Chapel talk: Education is largely about the people

Courtney Jackson '04 remembers a conversation with her advisor Mr. Gartner that continues to serve as a guide for everything she does.

This talk is supposed to be about Scholarship, so I’m going to tell you about some people and I think you’ll see why.

When I was a student here, Mr. Gartner was my advisor. In the spring of my sophomore year, I met with him to talk about classes for junior year. Everything was going well until he asked me if I wanted to take AP U.S.

"Um….yeah?" I replied.

"Why did you say it like that?" Mr. Gartner asked. "Do you want to take it? Or do you want to take regular?"

That year, I carpooled with a kid named Laura Giusto, who was year older than me. We played soccer and basketball together and were good friends. Still are. Laura was taking AP U.S. One morning during the fall, I noticed some color in parts of her strawberry blond hair. I said, “Hey Laura, why is your hair blue?” She rolled her eyes and said, “Ugh, I fell asleep reading for AP U.S. last night. That’s highlighter.”

By the time I talked to Mr. Gartner about taking AP U.S., I’d seen many other colors in Laura’s hair from late nights studying for AP U.S. and her other courses. Laura also seemed tired a lot of the time and drank coffee to get her through each day. I never quite understood how she pulled everything off. I told myself that Laura was a junior, and that she was just doing what she needed to do for the whole college thing. I just couldn’t shake the feeling though that I didn’t want to be her in a year. I wanted to get enough sleep and I didn’t want to be stressed out all of the time, and I didn’t want to come to school with highlighter in my hair.

So now back to the question of AP U.S. Do I take it or not?

I told Mr. Gartner that I didn’t want to take it because it seemed like a rushed way to learn history. It covered so much in so little time and the kids who took it always seemed tired and panicked about their next test. I was already going to be taking other challenging courses...and with athletics and extra-curriculars...I was nervous about being able to pull everything off. I thought AP U.S. would send me over the edge. Still, I felt like if I was recommended for it, I should take it because of what it would do for my college process.

Mr. Gartner listened...and said, “It sounds like you want to take regular for the right reasons, so I think you should. And if a college doesn’t accept you for a decision that you made for yourself about your own education, then you shouldn’t want to go to that school. The college process goes both ways. Yes, you want schools to want you, but it’s also about you wanting them. You have to find the right fit and if a school decides it doesn’t want you because you didn’t take AP U.S., then I’m pretty sure that’s not going to be the right fit for you.”

I was sold. I took regular and loved it.

I’ve since asked Mr. Gartner if he remembers that conversation from the spring of 2002. He doesn’t. However...that conversation is one that has stuck with me and served as a guide for how I approach everything I do. What Mr. Gartner essentially said was, “You do you.” He helped me see and understand that I am in charge of my own education. No one else.

There are certain classes that you have to take at Peddie, but over the course of your four years, you do have a lot of choices to make, and Mr. Gartner helped me take ownership of them. I realized that if I made choices that I knew would make me excited to go to class, I’d get a lot more out of my time here than if I’d made decisions according to other standards that weren’t mine.

I’m not saying don’t challenge yourself, I’m saying be aware that you have choices to make and, if you take advantage of that autonomy, you can do some really cool things, be excited about the challenges you face, get to know some sweet people, and get a lot out of each experience. For the rest of my time at Peddie, I followed Mr. Gartner’s advice and did what I wanted because I knew that if I did, there’d be a college out there who would want me.

There was...and in the fall of 2004, I went to Lehigh.

The college freshman version of myself was really pumped to play soccer but I also knew that after my time at Lehigh, I would be a real person - you know, someone with a job who paid rent and had to go grocery shopping - all that good adult stuff - and I had four years to figure out what that adult version of myself would do and who that person would be. At Peddie, I was a very math/science oriented student and assumed that I would major in something like biology.

During my sophomore year, though, I was taking organic chemistry and, two weeks into class, had a realization….I didn’t care about it….I actually thought it was death….I understood what was going on but had no interest in the material. Orgo has the reputation of weeding out kids who think they’re going to be science majors. It’s a tough course and you need to work hard to do well. I knew I was capable of doing the work, I just didn’t want to.

At the same time as I was dreading Orgo, I eagerly went to my Intro to Philosophy class, which I’d chosen to take because I’d never taken a philosophy course and wanted to see what it was all about. I loved it. I devoured the readings about justice, virtue, morality, right government, death, and friendship, and became consumed with considering what life was really all about.

I also started thinking more about what I was doing. What experiences my classes were offering me, and what I was getting out of them. I remembered what Mr. Gartner said - that I was in charge of my education and would end up making the right choices as long as they were mine.

Three weeks into the semester, I dropped Orgo and later, signed up to take my second Philosophy course in the spring.

The following year, when I told my parents that I wanted to be a Philosophy major, my mom asked, “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?”  

So I said, “Whatever I want.”

Two years later, when I was a junior, I was stretching after soccer practice when my teammate, Molly, came up to me and said, “Court, have you heard of Seth Moglen?”

I told her I hadn’t. She followed with, “Well, he’s an English professor here and an incredible human. You have to take a class with him before you graduate.”

“Ok.” I replied. Molly looked at me with a seriousness that I’d only ever seen on game days and said, “Seriously. You have to take a class with him before you graduate.”

Molly is like a female version of Santa Claus. She is jolly, affable, thoughtful, and passionate. She always puts the wellbeing of others before her own and is one of the most genuine and kind people I know. I would trust her with my life. On our soccer team, Molly was a leader. She was an effective motivator, challenged us to be better, and was the one who made sure the freshmen were doing ok. She was unanimously elected to serve as a captain her junior and senior years and was a massive contributing force to our success.

