If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.
- excerpted from "On Friendship" by Kahil Gibran
It was a hot summer day in July on Peddie campus and I was in the middle of what I call my country club lifestyle, playing tennis with my beautiful wife Rachel, when Reverend Johnson walked up and invited me to deliver a chapel speech this fall. I was more than happy to accept Rev’s invitation and my only request, if at all possible, was to go earlier in the year so it was less likely to result in a travel conflict on behalf of the Admission Office. I confirmed today’s date with Rev and returned to trying my best to beat Rachel at tennis.
As August arrived at home, we began to work on our family calendar. It was then I realized that the chapel talk would be the first one delivered this year. Almost immediately, I remembered the last opportunity I had to give the first chapel talk of the year.
It was 15 years ago... in a different chapel... on a different campus. In the spring of my junior year of high school,
Errrrrr, pump the brakes. Rewind. Between you and me, let’s do a little real talk here. All of these things really did happen, as picturesque as they may seem. However, there was also life before boarding school.
Has anyone watched the show Power? Without even talking about the show, let’s just talk about the opening song for a second. Just in case you haven’t heard it, it goes like this...
Believe it or not, I have been interviewing and assessing people since about the age of five. My mom was both a dealer and an addict who would have people coming in and out of the house in New York City. So I saw black people, white people, brown people, yellow people, all colors. Gay people, straight people, happy people, not-so-happy people, mean people – so with all of these different folks coming into the house I was always interviewing and assessing who would be willing to play with me.
Another reason why I love that song is because back when I was in fifth grade there was a book that came out called Savage Inequalities, written by Jonathan Kozol. Kozol explored the public school system in inner cities throughout the United States, and discovered the public schools in the inner cities were in essence “broken” and would lead to less than 30% of the students receiving an adequate education.
Well, if we look at the cover of the book from right to left Martin was my next door neighbor. He tried to make it out of the neighborhood illegally. He wasn’t successful and is now in prison. The next girl to the left is Donnita. She attended a specialized high school in NYC and then attended the University of Michigan. She is now an executive in New York City. Next to Donnita is Natasha. She did not make it out of the neighborhood. She became pregnant when she was a teenager and now lives in the same apartment she grew up in with her three children. On the far left is little bushy-haired me. I ended up going to boarding school through The Boys’ Club of New York, then on to Bates College. Once I graduated from Bates I returned to New York City to work for The Boys’ Club of New York before coming to Peddie.
One of my favorite sayings comes from my Titi Evelyn who was truly my rock growing up. In getting ready to go off to boarding school Titi Evelyn said in a New York City attitude, “Michael... when you leave New York City you are going nowhere!”
Naturally, I had a very slow start to my high school career. I arrived on campus my freshman year with an attitude (really the New York attitude) that the best defense was a good offense – I had a false confidence about me that resulted in being really arrogant and obnoxious my first year. It was easier and safer to be tough and keep everyone away. It was really scary to be vulnerable and open up.
However, as the years went on, I learned to trust the students and the adults in my community. Once I learned my new approach to life on campus, it really became like my new home. At the end of my high school career, I knew I would eventually return to boarding school life as an adult.
So let’s return back to my first attempt at the first chapel talk of the year - fifteen years ago. It is customary where I attended boarding school for the senior prefect, which is the equivalent to the school president, to give the first chapel talk of the year. I stepped up to the podium, greeted everyone and then made a simple request: “Please raise your hand if you know who I am.”
Dory Sarkis not only raised his hand, but shot up out of the pew and shouted, “Of course I know you! You’re my boy Mike Agosto!” The song didn’t exist yet, but if I knew this song it would have been playing in my head right then... “You don’t know me.... You don’t know me at all... You don’t know me.... You don’t know me at all.”
I went on to share that while almost all of the people on campus had come to know me well during life on campus, I had kept my home life a secret. I then stood at the podium and shared away.
I shared that my backyard was Con Edison an electrical power plant and next to it, what we as kids called the “poop plant” where they filtered human waste before dumping the runoff water into the east river.
I shared that I grew up in the projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
I shared that my mom was a woman who suffered from years of drug abuse.
I shared that my father had never been around much as he struggled with mental health issues.
I shared that my mom’s addiction meant she would often choose to get high over purchasing groceries which resulted in going to bed hungry many nights.
I shared that joining the community I had grown to love (I didn’t show up with the love) provided me an opportunity to do something far more positive with my life than I would have had I stayed home.
By the end of my speech you could have heard a pin drop in the chapel.
I thought my reasoning and timing of sharing my story was sound. I believed I was a good kid and a good member of the community who was recognized as a leader and well-liked by both adults and my peers. It was the perfect time to open up and share because I was on top of my small world. If I could stand up in front of the entire school and share some of my personal struggles then maybe everyone would see that it wasn’t so scary to open up. Not necessarily share on a podium, but maybe to a close friend or an adult on campus who they trusted. I thought to myself, I just needed to be the one to have the courage to go first.
That didn’t work.
The result of sharing my story was that time after time people would walk up to me and say things like, “Man, I feel bad complaining about what’s going on in my life. Anything going on in my life is nothing compared to what is going on in your life.”
In essence, it was like I had delivered a chapel talk that was the equivalent of a Sponsor a Child Ad.
“... for less than a $1 a day you can help feed Mike Agosto.”
That wasn’t my point, but that was how it was received.
So, here I am fifteen years later and life is very different now. If you can’t tell from some of the photos, I am now very well fed and I have a family of my own.
I am right where I always wanted to be - part of an incredible school community once again.
So, my point that day in chapel wasn’t that I had it harder than everyone else and that certainly is not my point today. My point was - and is - that we all often have some things going on in our lives that aren’t very obvious, but to us, are really important.
My point was - and is - that sometimes the most put together kid or adult can have a lot going on in his or her life that others don’t know about because it’s not so apparent.
My point was - and is - that whatever is bothering you/us/we is almost always a little easier to address when you have someone else to help you.
My hope today is that we all walk out of chapel with a few considerations:
1. Consider being an open book. Take a risk and share away. Look, fifteen years ago, I went for it and it didn’t turn out as planned, but hey, here we are and it is round two for me. In the reading Mariah shared, Khalil Gibran states,”...and let your best be for your friend. If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.” You can’t just share the highs. If you are gonna be real you gotta share the lows. Although I might not have received the exact response that I had hoped for after my Chapel talk back then, I had shared everything I had to share - all of me with my community.
2. As cheesy as it sounds, consider getting out of your comfort zone. When I left New York, I actually was going somewhere. Certainly in the physical sense I was going to Rhode Island, I was going to Spain, I was going to Bermuda, I was going to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I was going to Cuba, I was going to Maine, I was going to the Bahamas, I was going to China, I was going to Jamaica.
But most importantly, I got out of my own way both mentally AND emotionally which has led me to be right here with you today sharing away.
Thank you and ala viva!