Offices & Resources

Being Your Best Self: The Power of Role Model

Convocation Speech

September 8, 2017

One winter evening in 1966, walking down a hallway at New York's LaGuardia airport, after returning with my family from a visit to my grandparents in Cambridge, I was excited to see TV cameras, and spotlights aiming toward someone in the middle of a small crowd. As I got closer I recognized the subject of the attention as Robert Kennedy, who everyone called Bobby at that time, then a United States Senator from New York. I suspect Kennedy had been on our flight. An avid follower of the news, even at age 9, I was very excited. I quickly pulled my ballpoint pen out of my jacket pocket and asked my parents for a piece of paper so I could get the Senator's autograph.

This was a far different age. While I suspect the crowd included a couple of security officers, I was able to walk up to the Senator very easily andask for his autograph. Bobby Kennedy took the pen and obliged and then signed for other kids and adults. Clutching the paper, I walked out the terminal door and then realized I did not have my pen. "He still has my pen," I sadly told my parents and younger sister. "Well," my father said, "if the pen is that important to you I guess you should see if you can get it back." So, inside I went and said meekly, "Senator Kennedy, that is my pen." "Oh, I'm sorry," he replied nodding and looking at me, "here you go." And off I went.

Of course my adult self says, "give me a break, that was just a cheap Bic pen, no big deal; that was a little weird."

My interaction with Kennedy connects with something I heard about him decades later while a young history teacher and house head at Milton Academy. "No matter how much was going on for Bobby Kennedy," recounted a Milton parent who had worked with Kennedy, "no matter how preoccupied he was with weighty matters, he never failed to notice those around him. If Bobby Kennedy were to be a house head, he would never fail to notice—and reach out to—the shy kid in the single room at the far end of the hallway who was homesick." That, I recognized, was the Bobby Kennedy who did not dismiss the nine-year old me but rather treated me with kindness and respect.

This Milton parent was talking about the caring orientation of a person with much on his mind through most of his professional career. Bobby was United States Attorney General while his brother John was President, and many say Bobby was John's closest advisor and confidante. They presided over national crises, including the need to call in federal troops to force the integration of the University of Mississippi, and international crises including a confrontation with the Soviet Union over their desire to place nuclear weapons in Cuba. Bobby Kennedy also served as United States Senator from New York, until he was assassinated in 1968 during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President.

So why are these stories about Bobby Kennedy appropriate for this Convocation Speech? First of all, because, as complicated and as flawed a person as he was, Kennedy exhibited admirable qualities that each of us would do well to emulate in order to be our best selves and make this School the best it can be for ourselves and for others. And secondly, because I believe that thinking actively about qualities we admire in others and want to emulate—whether in people we know personally or in people we read about --promotes a healthy reflection on how to be our best selves.

Ever since the Milton parent described Bobby Kennedy's kindness and consideration for others, which reinforced my own personal memory, I have kept that example in my mind as a standard to emulate. While I wish I could say I meet that standard 100%, this memory does help me meet that standard I seek, especially in challenging moments.

Sometimes being kind and considerate is second nature, with a close friend, say, or when one is rested, calm, and in a generous mood. Sometimes, however, being kind and considerate is harder, requiring a conscious choice of action. That is the point the parent was making about Bobby Kennedy. Getting outside your comfort zone and engaging with someone in the dining hall you do not know well is an example of that conscious choice of action, so is making eye contact with someone you do not know well in the hallway, and saying "hi," especially if you are tired and preoccupied. While these are often small actions, they are actions you do not have to take. However, taking them can make a big difference.

A second admirable quality Bobby Kennedy displayed relevant to all of us is moral courage, which many books about Kennedy describe. A particularly powerful example is Kennedy's urging, when he ran for President in 1968, that America withdraw from the Vietnam War. Taking this stand required the courage to admit he had made a mistake. As Kennedy recounted in a speech early in the campaign, "I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path." That effort, he recognized, "may have been doomed from the start" because of South Vietnamese governments that had been "riddled with corruption, inefficiency and greed." But, he continued, "past error is no excuse for its perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom."[1] Kennedy's stand, while popular with a growing anti-war movement also brought withering criticism down on him from the significant percentage of Americans who still supported the war.

Few of us will be called upon to make decisions that require moral courage on a national or international stage. However, moral choices do confront each of us, and the right choice is often hard and can be personally costly. You may witness unkindness or dishonesty, or be tempted yourself. Acting with moral courage in these moments is what this community needs.

I hope you reflect every now and then about figures in your own life and figures you read about who possess qualities you would like to emulate. Such figures probably have qualities, also, that you do not want to emulate; that is normal. I encourage this sort of reflection because it helps clarify your thinking about the person you want to be. For me Robert Kennedy is such a figure, although I certainly do not admire all aspects of his personality or everything he did.

Another historical figure I greatly admire is Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt was the First Lady between 1933 and 1945, occupying the White House with her husband Franklin. I become all the more inspired by Roosevelt's admirable qualities the more I learn about her, particularly her moral courage and her inclination to think beyond herself, examples of what we now call being a global citizen.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a voice of conscience, both privately and publicly, about principles of social justice, particularly racial and gender equality in the United States, and about human rights on the world stage, particularly the treatment of Jews before and during World War II. Franklin Roosevelt freely admitted that conversations with his wife Eleanor persuaded him to act more forcefully on behalf of these principles than he otherwise would have. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke and wrote frequently about issues of social justice and human rights. Roosevelt also authored a newspaper column entitled My Day, which appeared almost daily in as many as ninety newspapers between 1935 and 1961.[2] So, in my mind Eleanor Roosevelt sets a high standard of holding moral principles, articulating them, and acting on them that can be an inspiration for all of us in our daily lives.

