Last night, I had the honor of giving the keynote address at my school’s National Honor Society Induction Ceremony; afterward, several audience members asked me if I would share the text of my speech, which I am happy to do here.
Good evening, everyone. I’d like to thank Carly and the NHS Board for asking me to speak tonight—it’s truly an honor. In preparing for this speech, I learned that the Board had asked my colleague, Kristine Varney, to give this speech, but she is currently in Israel with our amazing Safe Cracking Team. Please know, it is no slight to play second fiddle to Ms. Varney; she is one of the most passionate teachers and dynamic human beings I’ve ever met. And since she couldn’t be here with you and I can, I decided to reach out to her and see what she would speak about if she were in front of you tonight. Turns out that her suggested topic almost exactly mirrored what I had already thought I might say. So, you can imagine, if you like, that we’re both delivering this message.
I’m going to talk about bravery tonight, because I believe that bravery is fundamentally necessary to living an honorable life. Bravery can take many forms, but I fear that all-too-often we pigeonhole bravery into meaning or looking like only one particular thing, or happening under one very particular set of circumstances. So I’d like to explore a little bit of what I feel like I’ve learned about bravery, and I invite you to take away value or insight for yourself if what I say resonates.
I think a lot about stories—of course I do, I’m an English teacher. Specifically, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about narratives that we tell over time, as a culture or a nation: whose stories get told? Whose stories get left out? And how does the framing of those stories impact what we take away from them?
A few months ago, my five-and-a-half-year-old, Shiv got a copy of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, a wonderful volume filled with the true stories of women from all periods of history, all parts of the world, and all spheres of influences: athletes, politicians, scientists, artists. Each one-page story is told in “Once upon a time” style and accompanied by a vibrant, full-page illustration. Shiv loves the book, and so do I.
The thing that has most struck me is how much I’m learning. Like, where have these stories been my whole life? Why have I never even heard of the vast majority of these women before? We know the answer to those questions, of course; those in power craft the narratives, and powerful women tend to threaten patriarchal systems. (Some things don’t change!) Still, my experience reading these stories is visceral: the pride and awe I feel when reading about these incredible women, and the frustration that follows when I realize that I’m still carrying around an outdated narrative about women in general. Because of the stories I’ve been exposed to—and the ones I haven’t been exposed to—our dominant culture has successfully fed me the notion that women of intelligence, ambition, and valor have, historically, been the very rare exception.
This notion of exceptionalism is further revealed by the number of times that the narratives in Rebel Girls include lines like this one, about Jingu, a second-century Japanese empress: “Jingu was thought to have all kinds of magical powers.” Or this one, about Lozen, an Apache warrior who lived in the late 19th century: “People believed she had supernatural powers.”
The message is clear–the only way these women could have been so impressive or done such incredible things is that they had the powers of magic at their disposal. It’s the only possible explanation. But what if these women were just unbelievably brave? What if all of the women that history has cried “witchcraft” at were simply operating from a deep sense of integrity, knowledge of their values, and out of a bravery that compelled them to do what they believed was right?
This year, on the last day of World Religions Week, while most of the campus was away on Winter Trips, Emery hosted a Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony honoring the life of Hiram Bingham IV, an American diplomat who was stationed in France during World War II. Harry, as he was known, helped 2500 Jews escape by issuing entry visas to the United States. He toured internment camps and lobbied the American government for aid, documenting the wretched conditions he saw. I don’t think there’s a single person in this room who would argue with me if I characterized this man as a hero.
But here’s what we forget. Bingham was operating in direct violation of the orders of his superiors. He broke the rules, and in doing so, risked his job and his family’s financial security. We hear Bingham’s story and forget that, during his lifetime, he was not considered a hero. In fact, when the U.S. State Department learned of his actions in France, they abruptly pulled him from his position and relocated him to South America, in what was essentially a professional demotion. A few years later, after he was passed up for another promotion, Bingham quit the Foreign Service. He never shared his wartime actions with his family, and it wasn’t until after his death that his wife and children discovered the documents that would eventually cement Bingham’s status as a righteous Gentile and earn him his own United States postage stamp, among many other awards and honors. Awards and honors that he never personally witnessed or received.
