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Advice from STS Fifth Graders
Josette Holland, STS Fifth Grade Literature and Grammar Teacher, recently gave the commencement address at Kents Hill School in central Maine. In her address, she shared words of wisdom from some of her STS fifth grade students, and we thought it was worth sharing with our STS community.
May 28, 2017
Good morning. Thank you Mr. McInerney, Mr. Chairman Edward Lane, distinguished faculty, proud parents, and honored graduates.
It’s good to be here with you on The Hill. You look beautiful, and you look ready. Your parents look happy, and they also look ready. You’ve done a lot of hard work, put in a lot of meaningful hours, and you’re ready to move on to summer. If you can forgive me for standing between you and your diploma, I have a few words to share.
You might be wondering who on earth I am. What with all these celebrities giving commencement addresses, and Joe Biden speaking last weekend down the road at Colby, you’re probably thinking “Wait now...WHO is our speaker?” Joe Biden is so charming, smiley, distinguished...whatever. I mean, I love Joe Biden as much as anyone, but oye--the crowds! The traffic! Route 17 couldn’t handle the traffic anyway. So who am I and why am I here. I’m here because I love Kents Hill; I worked here, made lifetime friends here, and even met my husband here. I grew up in Maine and I now live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and my life’s work is “school”. Teaching in some, leading in others; advocating for change, writing, and speaking up for kids has been what I do. I’ve taught in Africa, ushering children through the English language and introducing developmental psychology to nursing students.
It’s important for me that my children come to Maine regularly to visit my parents, and over the years through this travel experience I see how the Kents Hill spirit plays out in the different personalities of my children. For their whole lives, every summer I take all three of them on a series of flights from North Carolina that gets us up to Maine. My husband is usually needed at the hospital, so I fly solo with three kids. They are excellent travelers and have always been: quiet, helpful, and attentive. On one particularly stormy July afternoon many years ago, the four of us were flying through Laguardia up to Portland. If you know anything about flying through Laguardia in July is that a) traveling in July does not lessen the seriousness and sacredness of business travel for any New Yorker and b) you’re going to experience a life-threatening thunderstorm. It was in one of these particularly hairy storms that the Kents Hill spirit came out of each of the children, each in their own unique way. As the tiny puddle jumper bumped and jostled us, spilling everyone’s purse contents into the rolling aisles, the lights flickered and every button started blinking. As a mom, I was outwardly composing soothing rhymes and songs, but on the inside, I was writing our obituaries. Yet, it was amazing to see how each of my children reacted to what I was sure was the beginning of our end. Child #1, the 7-year old, cautiously kept his eyes out the window, giving me status updates. “The cumulous clouds look pretty big, mom. There goes some more lightning. We are almost through it.” He was the data-seeking care giver, the leader who keeps everyone informed of the situation. Know anyone like that? Then there was Child #2, the four year old, the servant leader, who deftly picked up all the nearby passenger’s items that kept spilling and bouncing in the aisles and returned everything to its proper owner “Here’s your New Yorker magazine. Here are your reading glasses. Here’s your shoe.” He’s my servant leader, helping others by literally picking up the pieces. Know anyone like that? Child #3, the two year old, had her own reaction. When we hit the largest bump in what I knew was soon to be our shortened lives, she put her hands up and yelled “AWWWWW YEEEEEAH!” and just like that, the small cabin full of nervous business travelers started giggling. She’s my sunny-side-up, full of joy kind of leader that everyone, including me, is going to want to follow. Know anyone like that?
But today, class of 2017, I am here to celebrate YOU and your Kents Hill spirit. I was asked to speak with you perhaps because the school knew that this particular class, with all its talent and drive and humor and friendship, needed a speaker who knows that you are a special group. Maybe the school knows that you need a speaker who won’t drag you into her own political agenda but rather will focus on you and your strengths on this very special day. I am not sure but for whatever reason, I’m here. You’re here. Let’s talk.
