Welcome to Hogwarts! It’s so great to see the faculty rocking their regalia for this special occasion. I know you are admiring my enormous velvet beret.
As all of us gather to induct students into Cum Laude, I want to think together with you about what this kind of achievement really means. I went to high school outside Boston, so I tend to think about strong students in the local vernacular: wicked smart (smaht). Maybe some of yinz don’t know what this means, but it’s an east coast thing. Wicked smaht is someone who is intelligent, perhaps with some esoteric knowledge, a skill set not necessarily academic, and a flair for using their erudition in the service of living vibrantly.
There is a lot that goes into being wicked smaht. There is the capacity piece, which I will glibly call “brains.” Then there is the hard work component, the grit. To perform so well at school, and with such consistency, over all the years of high school requires tenacity, practice, and stamina. As an educator, I work with people who spend a lot of time thinking about ways we can nurture brains and grit in all our students.
One domain of wicked smahtness we talk about less is opportunity. Cum laude students, and I submit, every student in this auditorium gets to shine in their own way because they have been given the time, space, and attention necessary to grow as students. To spend your adolescent years learning, developing interests, and refining your skills is, in all honesty, a privilege. Your fabulous endeavors include music and drama, global studies, service learning, and being members of sports teams. Sewickley Academy students are not scheming about how to protect their families during a civil war. In some parts of the world, this is the reality that people your age encounter. I know it can be challenging for all of us in the room to feel grateful for the internet service that allows us to do research at night when we would really rather be sleeping, or to savor the electricity that enables us to read at any hour of the day, but it’s worth considering. These privileges have played important roles in all of our successes.
Shankar Vedantam, who wrote a book called The Hidden Brain and has a podcast of the same name, came up with one of the most helpful metaphors for thinking about privilege: privilege is like swimming with the current. You are swimming, doing the strokes, putting in the effort. This is work and it requires skills and knowledge. It’s only when you swim against the current that you realize how much easier progress is in a more hospitable environment. The biggest insight Vedantam makes is that “Those who travel with the current will always feel they are good swimmers; those who swim against the current may never realize they are better swimmers than they imagine.”
Within this metaphor, I think there is much that applies to all of us in the Sewickley Academy community. Someone taught each of us how to swim in these waters of academia; in fact, many teachers have helped us become the swimmers we are today. The Sewickley faculty is committed to each and every one of your successes; this is a tremendous privilege. Think of all the teachers whose goal is to keep their students from academically drowning; we are lucky to find ourselves in the relatively warm waters of Sewickley Academy where we have the luxury to dive so much deeper.
In non-metaphorical terms, you are learning academic skills that will become lifelong productive habits of mind: to be careful observers, to ask for help when necessary, to think critically, to detect patterns, to communicate effectively, to put forth a best effort.
Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’s mother, Debbie, brought him to swimming. In a NY Times interview, she recounted that “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.’” Because she was committed to helping Michael find a milieu in which he could thrive, Michael joined a swim team. Swimming provided an outlet for Michael’s energy and taught him self-discipline. His long limbs, for which he was sometimes teased at school, were an epic asset in the pool. Mrs. Phelps must have known what she was doing because Michael became the most decorated Olympian of all time, winning 22 medals in three Olympiads. In my book, Mrs. Phelps demonstrated exactly how wicked smaht she is by creating this opportunity for Michael.
To make good use of opportunity requires brains and grit. I’ve seen this in action. Lia Neal, who is the daughter of a Chinese-American mother and African-American father, is the first U.S. woman of Black descent to swim an Olympic final for the United States. She won a bronze medal as a member of the women’s relay team. I was on the faculty of the school Lia attended, and graduated from, while she was on the Olympic team. On top of a demanding academic course load, Lia trained five hours every day. She spent her days developing her talents and passions, and she chose to forgo some parts of a typical high school experience. Lia missed social events once or twice. By once or twice, I mean maybe a couple of hundred times. Lia is a huge Justin Bieber fan. Just kidding, I don’t know if she is a Belieber or not; sometimes it’s just too hard to resist a Bieber joke. Sorry. In any case, Lia demonstrated that opportunities need to be nurtured, that they require focus and intentionality. Lia set goals and worked towards them with fierce commitment. To live like this while still in high school is a sign of how wicked smaht Lia is.
Brains and grit are no assurance that things will go the way we want them to. I feel like I should stand here at the Cum Laude assembly and tell you all that hard work and good intentions pave the road to success, but I’m going to tell you something a little different. Even when you are well-prepared and show your best work, you may not get every college acceptance or job offer you want. Or you may get it, and then realize you hate being there. Hardly any of us will make it to the Olympics. Your heart will be broken. Life is not always fair, and it is not always merit-based. You may not get all the things you deserve, or want, when you deserve and want them. Opportunity can be fickle.
I see some skeptical looks. Maybe you are a statistical outlier and your life will be perfect: here’s hoping! But even then, because you are a careful observer, a critical thinker, you will find yourself back in the boat with the rest of us. It is impossible to see the news without feeling at least a tinge of despair. Because you are awake, and noticing, and human, you will grapple with some heavy situations and feelings. Brains and grit cannot protect you from these blows. They can, however, help you through them, and this is where wicked smahtness comes into play.
As wicked smaht people, we all get to choose how to respond to the wrenches life may throw in our paths. We have the wherewithal to work through rough times. The poet Jack Gilbert wrote, “We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” What? Some poet is advising that we acknowledge how life can really burn us and then recommending that we use our grittiness to experience delight and gladness? I am a psychologist and I know that this kind of bravery and vulnerability is not always accessible to everyone; there are clearly times when asking for help is a life skill. But, often as we muddle through the hard times, being wicked smaht can be handy. At the very least, close observers accumulate a repertoire of ways to hold on to hope, and this is often an act of courage and fortitude. I find that friendship and spontaneous dance parties can salve many of life’s wounds.
Creating opportunities for others is, interestingly, another almost universal way of shining light into dark spaces. There is a reason that Debbie Phelps, and your teachers and parents do what they do; it’s good for humanity, and it gives them hope and joy most of the time. Or, at least, often enough.
As we sit here, swimming in opportunity and promise, I’m going to get a little ethical on you and tell you that because you have been given some awesome opportunities you are in a great position to spread the love. When you are swimming with the current, invite others along. When you see someone swimming as hard as they can against the tides, speak up for them or lend them a hand. Help those swimming against the current understand exactly how strong they are. Whatever your event, swim proudly knowing that the Sewickley community is rooting for you. When you are on the sidelines, cheer others on. And, for crying out loud, toss a floatation device to anyone you see who is going under. This is all part of the Academy’s mission to nurture “potential in service of a greater good.”
Cum Laude is a real honor and accomplishment. These students are rightfully being applauded for their hard work, grit, and smahts. They have made great use of the opportunities afforded them. In celebrating them today, we all strengthen the delight and gladness in our community. Congratulations; well done!