Teaching, Travel, Writing

Almost Alumnae Speech

Today was the “Almost Alumnae Luncheon” at my school.  Graduating seniors and mothers/special friends are invited to a lunch each year.  There’s a student speaker, a faculty speaker, and a mother/alumna speaker.  I was asked to be the faculty speaker.  It was such an honor, and I want to share the text of my speech below.

(A quick note before my speech.  Amy Grant is an alum of Harpeth Hall and she graciously performed three songs and played her acoustic guitar after the speeches.  It was a moving performance that filled my soul in a way I didn’t realize I needed.  When she came up to sing and started strumming and setting her capo, she said, “Meg, I wish I’d had you as a teacher.”  I died.  I am dead.  Amy. Grant.  You can write that on my tombstone.  “Here lies Meg, Amy Grant gave her a shout out.”)

Here is the text of my speech:

Good afternoon.  I am so honored to have been asked to speak to you today.  In my high school, senior speeches happened at the end of the year, at a time much like this when regular class content was finished, and graduation was still a week or two away.  Seniors met in a large room, and we took turns going up and giving a speech to our class. It was a chance to process, to remember and to say goodbye. Teachers were also allowed to give speeches, and I’ve been waiting, hoping that someday I might get a turn to speak as my teachers did.  And how fitting that I too am in something of a senior year at Harpeth Hall. I’m in a similar position to you, preparing to leave the home I’ve known for seven years. I am poised on the lip of a new adventure, about to speak myself into the world, to utter a new existence for myself, just as you are.  

Perhaps you are feeling a lot of pressure for the next four years.  Someone might have told you that college was the best 4 years of their life.  With no disrespect to the lovely memories of those folks, I’ve always been bothered by that.  My best years will be behind me at 22?

I’m not here to say that college is not wonderful, magical, special.  It can be. Certainly, it’s the first time you will take off into the world alone.  But it is not the only time this will ever happen, it is just the first time.  It is the beginning of beginnings, one of many fresh starts that you will be granted during your tenure on this earth.  My adventure teaching in Brazil next year should serve as a tangible reminder of that. And as a person lucky enough to have had more than one new beginning, I have a few words of advice to share–as much a reminder to myself as lessons for you.  

First, embrace impatience.  Anyone can tell you to be patient, serene and calm.  But I want you to be impatient.  Chill is overrated.  You’re excited for this new chapter to start.  You want the rest of your life to start now!

Good, I say.  Be hungry. Want it.  Then, use that impatience as fuel to learn, to grow, to move somewhere new.  

In 2011, I’d been living in New York City for 6 years going to grad school and then teaching.  But I was impatient to leave. A teaching job in the upper school at Harpeth Hall popped up in the listings. I was hungry for a new beginning.  

After embracing impatience, my second piece of advice is to be foolhardy.  Not foolish, mind you, but foolhardy.  To be foolhardy is to be bold, and recklessly so.  Chase those goals with confidence. Sit at the table, even when you don’t know anyone; knock on the big door; raise your hand in a crowded room; bite off more than you can chew.

Who was I to apply to Harpeth Hall?  I didn’t know anyone, I lived in another state, I was only in my 4th year of teaching.   I had a million reasons not to apply. But I wanted to teach at a place like this. So I was impatient and dashed in with a foolhardy confidence.  

Then, I showed up.  Show up–that’s my next piece of advice.   Showing up is more than going to class. Showing up in your own life can be incredibly hard.  It feels easier to run, to hide.  To cancel or to sit out. It’s easier to come up with an excuse, to find a distraction.  Showing up for yourself is harder than it seems.

We spend too much time waiting for perfect conditions.  I’ll write that book when I have the time or the perfect idea.  I’ll apply for that job when my resume has exactly the right things on it.  When I have the courage to move to another country, I’ll do it.

My secret is that I’m not brave, or honestly even ready.  But, being impatient and bold and showing up is what brought me here.  After a phone interview with Ms. Powers for the upper school English job, they flew me to Nashville to interview and teach a lesson.  I still thought my chances were slim. Who was I? Some public school teacher from New York with a theater degree. But I showed up. And I poured all of me into it.  

After 2 agonizing weeks of waiting, the call came in that I got the job.   

