Commencement Address - St. Johnsbury Academy

Leila Chambers


I am so honored to be back on campus, with such incredible faculty, parents and most importantly, students. Hello Class of 2015!

It makes me feel good to know that however nervous I might be right now, Mr. Lovett has got to be five times as nervous.  He’s seen evidence that suggests I’ve matured since my Sheepcote days, but you can’t ever really be too sure.  So it’s a bit of a gamble, I’m into it. I was giving him flashbacks at dinner last night by complaining about how unfair it is that commencement speakers have to wear a cap and gown. "But I want to wear J Crew!" 

I also feel the pressure because my husband gave an awesome talk at his high school - and when I asked him for advice, he began with, “well, what’s your theme?"  I told him that I didn’t have a “theme” but that I was going to talk about my school in East Africa.  He burst out laughing and said, “They haven’t given you airtime to just pitch your organization.  You are supposed to inspire the students. You need a theme.

Yikes- from my work in the non-profit sector, I know that you guys are already pretty inspired.   You work overtime for causes that matter to you. Thinking that I could inspire you was frankly intimidating, so I thought long and hard about it, and I did what I’ve always done in the face of fear, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy: I plagiarized.

You see, originally I’d planned to talk about passion - but then I read this article by David Brooks in the New York Times that said, “Commencement speakers are always telling students to follow their passion, but that is a very self-centered way of seeing the world” ... and when I read that sentence I felt a sort of embarrassed, a bit ashamed. My natural instincts have always been pretty self-centered, so it seemed obvious that that would have been the message I’d originally chosen for you today.

It’s something that I’ve been working on for a while, and I think it’s a struggle that a lot of us face. Society often tells us to focus on what Brooks calls resume virtues - the things you’d be proud to see on your resume: success, wealth, recognition (self, ego, the need for approval) - but this often comes at the expense of what Brooks calls our “eulogy” virtues: the stuff that really matters; what we ultimately want people to say about the life we lived; the traits we’d want to see in our eulogy: compassion, humility, selflessness, generosity.

most importantly:
Brooks warns us that if you live your life driven by a desire to acquire those resume virtues eventually you become separated from life’s deepest joys and you live with an unconscious boredom.

and that, sounds, awful.

But, thankfully, there is still hope for us. According to this article there are a few ways to cultivate those eulogy virtues, and since you guys have parties to get to, I will give you the cliff notes.

I want to focus on one, because it's the easiest  - you just kinda copy other people. You identify people who are ‘lit from within’, people who have the qualities that you want, or perhaps that you fear you lack, and you calibrate your moral compass with theirs. Plagiarize their ethics.

I want to tell you about two people I know who are lit from within, two people who inspire me to be better than I really am.  One was my teacher and the other is my student. Maybe they can inspire you, as they have me, on my somewhat clumsy and haphazard career path.

And I want to start by saying that I know my ability to align myself with the right people was first ignited here, at St. Jay.  I couldn’t have asked for better people to help me get on track. Murph, I really appreciate you getting me into college.

My second semester of my freshmen year, I found myself in a cultural anthropology class reading the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, a professor who altered the course of my life. Every college student is entitled to one superstar who blows your mind.  Someone who opens you up the world of ideas. It’s the foundation of a good liberal arts education.

Paul Farmer was moved by the suffering of the poor.  He used phrases like, “the suffering of the poor.”  He wrote extensively about children and families enduring structural violence - those who live in places where drinking water kills and where ambulances don’t go.

The more I learned about global inequalities, the more I too felt passionate about these issues.   But truth be told, if Dr. Farmer had been writing about algebra, I would have wanted to major in math. He seemed positively lit from within; he was definitely not separated from life’s deepest joys or living with an unconscious boredom. I decided i wanted to become an anthropologist, like him.  I wasn’t really clear what that entailed, I packed my best Angelina Jolie outfit and I traveled to East Africa.

I wasn’t really planning to serve the poor.  I didn’t not want to serve the poor, but my trip was rooted in a desire to legitimize myself. As I said, I have a tendency to be seduced by those resume virtues; I wanted the recognition of my professors, the admiration of my peers.

