Overcoming Obstacles

Every Monday at School Meeting in the Meeting House on the historic Washington Green, a member of our community gives a talk. It is a powerful, often funny, thought-provoking moment for our school. I’ve posted some of them in this space already this year but the most recent talk, by a former student and current coach, Paige Decker, was wonderful on so many fronts. High school students (and their parents) typically want the path through life to be as smooth and straight as possible. Who doesn’t, at least at first blush? You’d have to be a masochist to want otherwise, right? What Ms. Decker does so well here is to demonstrate, in terms that a high school student can understand, why, at least, we can learn and even embrace the significant challenges we face. I think I wish that it would be possible to develop character without challenges but I know that we need more people like Ms. Decker in the world and she seems clear that she wouldn’t be the person she is today if not for the difficulties she’s navigated, though it sounds like she was pretty terrific even before facing them. I share her unedited remarks here:

Hi everyone, thanks for having me today.  My name is Paige Decker, and I have a story to tell you all today, and it’s a story about hitting rock bottom.  About what it’s like to have everything going for you in life, and then to be hit with a curve ball that sends you spiraling further and further down to the very lowest, darkest depths of the human experience.  And then, how you come out of it better, stronger, and with more of yourself to offer to the world.

But to hear how I hit rock bottom, I need to tell you how I made it to the top.  And it started here… at The Gunnery.  I attended The Gunnery for two years after coming from the local middle school because I had goals of attaining academic and athletic success. I was, like all of you, a motivated kid.  I wanted to go places, to succeed.  

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Prefect Elections 2016

One of my favorite periods of every year is the Prefect election process. Candidates–members of the junior class–nominate themselves and then have to go through a fairly rigorous process to prepare to run for the position. This includes leadership training, a writing and reflection component, preparing a speech and having a number of adults in the community “sign off” on their candidacy. It’s a fairly high bar to clear and it means that students have to be very thoughtful about whether and why to run.

On a recent Tuesday night, the twenty three candidates delivered speeches to the entire student and faculty body. It’s one of the best nights of every year. This year our Assistant Head and Dean of Students, Chris Baudo, delivered some opening remarks that I wanted to pass on. Enjoy!

I usually take a moment to represent the faculty in sharing a few thoughts on leadership, and specifically being a leader at The Gunnery. In thinking over the past week about what to say in this moment, I realized that you, the student body, and not the candidates, are the only group we speak to during this process. We tell you what to think about when considering a candidate. We tell you how to vote and when to vote.   We tell you to support your friends who put themselves out there but do not get called on for the position. Yet…we, as the adults, rarely, if ever, take the time to speak to the candidates. And so I would like to take the opportunity to do that now.

To each of you sitting up here tonight….we are proud of you. No matter what happens with your delivery this evening or with the voting all week, we are proud of you. And that’s because you are doing what so few of us, as your teachers and adult mentors, were willing to do at your age; you are finding the courage to let your aspirations outweigh your fears by engaging in a process where you literally have only a 25% chance of winning. Those are not great odds, but as the founder of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, once said, “When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.” I can promise you that many of us, myself included, chose to not run for such positions because the fear of putting ourselves out there and not succeeding paralyzed us. That does not make me or anyone out there (in the audience) a lesser person, but it does make you uniquely special.   

We are proud of you. Proud of you for wanting to lead this community for the right reasons. Proud of you for engaging in an exhausting process that forces self-reflection on your core values and stretching yourself more than most would want or feel the need to. Furthermore, you are courageous in the way that we all desire for all of our students and graduates to be. You officially are a risk taker. You are brave. You are strengthening your self-confidence by simply taking part in this process. Do not underestimate the importance of confidence and believing in oneself, as it will be either your greatest friend or most vicious enemy, if you lack it, the older you get.

Also understand that it is this internal strength and confidence that convinces us, in the face of natural self-doubt, to follow our dreams and achieve our goals. But know that this self-assuredness does not just happen with time, but rather its growth and strength come through repetition after repetition of facing challenges head on—sometimes succeeding and many times failing—but always allowing your faith in yourself to overcome your fear. Tonight is an opportunity to gain just a little bit more of that self-reliance, and you are ready to take advantage of it. So simply do your best tonight, and know that this community will be proud of you no matter what happens. No matter your execution of the speech or your fate in the days thereafter, you will be one step closer to fulfilling your potential as a young person by simply giving it your best shot. Good luck, tonight, from all of us.