(Photo Credit: Tom Amico, Amey Owen & Stephanie Vasta)
At today’s All School Opening Chapel, Head of School Jeff Zemsky shared the following meditation on perseverance. At the conclusion of Chapel, all students and faculty gathered around the flagpole in front of the CE Building for our traditional flag-raising ceremony- led this year by senior Joe Z. ’19 and first-grader Mia S. ’30.
Let’s begin this year with some questions, shall we? And let’s step over the factual kind – the who, the what, the when – let’s start with the big, meaty questions that take up a lot of space – the why and the how? Here’s one: how do you prepare for the unknown? When you know that you don’t know what’s going to happen, how do get ready? Are you preparing to survive or are you preparing to thrive? Are you planning on “doing your best” or are you preparing to persevere and make your best even better?
Let’s think about a metaphor. When a gardener puts a seed in the ground, it does not look like much. The gardener may have researched this particular seed and the flowers and fruits it might produce, but the gardener does not know what will happen. All the gardener knows is what has worked in the past, and sometimes all the gardener knows is what did not work in the past. But still, the gardener selects some strategies: where to put the seed, when to plant, what to plant alongside it. The gardener studies what conditions a seed needs to grow into a successful, beautiful, and thriving plant.
Let’s think about you, when faced with the unknown, how do you prepare? Do you try to look ahead by asking an older brother or sister what 4th grade is like or asking a friend what the teacher is like? Do you look on the internet for information or secrets from others who have read this book or taken this course before? Or… or do you prepare by searching your past for similar experiences, by thinking about what worked for you last time? Do you seek to know yourself? In reality, we do both of these, but if you only had ten minutes: which is more important, knowing your future or understanding your past?
I read a book this summer that helped me find an answer to this question. Some of you know this book, too: Ghost, by Jason Reynolds. It’s about running. Who else chose this as a summer reading book? The story is about Castle Crenshaw, aka Ghost, a middle school student who experienced a very traumatic event as a young boy. This event shaped how Ghost lives his life; he’s become defensive and fearful of the world around him in his inner-city neighborhood, where he lives with his mother with barely enough money to make ends meet. Ghost is obsessed with eating sunflower seeds. He eats a pack every day, putting the whole shells in his mouth and separating them from the seeds inside with his teeth. Ghost makes one big mistake after another. It’s startling how many times Ghost, in big moments, make a wrong decision – he lies, he cuts school, he steals. When the track coach sees how fast Ghost is, the coach convinces him to try running on his elite track team. Ghost knows nothing about track but the coach sees something in him that Ghost does not quite see or does not understand in himself. The coach tells him he can be special if he starts making changes to his life.
As books do, this one made me think about my own past. For about 15 years of my life, I loved to run. I was not fast, but it made me feel great to go for a 3-5 mile run after school or when I needed a break, when I needed a quiet place. One day about five years ago I hurt my knee while I was running, it swelled up so much I could not walk. My injury was not traumatic, it was not a crisis, like Ghost’s, but it was definitely a setback. The doctor told me I would most likely need surgery as he drained the fluid from my knee with what he called two “Hollywood-sized needles.” I got over the frustration and I started exercising and healing and continuing. I was surviving.
But I was not thriving. After I stopped running, I started using a fitness machine that would put less stress on my knee. I stopped hiking big mountains in fear that I would be stuck hours away from help. I avoided activities, like soccer, that I knew might hurt. This summer I’ve stopped avoiding that risk, the unknown, and instead, I have been preparing myself for them. I have been running again, outside on trails. In July I set a personal goal and climbed the tallest mountain in New Mexico, which is a rocky, 5-hour hike to 13,000 feet and back, something I last did 18 years ago. Am I just being resilient and courageous in the face of my own fears? No, that’s not it. I’m doing things differently than I did before. I wear a compression sleeve on my knee. I go slower. I take smarter breaks: shorter, more frequent, and I keep moving. I stretch. I didn’t used to do that. If I had not experienced that setback I would not have learned these strategies. I’m really glad to be running again.
I think about Ghost, who had experienced a real crisis. When the book starts, he is surviving – it’s difficult and he faces a lot of challenges in life, but he is surviving. He knows how to go to school, to shield himself from things that hurt the most, to make a few friends, to trust his mother. He is not thriving, though. I won’t spoil the end in hopes that many more of you will read this wonderful book, but I will share with you what the author, Jason Reynolds, said when he was asked in an interview about why the crisis is important to the story. This is what the author said: “Trauma is real. And Ghost already knows how to run. He’s running from his past, his family, and trauma. Boys in the inner city already know how to play these sports, they know how to run. The trick is to learn the discipline of track, to learn how to breathe through the pain. My hope with Ghost is to figure out how to steer the narrative—of how to run from and run to the things in our lives.”
Then the journalist asked the author, “Ghost eats a lot of sunflower seeds. Like track and running, are the seeds and the art of eating them a metaphor for Ghost and his story?” Mr. Reynolds said this: “Of course! Everything is intentional. Ghosts says, ‘I’ve learned to crack a shell open.’ Ghost and his affinity for seeds represent the discipline and concentration needed to eat a sunflower seed. The reward is not in the actual eating, but in the process—the process of being able to do something right. It’s a feeling of completion and it’s all happening in his mouth. No one else sees this. He already possesses this skill set.”
What is this skill set? I think it’s the knowledge of how to turn a setback or a crisis into a revelation, a new power, a running strategy to use next time. This is the skill of perseverance. That is a word many people know but don’t think about too much. I invite you to consider it deeply. Perseverance is embracing the knowledge that overcoming setbacks, even failures, is the path to success. If you are not experiencing any failures, or if you are but are not learning new skills from your mistakes, you are probably surviving but not quite yet thriving.
And where do you find perseverance? It’s inside that sunflower shell, inside that seed, inside Ghost, inside you. It’s already in us. I want you to find it and then give it attention, bring it to the surface where you can use it to do new things. This takes time, perhaps years of experiences spread out over many years. This is why you are in school, though, and particularly why you are in this school: because we believe that it is our mission to grow your potential through a journey of mind, body, and spirit that lasts from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood
I see first graders and seniors and think about the journey between you. It’s not about any one book, one project, one exam, one course, one year. It is about the accumulation of experiences, and your ability to understand yourself as a learner. It is about having setbacks and learning from them, and ultimately it’s about your ability to show, not just talk about, but to show how you persevere, what you are curious about, why you use empathy, and what you create.
These are the mission skills of Moravian Academy: curiosity, creativity, empathy, and perseverance. The faculty and I, with the help of the Board of Trustees, have chosen to highlight these starting in 2018 because learning these skills brings our mission of mind, body, and spirit to the work you do every day. They make that mission real. And today you heard that these amazing skills are already inside you.
The mission skills are also an answer to the question we started with. How do you prepare for the unknown? If you seek to know your future, you may or may not be right, time will tell. If, however, you seek to understand your past, well, then you will find within yourself the seeds of your own strength: the perseverance and the Mission Skills you will use to overcome whatever you may face in your future, to help you thrive wherever God has planted you.