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Note to a Grade 9 student on the first day

September 3, 2013

So… you've arrived! You're now officially part of the big game. What happens next is entirely up to you. It really is! Grade 9 can be quite intimidating if you don't take charge. I say… take charge! Remember – life is not just what happens to you. Life is what you do about what happens to you. Easy for me to say, and yes, I am very old and living in another universe. Just the same, for what it's worth, here are a few not-so-random thoughts to consider as you embark on this exciting stage of your life.

  1. Get engaged. This is the single most important takeaway from all of my work over the years – 'get engaged'. Students enthusiastically engaged in out-of-classroom activities of any kind – athletics, the arts, clubs, community service – it doesn't matter what – these students are happier people. They look forward to coming to school each day. They feel better organized. They feel better prepared in: social skills; self-advocacy; coping with peer pressure; working in a group; leadership skills; making ethical decisions; self-confidence; and facing new challenges. The list goes on. And here's the kicker. On average, they get higher marks. I've got the data to support this, based on almost 300 surveys of independent schools, more than 50 of these involving students. If you consider just one piece of advice as you begin this journey, let it be this. Get engaged... and do it now.
  2. Make a friend… then do it again… and again. It's not always the easiest thing to do. Plug your nose and jump in. The friends you make in the weeks ahead may be your closest friends 40 years from now. This has been my own experience, and with no regrets. Choose carefully… but choose. If you're wondering how best to accomplish this task, see #1, above.
  3. Be on the lookout for a trusted adult. The presence of a trusted adult at school can play a pivotal role in your life. School is a dynamic place, packed with new people, new experiences, hormones, and assorted other strange and unforeseen phenomena. You don't have to go it alone. Advice, caution, comfort, counsel, and encouragement – these are all available to you in a trusted adult. If you can find a trusted adult/mentor (or if you're lucky, two), you will also have an easier time finding and forging a place of belonging for yourself within the school community…which leads us to point #4.
  4. Find and forge a place of belonging for yourself within the school community. What does this mean? School, like home, at its best, is a microcosm of the real world at its best. The converse is also true. Think of high school as a safe proving ground. A place where you can take chances and fail without dire consequences. Those who can find and forge a place for themselves in a high school will be much better equipped to do the same later in life.

Your assignment for the next four years includes looking inside and learning about yourself and discovering your passions. But… there's much more to it than that. Navel gazing just won't do the trick. You will best find yourself as reflected in interactions with others. Get engaged. You will judge your life based not on what you've done for yourself but rather on what you've left for others. We are social creatures, inextricably dependent on each other for survival and for nurturing and for full realization of our individual and collective potential. Yes, you must find and feed your passions. That would be what is known as necessary but not sufficient. You must find yourself but, to do this, you must first understand that you are not operating in isolation, but as a functioning part of a whole.

You will encounter people over the next four years and throughout life who will contend that their first and foremost responsibility is to themselves as individuals. These confused people will tell you that if we all work to be the best we can be as individuals, each working in our own interests, all will be right in the world. I hope that you will soon come to disagree with this notion. In any functional family, school community, nation-state, or global society, no individual can be considered in isolation from the collective. We are jointly and severally responsible to each other.

Responsible individualism means being-the-best-you-can-be, not as an end in itself, but as a path to making your greatest contribution to the whole.

What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal. (Albert Pine)

Before you read any further, see #1, above.

  1. As you consider your place in the world at large, please Google 'animism'. We are not here to conquer and control the world around us. It was here first and it will be here long after we're gone. Seems to me more realistic that we consider ourselves as guests in this world and that we be guided accordingly. Be a partner to the environment, not a conquering force.
  2. Don't look for someone to blame – look for someone to help. These are your formative years. Your life values and character will clarify and crystallize over the next four years, perhaps even in the next four months.

You will most certainly witness, in some measure large or small, teasing and bullying between students. Teasing is not funny for those on the receiving end. These attacks – and make no mistake, that's what they are – may be outwardly visible, but they may also be very subtle, barely visible, yet nonetheless hurtful. Understand that this activity is the expression of insecurity and fear on the part of the instigator and his or her followers. Understand also that, in this regard, high school operates in parallel to what can be a very nasty world.

Eighty years ago, in economically depressed times, such a seducer/provocateur seized power and launched a violent campaign that exploited the insecurities and fears of a nation into a world war that took more than fifty million lives. Remember… it all began with teasing and then bullying. Be prepared to think about how this was allowed to happen for as long as you live.

I worry that, in these current precarious economic times, we may be re-visiting the blame game of the 1930s. Very close to home, we see that Pauline Marois, Premier of 'la belle province' will soon be introducing legislation called the "Charter of Quebec Values". Quebec is living through hard times, economically. Her politicians are looking for something else to talk about… someone to blame… a change-the-subject scapegoat. This law, if enacted, will ban religious headwear for public employees. Premier Marois describes this move as a "unifying force for the province". Huh? This is not unifying in any regard. Quite stunningly the opposite. It says to Sikhs, Jews, and Muslims: "if you can adjust to look just like we do, you're welcome here… if not, stay away." This is not our ever-expanding, ever-morphing, and ever-inclusive Canadian circle of diversity. This is the stuff of Brownshirts and Jack boots (Google that, too). Quebec is by no means alone in such aggressive-defensive action (with plenty of frightening examples worthy of examination), but as I say, it is rather close to home.

Blaming someone else for your own fears and insecurities is the currency of manipulators and seducers, be it on the world stage or in a high school hallway. The principles are the same. The only difference is one of degree. The answer, of course, is vigilance and the courage to intervene. You must watch for it and muster the courage to stand up for those least capable of standing up for themselves. I say this knowing that, to intervene will assuredly place you in the line of fire for such acts of cowardice. Be strong. Be an independent thinker. Don't 'go along'. Do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. You can do it. I believe in you.

  1. The days and weeks and months ahead will be packed with new experiences for you. Many of these will make you laugh and smile. Others, perhaps not so much. Keep your head up and keep breathing. Life is a journey. Life is good. You're just getting started. Enjoy the ride! And remember always: you are not alone.


[… the gist of a recent and ongoing conversation]




Kevin Graham

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