On Doing Real Work (and introducing the Awards Ceremony)

Below are the notes for my opening words at the 2018–19 Awards Ceremony at The White Mountain School.

Student presenting her LASR project: “A Water Color Response to a Dance World”

Welcome to the Awards Ceremony. We here tonight to recognize a few of our students who have done truly exceptional work in respective disciplines of study. Before we launch into celebrating these specific individuals, I want to reflect back to you the amazing and inspiring work I have seen throughout this year.

On Monday morning, at 7:30am, I came across Chris (a senior) alone in McLane. He was — not surprising for those that know him — dancing. “I have been up since 5am studying,” he said. “I am ready.” He was smiling. He was ready.

I asked Hayden (a midyear transfer) on Monday after lunch how the rest of the week looked for him. He said, smiling, “I just finished my hardest class — chemistry — and I think I did okay… The rest of the week looks great.”

Today, right before the last final, Yalda shared: “Oh my gosh- It is my last presentation; I am not ready for it.” I asked, half jokingly and half seriously: “Are you not ready for your presentation or for the end of year?” “Let’s not talk about it…” Yalda replied.

So here we are. It is pretty much the end of the 2018–19 school year.

At this point, I can finally say: congratulations. Congratulations for the excellent work each of you has done during the 2018–19 school year. In terms of your academic requirements — projects, homework, tests, presentations — they are finished. Complete. Done Well.

Well done.

You have assembled projects; delivered presentations; created models; and written papers. You have been curious. Asked questions and researched. You collaborated in ways to make the sum greater than its parts, and you communicated your results persuasively and impactfully. You have engaged purposefully in real work. Work that matters.

Each of you, and the work that you have done, reminds me of one of my favorite poems, To be of Use. In this poem, Marge Piercey writes about engaging in meaningful work. She writes:

Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.

You, each of you, have found and immersed yourself in work that is real.

Let me share with you some of the real work that members of this community did this year.

  • You wrote about what ‘America means to YOU’ and you presented it in front of the whole school.
  • You made meaningful connections to the people, places, and environments your food and clothing come from.
  • You ‘tried on’ utilitarianism as you chose which path your trolley should take and how many lives you should save.
  • You were inspired by the connection between architecture and religion in buddhist societies, and through the study of Buddhism you began to understand how religion influences how you see the world around you.
  • You made brochures promoting the wonders of ancient cities and civilizations.
  • You learned about immigration through a Spanish story and song.
  • You created a beautiful artistic representation of the Golden Gate bridge with a Monet-inspired sunrise, and in so doing, you showed the power and strength of female athletes.
  • You used design thinking to create a ceramic teapot that fit people’s specific needs.
  • You found your written voice after writing a creative memoir, and (so importantly) you were proud of your work.
  • You learned to code and then animated your own geometric fractal.
  • You argued that Tim O’Brien used war to describe his Hobbesian view of society.
  • You designed your dream expedition after learning outdoor leadership skills.
  • You created a historically-accurate replica of an Isadora Duncan tunic.
  • You made the audience double over in laughter during Acting can be Murder.
  • You made an artistic sketch of Eben, and in doing so, you developed a trust in your own understanding of color theory.
  • You read a novel about Frida Kahlo … in Spanish!
  • You choreographed a solo in the style of Mark Morris.
  • You painted an Icelandic landscape that you saw during Field Course with acrylics on canvas.
  • You wrote your college essay, but most importantly, you reflected on yourself in the process.
  • You spent hours upon hours … upon hours.. in the art room. Doing, and redoing a painting of your brother.
  • You learned, and then shared, that confidence plays a huge role in a student’s math experience… and that grades often belie intelligence.
  • You learned how to assess and treat people who are critically injured in challenging natural environments.
  • You created an independent field course where you witnessed child birth, and learned how to safely perform a C-section.
  • You wrote a sestina, and found beauty in the confines of poetic structure.
  • You painted a truly dark tale of local development, using art as a form of activism.
  • You stuffed a bird, becoming a taxidermist.
  • You built a robot. And not just any robot. You built Murphy.
  • You immersed yourself in the techniques of making Japanese sake cups, explored the psychology of video games, researched the potential of 3D printing human organs, and analyzed the energy industry in Afghanistan.

You did real work.

That was ever so clear on Wednesday during the LASR presentations. Leaving the symposium, and reflecting in particular on Jim Chen and Jacqueline Harris’ presentations, I felt acutely aware of the following:

Real learning is a form of activism.

To each of you:

To you — makers, scientists, and artists…

To you — engineers, poets, and historians…

To you — linguists and actors, dancers and outdoor leaders…

To each of you: congratulations. Congratulations for engaging in your work, in real work and for finishing well.

  • To the 9th graders, you now have a year of experience under your belt.
  • To the sophomores, you are halfway done with high school.
  • To the juniors, we are all looking forward to you stepping into the important role of being the the oldest on campus.
  • And to the seniors, you did it. Congratulations! Can we hear it for the seniors? Now just stay out of trouble in the next two days.
  • And let us not forget the teachers, who supported each of you along the way. Please join me in a thunderous applause that will allow your gratitude to be both heard and felt.

Back to the seniors —

Environmental activist, David Orr, wrote:

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

One word of advice to each of you: Replace what with how.

As you finish here, many of you will be asked or will be thinking: “What will I be or do when I finish college or “grow up” ?”

I recently read a great modification to that question. It is small but profound: Replace WHAT with HOW.

I implore you to ask, “How will I be?” Getting to know each of you in just this one year — in terms of how you will be — I expect and hope that you will be: curious, courageous, and compassionate. The world needs you to be those things.