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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

Embracing Perseverance: Two Stories from the Middle

Growing up is an adventure with no predetermined final destination. There’s no one right way to travel through life—so it can be inspiring and instructive to hear about how other people navigate the journey. As a community, we share a lot of stories with one another. In fact, every Friday, when we gather as a middle school, we hear speeches from eighth graders who share a slice of their lives.

Today, I wanted to share excerpts from two other recent speeches: remarks from a Middle School student who spoke at Grandparents’ Day and another from a science teacher who spoke at an all-school assembly. These two beautiful speeches both addressed the themes of journey and perseverance.

One of our Middle School students spoke about her “brave and brilliant” grandmother.

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Buttelborn, the town in Germany where my grandmother was born. Visiting her birthplace gave me some insight into her life, and I had the opportunity to meet some relatives. While I could not speak their language, I immediately felt the warmth that comes from family and could recognize the emotions and feelings that they directed towards me. They laughed a lot and told stories that my mother translated for me. I immediately felt a connection to them. The connection was beyond words. That visit helped me begin to imagine the incredible journey my grandmother took in 1954 as a young woman.

On December 5, 1954, my grandmother immigrated to the United States. She was a 19-year-old who had never been away from home. When she decided to immigrate, she opened herself up to all sorts of possibilities. When I think about my grandmother, I think of her kindness, generosity, selflessness, courage, and honesty.

But most of all, I think of her sense of adventure. It was very brave of her to travel to America because her parents, sister and many of her friends were staying in Germany. In fact, she was the only person from her town, at the time, who had immigrated to the United States. Can you imagine starting something new all by yourself? I can. My grandmother had the drive that allowed her to make the decision to leave behind all that she knew to start a new life. I believe that she passed this trait onto me.

I know what it is like to be new, too. It reminds me of my own experience starting Rivers as a sixth grader. That year, I moved from a different state. I didn’t know anybody on my first day, and just like her, I needed to be brave.

Let me tell you a little bit about what it is like to be a student at Rivers. It’s stepping outside of your comfort zone into a supportive community, it’s respecting others, and it’s about becoming your best self—whether that’s on the sports field, the stage, or in the classroom.

One way that Rivers has allowed me to challenge myself is in math. When I first arrived at Rivers, I was surprised to discover that math was one of my strengths, and I was placed in a class that allowed me to work at an accelerated pace. At first, this was not only new and different, it was scary! I had never had the chance to challenge myself like this before. I can remember one particular class when I sat at my desk and stared down at my paper with confusion. I tried multiple strategies to find the answer. I kept trying to understand how to find the answer to the angle addition postulate question, and then suddenly I had an “aha” moment when my perseverance paid off and the solution came into focus.

Our school seal has these words on it: Integritas et sedulitas. This means integrity and perseverance in Latin. At Rivers, we value respect and how our actions have a profound impact on ourselves, on others, and on the community as a whole.

Seventh-grade science teacher Sarah Freeman also addressed the themes of perseverance and journey as she explored how her definition of success has evolved over time.

When I was asked to do an all-school speech on the topic of hard work, two initial thoughts came to mind. My first thought was “Oh no, no way—I’ll be way too nervous.” And then my second thought was “But why me?” I asked this question for multiple reasons. When I look around at my colleagues, I think about how hard-working they all are and how most have earned accolades that I only dream of.

However, the major reason that I was left thinking “But why me?” is that while, yes, I have worked hard to be where I am today, my life has been easy. I was fortunate enough to grow up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood on the North Shore of Massachusetts, where I attended a private middle school and high school very similar to Rivers. From there, I went on to a small, elite New England college. I majored in biology and education, which then brought me here to Rivers at the very young age of 22.

I am acutely aware of the fact that I am extremely privileged. I have never had to overcome the experiences of racism or poverty. I have not had to question where my next meal would come from or if I would be affected by neighborhood violence. I am a healthy, able-bodied adult with a family that loves and cares for me. So for these reasons and many more, I will not pretend that solely hard work has gotten me to where I am today. In many ways, my road to success was paved and smoothed by factors that I did nothing to earn. For a long time, I didn’t realize how lucky I am, and it took experiences with people from different backgrounds in order for me to recognize all that I have been given.

That being said, I am honored, yet still very nervous, to give a speech for you today about what I have learned throughout my time as a student, athlete, teacher and now graduate student on the topic of hard work. School never came particularly easily to me. I was often left feeling as though I were working twice as hard as others just to achieve the same results—or, as was more often the case, a worse result, despite my efforts.

It took me a long time to realize that my definition of success and the goals I created for myself didn’t need to be determined by someone else, that if I tried my hardest and did my best, then that was success.

I grew up playing club lacrosse, and the general expectation was that everyone’s goal should be to play Division One. However, I knew fairly early on that I wouldn’t find joy in a large school where I had to play year-round. So I decided to go to a college where I would be happy as a student, athlete, and young adult, and I believe I ended up right where I belonged because I had set my own goal and worked to achieve it. For me, success doesn’t have to mean winning first place or getting 100 percent. However, it does have to include working hard, being gracious, and improving from my first try.

There are times when you can choose to take the easy road. Perhaps it’s not trying the extension questions on a math quiz, or not auditioning for the solo in chorus. I’ve made this choice many times, as it often seemed like the better option—because if I didn’t succeed, I could always tell myself I didn’t try that hard or I didn’t do everything I could have. But really, was selling myself short, holding myself back and not seeing all that I was capable of. When I did decide to take on a challenge—such as taking AP French my senior year in high school with students who were fluent, native speakers—I was left with a greater sense of accomplishment and pride, regardless of the less-than-stellar way it influenced my GPA. I enjoyed seeing how far I could push my reading, writing and speaking in French—something that I never would have been exposed to if I had not fought to be in the course.

If we constantly compare our achievements to those of others, we will always fall short. Someone else is always going to do better, jump higher, be stronger—that’s why the Guinness Book of World Records exists. But you can’t let that stop you from always trying your hardest at everything you do, because if you did, you’d be selling yourself short and making excuses.

Freeman concluded with this reflection we can all relate to: My own journey toward continuous effort and not selling myself short is still a work in progress, and I suspect it always will be, but what matters is I am trying.

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