At the beginning of your freshman year, Jalen Rice walked into my office and said, “Hey Mister, this is nice! …So much light!…. What’s with all those rocks?” She was referring to a collection of rocks that decorate my window sill and conference table. I replied to Jalen, “Those are my rocks; I have collected them from special places, and they remind me of important journeys and people in my life. This one here, for example, is from Caumsett State Park on Long Island. I picked it up the day my daughter Lizzie learned to ride a bike. That rock reminds me of how much courage it took for Lizzie to overcome her fear and trust her new feeling of balance on two wheels.” Jalen said, “That’s cool. Maybe I’ll find you a rock for your office.” As the class of 2019 completes its journey at Hyde, some of you after 13 years, you are each taking with you a few special rocks, metaphorically speaking, wherever you end up spending your time in the future, be it college or work.
The best rocks are the ones that, if they could talk, would say something absolutely true that you know deep down about yourself and your purpose in life. You bring these rocks with you because they are like your character, the foundation of your values and the source of your greatest strengths. As you know, the Senior Evaluation Process at Hyde uncovers these character rocks, and the feedback you got in that process can form a few rocks worth carrying with you for the rest of your life.
One of my rocks is the truth about me as a competitor: I may not be the most talented, but I try really hard. I got that rock in Middle School from Colie Matheson on a bus ride home. Out of the blue he said to me: “Hey, Sturtevant. You know you aren’t the best athlete in our class. You just try harder.” At the time, I took his comment as a slight to my athleticism, but after thinking about it, I knew he was right. My success was and still is not from raw talent but from relentlessness. This quality of my character is as true today as it was in Middle School. However, what’s different now is that I know this about myself, and I put myself in situations that suit my relentlessness. That makes me happy and successful.
As you graduate from Hyde, I implore you to take some rocks of your own. What self-knowledge will you take with you that makes you successful and is essential to your purpose? Perhaps you will take a concern rock that you picked up when you heard your friend’s story of being afraid. Perhaps you will bring that integrity Rock you picked up in Ms. Mgbada’s basketball huddle. Maybe the curiosity rocks you collected making films are already in your pockets. I bet you will carry a handful of smooth, black feedback rocks you collected over the years in Discovery Group. Definitely take that big one that is all courage that you lugged home from the senior retreat. Maybe you haven’t yet found a leadership rock, but you will in time as you pursue your dreams and your vision for your life.
It would be easy to see college as a fresh start, a place where nobody knows your past, a place where you might become someone completely new. But that’s not how it works. You show up as you, and you stay you while trying to figure out how you will chart a course to a future you that is entirely up to you. Here’s where the rocks you bring come in. These “rocks” are really your truth, and you already know that “truth is your guide,” especially as you seek to understand your place in the world. That you know so much about your character, your strengths, what gets in your way, what it takes to stand in someone else’s shoes or to be a brother’s keeper… because you know as much about yourself and others, you have an important leadership capacity that your new peers will perceive and appreciate.
Here’s an imaginary example. Picture Lazje Sanchez at her college orientation. She is going to participate like everyone else and hear about all these amazingly talented and diversely oriented people who will be her college classmates at SUNY Delhi. As these new classmates introduce themselves during orientation, Lazje might be impressed: “That one played a concert at Carnegie Hall; this one wrote a children’s book; the person over there started a business; she is from Brazil and has designer clothes that she models professionally; he makes money on YouTube….” After the orientation get-to-know-you icebreakers, her thoughts might go something like this: “I am so ordinary compared to all these very cool and successful people. I wonder if I’ll ever stand out or become as accomplished as they are. What am I doing here? Do I belong?” Meanwhile other students are going to be thinking, “I couldn’t believe how confidently that woman Lazje talked about herself and how honestly she shared her strengths, weaknesses, and goals. How does she know so well what is important to her? I can trust her; I hope she will be my friend.” What happens next? Lazje reminds herself that she is in college to become a lawyer, not to compare herself to a bunch of people she doesn’t know yet. So she sticks to her plan and naturally makes friends who have the intelligence and sensitivity to appreciate her for who she is.
Class of 2019: You are among the most promising graduating HS students in the country because you understand that your success and happiness are rooted in your character and in your capacity to actively come up with, pursue, and realize your dreams.
When you go to college, you are going to encounter many differently advantaged students, some students who seem like they have everything already, some students who seem to already know how everything works at college and with getting jobs. It’s true; a lot of college students already have many social and economic advantages from the day they were born. That’s a fact; however, it’s also a fact that happiness and success are mostly determined by how well you align your dreams and values with the life you lead and your commitments. It’s not about where you start; it’s about where you are aimed— where you take yourself with intention. It’s not about luckiness nor about having many things go your way; happiness derives from making commitments, making good choices, and building relationships that call for your best and engage your special strengths and interests.
The Hyde character programs teach you to look back at your experiences with a wide-angle, summing up who you are deep down, by how you have grown and evolved as a person. You really know YOUR story and where it is leading you. This foundation of character is essential to your future success and happiness; you DO know your strengths and what sometimes gets in your way. You DO know what makes you special and how to help others be their best.
In your next phase of life, you are bound to encounter exciting opportunities and unexpected setbacks, and when you do, you will be prepared to make the most of both the good fortune or the bad luck by engaging your character as you have learned at Hyde.
One of the priorities of college communities is to create “safe spaces” for open dialog and critical examination of contemporary issues and beliefs. The world badly needs fresh leadership and new ideas, and no doubt colleges are essential institutions to addressing the challenge of imagining a sustainable and equitable future for our planet. As you participate in civil discussions about our future, bring your rocks; speak your truth and listen with concern for what others believe or have experienced; stand up for those threatened by bullies; be a skeptic of partisan thinking and self-serving agendas; get curious about what others find important… why do they love, hate, hurt, or heal? Seek significant truths in your inquiries, even if these truths are disruptive.
In a world that does not have guarantees about safety, a safe space is where people live with character; are curious about others; are courageous about saying the truth and facing conflicts and challenges; where people work from a place of concern and try to stand in other people’s shoes, even people who seem to hate you. A safe space is where bystanders stand up for the persecuted. A safe space is where you never give up, never go for blanket statements, never shut down dialogue, especially when it might be difficult or contentious. You make safe spaces by how you occupy them— with curiosity, concern, integrity, courage, and leadership.
Class of 2019, I am so eager for you to go forth as leaders, with some serious rocks in your pockets, ready to bring your best and to call for everyone’s best as we take responsibility for a sustainable and just society