This piece was originally delivered as a speech at Castilleja School.
On paper, Castilleja is not so different from other schools. There are other private schools, even all-girl schools, that can claim the same benefits and advantages that Casti can. At least, I used to think this was the case.
A few weeks ago, I discussed the practice of Senior Talks with a friend from a different school. Her school is much like Castilleja – small, all –girls, but located in a different state. They also have senior talks, where seniors speak about an important experience or idea that they want to convey to their peers, in a speech that is often moving and deeply personal. However, at my friend’s school, the best senior talks get voted on in a competition to win scholarship money. At Castilleja, the only prize you get for a senior talk or 8th grade speech is flowers – flowers and the comments of teachers and students alike who will tell you “congrats on your speech” and “great speech,” whether you have spoken to them before in your life or not.
This perfectly illustrates the Castilleja difference, which is not our students’ intelligence, not our achievements, not our clubs or sports teams, not even our amazing teachers, but the kindness that permeates all aspects of school life. When I say kindness, I don’t mean that ubiquitous descriptor offered to girls – “she’s so nice. “ Niceness is politeness, niceness is going through the motions of kindness. When I say kindness, I mean empathy and understanding. I mean that if a girl is found crying in a bathroom, she won’t be ignored, but hugged and reassured. If I miss a class, I can ask a classmate to send me the notes and she will do so without a second thought. These are little things, but important things.
Our teachers work incredibly hard in order to instill in Castilleja girls skills and knowledge that they need to be successful – the ability to consume information critically, to write and speak clearly, to analyze data and construct original solutions to problems. In short, they give us the tools to be great students and great citizens. But what they leave up to us is to be good human beings.
It can be hard to remember – in an age where personal, non-digital interaction is increasingly rare, and efficiency is increasingly important — that your value as a person can’t be defined by what you produce. You’re not your grades, your 100 meter time, your robotics trophies or audience applause – you are how you treat other people. As Maya Angelou said “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
In a book Mr. Smoot’s Rebellion class is reading, a character goes without speaking for decades, because he feels that if no one is listening to him, he might as well not speak at all. As someone who identifies as an introvert, I fully understand that urge. But no one who has had an English class with me in the last few years would call me quiet. When I’m in a place where people listen and respond to what I’m saying, whether I’m talking at lunch, begging Upper Schoolers to submit to Caledonia — which you can still do by the way, or in a class, I can be outspoken. This is because at Casti, people have learned how to listen, instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.
I hope we never lose that, our ability to listen to each other with undivided attention and sincerely try to understand an opposing point of view. I hope you younger students, even you girls way back there in the sunshine yellow ties, remember that the little things you do for others really make a difference – not only for the people who you help, but for your own growth and sense of self-worth. Reason is all well and good, but compassion – and of course conscience courage charity courtesy and character – are even more essential. Seniors, take this with you when you go to college. Be kind, be smart and be important – but mostly the first one. How you are matters as much as what you do.
Divisiveness and polarization are so common today in politics and religion, and there are tremendous challenges facing our generation as we go about fixing the earth and keeping the peace. Basically, we need as many empathetic and capable women as we can get.
As seniors, we have tried to do all we can to create a culture of compassion. Now it’s up to the rest of you – juniors, underclassmen and the middle school to make Castilleja known as a place where people are not just good at what they do, but good to each other.