Bingham’s story struck me for many reasons, not least of which is that I learned that he was directly responsible for ensuring the safe passage of two of my personal favorite historical figures, the painter Marc Chagall and the writer Hannah Arendt. How is it that my history could be so incomplete as to include no knowledge of this man who essentially ensured the continuation of the lives and careers of these two brilliant people who have influenced me and so many others? I struggle to conceive of the fact that so much can hinge on the brave decision of one human being, and I can’t help but wonder what it felt like for him to live out the rest of his life with these actions known to only a few. It seems that was enough for him, the knowledge that he acted in accordance with what he believed was right, regardless of what others thought. I am moved by the thought, and aspire to live my life the same way.
Those of us in this room may not be called to bravery in the same way as an Apache warrior, Japanese empress, or American diplomat working overseas during wartime, but rest assured, we will all face numerous situations inside which our bravery will be tested. In our relationships, in our workplace, out in public. And the thing I’ve learned is that trumpets are not going to sound and announce “This is one of those moments! Now is the time! Make sure you choose wisely!” We will not know that we are making history, either inside our own individual life story or someone else’s. There may be no applause or accolades greeting us when we choose to act with bravery, and it is entirely likely that we will instead face scorn, ridicule, and attempts to persuade us of the wrongness of our actions. I think of the young people who spent their summers in the American South, pushing the American Civil Rights movement forward with their very bodies. Many of them were exactly your age—16, 17, 18. We forget this, too. We think of them as heroes now, but they were literally spit on, beaten, harassed, and jailed, looked on as agitators by the vast majority of the American public. Freeman Hrabowski, whose story has been documented by the Library of Congress, was arrested at the age of twelve, after marching in favor of school integration during the summer of 1963. He recalls Dr. King telling him and the other children, during the many days they spent in prison, “What you do on this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.” Dr. King, who himself was considered a domestic terrorist by the FBI.
I don’t have a perfect formula for how we cultivate bravery—sorry, that’s what you get for having me and not Ms. Varney—kidding aside, I am definitely still engaged in this learning process, and anticipate that continuing until the end of my life. But I do have a few thoughts about practices that can support a posture of bravery, so that we are able to access it when it’s time.
Students who’ve had me in class or in dramaturgy sessions won’t be surprised to hear this, but I believe strongly in the necessity of knowing your core values. Right now, your lives are so much about your grades and where you want to go to college and what you want to be when you grow up, where you want to live, what you’ll do; but I’m much more interested in who you want to be. What do you value above all else? What do you believe in? Only you can say. And because I’m a writer and a writing teacher, I’ll urge you to spend some time actually writing down your answers to these questions and thinking through their implications. There is something very powerful about committing a list of values to paper and then working to live by them. It sounds simple, but how can we expect to be brave in the face of challenge when we don’t know what we stand for?
Because here’s the catch—there are lots of potentially meaningful values out there. And the most difficult times in our lives are not going to be when we have to choose between something virtuous and something NOT virtuous; those may require some willpower, but probably won’t result in much second-guessing. The hardest situations are the ones in which our core values come in conflict with other values. Think of Bingham, who chose compassion over institutional loyalty. It’s not that loyalty isn’t valuable—in fact, I think we would all argue that it’s an important quality—but my guess is that Bingham’s core value of compassion outweighed his loyalty considerations during his time in France. In retrospect it seems an easy choice to make, but I doubt that it was so simple for him in that moment.
Which brings me to my next point. If we aspire to bravery, we must cultivate an inner strength that will allow us to stand apart from the crowd, even if that crowd contains friends, acquaintances, co-workers, or family members. There’s nothing wrong with wanting accolades from others, of course; that’s simply human. But if we are so dependent on external validation, we will never be able to break away from its source. Work to be your own champion, and your own critic. Congratulate and acknowledge yourself when you act in ways you’re proud of, in ways that line up with your values; and be willing to admit to yourself when you fall short. This, too, takes bravery.
At the same time, I encourage you to surround yourself with others who share your values. Keep those people close, lean on them when you are faced with those difficult decisions, the ones that require courage. They will remind you of who you are when you are struggling to remember, will support you when others turn away, will keep you from second-guessing yourself when it’s time to put your neck out for what you believe.
It’s likely that none of us in this room will receive public accolades for our brave deeds, though it would be pretty cool to someday buy stamps with a former student’s face on them (if stamps still exist.) But if, at the end of the day, you know in your heart that you have lived according to your values, to me that’s an honorable life, and one well-lived. Thank you for listening, and congratulations.