Dear Class of 2020,
When I taught 7th grade English I used to teach a book called The Red Pony by one of my favorite authors: John Steinbeck. To be quite honest, not many of my students loved the book; however, I kept teaching it year after year because I loved the structure of the book. You see, The Red Pony is a collection of four short stories about the life of a boy named Jody Tiflin. Two of the stories are about big life events—for example, in one story Jody’s first pony dies a terrible death. The remaining two stories are not about big life events but focus on the ordinary, such as Jody’s grandfather coming for a visit. Steinbeck’s collection of short stories in The Red Pony beautifully illustrates the significance of big life events, but also, with equal emphasis, the novel underscores the significance of routine everyday living. I do not worry that the Class of 2020 did not read The Red Pony because they take advantage of big events and the ordinary, everyday well.
The Class of 2020 embraced the big events of middle school with recognizable achievements all year long. Some examples…….
• a finalist performing in the AVANTI Concerto Competition
• two musicians performed in the MSBOA District IV Honors Band
• four State Champion forensics team members
• third place in Oakland County Math Counts championship and two of those team members going on to state competition
• MS wins the talent show
• MS Girls Choir performing at the State Festival winning a ranking of “Excellent”
• All-School Band Concert—floored by the talent and polish of 7th and 8th grade band
• Fine Arts performances are equally incredible South Pacific—and Grease and Oliver
• And 8th grade had leadership in the Walk for Talk or Elect with Respect March
The Class of 2020 also embraced the everyday routines, ordinary living of middle school; in fact, they often made the ordinary extraordinary. Some examples…
• two students wrote an opera in their spare time
• two students are using their summer to participate in Shoulder-to-Shoulder experience
• students played their hearts out in pick-up games in the gym every day
• many students pushed the bounds of their academic classes
• a student helped senior student develop an app for his Senior Project
• 8th grade students tutored other students in math every day of the school year
• one student asked to host the moving up ceremony; then, got a friend to help
• way back in 6th grade some of these 8th grade students started the Rocket Booster Club which is still continuing strong in its third year—rockets were launched today
• student government led the Thursday morning meetings all year with creativity and energy;
• student government also tried to grow community duty and a commitment to social justice
• two young men ate lunch in my office engaged in intensely interesting conversations; their humor and intelligence is worthy Saturday Night Live
• Nearly every student in this room participated in athletics—this is easily the most participatory grade in the school
The Class of 2020 excels at the ordinary and the extraordinary. This class is filled with excellence.
George and Annemarie Roeper, however, did not want Roeper students to strive for excellence alone, but uncommon excellence. What is uncommon excellence? It is excellence infused with compassion and empathy. Compassionate excellence and empathetic excellence are often harder than bald excellence.
So let’s turn to author—Harper Lee—who had an awful lot to say about compassion and empathy in To Kill a Mockingbird. Patrick had you read To Kill a Mockingbird in 7th grade. Atticus says to Scout: “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (3.85-87). It is a little gross to walk around in someone else’s skin so let’s consider another Mockingbird quotation. Atticus tells “Jem, see if you can stand in Bob Ewell’s shoes a minute.” This is a hard lesson for all of us—imagining ourselves in someone else’s skin or in someone else’s shoes. In fact, even when we allow ourselves to consider another perspective, we are somewhat selective about whose skin we are willing to climb into or who shoes we are willing to try on. Why is this lesson so hard to embrace?
I am a mother of 6 and a grandmother 5 times over and I am getting old. I am not John Steinbeck or Harper Lee, but I can tell you why this is a hard lesson to learn. Parents, myself included, unintentionally set their children up with a false world perspective from a very young age. Think about the toys parents give their toddlers to play with: nesting cups, Melissa and Doug puzzles, shape catchers. Nesting cups—all the cups fit neatly into a stack; the chunky puzzles have no left over pieces. The shape catcher—you know the one with an opening for a star, an oval, a square, a circle, a triangle. Well, all the shapes fit. These toys suggest to toddlers that the world is a place that will fit neatly together. This is a lie. Each nesting cup set should come with a cup that does not fit, puzzles should come with pieces that do not belong, and shape catchers should come with extra shapes that do not match any opening. Toddlers across America will experience frustration—but that’s okay, because they will be exposed to the difficulty and beauty of difference and nonconformity.
People do not fit into prescribed shapes, prescribed openings. Real people are hard. Your classmates can be difficult. In fact, it is often easier to help “the world” than it is to help a struggling classmate or work with that certain classmate. I started my job as MS Director the same year the Class of 2020 began middle school. We have gone through the last three years learning together. The compassion and empathy piece is still one I have to work on each day. I asked Bob Simon, the school psychologist on the Bloomfield Hills campus, how to better get along with colleagues whom I found difficult. We had a conversation—no real answers; however, a few days later, I got an envelope from Bob in the inter-campus mail. It had the following quotation in it: “Remember that the things others do that drive us crazy, are the very things that keep them functional.” Surprisingly, this simple quotation does make it easier to get along with others. I taped it on my desk to remind me that my perspective is not the only perspective. And to remind myself I might be driving others crazy. Any excellence I have the good fortune to experience will be more meaningful if it comes from a place of compassion, empathy, and inclusion.
Class of 2020, consider yourselves. You are not stars, ovals, triangles, squares, and circles. You are a collection of unique, complex shapes. You are complex human beings—and sometimes difficult, nonconforming human beings. Thank you. Thank goodness each one of you is an intelligent, distinct being. This has not made middle school easier, but I would argue it has made the last three years a deeper, more meaningful experience. Take with you from middle school your drive toward excellence and extraordinary experiences, and your desire to improve the world and yourselves in the every day. John Steinbeck would be proud. Also, as you grow, remember to practice being good to each other and to consider multiple perspectives. Harper Lee would appreciate it.
And finally, be wary of shape-catchers, nesting boxes, and boxed puzzles disguised as relationships, education, and philosophies. Life is much more difficult and wonderful.