A Message To Teens: “Remember To Breathe”

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.

Cathy Dancz

Cathy Dancz

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.

National Honor SocietyWhen 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.

Cathy Dancz quoted the Dalai Lama...

Cathy Dancz quoted the Dalai Lama…

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.

...and Rabbi Hillel.

…and Rabbi Hillel.

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.

Staples High SchoolStepping 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.


Thank you.


15 responses to “A Message To Teens: “Remember To Breathe”

  1. Stephen Rubin

    Thanks Dan. Great reading. Now let”s all listen and practice what we read.

  2. Stacy Prince

    I wish someone had given me that speech in 1977. And again in 1981. And again and again until it sank in. Wonderful; thanks for sharing.

  3. Holly Wheeler

    WOW. Brava !!!

  4. Cathy-

    I hope you get to read this. I am so grateful to Dan for posting your speech to the Honor Society inductees, and the Grim Reaper Day video. in which you were featured I believe. You have a point of view that is crucial that Westport’s young people hear. You are showing them that there are life goals to pursue that are much more meaningful than making piles of money. You are showing them that it is painful to experience loss, but also showing that you can work through the pain and not collapse under its weight. You are demonstrating the real and true benefits of a gifted intellect. And you are presenting an authentic self. Those are all concrete, valid constructs that they can model in their lives. And thanks to Dan, they have access to your amazing words once they leave your classroom.

    I have a son who will be starting at Staples at the end of the summer. I will keep my fingers crossed that one day your name will appear on his class schedule. He will clearly have many opportunities to learn far more than the topics listed on the Common Core curriculum!

    With gratitude to both you and Dan,
    Denise Ewing

    • Cathy Dancz Schager

      Thanks, Denise. I can’t thank you enough. The NHS speech was definitely a lot easier than the video for TAG (not crazy about the name “Grim Reaper Day”). But, I will do whatever I can to try to help young adults make good choices. I hope that I cross paths with your son!

  5. Judy Luster

    Well said and I’m sure well delivered. Just the right amount of humor, always honest, intelligent and audience centered. Cathy, I wish our paths had crossed at Staples but I retired in 2003. All the best to you, your family and your fortunate students.

  6. Great speech! Thanks for posting! Staples is lucky to have her!

  7. Lynn Jeffery

    I can’t stop crying, I’m so moved. This is the most eloquent, right-on, writing, personal reality plus inspiration you can ever get. It doesn’t get better than this. I’m speechless, just profoundly grateful that Westport has a talent and message like Cathy’s. How lucky are we! How we wish Cathy could give training courses to other teachers and leaders, but moreso, train the increasing selfish, arrogant, material adults who don’t have half Cathy’s true success through wisdom and integrity. As if you can teach heart, brain and character, but we must try, through modeling like Cathy’s.
    To Dan for posting this gift, and Cathy, we cannot begin to thank you enough. This speech will be reproduced and e-distributed to many in the universe hopefully creating ripples of positive change from your exceptional gifted perspective and writing. Thank you thank you immeasurably. Talk about making a difference, YOU are the best of life.
    Wishing you happiness, fulfillment, and asking you to keep sharing with us.
    With LOVE and gratitude, another devoted community reader and passionate doer.

  8. Sally Campbell Palmer

    I am going to make a copy of this speach to present to my grandchildren – and their parents, for that matter – at an appropriate age. Thank you!

  9. Cathy Dancz Schager

    Thanks, so much, to everyone for their kind words. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t formally written the speech so it took me a little while to go back through my chicken scratch, type it up, and send it to Dan. I opened up by identifying myself as a “people-pleasing overachiever” – as though we were at an AA meeting. And, in that vein, one of my biggest weaknesses is my inability to stop reflecting. Since giving the speech, all I can think about is all of the things I didn’t get to say.

    While I think that many of you are being entirely too generous in your praise, I will admit that I would love to do more of this kind of speaking. If you believe there is actually an audience for it, I’m all for pursuing it.

    I’d love the opportunity to be able to speak more about these issues – a deeply personal passion of mine. As a single, working Mom it would also be nice to have an easier time making it – financially – from the June – Sept paycheck. However, I have so little time to figure out what this might look like that any suggestions would be tremendously appreciated.

    Though I gave up more lucrative career pursuits, I am tremendously lucky to have found one that enables me to spend my time working with students on critical issues. After having done that, now, for over a decade, and specifically in social studies, I feel pretty confident that I have a handle on the challenges many of us (kids and adults) face. Like I said, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m constantly striving to help find solutions that enable us to become empowered and create healthier habits and communities.

    Now all I have to do is practice what I preach 🙂

    Oh and to correct a few errors – the lax team was 2-12 for the first two seasons and the Girls Lacrosse team plays on/Hannah’s goal occurred on Ginny Parker Field.

    peace and personal harmony,

  10. Wow! I am just speechless and crying. This is one of the most heartfelt, empowering and best addresses to students I have read in a long time, maybe ever! I already emailed it to my children–one of whom is graduating from SHS next month and the other is beginning his journey at SHS this fall. There is so much pressure on our children especially in this community. Thank you for your honest and encouraging words. How fortunate for the inductees to hear this and thank you to Dan for posting it so the rest of us could read it. I have a feeling it’s going to go viral! I don’t usually post comments, but this was truly amazing!

  11. Suzanne Zarrilli

    That was awe inspiring. I have two wonderful daughters Staple 05′ & 07′. They are the same driven young women today as they were at Staples. I forwarded this to them, so they realize that they too have to breathe. Life isn’t filled with the “next” thing or achievement. I am also amazed at the courage it took Cathy to change her life because she wasn’t going to settle. Applause for those graduating and for having such a wonderful example

  12. Margaret Hart Rynshall

    I’m Staples class of ’71 and I’m keeping this speech for myself! It’s never too late to keep improving on and learning to “like” yourself. Thank you, Cathy (and Dan).

  13. Max Stampa-Brown

    Ms. Dancz is such an incredible teacher. She was one of the only teachers at staples that made me care about worldly affairs and to also stay true to myself. What an awesome speech, and what an awesome lady.

    • Cathy Dancz Schager

      Hey Max!!!! Me thinks you are a bit too kind. I have to say your name usually comes up about once a year in my U.S. history class. You left your mark 🙂 hope you are well!!