You Are More than Your Achievements

Last night, I was invited to address the new members of the National Honors Society at my daughter Naomi’s high school. I am sharing the text of my speech here.

Good evening. First, let me congratulate you on all the hard work and talent that is reflected by your being here tonight. Your presence in this auditorium means that have worked hard. You have earned good grades. You have demonstrated a commitment to your community.

No doubt, you deserve to be congratulated –– to be honored ––  for all of these things.

I too am honored to be here this evening, to share in your accomplishment, to beam alongside your parents.

As Naomi mentioned, in addition to being a parent here, I am a professor. My research is in the field of math education — secondary math education, in fact. So I have spent a lot of the last 25 years in public schools, especially urban high schools. In that capacity,  get to work with and talk to kids and teachers about their experiences.

I do my research anthropologically: that is, I study schools as cultural systems and try to understand what makes them work, what values they convey through their customs and rituals, with an eye toward helping them become places that serve our country’s democratic ideals. When U.S. public education was founded in the 1800s, one of its central purposes was to  build citizens who can make good lives for themselves and contribute to our society.

After 25 years of working and living in schools all across the U.S. (and even a few of them abroad), I can say: schools are wonderful and terrible.

Sometimes even one school is both at the same time.

At their best, schools serve the democratic ideals I just described. The open up opportunities, promote social mobility, and develop informed and thoughtful citizens.

When schools operate in this way, they fill me with hope and optimism. I see young people discovering what is possible, preparing themselves as the next generation of leaders.

At their worst, schools work against democratic ideals. They operate in ways that preserve opportunities for some while shutting others out. They contribute to social reproduction. They fall short of their mission to develop informed and thoughtful citizens.

When schools operate in that way, I imagine them as heartless machines, pumping kids through, sorting them on a conveyor belt toward paths of success or failure.

My observations about the dual possibilities of schooling are not meant to denigrate your important accomplishment tonight. Your induction into NHS means that you have been  sorted into the academic successes.

To the contrary, my observation only increases my accolades and admiration, because it means that, in addition to having talent and working hard, many of you have very likely managed to advocate for yourselves, size up a system that is not always kind, and maintain a strong academic record in spite of various blows to your humanity along the way.

Every one of you has a story. Every one of you can tell me about how you got here tonight. And if your stories are like the stories of other high achieving students I have met over the years, along with your talent and hard work, your presence here tonight very likely also shows resilience and savvy. This deserves its own congratulations and it will also no doubt serve you well in your future.

Becoming a member of NHS marks you as an achiever. The culture of achievement to which you are being formally inducted here is a wonderful thing. It gives your families cause for pride and celebration. It will open doors to jobs and colleges for you.

Spending time in schools and studying adolescents in education, I know that (perhaps for some of you more than others), there are also personal costs for joining the culture of achievement. I want to take a moment to consider those, out of a sense of care and concern for you and your long term wellbeing.

May is Mental Health Awareness month, and we know right now that young people are facing greater rates of anxiety and depression than they have previously. The last statistic I saw reported about 1 out of 5 college students experiencing these things. That’s about a 33% increase over previous rates.

People my age like to think this is, in part, because of social media — you put your social lives online. On Snapchat and Instagram, you are constantly comparing yourselves to others. We even have a word –– FoMO –– to describe the special angst of missing out on things you see others doing that, in my generation, we most likely would have never known were happening.

I think there is more going on than that. I think there are vulnerabilities here in this room that are not often enough addressed.

I am bringing up mental health because it matters for your long term happiness. I teach in a university. I see students, just like you, who have successfully navigated the perils of schooling, who got sorted in the right ways. They, like you, are creative, inquisitive, driven. Sometimes, they end up in my office, and I offer tissues as they share their concerns and their worries. I see that too often they are led to believe that their value as a person is directly tied to their achievement.

So much emphasis in high school is on getting into the best college. And what happens if you manage to get there? We all hear of the benefits: Great education, valuable social network, important internship opportunities, a “brand name” university on your resume.

What we hear about a lot less are the risks to you, as a person and a human being.

Jamie O’Keeffe, an educational researcher at Stanford University, studied high achieving undergraduates at a top-tier university and how they contend with the pressures to achieve. She describes that when students “make it” to a selective university, they feel pressure to maintain the image of a “total winner”: the ideal self-made individual who excels without effort, confidently demonstrating genuine intellectual passion and desire to make a difference in the world, while effectively realizing increasingly greater achievements.

Paradoxically, this pressure makes it harder to maintain a sense of wellbeing. They experience stress, insecurity, and self-criticism, as any sense of struggle or failure feels like it is evidence against their legitimacy there. We have a name for that feeling. It’s called impostor syndrome. These feelings are amplified for first generation college students or students from historically marginalized groups.

So what is my message? Do I recommend slacking off? Bailing on NHS and aiming for the middle?

No. Absolutely not. As I started out saying, what you have done is commendable, maybe more so than many even realize. It is worthy of the honor you are receiving.

All of you sitting here belong here.

I suggest you follow Albert Einstein’s advice: “Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value.”

I just want you to remember that you are more than your achievements. You are more than what you can list on the Common App next Fall. In fact, much of what is so precious about you won’t ever make it into that form.

I also am asking you to remember this. Aim to be honorable, not only in the ways that got you here tonight, but honorable to your friend who needs you to listen. Be honorable as children to your parents who have cared for you all these years. Be honorable as members of your communities –– your churches, synagogues, mosques, or whatever you consider your community. Be honorable to strangers in need. Be honorable to the students who struggle more than you do, the ones who are not here today.

Being honorable means doing what is right. And doing what is right is not always easy. It is not always obvious. Part of being honorable involves really knowing what you stand for and what you care about. It means knowing who you are. That should, ideally, be a part of your education too.

What does this have to do with mental health? In my experience, people who know who they are tend to hit those challenges, those setbacks, those inevitable and often unexpected bumps in the road with, if not grace,  with inner strength. They get knocked down, but they see a bigger picture, a larger purpose. They have people they can lean on, a sense of their own value beyond whatever went wrong. In this way, they maintain their perspective, even when they are shown to be less than a “total winner.”

From honor –– true honor –– comes strength in the face of adversity.

So congratulations on this honor. Be sure to cultivate it, and I wish you all a good life.



3 thoughts on “You Are More than Your Achievements

  1. I wonder about the people in the room hearing you speak these words, tell these truths – did their eyes grow moist as mine are doing right now? I wonder how many adults in the room found themselves nodding (some perhaps even reluctantly) at the statement that schools can be both wonderful and terrible. I found so many emotional touchstones in this talk which connect me to my own education journey and those of my children and students. I feel extremely grateful for your candor and for the courage you’ve modeled in addressing these young people by actively acknowledging their agency and capacity to shape their futures in healthy ways. Thank you, Ilana.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As I shook hands with each inductee, more than a handful of them thanked me for my words. A number of parents approached me as well. The message seem timely and much needed. Thanks for reading, Sheri. I appreciate your thoughts.


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