Lowell’s Opening Talk to Upper School Students

Opening Assembly

Lately I have found myself describing the teaching and learning that goes on at Waynflete as a two way street, with everyone in this room today incredibly lucky because of that.  Let me explain what I mean by describing us as being on a two way street and why that makes us so lucky. You students are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from a diversely talented faculty that is universally and passionately dedicated to the art and craft of teaching.  Your teachers care about what they do, and they care about you.  And we, your teachers, are fortunate as well, not only for the joy and privilege of teaching you, but also for the countless opportunities we have to learn – from you.  Hence the two way street.

A recent example for me of learning from a student who herself had learned from her experiences at Waynflete happened last spring listening to Sophie Raffel’s graduation speech.  Sophie described how taking Wendy Curtis’s Astrophysics class started her thinking about the universe and her place in it in ways she had never considered before.  When you look our galaxy, the Milky Way, from Earth as in the picture projected on the screen, you can see why the great majority of cultures throughout history assumed that they were at the center of the universe.  That is a tempting conclusion.  From where we stand, it does look as if the sun and the moon and stars orbit a stationary Earth.

But in Astrophysics, Sophie and her classmates learned of the Earth’s very tiny place in a universe that is, as far as we can tell, infinite.  Here is a picture of Earth from the other side of our moon.  Here is another picture of Earth from the other side of Saturn.  Notice how small we look from only three planets away.  And here is a picture of the Whirlpool Galaxy, which scientists think is what the Milky Way might look like, except to see what something looks like you have to get outside of it, and we haven’t traveled nearly far enough to do that.

And here is a picture of deep space.  Each little speck is a galaxy, similar to our own.  And from Earth, everything in this picture – the thousands of galaxies and billions of stars – takes up less space in our sky than the moon.  Looking at pictures like these drives home the point that the Earth and its inhabitants are far from being at the center of the universe.  We are small, very small indeed.

All of that got Sophie thinking.  Possibly under the influence of Ben Mini’s philosophy class, she started contemplating the seemingly infinite expanse of the physical universe in relationship to the infinitesimally small lives of individual human beings.  In her speech, she noted that comparing the two can make you feel very small in the grand scheme of things, so small, in fact, as to be utterly insignificant.  She said as she was applying to college and getting ready to leave home that she felt as if the universe might be sending her a message: “You are about to go out into a world where you don’t matter.”

But then in a flash of inspiration, rather than trying to ignore that message or feeling condemned to a meaningless existence if she failed, she suddenly realized, “why remembering how tiny you are is actually incredibly empowering.  Because in our vast universe, nothing matters until it matters to you.” Filled with a sense of awe at knowing that she was a unique piece of something so big, she challenged herself and her classmates “To seize the singularity of our tiny existences on this ‘Pale Blue Dot’ by finding things that make us matter.”

Finding things that make us matter means finding ways to contribute to something outside of ourselves, to something bigger than ourselves.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to solve monumental problems like world hunger or poverty, although that would be good if you get the chance.  In the meantime, all you really need to do is to seize the small opportunities to make a difference that present themselves multiple times a day.  You make a difference when you:

  • invite someone to have lunch who is new to the school and bit nervous;
  • or clean up a spill that someone else has left behind;
  • or make eye contact and smile as you pass your peers in the hallways;
  • or do a little extra research on something that interested you in class and share it the next day;
  • or do community service;
  • or write letter to the editor of the PPH;
  • or express gratitude to your teachers and your parents;
  • or apologize if you have hurt someone;
  • or forgive the person who has hurt you.

Such small deeds are important. The ALS challenge, which many of you have taken, is a great example of how they can add up to something big.

Finding things that make you matter has another important benefit. It tends to make you happy.  We all know the good feeling we get when we do something good for someone else. In fact, that connection between doing good and happiness has actually been observed by neuroscientists, who have watched the happy places in the brain light up on MRI machines when a good deed is done.

And here is a video (only the first segment was shown) of part of an experiment designed to figure out whether the impulse to do good is something we have to learn or is deeply rooted in the human brain.  The little guy in the video is pre-verbal, which means he is operating on instinct, not on what he has been told.

The important lesson for me in all of this is twofold: First, realizing that the possibilities for us to find what makes us matter are, like the universe itself, infinite; and second, doing good deeds is natural. We just need to get ourselves in the habit of seeking opportunities, big and small, to make a difference.  If we can do that, I believe that together we will become a force helping to shape a better world, one good deed at a time.  And in the process, every day, over and over again, we will light up the happy places in our brains.

I am truly grateful to be a part of this particular constellation of people.  I look forward to another rewarding year traveling along our two way street, teaching and learning with you all.

Thank you for listening. Advising is next.