Lately, I’ve been hanging out with 5th graders. My fifth graders know a lot about you, class of 2017. Not in a creepy way, but in an admiring way. They see Kents Hill posters in my classroom and I read articles to them about you in the news letters. I show them your artwork, they see your huge smiles and how you love your new dining commons. They know how, when the sky is just right, students can see Mount Washington, and when the sun sets bright orange amidst the trees in October, the campus looks magical but that the real magic comes from the feeling of community here, where each student is met with unconditional regard. They hang on my every word when I tell them about my trips up here four times a year for board meetings. You are like movie stars to them.
It wasn’t too long ago that you were in 5th grade. Parents--can’t you just picture your child when he or she was in 5th grade? Tiny! Spirited! Goofy! The year was 2010; Kesha was tick-tocking (you know you had it on your iTouch). Mark Zuckerberg was The Person of the Year for inventing this thing called The Facebook, and Canada won the gold medal in hockey. IPads were rolled out. Girls, you were probably wearing pigtails and shirts with glitter on them. Boys, you were probably just starting to pick out your own clothes and you thought that wearing all your orange clothes at once looked really cool. All of you still snuggled with your parents.
But, oh, even then as a 5th grader, you were wise. Ten years old meant 10 thousand watts of energy. Your confidence was sky high--you could do ANYTHING. Fifth grade happens before the world can get to us and tell us that we can’t do things: that we’re not smart enough, that we’re not from the right part of town, or that we are not strong enough. In fifth grade, ambitions are facts. You probably wanted to be professional football players, pop stars, astronauts, race car drivers, or the President of the United States. The world was a great place. In 5th grade, political cynicism hadn’t reached your little ears.
My fifth graders are at that same confidence peak, where their voices are loud and proud, and their hearts are wide open to the world. The other day, I asked them to give you their best wishes, and perhaps offer you some advice for your journey. What poured out of them was comical, thoughtful, and remarkably insightful. I’ve chosen four pieces of advice to pass along to you today.
Kennedy is a bubbly musician whose pigtails flip around when she laughs. She wants you to always remember to take care of the little guys. Some of you might still think of yourselves as ‘the little guy.’ I’m here to tell you that as of today, you are no longer the little guy. Your presence lifts children. If you look a little person in the eye, you’ve just acknowledged her as a human being, you’ve just taken her seriously or you’ve just given him a voice. The reverend Daniel Heishman wrote that the most important pivot point for a young person is when she realizes that she matters, that her voice matters, and that she is not invisible. Did someone ever do that for you? I’ll bet they did and you know exactly who that person is. So when you take care of the little ones, you’re helping to create a generation of people who will remember you and, in turn, make the world a better place. Do this on an everyday level (for example, if you see a lemonade stand and there’s a kid running it, stop. Buy some lemonade) or as a hobby (mentor a middle school student when you’re in college) or on a life-changing level (you could build a dining commons for the school that you love).
Next I heard from Mya, a quiet, strong, peaceful girl who writes: be nice to your teachers. Not so hard at Kents Hill, where your teachers live, eat, play, dance, and laugh with you. I can only hope that your future is filled with professors and teachers as inspirational as they were here on The Hill. But in the future it might not be so clear who your teachers are. It is likely that you will encounter people who you might not recognize right away as your teacher. Your roommate, a maintenance worker at your school, the classmate who fixes your computer at midnight when it breaks….all theses people might not have the label ‘teacher’ but if you listen just right, you can learn valuable lessons just the same. Lessons about life, about your place in it….and you might find a connection that you can come back to one day. So...be nice to people; be nice to your teachers.
Connery is strong, athletic, and smart. He’s quiet and respectful; he’d rather listen than talk. In fact, he would rather run and chase a ball more than anything. He says “Trust your gut.” That’s it.
