From where I sit, I see courage. From where I sit, I see compassion. From where I sit, I see friendship.
I had a front seat to it all. On graduation day on the dais behind the podium, I experienced one of my proudest moments as a Head of School. The events that unfolded before my eyes were captured in the above photograph by Jo-Ellen Fischbach.
At graduation, all of our student leaders played a very important role. They worked with faculty sponsors to create a metaphor upon which individuals constructed a part of their TLS story. This year’s metaphor was a puzzle. Easton Morton, president, started the speech off and set the first piece of the puzzle in place. He was followed by fellow students: Hannah Qazi talked about Preschool; Nathan Vittitoe remembered first through third grades; Jackson Cornet harkened back to fourth and fifth grades; Sanaa Kahloon, Middle School; Emma Samuel represented The Learning Center; and Reid Noonan brought it all together to complete the puzzle.
When Emma Samuel stepped forward, one assumed she would continue the puzzle metaphor, but, instead, the audience heard a deep breath followed by these brave words, “Am I smart?” All eyes were riveted on the podium. Emma’s words were followed by a slight crack in her voice and then silence … poignant silence.
From where I sit, I see courage.
Emma proceeded to speak about her transition in fourth grade into The Lexington School and The Learning Center. She shared her fears and vulnerabilities about switching to a new school and making new friends. She also talked about her battle with dyslexia. With tears streaming down her face, Emma worked to regain her composure as she spoke about the first time she met her dear friend, Smith Brewer. “She showed me I could just be myself and not worry what other people think.” Emma added, “Plus, The Learning Center helped me not get frustrated with my work.”
By this time the audience was enraptured by Emma’s story and, by offering understanding through their silence, allowed her to gather her thoughts and swallow her tears. She continued, “Now, noticing that this is my last day of being a TLS student, I would like to thank all my friends for a relationship of love and courage and my parents for their support and sticking with me through it all.” Tears came again, but Emma persevered and talked about the impact of her teachers—the ones who changed her life:
But right now I would definitely like to thank my teachers for my education because I remember in third grade I most positively did not know what I was going to be when I grew up, but now I want to be a teacher because [my teachers] taught me I can do anything in life I put my mind to.
Her voice broke again and I wasn’t quite sure she would be able to finish her speech.
From where I sit, I see compassion.
I looked out into the audience and saw their tears stream in solidarity with Emma’s. I looked back and saw her classmates on the edges of their seats, ready to leap out of their chairs to grab Emma and hold her tight. Time stopped for a brief moment suspended by a flood of Middle School memories – a collective reverie as we all remembered our insecurities. The magic that Emma pulled off that morning was her making Middle School real for all of us in attendance. We were not only living Emma’s experience of overcoming dyslexia and reading a speech in front of hundreds of people or the social pain of leaving friends behind in third grade and starting anew at a school where we knew no one, but, magically, Emma’s words helped the members of the audience remember and feel again their own pain and awkwardness of their own middle school years and, more importantly, the triumph of seeing the other side. Emma reminded us that we each made it through middle school and discovered who we were – experienced the success on the court, field, stage, or classroom. Emma was living proof. We weren’t just amazed by her story, we were amazed that we got to see a child turn into a young adult right before our very eyes. We watched her meet her fears and overcome them.
But wait, was this going to end in triumph or humiliating defeat? I could see Emma sobbing, and I watched her turn to run from stage. Immediately, I saw two hands, firm but comforting, grip her shoulders to turn her back toward the podium, and I heard a voice whisper, “You can do this.” I saw Emma take one last deep breath, and then her eyes looked up toward the audience, and she confidently concluded her speech:
“And I finally understand ‘I am Smart,’ with my puzzle piece of TLS completing it.”
From where I sit, I see Friendship.
What the audience could not see was just as remarkable as what they heard from Emma. Reid Noonan, Emma’s fellow eighth grade student who was waiting his turn to speak, was standing directly behind her throughout her entire speech. He instinctively grabbed her hand the first time her voice cracked and tears streamed down her cheek. He stood there silently with his head down, staring at her hand in his. Sometimes he squeezed hers; other times she squeezed his back. But the end was the most remarkable part, when Emma wanted to leave after making it so far. We all have been there, convinced we needed to give up even though the finish line was right there. Reid wasn’t going to let that happen. Reid was present not only for Emma, but for all of us. The audience needed to hear those final words, “I am SMART,” just as much as Emma needed to say them.
After Emma finished her piece of the puzzle, it was Reid’s turn. He summarized his important learning points in Preschool and Lower School, and then he ended with these beautiful words:
“These past three years were where I learned that I mattered, I had a job, no matter how small the community was like TLS. Middle School classes called for critical thinking. They called for an attention to detail; everything mattered. In Middle School, I also found that you made the strongest relationships, whether it was being with teachers or your classmates. This was where I found my piece, my spot in society, my calling. Student Council called my name with responsibilities, and it was an amazing decision. Tasks made me feel like I mattered, which was great. Three years have passed, and I have made many new friends, some I didn’t expect, and I grew stronger with others. Teachers such as Mr. Conley, Mr. Hurst, Mrs. Staley, Mrs. Meredith, and others were my support system. When I was down or feeling out of place, these people brought me back stronger, which I’m extremely thankful for. ‘It takes a village,’ they say, and these people were mine; these people completed me. Thank you.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself, Reid. We don’t do it alone, and we cannot forget that.
Here is to Community – One School!
Here is to TLS!
And here is to a great school year filled with Courage, Compassion, and Friendship!