Twenty years ago (in a reunion year, of course), my private girls school decided to call me its Alumna of the Year.
My first reaction was to take personal offense, for complicated reasons. One reason is my absurd personality, because I like achievement but hate awards. Another reason was that I hated the school when I went there.
As a student, I got terrible grades, didn’t do my homework, and disappointed everyone all the time.
As an adult, I redefined my definition of success. And now here they were saying “Good job!” as if I had somehow come around. It was annoying.
When I went to drop off my photo and bio to the Alumna Office, I ran into someone who told me she was glad the award wasn’t going to an investment banker, and I realized I wasn’t alone in my sense of incongruity. Then it occurred to me that, because I was expected to give a talk to the student body, I could say some of that. Here’s what I said to the students:
I am astonished to be getting this award. The author G.K. Chesterton once described someone slightingly as the kind of person who believed that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” and I take that as my motto. I cannot tell you how many challenges I have taken on, undeterred by the fact that I wasn’t very good at them. Apparently the law of averages has resulted in my doing a few of those things well. Someone asked me the other day how I had done so many different things in my life, and I answered, “Inability to focus.”
When I called the Alumnae Office (to ask them if I were getting this award by mistake), they told me that I was going to have to speak to all of you. They said I should talk about how Baldwin affected the direction of my life or on issues facing young women. My daughter, who graduated from Baldwin in 2000, gave me some even better advice. She said, “Keep it brief, Mom. Be yourself. Be obnoxious.” I took that to heart.
How did Baldwin affect my life? It taught me to think critically and to write clearly. It taught me that if I had something to say, it deserved to be said, even if nobody listened. It taught me that I usually wasn’t working up to my potential.
I had some wonderful teachers, and some classmates who all seemed to be so much better at everything than I was, and to know what they wanted to do with their lives. I had a lot of people who believed in me, and who refused to give up on me, and who were quite sure I was capable of much more than I actually did, and who thought I ought to be doing something different than what I was doing. I successfully disappointed quite a number of them, I think, and continued to do so for many years.
So when I thought about what I might have to say to Baldwin students . . .
First: Some of you don’t know what you want to do, and you don’t understand what everybody wants from you. You don’t feel as if you belong here. You’re working hard but none of it makes sense. People keep telling you that you have potential, and you are pretty sure they’re wrong. You think you’re the only person who feels that way. You’re not.
Some of you are quite sure you know what you want to do, and that you are going to excel. You know you belong at Baldwin, and that it is preparing you for a bright future. You think everybody here feels that way. They don’t.
Look around you and remember that if high school is the best years of your life, you’re going downhill.
Second: Don’t be afraid to try something even when you don’t know how to do it, even when you know you’re not good at it. Fear of failure is an affliction of the successful. Sometimes people go to the best schools, the best graduate schools, get the best and most powerful jobs, because they’re afraid that to do anything else would be failure. You are allowed to fail. Some of the most successful people did a lot of things wrong before they did them right. Find out what challenges you, not what interests other people, and try doing that.
I write because I love writing. I teach because I love teaching. I fence because tricking people so you can hit them is tremendous fun for me. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing ten years from now, either. Just because I’m good at these things, doesn’t mean I have to do them for the rest of my life.
In other words: Anything that is worth doing, is worth doing. Whether you do it well or badly in the beginning, whether it’s what other people think you should be doing, it’s worth it. And if it turns out you don’t like doing that, do something else instead.
The headmistress, an implacable figure who had arrived long after I did, sat in the back with her arms folded, glaring.
But by the third line of my talk, the girls began to laugh.
When I said, “Look around you and remember that if high school is the best years of your life, you’re going downhill,” I had to pause because they began applauding and wouldn’t stop. By the end, though I ended abruptly, they gave me a big hand. Afterwards, a couple of the girls came up and said, “That was the only time we have ever enjoyed one of these talks,” and I knew I had done my job.