Moving right along...Hailey is a ballet dancer who twirls into class. She has a big laugh and she’s a leader. She says: when you get rain, look for rainbows. While I think she might actually mean for you to go outside and look for rainbows (“they’re so pretty!”) and that she might secretly believe that you might find a unicorn on the other side, it could be that she means that you should try to find the silver lining when life seems tough. For example, take friendship, your class theme. You’ve lived into it for the last four years. Leaving the Hill today, it won’t ever be as easy as it’s been to see your friends. Yes, you can Facetime each other, but I’m talking about the stick your head down the hall and yell “who’s hungry?!” kind of see-your-friends. The kind of messy hair, no make up, Saturday morning kind of time when you actually see, hear, touch and absorb your friends. Friends with whom you can hang out without anything to do, to be lazy together, to pig-pile on each other, and to laugh together. Kents Hill gave you that space. For those of you who spent your time hanging out in Sampson, Jacobs, Davis, Reed or Wesleyan, or who have spent countless hours in the art space with a friend or in the bookstore or on the ski hill freezing your buns off, you know what I mean; you are leaving a time in which the ease of friendship is greatest. And today, you’re leaving. Cormac Mcarthy says, “some events divide your lives into the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ ”. So, when you say goodbye today to your kindred spirits and you enter into your ‘after’, it might seem heart wrenching. It’ll feel like rain. Remember that Hailey said to LOOK for the rainbow. She didn’t say “the rainbow will fall in your lap”. Perhaps she means that you need to find it yourself. Being positive is an active choice; it takes work and it’s not always easy or apparent where to begin. Maybe you start with the simple realization: you are lucky to have such good friends to miss (says Winnie the Pooh). Or if you can’t find the rainbow after a healthy amount of looking….make it. Make plans. Plan to see each other and stick to it. Come back to The Hill. Meet up with each other in your home countries and in your home towns. Travel together. Take a road trip and visit each other in college. Go to each others’ big life events. Seeing friends is like nourishing your soul resume, and you’ll never regret it. So if you get rain, look for the rainbow; if you can’t find a rainbow, make one.
Tons of advice poured in for you from my class. Each fifth grader gave you a piece of advice--much of it had to do with not dropping your fidget spinners in the dirt, with eating balanced meals, how to tie your shoes under pressure, how not to get lost (and other such practical advice) and so I’ve had to save it for later. In a wonderful balance of life, you, also have taken some time to give me some advice for me to take back to them. You, too, have learned a thing or two here, and I’ll return to North Carolina and share your wisdom. They’ll be waiting for me Tuesday morning. Here’s what some of you shared about what you’ve learned during your time on The Hill:
Ellie Keeley, a four-year senior, the daughter of a teacher, says “Stop wanting to grow up because it'll happen faster than you think. Embrace your innocence and desire to learn. ” Ellie, being a faculty child wasn’t always easy. You had to share your parents with a whole student body. I’m proud of you for being so wise and sharing what you’ve learned. Hanging out with older kids sometimes makes you want to act older, but thank you for pointing out that all good things come in time.
Anicia Gillespie, a four-year senior says “Nothing is the end of the world. You might think that what is now defines what you will be, but it changes, so be open to growth.” Anicia, your advice tells me that you take lessons from the good and the bad. It tells me that, even though things seem tough, that you are acutely aware that burning toast is one thing but burning bridges is another, and if we can keep our connections to the people who love us and if we can forgive each other and ourselves for our mistakes, nothing is the end of the world. You’ve said that our mistakes are not what define us. You, my dear, are right. If we are open to the growth afforded to us in reconciliation, our bridges grow stronger than ever. Anicia, Wellesley is lucky to have such a bright, wise person headed their way, and your bridge back to Kents Hill will always be here. We are all grateful to count you as one of our own.
Drew Blackstone, a young man whose time here was short but whose impact will last long into the future, says “Don’t do stupid things!” That’s it. Drew, well said. I suppose when you’re on the mountain bike you have to make hundreds of quick decision all the time, yes? Your wisdom comes hard fought, I’m sure. Just like my little quiet Connery, you understand that your gut is another word for wisdom. The kind that Shel Silverstein wrote about when he wrote
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
"I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong."
