At a recent meeting our Mathematics Department Chair, Erin Buzby, said something beautiful and simple: “There are a thousand ways to be successful in this world.” Specifically, we were wrestling with the sometimes-tricky territory of math placement in Upper School; generally, we were lamenting how the temporary—a student’s math placement—can be thought of as something life-fixing or permanent. This, of course, is the conundrum of parenting and teaching: how to meet the moment to grow the future. And this, of course, is the heart of our motto: “Not for school but for life we learn.”
Erin’s words immediately reminded me of another reference to “a thousand,” this one coming from Zhang Wei, who writes: “There are a thousand ways to live. Just how many do the two of us know?” And I would add to this, “How many do we know at this very moment?” In a world in which success and how to get there is changing at arrow-like speed, wouldn’t naming one way not only be foolish but also counterproductive? There’s plenty of evidence illustrating that a banner carrier for achievement today might be less of one in the future. All the more reason, then, to think of “getting there,” in whatever way “there” is defined for you, in open and very, very wide ways.
And there’s another reason why less can be less here. Believing in only a few paths to success can build more stress than agency in our students. If the road is painted narrowly or if there really is only one silver ring to grab on that merry-go-round pony, then panic rather than power becomes your companion, paralysis rather than action your medium. The German language, in its wonderful capacity to take many things and put them all into one word, calls this “torschlusspanik:” gate-shut-panic. Why we would choose to close gates rather than to open as many as possible leaves me scratching my head in wonder.
Having said all this, however, there are common conditions for success in whatever way you seek it: none of them is particularly easy, and all of them are essential. At the top of this list lives hard work. Opportunity arrives only as an invitation, an offering that needs hard work, practice and struggle to bring it to full life. So, you miss that soccer goal, and you keep shooting. So, you falter when giving that speech, and you keep volunteering to speak more. So, you don’t get the right results in your science research project, and you keep experimenting. This is not about where a student goes when she leaves the Red Doors; it’s about how she leaves.
Those hours of practice, hard work and endurance will always need strong support. This is where teachers and parents come in. We’re the best of Help Desks where they come to us and not the other way around. So as champions, help-mates and yes, consultants, we help them to consider options or to ask better questions. We offer them not absolute direction but a sense of many possibilities and what it might take to get there. When I was young, I thought I might grow up to be a poet. My favorite aunt, knowing this, once gave me a life-size thesaurus inscribed with a simple message: “May your midnight hours make you a master.” I never became that poet, but I learned and loved the power behind those many midnight hours. And I still do.
And finally, there is this thing called autonomy. Ultimately, believing in yourself makes all the difference. Self-assurance is the door-defying magic behind success, no matter how achievement lives in your life. This is what I see in each of our graduates, even as I salute the many and varied worlds to which they head. Each has a sense of self and her own capacity. Recently at one of my Kindergarten parents’ breakfasts, a father told a story of how Spence had already changed his daughter, even after only a few weeks. He shared how in the mornings now when he offers to help his daughter get into her uniform, she looks him in the eye, holds up her hand like a police officer stopping traffic and says, “At Spence, we dress ourselves.” And that is just the beginning of the thousand ways in which our students will meet the thousand ways in which to be successful.