The thing that impressed me the most about Molly though, was that she never played in games. She spent upwards of 4 hours a day...with the rest of us...all year making herself a better soccer player and yet she rarely saw the field because there were always other players who were better. She watched thousands of minutes of soccer from the bench and yet every day, would come out to practice focused, and ready to go; ready to make our team better. Whenever any of us were disappointed with our performance in a game, Molly would always be the first one to reach out and cheer us up, even if she had more reasons to feel sad and disappointed because she didn’t get in the game at all.

That was Molly’s role though. While some of my teammates worked their magic on the field scoring goals or preventing them, Molly worked hers in a myriad of small ways that made a big impact. When Molly realized that she wasn’t going to play a lot, she accepted that and found other ways to contribute. She easily could have quit and put her efforts into something that would’ve earned her more recognition or tangible results. But she didn’t. She stuck with soccer and through her acts of kindness, her work ethic, and her inspiring pre-game speeches, she made us better soccer players and better people.

Molly taught me that it’s worth doing something you love, even when you don’t get the results you want, and that success can be defined in a variety of ways. Success can be how often you brighten someone else’s day, it can be the way you help others recognize their potential and help them reach it, and it can be the amount of passion that you put into the things you do. Molly also taught me that one of the most important things we can do as individuals is to think of others before we think of ourselves.

So when Molly told me to take a class with Seth Moglen, I listened.

Seth blew my mind with his depth of knowledge and focus, and with the way he made the material seem like it was the most important stuff I’d ever study. Our class focused on pre and post-Reconstruction African American literature, and one writer we learned about was a woman named Maria Stewart. Stewart was a free black who spent most of her life in Boston. She got married but when her husband died, his friends cheated her out of her inheritance and left her with nothing. As a black woman in the north before the Civil War, her job opportunities were limited because of her race, gender, and lack of a formal education.

She thought this was the result of a flawed system, so, she devoted much of her life to giving public speeches about the importance of blacks and women having equal access to education so they could have the chance to make something of themselves.

While Stewart demanded this equal access, she also made it very clear that once that opportunity is provided, it must be seized. Then, once an education is earned, it must be used because an education that isn’t applied is worth nothing.

Reading about Stewart….a woman who spoke so passionately about the importance of education spurred me to think about how lucky I was. Here was a woman who literally risked her life by speaking out in public because of how strongly she believed in a world where equality existed. And here I was, a college kid from central NJ who went to boarding school, who probably never fully appreciated the opportunities I’d been given. Was there anything that I was willing to risk MY life for? What had I done with my education? What would I do?

So with Stewart in mind, I decided to be a boarding school teacher. I thought that it would be a good fit for my personality and skill set, and I liked the idea of working at places like Peddie where the focus was educating the individual not just the scholar. Unfortunately, my decision to do this was viewed by some as being a less than noble pursuit. They thought that teaching in an underprivileged environment would be a better use of my time and talents and that going to a boarding school would mean that I settled - that I chose to live an easy life teaching rich kids. I wondered if they were right.

One day after class, I asked Seth if I WAS taking the easy way out. He replied with a quotation that I’ve used as a mantra ever since and one that made me think of what Mr. Gartner told me when I was that 15 year old sophomore who thought I had to take AP U.S.

It’s by Howard Thurman who was an influential African American author, educator, and civil rights leader. Seth said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” And here I am, feeling pretty alive.

At a faculty meeting earlier in the year, Mr. Quinn asked us to think about the Peddie experience as an end in itself as opposed to the means to something else. He asked us to think about what the Peddie experience is - what we offer - and what its value is.

We put a price tag on the Peddie experience, and it isn’t small. So what DO we do that makes that investment worth it? This made me think about my own time at Peddie and how what happens here is purposeful but not scripted. There is magic in it and that magic is different for everyone depending on a myriad of factors.

Sometimes, it’s only after you’ve graduated and been away, that you realize what the magic was for you - How your time here has shaped you into the person you are and the person you still dare to become. How the people you met introduced you to new ideas and perspectives, how the relationships enriched you, how you realized what it meant to work hard and how success comes from not necessarily the A, but from a best effort given and growth achieved. All of that and more is what the Peddie experience is. The value then, is how it’s changed you and the degree to which you’ve become more capable and motivated to positively affect the world around you. The key though, is that the Peddie experience can’t be given to you or provided for you. It’s something that is just as much your responsibility as it is ours to create. And as you do, you add to the magic.

Like I said at the beginning, this chapel talk is about scholarship because for me, education has been largely about people. It has been about my experiences with those people and the things I’ve learned from them. People like Mr. Gartner, Molly, Seth, Maria Stewart, and….for many of us….Harry Holcombe. Scholarship is also about doing what makes us come alive and, when we do that, we make the Peddie experience magical for each other.

When I graduated from college, my assistant soccer coach handed me a card that I’ve kept in the top drawer of my desk ever since. In it, she shared one of her favorite quotations with me, and every now and then, I take out the letter to re-read it...because it sort of brings me back to neutral and grounds me in a way that I can’t really explain. I’m going to end with that quotation, and I hope that you find some meaning in it too.

It comes from the Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca
“You must inevitably hate or imitate the world.  But the right thing is to shun both courses: you should neither become like the bad because they are many.  Nor be an enemy of the many because they are unlike you.  Retire into yourself as much as you can.  Associate with people who are likely to improve you.  Welcome those whom you are capable of improving.  The process is a mutual one: men learn as they teach.  Lay these up in your heart.  That you may scorn the pleasure that comes from the majority’s approval.  The many speak highly of you, but have you really any ground for satisfaction with yourself if you are the kind of person the many understand?”

Thank you.

Ala viva.