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Randolph To Graduates: Grit, Opportunity, Purpose
Posted 07/07/2016 04:55PM

In Riverdale's closing exercises, Head of School Dominic A.A. Randolph talked about grit, purpose, and meaning.

"Grit" is one of the seven character strengths that Riverdale emphasizes in its culture and approach to learning. It is also a concept that is in the news thanks to the best-selling book by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who co-founded The Character Lab with Randolph and Dave Levin, a Riverdale graduate who started the KIPP charter schools.

Randolph drew on his family story to make that point that while grit is important in life, it is not enough. Some resilient people do not fulfill their potential because of lack of opportunity, misfortune, or a lack of direction. He then recounted the personal experience of Hallie Garvey '11, who recently returned from Lesbos where she worked with Syrian refugees. Garvey describes how the experience taught her not only resilience, but purpose.

Here is an except from Randolph's remarks:

My grandfather, on one side of one of the the postcards I gave you tonight, was a man of grit. He came from a family of 14 living in impoverished circumstances in London. He started boxing when he was about twelve. It was the way he found to escape his circumstances. He served in the army during WWI illegally as a minor. He became a professional boxer who fought 44 professional matches, some in the U.S. where this picture was taken when he was fighting in New York City for three months in the 1920s.

He was the principal breadwinner for his whole family. He retired from boxing when he married my grandmother, a Belgian refugee, and they started up a gymnasium together where he trained boxers and she gave fitness lessons to women in West London. He lost his gym to bombing during WWII. He died when he was 48 while working moving pianos.

He was an incredibly resilient man. He did wonderful things during his short life, but he was not fortunate to live in a time or a place where his resilience could transform into sustained purpose and meaning. So having resilience is not enough in life. You need opportunity, good fortune, but also a capacity for a sense of purpose is also important.

Some people find purpose quickly and simply. They realize that they are really good at something and wish to commit to that. That is great, but I don't think that is the way it happens for most people. For me, the development of a capacity for purpose was much more of a journey — a path stretching into the distance as on the other side of the postcard. It involved travel, trying lots of things such as drawing, singing, writing, teaching, and carpentry. It was more like tramping joyfully on a road with open eyes and an open mind without a clear destination in sight. It resembled more the story of a recent graduate who wrote to me and talks about resilience and purpose better than I can.

My name is Hallie Garvey and I graduated from Riverdale in 2011. I thought the school would appreciate learning what I have done since graduating and how Riverdale has played an integral part in this journey. I graduated in May '15 with my Bachelor of Arts in international relations, and a minor in photography.

I have recently returned from Lesbos, Greece, where I volunteered with Boat Refugee Foundation (BRF), a refugee relief organization from the Netherlands … During my first few weeks on the island I primarily assisted on shore with refugee boat landings, taking shifts in the early hours of the day, scanning the horizon for boats and assisting as boats landed. I also took night shifts on the rescue boat patrols.

I learned that with humanitarian relief, work rarely stays the same from day to day, and after the Turkey-EU deal, boat landings on Lesbos dropped dramatically...At that time I began to work in camp Moria. My responsibilities included the transportation of families deemed vulnerable to a camp with better conditions. I was also "on call" in the camp for whatever medical or other assistance was needed. In the afternoons I often assisted families who were in a separate facility for individuals who had serious injuries. Within our organization I was assigned the responsibility of managing both the facilities, which BRF uses for accommodation of volunteers, and storage.

I think I am most moved by how humbling an experience it was. I met very intelligent people. I met young individuals who were not very different from me. I saw true hardship. These people opened up to me with their stories. They would look to me for answers that I did not have, nor could I find out. I learned to not make promises I could not keep. I provided as much help as the Greek officials allowed the organization. I realized the most profound thing I offered was respect, not belittling their hardship and acknowledging what a very uncertain future they were facing.

My time in Lesbos cemented the fact this is the field I want to pursue and am currently channeling this experience into a career in refugee work. I will be heading to Oakland, CA, soon for an internship with the International Rescue Committee and will be working with newly arrived refugees in this country.

I know I would not be the person I am today if not for Riverdale. Riverdale pushed and challenged me in ways I had never been pushed before. After my four years at Riverdale I walked away with a new found resilience — a trust in my capabilities to go out and find my passion. While there is so much going on in the world that could make a recent college graduate pessimistic about the future, I see these challenges as opportunities. I thank Riverdale for giving me the determination to not stop pushing myself, to think critically, challenge everything, handle multiple setbacks, and never settle.

My time at Riverdale was not easy for me. I was not an exceptional student by any means. I worked very hard but struggled academically. I played sports but was never a starting player. I had a great group of friends, but it was small. My point in giving you this context is that I think what I have learned from reflecting back on it, is this was all perfectly fine. I learned we all grow at different rates. I know now, and wish I knew then, at my high school graduation, that I will have a "successful" life if I learn who I am, what I value, and follow it. This is what I prize so much from my incredible education at Riverdale, but it came in the nuances of being able to reflect and not from a book. Riverdale gave me the environment to tap into this.

I think it is great that Hallie seems to have found a purpose in life and a way to reflect about her experiences compellingly. I know that will make her a more satisfied and happy person. The interesting thing in what Hallie writes about is that purpose demands knowing yourself well, your strengths and challenges, but also demands reaching out and working with others collaboratively. Purpose is a social endeavor. I have been happy to see so many of you thinking purposefully about your lives. That is great and I hope you continue to think like this about your life and work as you move on to the next phase of your life.

So I have talked about grit and purpose. What about meaning? You have all studied narrative and great stories in your English classes. You understand what is a narrative arc and how there are many effective ways to tell a story. Luckily, your stories are just beginning. Meaning will emerge over time and through experience. So what can you do to develop a sense of meaning in your lives prior to living the full story. Just understanding that you are living a story and that you are, as the principal storyteller, weaving the story as you live is vitally important. Some people think that their stories are already told and that other authors are writing their stories for them. That is not a good way of living one’s life. I wish you the agency to write your own stories and that you tell epic self narratives. Therefore, dream big and create the type of story that will interest you and inspire others. Live a yarn worth telling that provokes emotions, existential questions, and soulful resonance. Remember what you have studied in English class and apply it to your own lives. Write your own Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, your own Beloved. You are in a situation where you have the privilege to use your grit to find purpose and tell your stories…use that privilege wisely as you move on from Riverdale...

So...believe in your continual capacity to grow while finding some things you love to do. Put in the effort to become really good at them. Hone a sense of purpose while making sense of the world for yourselves. I know this is much to expect, but knowing you all,  I am certain that you are all up to the task. Thank you for your contributions to this community and for the potential you have developed here. 

Riverdale Country School

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