The Value of a Shock

In June 2013, a Grade 8 teacher invited me to participate in an event she had organized for her English class.

I accepted, with no qualms, to be a talking book. That is, an individual with whom students could converse.  A living book providing real-time dialogue.

On the day of the event, each living book was guided to a different spot in the Rockridge library. The students, in small groups of five or six, rotated from one station to the next on a timed basis.  They had spent time preparing for their roles as interviewers and the evidence of how much time their teacher had spent helping them get ready was clear.

Many of the questions they asked me focused on education.

“Is high school the best years of our lives?”  One of my favourite questions, to which I answered, “No.” In my view, I explained, high school may be a pinnacle of experience for some, but it was not necessarily so for all.  It hadn’t been for me.  

Ambleside Sunset

One young woman asked for my advice on how best to prepare for university. I didn’t mind this question the first time it was asked, but by the second or third time it was broached, I’d had enough.  I suggested that since they were only in Grade 8 they may be better served by focusing on what they had to do now.  They had time to agonize over the rest.

There was one question which resonated with me the most.  I remember it as “what do you think is the purpose of education?”  but in her thank you letter the young woman who’d posed the question wrote it down as “what makes you so passionate about education?”  The exact form of the question doesn’t matter because it was her interpretation which has made this into a cherished memory. 

“Your answer shocked me.  It was not an answer that I expected.  You are not passionate about education because you think it makes people smart for a better job in the future, that was what I expected.  Instead, you said that education makes us better people. … This is a moral that I will carry with me for my upcoming school years.”

And I do; I believe that education is about making each of us better.  

That’s why the chorus for choice in the public education system sometimes rings false.  Because those who sing that chorus the loudest are trying to draw a straight line from their children’s education, even as far back as kindergarten and earlier, to success in their lives as adults. There are connections and correlations between the two, but I believe we do a disservice to our young people when we present life as a simple equation of “if you do this, then you will get, or you will be, this”. 

Life is complex and nuanced.

Life doesn’t always unroll in a straight line.

And that can be a shock. 

And in the face of a shock like that, sometimes all we have to rely on is being the best person we can be.

To The Graduating Class of 2013

My remarks to the Sentinel Secondary School graduating class of 2013.  Another version of this presentation was delivered to the Rockridge graduating class on May 17, 2013.  This is a full transcript of my words and as is typical with verbal presentations, adjustments and/or changes may have been made while speaking.

Thank you. Merci. 

I’m so pleased to be here tonight.  Je suis très heureuse d’être ici avec vous ce soir.

On behalf of the West Van Board of Education, my congratulations to all this year’s graduates.  Félicitations! 

I know many of you are wondering who is this talking head and why does she get to speak at my grad?

Well, in the November 2011 municipal elections I and four others were elected by West Van residents to serve as Trustees on the Board of Education.

That means my colleagues and I help to oversee the public education system in our community and that along with your teachers, the staff at the school and the district, parents and yourselves, we have a measure of responsibility and accountability for your education from kindergarten through to Grade 12.

I also happen to be a graduate of school district 45.  

Lions Gate Bridge

Even though I’ve been around the District on and off since I was twelve, and even though I’ve been to Sentinel a number of times, I wanted to get a better feel for the school and its students before I spoke tonight.

I phoned up Principal Mike Finch and asked if we could tour the school together.  And we did.  I got to see some of you at work and some of you at play.  I had a look into many of the classrooms and then I asked Mr. Finch to tell me about you, to tell me about students at Sentinel.

I’m just gonna give you a moment to think about what he told me.  

No, he didn’t say that.  Oh, he’d never say that, would he?  No way. Uhuh.  

What he did tell me is how impressed he has been by the students at Sentinel.  How dedicated you are and how motivated you are to succeed on your own terms whether you’re studying French, pursuing your athletic interests in the academies, or being super achievers.

Barb Sunday, one of your amazing art leaders told me during my visit to the school, that she’d sent off about 50 advanced placement art portfolios for consideration.  50!  And if you stop by the Ferry Building Gallery at the foot of 14th Street, you’ll see some of that art on display.  

What you’ll also see there is the commitment you’ve made to pursuing your passions and the care you’ve taken to excel in the work you do.

And tonight we’re here to celebrate your accomplishments.

For parents, it’s a bittersweet moment, likely tinged with a sense of relief!  Tonight is a chance to celebrate the wonderful individuals you’ve become and yet we also have to be prepared to let you go.

That’s what parents do.  

And like parents, the teachers, the administration, and all the staff of the West Van school district – even Trustees, we all have to do our best to make sure you grads have the skills and talents you need to continue to succeed.  And now you’re moving on.  

But it’s not easy as parents or teachers or administrators to let you go because we know that the journey can sometimes be a challenge.

I would like to share with you some words by the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran. In his poem on children, he writes:

 Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.


You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

As Gibran says, you, our graduates, you live in tomorrow and we are not here to stand in your way.

You’ve worked hard or maybe you haven’t.  You’ve had good days and bad.  You’ve made friends, you’ve lost friends.  You’ve studied, you’ve learned.  You’ve been on a journey and now you’re set for the next stage of life whatever that may be for you.

And what do you need to successfully navigate what’s ahead?

To borrow the words of Canadian musicians David Myles and Classified, you need to embrace your inner ninja.

Be fierce and determined and passionate.  Dream big and take action.

Stand up for yourself.  More importantly, stand up for others.

Stand up for what you believe.  More importantly, be tolerant and allow others to speak up for what they believe.

Stand up for what is right.  More importantly, be open to different views and adjust your ideas if warranted.

And finally, Sentinel grads, take all that we — the community, the school District, the administration, your teachers, and your parents — take all that we have given you, take all that you are, and make the world you are inheriting, make it better.  

Make the world better for you, for me, and for those who have so much less than either of us.

I know you can do it.  I know you can do it.  

Thank you and bonne chance!