While I wish I had a personal anecdote about Eleanor Roosevelt, like my personal anecdotes about Robert Kennedy, I am not that lucky. I did, however, gain a couple of impressions of Eleanor Roosevelt when I was very young that have stayed with me and have increased in personal relevance as I have learned more about her.

My earliest image of Eleanor Roosevelt comes from a children's history of the United Nations that my mother purchased for me in the United Nations gift shop, when I was about ten, as we concluded a tour. Roosevelt was featured prominently in the book because, as Chair of the United Nations Human Rights Division, she was instrumental in the 1948 creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Coming in the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II's other atrocities, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, serves, in the words of its preamble, "as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." Historian Blanche Wiesen Cook points out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "remains a yardstick by which to measure decency and human dignity." Since 1948, Cook notes, the Declaration of Human Rights "has continued to be the most significant of all UN declarations on behalf of fundamental political freedoms as well as economic and social rights." [3]

The Declaration articulates a number of unassailable principles that, reasonable people would agree, all nations should be expected to employ. While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has shortcomings, and those of you who have taken The Global Seminar have learned about some of these, what Eleanor Roosevelt achieved is of monumental significance and worthy of tremendous admiration. In a world that did not have widely agreed upon standards of human rights, she led a group of a half-dozen prominent citizens from around the world to identify such standards and worked tirelessly to gain approval by the fifty-one United Nations members. One hopes that the document's principles, still frequently quoted, inspire higher standards of care towards other humans than if no such document existed.

The example Eleanor Roosevelt set that is relevant for us at St. Mark's, in our far more humble circumstances, is as a global citizen. Roosevelt worked to make the world safe for all people regardless of their religion, ethnicity or race. To further this objective she needed to appreciate people for their perspectives and cultures, and she needed to work collaboratively with people from many different backgrounds. Her appreciation for those who come from different backgrounds, her effort to take the perspective of someone different from yourself, is at the core of both global citizenship and cultural competence, and I would ask all of us to make this orientation a part of our daily lives.

My second image of Eleanor Roosevelt is far less lofty than a children's book describing her contribution to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As is so often the case with an admirable person, though, a bit of research revealed more to the story than meets the eye.

A couple of years after receiving my children's history of the United Nations, I saw a documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt which included footage of a television advertisement in which she encouraged viewers to use a particular brand of margarine. How strange, I thought, why was one of the world's most distinguished citizens pitching margarine? Roosevelt's distinctive patrician manner of speaking in the advertisement increased my confusion and helps explain why the image has stayed in my mind all these years.

As I prepared this speech, I did research about the margarine advertisement and learned that Roosevelt had actually done many advertisements, typically in magazines and newspapers, including one for hot dog rolls after she had served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939. These actions made a lot more sense to me when I discovered that these advertisements, which paid well, provided money that Roosevelt donated to social service organizations, particularly organizations that provided food, housing and education for underprivileged children in New York City. The 1959 margarine advertisement brought Roosevelt $35,000, almost $300,000 in today's dollars.

So Roosevelt had found a somewhat unique way to make a difference to people beyond her immediate circle. While few of us will be in a position to make lucrative sums we can then donate by pitching Annie's Mac and Cheese or Drakes Cakes, each of us does have the opportunity to take actions, now and as we make our way through our lives, that will make a difference beyond what is familiar to us. For some of you making that difference might include volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club in Marlborough, and for others it might include going on the Haiti trip this winter, or volunteering at Brantwood Camp next summer. Indeed Roosevelt volunteered her time to an organization in New York with a similar mission to Brantwood.[1] You Fourth Formers will gain experience in a service organization this spring during Lion Term, and I hope the experience prompts reflection and a commitment to serve others throughout your lives in a way that makes sense for you.

As is the case with Robert Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt had her shortcomings. She can be criticized, for example, for taking an excessively Euro-centric approach to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not properly acknowledging the indigenous worldview. When seeking role models you do not need to find a perfect person; they do not exist. Rather, I encourage you to select the aspects of a person that you find admirable and follow that example the best you can.

As we start 2017-18, I hope that you will commit to always acting with kindness and consideration for others, even when acting in this way is hard rather than easy, and I hope that you will display moral courage when circumstances dictate. I also hope that you will employ a global citizenship mindset, seeking to understand how the world looks to a schoolmate different from you, and that you will seek to make a difference beyond your immediate circle.

Acting in this way will make St. Mark's the best it can possibly be in the coming year, the best for you and for others. Acting in this way will also help you develop patterns of behavior that you will carry with you after graduating from St. Mark's, patterns that will help you make a positive difference wherever you choose to focus your talents, or stated differently, patterns that will help you lead a life of consequence. Our world that is characterized, regrettably, far too much by conflict and a failure to understand the perspective of others needs each of you to employ these positive qualities in whatever way makes sense for you in your life.

We all find inspiration to be our best selves in many places. I have chosen to discuss tonight personal inspiration I have found in the realm of character. I could also have given a talk in which I focused on examples of personal inspiration I have found in the intellectual realm. For me inspiration comes from historical figures as well as from people I observe in my day-to-day life. As I find inspiration from Robert Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt, I hope you find a similar degree of inspiration from people—living and dead—whose stories resonate with you.

[1] Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2008, p. 45.

[2] https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/aboutmyday.cfm

[3] Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962, New York: Viking, 2016, p. 558.

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John Warren '74