“Growing up doesn’t stop until you reach your final resting place.”
-Viola Davis, from her speech at the NAIS Annual Conference, Long Beach, March 5, 2019
Thousands of independent school teachers, administrators, and board members were packed into the convention center at the NAIS Annual Conference last March to hear the opening speaker, Anderson Cooper, but they were surprised to learn of a last-minute conflict that left them with actress Viola Davis as the speaker instead. I was among them– and by the time Ms. Davis had finished addressing the attendees, I found myself, along with the entire hall of attendees, on my feet offering Ms. Davis a standing ovation. Months later, her words remain so inspiring to me, I want to share them with you.
Ms. Davis revealed her story of overcoming a childhood spent in abject poverty, wondering where her next meal was going to come from and yet, remembering many happy times from her youth. She said she “sacrificed a childhood for food” and grew up with profound shame. She certainly did– grow up– and she did so fast. But she recognized that “sometimes the dragons that you slay aren’t dragons at all–they’re you–becoming the messed up perfect avatar of you is what gets in your way.” She came to the realization that she had to move past the shame she felt from dumpster diving for food to embrace her “inner geek.” She summoned up the personal power to work for what she wanted and what she knew deep inside was possible. “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why you were born,” she told the audience. Part of that discovery was that she couldn’t wait for Hollywood to give her her dream. She had to vigorously pursue it.
Viola Davis is an Academy Award winning actress. One could probably argue that her life experience has shaped her ability to connect deeply with each role she plays. Her struggle caused her to grow up pretty fast. Her struggle helped give her the drive needed to succeed in Hollywood. The thousands of educators in the convention hall were surely thinking about what they can learn from Ms. Davis’ path in our work with young people. Perhaps one lesson is that it is the struggle that helps one to grow up.
Each day I grow and learn something new. There will never be a time when I don’t need to learn. This is true more than ever for young people today as they will constantly need to upskill and retool to keep up in this exponentially changing world. We can help them in their journey of growth, by letting them struggle and stretch. Just as a muscle gets stronger from the stress associated with hard work, the brain benefits from a certain amount of stress. Let young people figure out how to do things on their own. Provide them with a safe environment to take risks so that they might grow– and if they struggle, or even fail, let them! They will likely learn far more from the failure than from a completely smooth, safe path. Their “hunger” as they work through those difficult times, will give them critical experiences that will help them to solve bigger and bigger challenges– challenges that our society needs creative people to solve.