Founders’ Day remarks delivered at The Derryfield School, Manchester, New Hampshire, May 19, 2017.
Thank you, Dr. Carter, the Founders, Mr. Sanborn, and everyone who played any part in helping me get me back to Derryfield today, including my parents, who made the drive from Eastport, Maine. The list of reasons we love Derryfield is very long, but one I have been thinking about lately is how much I was allowed to try when I was here. Middle and high school are always going to be scary – but I got to experience that part of my life in a place where I felt able not only to do the things I was naturally good at, but also to do things I was clueless about. I mean, they let ME on the soccer team! Mr. Holland let ME through the door of his classroom every day for years! Breakthrough Manchester let ME teach a total immersion Latin class to sixth-graders.
I was not great at any of those things. That means that Derryfield helped me start to learn what it felt like to enter new spaces where I did not quite belong. Those small experiences of awkwardness in a safe place build up little muscles that help us deal with bigger uncertainties later on. Those muscles, that practice of cluelessness, have been crucial for me as an adult.
For starters, when I graduated from college, I went off to teach middle school. Where’s the Middle School sitting right now? Let me hear you! Where are the middle school teachers? I think they will agree with me on this: if any adult in the audience is sitting there right now, thinking, “I’m not clueless! I know what I’m doing! I’m pretty cool, actually!” then you should go stand in front of a classroom full of middle schoolers. They will show you what your shortcomings are in about 20 minutes flat.
So I taught middle school, and then I moved to another country and entered a whole new dimension of cluelessness. I have spent a lot of the past 13 years doing one of the following things: Getting lost. Being lost. Having no idea what is being said. Nodding along. Laughing at a joke – five minutes too late. Saying the wrong thing. Accidentally using a very rude phrase at a high-level government meeting. Feeling awkward. Feeling different. Feeling like an outsider.
Of course, I learned a lot. I learned to put ice in my beer, and an “eh” in front of my last name, “Eh-Stahnlee.” I learned that America is not a country – it is a continent. I learned that drinking coffee should be an event, not something you do while walking down the street at top speed and scrolling through your phone. I learned all the street slang that was not on the AP Spanish exam. I learned that no country is perfect. I learned how to be a parent. Well, not really: I did learn how to change a diaper, and the rest, I’m just improvising. I think that’s how it’s done.
When I really think about it, though, by far the most important thing I learned was this: I learned that being a little clueless is a part of life, and if we embrace it, it can be your biggest asset.
There was this TV detective called Columbo who pretended to be dumb in order to get his suspects to let down their guard. They’d just be thinking that they’d fooled him and gotten away scot free, when he would surprise them with an incisive question and blow the case wide open. What I learned working abroad as a brand-new news reporter is that this strategy is very effective even when you are not pretending to be an idiot.
When you are an immigrant cub reporter, and you sit down with someone – whether that’s a mom in a slum, or a legislator, or the president – you can learn so much more than someone who thinks she already knows it all. You learn because you are not afraid to ask a “dumb question.” You dig into things that caught your eye and no one else’s. You question things others take for granted, when maybe they shouldn’t. You might make mistakes no one else would make, but you also walk into the room with an ace up your sleeve that no one else has, because you know you have a lot to learn about the nation you wake up in every morning. And because you know that, you can sometimes see, and learn, so much more. I think of it as immigrant vision.
It’s hard for us to have this kind of vision in our own countries. We tend to think we are experts, and this can backfire. I’m sure that over the past year or so, just about all of us in this room, no matter what our political leanings, have realized our ignorance about some facet of the United States we thought we already understood. Some of us are questioning everything we thought we knew.
No one knows where history will lead from here – although if anyone does, it’s Mr. Sanborn, so I’m definitely going to ask him after this. We have to live with a lot of uncertainty. That will be true when all the students in this room graduate. It will be true when my four-year-old grows up. So I honestly think that the best way we can prepare for whatever is coming, is to build those little muscles, that tolerance for awkwardness and newness. That’s why what the Founders of Derryfield created, and its teachers have sustained, is so important. Because this is a place where we are encouraged to do the things we do best, the things that might even make us great. But this is also a place where we can try the things we don’t do so well. Those are the things that make us good. They open us up. They make us kinder. They help us see more.
I know I appreciate natural athleticism and mathematical skill in a deeper way because I don’t have those things. The same is true of the goodness of the Costa Rican people, the courage it took for them to become the first country in history to abolish their own army voluntarily. (Just think about that!) I appreciate those things in a different way than many Costa Ricans do, precisely because they are not mine. When we view things from the outside, in any way, we try harder and understand more.
That’s why I know that I, for one, will keep trying to apply some immigrant vision to my own country. To ask the questions that seem basic. To be more curious and less defensive. To use those muscles to listen a little longer, even when I feel uncertain or uncomfortable.
But you know what? Sometimes we just can’t do that, not for our own country. We are too close. We feel overwhelmed. And when that happens, there are people all around us who can help. There are people all around us with perspectives on the United States that we might never consider. They’re the people who have come here from somewhere else, and have noticed things about our country that we can’t see. They are anyone who has been treated like a true outsider here – people who have been excluded in ways far more profound than a lot of us will ever experience. We need them, and not just because they contribute to our economy, or because diversity is among our core values. We need them because they are thinkers. We need them because the lessons they’ve learned can help all of us solve our biggest problems. Their perspectives, so often ignored, would make all of us better. And all we have to do is ask.
Their answers will lead us into parts unknown, but we are already in parts unknown, so we might as well keep going until we get somewhere worth staying. We are in uncharted waters, but we are not alone – as long as we remember how to listen to voices other than our own.