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What's right for you--just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.”
Drew, your wisdom will help these kids with both the long term decisions that are so difficult for kids, but also for the short-term, spur of the moment decisions that could ultimately save their lives. I know that my little Connery will savor your brief but impactful words.
Nolan Smith a four-year senior from Massachusetts says “When you are a 5th grader if you had the “sick” shoes you were cool. When you are a senior you care less about what people think of you.” Likewise Isabel Charland, a 4 year senior from Maine says “Try your hardest not to worry about what other people think. Just be yourself, I promise that you will be a lot happier. The people who accept you for who you are are the people that matter most.” Nolan and Isabel, it only took you a short time to learn what many adults in the world have yet to learn. That it’s what’s on the inside that counts, that the people who criticize your appearance or tell you you’re not measuring up (or down) don’t really matter because they are the people who always need someone to put down. You two are among a class who knows that it’s what you do that matters. Kindness is an action, and kindness is true strength. That’s what matters. Nolan and Isabel, keep being strong, and keep insisting on what matters most.
Santa Takahashi, a four-year senior who like many of you, showed courage and independence when he came from far, far away to a tiny school on a hill in the middle of Maine, says “Be respectful to your parents.” All the times that your parents sat in the recital hall, listening to your music, or all the times your parents sat on the sidelines praying that you catch the ball, or the mornings that they woke up at 5:00 to take you to the rink...this is not ordinary. This is, in fact, extraordinary. Your parents spent all that time there not because they like the GAME….they spent the time there because they love YOU. So be gentle with them today because today is a transition day for your parents, too. An end of an era for them. Your high school days are over for them, too, and your new grown-up parent-child relationship is about to begin. In grown up child-parent relationships, of course y’all love each other, but it’s important to work on being LIKEABLE, even with your parents. Santa, every parent seated here today thanks you for saying that.
Michael McCarthy a post-graduate from New York says “As much as time seems to be moving slowly, enjoy it. Time flies, and although it may be tough, embrace the difficult times, because when the day comes for graduation, you realize that all those times--that’s what made you the person you are today standing on this stage.” Michael, your kind words are as strong and graceful as you are on the football field. You chose to spend a PG year on The Hill, which was a forward thinking, long-term decision. It is just one of your many experiences which are going to be put together into your very own Michael-mosaic and that will make you an even more wonderful adult.
And finally, the words of Katie Sprague. Katie, you’ve lead this class this year as Senior class president, and I can see why. Your advice sums it up, embodies the Kents Hill values, and will stay with my 5th graders for a long time. You said “You won’t believe me now, but years in school go by so quickly. Be sure to smile, get off your phone and spend time experiencing real life, do what makes you happy, spend time with people you love, be kind to your parents and teachers, learn as much as you can, and most of all, enjoy it.” Katie, the people sitting here believe you. Munro Leaf said “Wherever you go with a smile and a wish to like people, you’re going to find someone who is glad you’re there.” When you’re at Wake Forest next year, you are going to make such a difference. You’ll take your Kents Hill values to Winston-Salem. I’m not far down the road (I’ll be your stop on the way to the beach!). But I’m also there if you ever need me.
So, Class of 2017, thank you. Thank you for inspiring little kids down in North Carolina. Thank you for taking care of each other with your words and with your actions. Thank you for being ALL KINDS of leaders, whether you’re the leader that serves, that connects, or that makes everyone laugh with your joy of life. You’ve made your mark on this old, wise school, and your story is part of us now.
I’ll close with a prayer from the Reverend William Sloan Coffin that I say to my students at the end of the year. This prayer reminds me of YOU, what you’ve done on The Hill, and what you are about to do with your beautiful lives:
May God give us the grace never to sell ourselves short, the grace to risk something big for something good, and the grace to know that the world is now too dangerous for anything but the truth and too small for anything but love.
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