In Kenya, I met children who had suffered in ways I couldn’t imagine. Hundreds of kids squeezed into a crumbling concrete buildings. AIDS, TB, hunger, there was sadness for sure.  But there was also something else, something I recognized.  Yes the orphaned children I met wanted food and shelter, but I was surprised to find that they wanted to fall in love with life too.  They wanted to be pilots and journalists and nurses and doctors.  I met a kid who told me he wanted to be a dinosaur trainer (that was sort of a sad conversation), but my point is, I realized that these kids wanted to meet inspiring people and have inspiring experiences. They wanted to live a life lit from within.  A few of them already were.

Dr. Paul Farmer taught me that that the world’s poorest people have the same dreams as everyone else.  We’ve tried to build a school that he would be proud to send his kids too.  My students push me everyday to go bigger.

Which brings me to my last shepherd of inspiration, one of my students, Francis.  His story keeps me going on days when I would rather look at your cousin’s wedding album on instagram than do my work.

I first met Francis when he was living in the overcrowded orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, but by the time I had finished college, Francis was 17 years old and he was off and on the streets. There, he’d collect discarded pieces of rubber and sell it to a cobbler for about 25 cents, earnings that he would spend at a local internet cafe, where he would log onto facebook and write to us.  This kid was relentless. You’d wake up in the morning to a notification - “Francis has tagged himself in 20 photos of you”  and he literally did just that - your profile picture, of just you - the individual, (the ego, the self), would now say there were two people in it - you and him.

To this day, I’m not sure if he knows how profound that really is - this invisible child asserting his presence and your responsibility to notice him. He wrote us message after message asking for help - it went beyond desperate and I asked my colleague Brian to meet with him. I told not to make any promises, but maybe see if we could help get into a public school or a shelter.

Because the last thing I could do is adopt a teenage boy who has been surviving on the streets of Nairobi.  My mother would absolutely freak.  She was just  about coming to terms with the first 36 kids.

Later that week, a judge awarded us custody of this little Facebook stalker and he moved in.  Francis sat across from our country director that first meeting, looked him right in the eye and said, “I want to finish high-school and I know that I am smart enough to finish high school, but I need your help getting there.”

I mean, what can you say to that other than, “of course”?!  What can you do, when you are faced with such potential, if not changed by it? Francis became president of his class.  He even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro!  Francis once wrote a note to me that started with, “I get the feeling that you are very proud of me.”  His greatest lessons to me have been a good exercise in wrestling with self-centeredness. It’s a pretty cool day when you can genuinely define your success through someone else’s. I think that cultivating those eulogy virtues is sort of like meditation, for a brief moment you are there, weightless, selfless.  Just long enough to know it's possible.

And now I am going to pitch you- because I recognize that I am speaking to a very powerful group of people who will hold leadership roles here and aboard. You have had access to what Francis, and most of the world yearn for - a world class education.  I don’t believe that you can really carve out an inspiring life that is separate to a responsibility to the global poor. I don’t believe you can gravitate towards people in the world who radiate an inner light, without stopping to notice the urgent suffering of others.  Well you can, but you will live with that unconscious boredom I warned you about.  So my message to you would be, whatever path you choose from here, whatever career calls to you: Live your life to the fullest BY helping others
do the same.

By now you know that some people are inherently good.  Humble, compassionate and selfless to their core.  They are very few and far between.  The rest of us, are not … yet.

The good news is, as I said, Brooks assures us that we can make our own path to the doorway of humanity. I’m inclined to believe him, and I really think that’s where we want to hang out. Around people who want to think about inequality, suffering, privilege, pain, and joy and around people who are doing the work - on themselves, and on the world.

Let those moments - when you wake up in the middle of the night fearing that you are not enough, or that you don’t have enough, or that you haven’t done enough - push you towards your eulogy virtues, not your resume ones.

Let your deepest flaws move you in the direction of morality everyday.  

A life that is about an impressive resume is built by focusing on our strengths, by comparing ourselves to others and through external achievement.  A life dedicated to cultivating the qualities you want to see on your eulogy is built by fighting your weaknesses, the parts of your soul that are trying to pull you to shallow waters, the parts of you that you want to improve on tomorrow.

So, in closing and with that in mind, I wish you a lifetime of deep fears of inadequacy.    

I know you will do great things.






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