell this year and have him as a student, in spite of the fact that the two of them never came to a sufficient meeting of the minds such as might have produced a happier result.


Other than academics, I actually functioned pretty well in high school.  I was captain of the basketball and football teams and senior class president.  I had lots of friends. It turns out that I actually have a reasonably well functioning brain, so that eventually I became a pretty good student.  But now reading these comments and looking back on myself, I know the reason why for such a long time there wasn’t what Mr. Blackburn called “a meeting of the minds” between me and any of my teachers.  I made sure of it.  I didn’t want such a meeting.  I carefully avoided it. In simplest terms, I was afraid I might fail.  Now I know from experience that speaking up, putting myself on the line, leaning into my discomfort are the ways I learn best; back then I routinely stymied my own potential for growth because I feared that doing any of that might result in embarrassing mistakes or failure.  I wasn’t willing to take that risk.


Some of you may indeed be fully functioning right now, but I wonder to what extent fear or anxiety of some kind holds some of you back from getting everything you could from your Waynflete experience.  Maybe some of you are afraid to put yourself out there for the same reasons as I was.  Or maybe you have received the message that it isn’t cool to be too smart in school, so you hold yourself back.  Or maybe you are trying as hard as you can but are terrified that even your best won’t be good enough to get into the college of your dreams, or to please your parents, or to impress your teachers, or to keep up with your friends.   Such fear may keep you working hard at school but it will make you pretty miserable in the process.  True learning is ultimately an invigorating and even joyful experience, not a miserable or debilitating one.


We have an an exceptional cast of capable and caring teachers at this school who have been busy creatinig an incredibly rich array of opportunities for all of you.  Contemplating the start a new year, I wanted to find a way to get you to think about ways that you might be holding yourself back and then to inspire you to overcome them.  With that in mind, I came across a video that I am going to show you. It is a video of a graduation speech delivered last spring by Susannah Parkin, a student at Hamilton College.  She was the recipient of the school’s community service award; as part of the honor, she was invited to speak at graduation.  I don’t want to say anything more by way of introduction except that I find her speech to be incredibly inspiring.  Put yourself in her shoes as you watch and listen, and I think you will find her inspiring as well.



“… do things because we are afraid… to see fear as an opportunity for growth… to seek out challenges.” Doing so, she says “makes us stronger because it puts us in control of the fear.”


Through her words and example, Ms Parkin inspires us to “… do things because we are afraid… to see fear as an opportunity for growth… to seek out challenges.”  Doing so, she says “makes us stronger because it puts us in control of the fear.”


Eleanor Roosevelt, a former first lady of the United States and a powerful force in her own right, made the point even more succinctly when she once advised her audience to “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  That is great advice for us to carry into our Outdoor Experience week and to hold throughout the school year.
Thank you for your respectful attention this morning.  I wish you all a fun day, a productive week, and a meaningful start to our new year.
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