2013 Cum Laude address: Lisa Brown

Lisa Brown, Chair of the English Department, delivered the following speech to Beaver’s 2013 Cum Laude Society inductees:

“Thank you so much for this opportunity, Mr. Hutton and Mr. Gow. And congratulations, most recent inductees to the Cum Laude Society. And congratulations, parents. It’s truly an honor to be here with you as you soak in this moment. You know what it took to get here, and I urge you to feel it, feel proud, recognize that you earned this, as a result of years of hard work and, to paraphrase last year’s speaker, Ms. Ferrell, serious grit. Earning this distinction is a milestone, and one that you’ll carry for a long time.

We’ve heard this morning that Cum Laude recognizes academic achievement, which — to put it in Beaver language — is largely a combination of your performance and your process. It’s a snapshot of you at a particular point in time – recognition based on pretty tight criteria, and you know what it took. There were lots of late nights, extra drafts of essays and lab reports, more problem sets for Trig or Calc, play and chorus rehearsals, x-blocks spent going over the imperfect tense one more time or reworking a sculpture, super quick lunches so that you could review again for that Chem test, and so on. You know this because you lived it, and earning the Cum Laude distinction is a pretty fabulous way to honor it all.

The wisdom of Cum Laude, however, is that it asks you to pay it forward, to go beyond what you’ve achieved. Cum Laude recognizes achievement in order to promote excellence, justice, and honor. In the words of J. K. Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore — headmaster of another pretty great school — “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.” This is where excellence, justice, and honor make their appearance, so let’s spend a moment thinking about them.

First, excellence. This is the result of lots of practice, failure, more practice, sacrifice, and focus. Daunting as those can be, even tougher is the fact that sometimes, despite lots of practice, sacrifice, and focus, we don’t achieve excellence in that moment. It’s easy, then, to implode and give up. Don’t do it: excellence means getting up and trying again. Here at Beaver, we honor that work ethic. Try again. We’re here to support you.

Second, justice. Being just requires that we’re thoughtful, compassionate, and fair, that we treat others with the dignity they deserve as human beings. We need to keep in mind the big picture, not our own singular needs. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln was looking ahead to life after the Civil War and trying to figure out how to bring the American South back into the country. It wouldn’t do to kick the South when it was down, and he knew that; he said that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. Lincoln was thinking about the whole of the United States, not the winning side.

Lastly, honor. Cicero, a Roman philosopher, said that ability without honor is useless. Quite simply, honor is what you have when you’ve done the right thing. When you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud, because really, you are the harshest judge of you. But here’s the thing with honor. Since none of us is perfect, and we all make mistakes based on misunderstandings or panic or anger, it’s easy to feel and be less than honorable at times. Own those moments and let them remind you to be better; remember that honor is something that’s always right next to us and ahead of us.

Now, I have to be honest. I never thought I’d be here: when Mr Hutton asked me to give this talk, I was pretty surprised. After quite a few Cum Laude assemblies, with speeches given by lots of very accomplished teachers in this building, I assumed the speakers were all Cum Laude themselves. Spoiler alert: they’re not, or at least that tradition has stopped with me. I told Mr. Hutton what I’ve told many of you: I was a perfectly mediocre – and sometimes pretty terrible – student in high school. So, to be up here, with you guys? No way. (And I have to assume that the folks who founded the Cum Laude Society are weeping in their Latin grammar books right about now. They are stunned).

Looking at you guys, I’m in awe and so proud of you. But in high school, I was mystified by you. How did you learn the difference between doing your homework and truly studying? How did you know when enough episodes of Breaking Bad or Gossip Girls was enough (for me, that was Eight is Enough and Family Ties). How did you know when to ask for help? In high school, I was lost, and I never saw school as the partnership that it should be, and that you guys have realized. You learned how to be students because you have been here, surrounded by terrific mentors, parents, teachers, college counselors, advisors, coaches, and friends. You’ve learned to reach out; you’ve learned that being independent learners doesn’t mean doing it alone. You’ve learned that the best learning is collaborative, creative, and yes, fun.

But I’m here to say that it turns out it’s never too late for your Cum Laude moment. Look around you – every adult here, I bet you, is just as much a product of life after high school as they are of life before and during high school. My own trajectory was a slow and steady climb (I could quote Miley Cyrus here, but the leap from that Roman philosopher Cicero to Cyrus is just a bit too much).

School started to make sense for me when I started to choose for myself, based on what interested me. After six years of never understanding what was happening in French, I switched to Spanish the minute I got to college and it clicked. It’s amazing what actually practicing accomplishes. But my climb was slow. On a couple of Art History mid-terms, in a survey course that started with cave drawings and ended with Frida Kahlo, I responded to questions by spitting back to professors what they had said in class. That didn’t get me very far — turns out they wanted me to incorporate my own thoughts and questions. That happens every single day here, but for me, that was pretty revolutionary.

By sophomore year the other stuff started to click: I had my first real, true academic “aha” moments: when the poetry and short stories we were reading in English, by writers like Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe, seemed to reflect a lot of what we were studying in American history, I realized that people write to tell stories about their lives, their dreams, their fears, their politics, etc. It made sense, and I loved it. I was interested and curious to know more. By the end of that year I’d declared my major: American Studies. This meant I was required to read and read and read, and write endless essays. And figure out how other stuff fit into the larger scope of American culture. Art, politics, film, economics — that one was rough. The biggest gift that year was the realization that I actually loved learning. My professors pushed me to think, to explain what I meant. When my thesis statements were weak, they told me. When I didn’t get something or I didn’t really like it, I learned I had to find a way into it, find something I was curious about.

To my mind, curiousity is the heartbeat of learning. There’s so much out there still to know, so many questions still to ask, and it’s up to us to care enough to be curious. Curiosity and a “Why not?” attitude and an agreement with my mother that I would earn enough in my summer jobs to pay for travel and expenses – those three things gave me other chances to try pursuing excellence, justice, and honor, that Cum Laude trifecta. Curiosity about Scandinavian culture — and truthfully, a deep desire to avoid another January in Maine — took me to Denmark in my junior year; a healthy dose of “Why not?” took me to Montana for a summer to build a log cabin. Continuing in that vein, I went to Tijuana, Mexico for a year after college as a volunteer working in an orphanage.

President Kennedy, whose assassination was 50 years ago on Friday, once said that effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction. I realized that I was willing to work hard and that I was tougher than I’d thought; next I had to figure out what was worth all that work. Well, that was the easiest decision of all. Teaching —  getting to work every day with you guys — is a truly amazing job, and every day I get to see Cum Laude moments in every student. That’s a gift. So, I close by urging each of you – whether you are Cum Laude today or sometime down the road – to honor this distinction by figuring out what you’re curious about, and letting your pursuit of excellence and your commitment to justice and honor guide you. Congratulations, and thank you.”

Click here to see the full list of 2013 inductees.

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