Living A Good Life: Convocation Speech 2017

Welcome back.

So…what took you guys so long?

You see, this is what I love about today. A gathering of our community, our students filled with anticipation for the days, weeks and year ahead. A real sense of optimism mixed with some trepidation and anxiety. Our faculty and staff still with bountiful energy, ready to begin the rhythm, frenzy, and chaos that is the school year, eager to re-connect with and get to know your children.

Parents, guardians, and family members—some of whom are new to The Bush School—I see you watching hopefully and curiously at the group gathered here, some with tears poised to fall as they imagine saying good-bye for to their child.

I didn’t say whether those were tears of sadness…or joy…

In preparing today’s remarks, I waffled back and forth over the tone, the content, the spirit of what I might say. Should it be a bold proclamation exhorting our community to action? An expression of gratitude—the gratitude that I feel everyday being part of this school? A tribute to our founder, #HTB, and dynamic leaders who came before us that made this community vibrant and strong? But then there’s the question of how far back to reach, do I make it a Big Tribute or Little Tribute.

I settled on speaking directly to the students, the 657 of you who begin the 2017-2018 school year ready to make new friends, set new goals, re-shape your priorities, and eager to shed, to re-cast or to simply augment last year’s you. Maybe that is your purpose. And you will do so among a faculty who will constantly push you, encourage, and reward you through daily acts of kindness, sacrifice, selflessness, and love.

I selected the Purpose as the theme for the year, not only because of the role it played in shaping the school’s values and mission, but also because I have been reading a lot about the psychology of purpose. There is a body of research on the subject that looks at how developing a sense of purpose evolved, how it is sustained, and what motivates humans to seek out purpose.

Social scientists posit that a sense of purpose evolved to drive humans to accomplish big things. Some people find purpose in making others laugh, caring for the sick and injured, or just taking care of their families. Others want to protect the environment. One research study even showed that adolescents who did household chores felt a stronger sense of purpose. Why? The researchers believe it’s because they’re contributing to something bigger. We thrive when we are working for some greater good. Evolution rewards those with a sense of purpose.

So, generally, I was feeling pretty good about this theme. Who could argue with the inherent virtues of such a theme, in particular as it relates to our work with children. Instilling in them a sense of purpose must be unequivocally and irrefutably a good thing.

This changed for me after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, in August, in which self-described white nationalists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis protested the removal of a statue honoring confederate general Robert E. Lee. At a rally the night before, men and a few women marched on the campus of the University of Virginia—a public university founded in 1819 by the author of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, Thomas Jefferson. At the Friday rally, marchers chanted anti-Semitic slogans and co-opting a Nazi era slogan—Blood and Soil—meant to denote racial purity and the connection between the heritage and the land.

Watching the marchers, hearing them interviewed, it did not escape me that their ideological passion was indeed—for them—their purpose. The events in Charlottesville refined my thinking in a number of ways. First, it helped to clarify for me one of the key areas of a philosophy or psychology of purpose—as sense of a common purpose for pro-social means.

William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose, suggests that only a “positive, pro-social purpose can provide the lasting inspiration, motivating, and resilience that is characteristic of a truly purposeful life” Our biology, he says, is our destiny, and we are programmed to experience a “moral disgust” when we behave inhumanely and act in a manner inconsistent with our core moral standards.

This, in our work with students, seems simple and concrete enough. It is easy to explain why Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan are bad. To hate the individuals, the human embodiment of white supremacy, is easy. What’s harder is to expose the larger issues embedded in this philosophy, which at is core is the denial of our shared humanity.

Last week, Emily Esfahi Smith published a powerful article for the New York Times on purpose. In it, she offers that the most meaningful lives are often not the extraordinary ones. They’re the ordinary ones lived with dignity. I’d like to tell you the story of one of those lives. It happens to involve my grandmother, Daisy. Daisy was born in Madison County, Mississippi on November 27, 1908. Being black in Mississippi at the turn of the century was a dangerous existence. Post-reconstruction efforts in the south by groups like the Klan, (founded in 1865) and the Knights of the White Camellia (1867), the White League (1874) and the Red Shirts (1875) sought to intimidate blacks through harassment, intimidation, and violence.

All of us here certainly can agree that threats of violence and intimidation against our person are wrong. But recognizing the systems that sustain and sanction these acts can be harder. My grandma Daisy, passed away in July 1943 at the age of thirty-five, two years after my father Percy was born. The circumstances surrounding her death were always clouded in mystery, and it wasn’t until I reached my thirties that I found out the truth.

Daisy’s older brother—my great-uncle George Carmichael, Uncle Doc as we knew him—was also a native of Canton, Mississippi. Uncle Doc was the town doctor and after medical school and residency, he returned to Canton in 1934 to set up his practice. Along with serving as the town doctor, he was also the “family” doctor—delivering several of his nieces and nephews, including my father.

If he had to hospitalize his patients, he had to send them to Yazoo City to a black hospital. Dr. Carmichael continuously applied to the board of directors to be on staff at the King Daughters Hospital in Canton, but was repeatedly turned down. The last time he applied, he was accepted but with one stipulation: he could enter through the front door, but his patients had to enter through the rear doors. Dr. Carmichael thanked the hospital staff for accepting him but he declined their offer.

In 1943, my grandmother, Daisy went into labor in Canton with her second child. The labor was proceeding and she was beginning to hemorrhage as he drove her to King Daughters to deliver the child, his nephew. Given his standing in the community, his relationship with the town doctors, and the circumstances of the birth, my uncle attempted to bring his sister in to the hospital for the delivery. He was informed, as was the custom, that he was not permitted to enter the hospital through the front door, and instead would have to enter through the back. Rather than doing that, he drove to the black hospital in Yazoo County. The hemorrhaging and distance conspired against Daisy and Uncle Doc and she died in childbirth with the baby stillborn.

In the end, it was not the Klan or evil violent forces—like the ones whose voices were resurrected in Charlottesville—that killed my grandmother. Instead it was a system, perpetuated by the “good doctors” in town that refused to see her as human, worthy of the dignity to enter into King Daughters through the front door. This inability to recognize her human worth and a collective humanity is what threatened and took her life.

I urge all of us at some point today, this week, or this month, to find someone you don’t know at your work, in your neighborhood, passing on the street and introduce yourself, ask them about their lives, connect with them, and recognize and take time to think about how each of the us are interrelated. I want us to take time to see one another, to listen to each other.  Maybe for this year, that will be your purpose. To see the humanity in your neighbor, a stranger, an adversary.

Smith wrote that ultimately you don’t have to change the world or find your one true purpose to lead a meaningful like. A good life is a life of goodness—and that’s something anyone can aspire to, no matter their dreams or circumstances. So I ask that you spend the year helping to:

  • Explore our common purpose;
  • Endeavor to lead a “good life”; and
  • Recognize our common humanity.

You see, in those three things, that’s where the magic happens.