Just because children are self-centered, doesn’t mean they have to be selfish.
Last May I stood on a polished hardwood floor in the middle of an 80-year old multipurpose room with a 30-foot ceiling in front of 250 wooden seats that rose before me like the stands in a baseball stadium, looking up as a couple of hundred 10- to 15-year-olds, flooded in and filled up these seats.
I had been asked to return to my old grade school, New Canaan Country School, to receive a “Distinguished Alumni Award,” and speak. If you are not nervous at a time like that, you don’t understand the situation.
As a former head of school I understood the situation—but not really. I didn’t know these people, I had no idea what they wanted to hear. I didn’t even know what I had done to make me so “distinguished.”
I started off with how inexpressibly profound it is to be standing on the same floor where I had pranced around in bare feet learning how to move my body to music in a class called “Rhythms.” I related that here, 55 years ago, as a 4th grader, I watched the awesome 9th grade perform “The Taming of the Shrew,” and observed the 7th graders misbehaving as their teacher tried to maintain control of them.
Though I don’t remember much of what I said, I do remember telling them that much of what they had heard about success was wrong and that they should forget it. I also remember the last thing I said: “All the stuff you have heard about getting into a top high school and a top college and getting high test scores? It is all wrong. Success is about two things:
1) Find work that you love to do,
2) Find someone to love.
“Start now and don’t stop until you die. It is lifelong, infinitely challenging, infinitely interesting project.
It felt good that their applause lasted a long time. Afterward I got a tour of the campus and saw many of these students at work and play or just walking from class to class. They all seemed so full of themselves—in a good way—each was clearly on a mission. They seemed to be lit from within. It seems I had given the right speech to the wrong people. They didn’t really need to hear my message; they were already living it.
But what felt great—a good feeling that will fester for a long time in my soul—is that as they passed, they smiled and said, “Hi,” to me (a man as old as their grandparents). It is wonderful for someone my age to know that he matters to these beautiful, young, embryonic adults. Half-a-dozen didn’t leave it at “Hi” and a smile. They said things like, “You were really great.” “Thank you, I liked it.” “That was actually good.”
Imagine children so self-possessed that they voice their appreciation to someone with whom they have only the most tenuous of relationships. Conventional wisdom is that children are self-absorbed. Well-educated ones are not. It lifts my soul to imagine the wonderful implications of this for the world, as these young people continue to make themselves manifest in it.
I want to do it all again. THAT is my real award.