It’s pretty tough to give a great speech to inductees of the National Honor Society. What can you tell the brightest, hardest-working kids in the school: Keep studying? Work hard?
Cathy Dancz pulled it off though, at last week’s Staples High School induction ceremony. Here’s what the popular social studies teacher said:
Thank you for inviting me to speak here tonight. I consider it a great privilege. I would also like to congratulate the inductees for this great honor.
You have mastered the game. You were born with intellect, have developed an incredible work ethic, and been lucky to be provided for and supported so far in your lives (for which you will eventually thank your parents). You also have demonstrated the less measurable quality of behaving ethically – to the betterment of the school community. So, congratulations.
But the game will change.
It won’t change right away. College will be similar to high school, for the most part. Similar, obvious rules. It’s what comes next that becomes difficult. There are things we haven’t taught you here, but that you must learn.
You need a good, strong handshake. Not the bone-crusher. But a strong, solid shake. And don’t hold on for too long.
Look people in the eyes when you talk to them. It is very important. It makes people think you are listening to them and that you are honest. It will convince them to stay on board with you even if you are going somewhere that seems crazy.
You need to learn to breathe. This may sound crazy. We all know how to breathe. It happens naturally, from the beginning. But many of us aren’t doing it right. I am still learning to breathe properly. But let me back up.
When I graduated college I had no idea where I was headed. I got a job that I didn’t like in New York City. I heard about an opening for a lacrosse coach at Vanderbilt University. So I got on the next plan to Nashville. I had some interesting experiences there. I loved the girls. But it wasn’t the right fit. And I started experiencing anxiety.
I went to the doctor. He immediately offered me Prozac, and told me how many people my age were having the same experience. I politely declined the offer, wondering whether he was sponsored by the drug company, and began to experience panic attacks. This is the first time I learned to breathe.
The problem is that life after school doesn’t have set boundaries or clear goals. Sometimes you work really, really hard and nobody cares. Sometimes you are very good at something, but it makes you a target of scorn instead of praise. It turns out that being honest, direct and confident can mean that you are intimidating.
The fact is that life is not a sprint. I don’t know what it is – a marathon, a tough mudder, a triathlon with periodic rests on beaches, plus severe hurricanes and snowstorms. But it’s all much easier to take if you learn to create balance for yourself.
The Dalai Lama says that if every 8-year-old learned to meditate, in one generation there would be no war. Part of me knows this is a bit trite. But a bigger part of me knows how incredible it would be if more people actually did it. You need to sit by yourself, and breathe. And “by yourself” I mean without your phone. Alone. Maybe even outside. You need to figure out who you are, what you are about, and hopefully that you kinda like yourself.
Now comes Part 2. Responsibility. We’ve all heard that knowledge is power. That money is power. Well, here we are on the gold coast, and I’ve got news for you. You’ve got money and knowledge. So you’ve got power. And with great power comes great responsibility. Shout out to Spiderman.
If you’ve been in any of my classes you know about the many problems in this country and this world. You know about the people for whom you collect cans at Candlelight; you know about income inequality and gender inequity; you know about cronyism; you know about the horrible crises in Syria and the Central African Republic.
You know there are small things that you can do, like tell your friend to get the heck off Yik Yak. And the sooner you start doing that, the sooner it will become a habit and you can sleep the sleep of the just.
You can also decide to take on bigger issues. Because now is the time, in your lives, to do it. You can look around this room and see older people and know that, though we may have passions, we also have families to raise and bills to pay. Revolutions come from the young idealists.
So, here I’ve given you dichotomous advice. First I said, don’t just do something, sit there. And now I’m saying, don’t just sit there, do something. So what do you do?
I don’t pretend to have the recipe for a life well lived. I don’t have all the answers, and I hope I still have a lot more life to live. We are in a society that sends very confusing messages about what to value. So, being moderately interested in history, I took a look back at some historical scholars for guidance.
You’ll notice that I left a quote on your chair. It is from Rabbi Hillel in ancient Babylonia. He is an incredibly famous Jewish historical figure, largely credited for helping to create the Mishna and the Talmud.
Rabbi Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”
After coaching college lacrosse, I got a job as a paralegal at a law firm. In 6 months I was managing other paralegals, some twice my age. It was crazy. I was 22. But this game had rules, and I got them. I started planning for law school. I took the LSAT, was offered a scholarship in Duke Law’s international program. But something didn’t feel right.
Then our nation suffered the 9/11 tragedy. And I suffered personal tragedy as well. And I reevaluated.
I decided to become a teacher and a coach, because the last time I could remember being really happy was as a student-athlete and this seemed like the grown-up version.
I got my degree and I came here to Westport. It was great. I loved teaching and I took over the lacrosse program. It was TERRIBLE. We were 2-7. But I figured out the rules and poured my blood, sweat and tears into it.
By year 6 we made it to the state championship. I’d done it. But that’s when I stopped and took a look at my life.
I was a mother. Having kids has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. They don’t come with a guidebook. It is terrifying, hilarious, painful, exhausting, and I realized that I wasn’t happy with parts of my life. So I made big changes.
Stepping away from my marriage and from Staples lacrosse were 2 of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But now I am real. I am 100% present with my 2 daughters. I am mindful of what kind of behavior I model for them and what we discuss on a regular basis. I’ve experienced more joy with them in the last 2 years than our first 7, combined.
Yesterday I was out on Jinny Parker Field. I watched Hannah score her 1st goal, and I knew I was home. When I told her I would miss her practice tonight because I’d been asked to speak here, she said, “You know what you should tell them? That you are a good person.”
It’s been a crazy journey so far. But if the little person who sometimes tells me that I’m the worst mom in the world can also say that I’m a good person, I know I’m doing something right.
I hope you find someone that says the same to you.
Just remember to breathe.