So, you’re going to let yourself be impatient and foolhardy, you’ll show up even when you aren’t ready, even if you’re scared.  Then I want you to listen. Pay attention. So, cliche, right? A teacher telling you to pay attention! Let me tell you something about adults.  The path to getting where we are now may seem so inevitable when you see us up here. But in the beginning and the middle of the story that leads to this moment, the ending was anything but certain.  The path doesn’t go in a straight line. You’ve got to pay attention to the signs along the way.  

Some of you may know this about me, but I was a STEM kid.  In addition to theater and the humanities, I took advanced math, and I even doubled up in higher level chem and bio in senior year.  And in high school I needed an answer when people asked what I wanted to be. I was good at bio and chem and I didn’t really love physics, I liked working with kids, so… pediatrician.  I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re good at STEM and like working with people, right?

So, I went to college hungry and impatient.  In freshman year, I showed up and volunteered at the children’s hospital, and worked in a research lab. I took all the math and science classes, and I got straight A’s.  

Then, near the end of freshman year, I was sitting in my chemistry class, looking to the world like the ideal student.  But in my head, I couldn’t make myself care about it anymore. I was miserable. I was so unhappy. I had been steaming forward with such vigor toward med school, doing everything I was supposed to do.  And yet, when I paid attention, the signs around me were so clear. I paid attention to the truth, deep down, that this path wasn’t right for me anymore. Just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you have to do it.

So, what now?  What was my life going to be?  I felt a deep sense of despair, something akin to a major break-up.  Despite the despair, I dropped my biology major and pre-med focus. Theater was the other thing I loved doing, so I turned my impatient energy toward a career on the stage.  I went abroad during my junior year to London, and I studied Shakespeare and classical acting all day. From 9 am to 6 pm, I immersed myself in theater.

And then, second semester…you may have a sense of where this is going…I was miserable.  In March, when the cast list was posted for the play, for the first time in my life, I didn’t care what part I got.  I’d never felt that way before. But I listened to that feeling.

I came home that summer and regrouped.  I got an education internship at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival.  That summer, teaching kids about Shakespeare, I felt a happiness and fulfillment that–finally–lasted.  

It may sound totally obvious now, seeing me standing here, that I was destined to be a teacher.  But as a 21-year-old, I had no idea. Even though I realized education was a good fit, it would take a year of graduate school for me to realize that teaching English was where I belonged.  

So I want you to pay attention.  Forgive yourself if the career or field you picked perhaps as far back as elementary school doesn’t end up being the one you land on.  It’s not bad to admit you don’t love it like you thought you would. It’s not quitting to follow where you are most happy. And you don’t have to do something just because you are good at it.  

My husband, David, likes to quote a math teacher who says, “Find what you love.  Do more of that.”

You might find that the thing you love was not the thing you were known for being good at at Harpeth Hall.  College is a new beginning so that you can start anew.  You are not a fixed person.   And you will not always be the person your parents and classmates thought you were while you were here.  When I won the English award in high school, my mom said after the assembly, “I thought you weren’t good at English.”  Going to college and then into the world let me see myself beyond the lens of my parents and high school peers. It’s good to get out and see yourself more clearly.  

So, pay attention.  Find what you love. Do more of that.  Listen to mentors and professors when they compliment and encourage you.  Try to silence the voices that tell you that you aren’t “that” kid. The kid who’s good at [blank].  Trust that you don’t know yet exactly what kind of person you are. Trust that you are still forming.  I’m 35 and I have three kids and I still see so much change happening in my life. I’m still forming. I hope it is ever thus.  

Be impatient.  Be foolhardy. Show up.  Pay attention. Find what you love, do more of that.  

It’s what brought me to be standing on this stage, after the seven most formative years of my teaching.  Like you, Harpeth Hall has been an incredible education for me. I have learned things here that I never imagined.  I have accomplished things I couldn’t have done had it not been for this place and the people in it. And now I will take those gifts that this beauty on the hill gave me, and I will, as poet Thomas Lux says:

boil and boil, render
  it down and distill,
  that for which there is no
  other use at all, boil it down, down,
  then stir it with rosewater, that
  which is now one dense, fatty, scented red essence
  which you smear on your lips

And go forth
  to plant as many kisses upon the world
  as the world can bear!


Thank you.

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