Putting Goals to Paper, Ninth-Graders Look to ‘Supercharge’ Time at DA

As a pandemic that began when they were in seventh grade continues to surge entering their first year of high school, the members of Durham Academy’s Class of 2025 — like so many other kids their age — might find it difficult to look ahead.

Michael Ulku-Steiner Lecture with Ninth-Graders

Who knows what the next four years will look like, let alone what kind of person they’ll each be in 15 years? But just two days into their Upper School careers, Head of School Michael Ulku-Steiner challenged them to consider the latter as he met with the entire class last Thursday in Kenan Auditorium.

“Why are you here?” asked Ulku-Steiner as he launched into his speech.

The simple question was met with some earnest answers — to learn; to get into a good college; to grow and become a better person — and some witty ones, as well — to get student discounts. But hoping to shift their focus from the short term to the long term, he asked each student to answer two questions on an index card: Who are three people you admire and aspire to be like as an adult? And how do you want people to describe you in 15 years?

The students spent about two minutes on each question, writing down their answers on the front and back of their index cards, respectively.

“I have heard a lot of positive things about this class,” Ulku-Steiner said as he walked around the room. “ ... your Middle School teachers have raved about those of you who have been here. The admissions department who welcomed these 25 or so new people to this class, they rave about you. You’re going to make the class stronger.

“So, I think the Class of 2025 has some special potential to do special things. And I appreciate that you’re taking this seriously because I think it can supercharge your time here.” 

From there, Ulku-Steiner proceeded to tell the story of the rocks and the jar. 

A time management consultant stood in front of a group of office workers one day, a large empty pickle jar resting on the table beside him. Without saying a word, he pulled out two big rocks and placed them inside the jar, then asked if the jar was full. The group agreed unanimously that, yes, the jar was full. “But wait,” the consultant said, taking out a box of gravel and pouring it into the jar.

He watched as it settled in the open areas between the rocks and the jar, then asked the group again if the jar was full. Again, they agreed unanimously that it was. The consultant then revealed a bucket of sand, which he poured into the jar until it filled every nook and cranny. At last, the jar finally appeared full — until the consultant added some water. 

This analogy, Ulku-Steiner explained, can be interpreted in many ways. But for the purpose of his lecture, he argued that the big rocks represent each member of the Class of 2025 — and their path to being like their role models.

“It is actually not classes and clubs and homework and social media and friends,” he said. “Those are all essential pieces of your life. But if you don’t have the big rocks in order — who am I, where am I going, who do I want to be — you’re lost. You will have a messy, sand-filled, rock-filled, gravel-filled pickle jar broken on the floor.” 

At Ulku-Steiner’s request, the students began listing some of the adjectives that they wrote on their index cards — which Ulku-Steiner eventually collected and will return to each student in May 2025, just before they graduate. Among other things, DA’s Class of 2025 wants to be: 

  • Fun
  • Happy
  • Confident
  • Self-sufficient
  • Reliable
  • Balanced
  • Successful
  • Independent
  • Giving
  • Kind-hearted
  • Iconic
  • Genuine
  • Courageous
  • Caring
  • Loyal 
Ninth-Graders Write Goals on Index Cards

In closing, Ulku-Steiner urged the Class of 2025 to think of these “big rocks” as their North Star, guiding them when they lose their way or when the little stuff feels bigger than it really is. 

“I want you to care about what you’re wearing tomorrow and who you’re sitting next to and who your friends are going to be,” he said. “That stuff matters and it contributes, it’s part of being in ninth grade. But I also want you to remember that you are very close to graduating from high school. In geologic time, it’s like a blink.

“So, you have to use these years, these experiences, these days, because for the next four years you are there — you are between this day, yesterday and tomorrow, your graduation. And this may be the thesis of the whole thing: Wherever you go, whatever you do here at DA, remember why you’re here. We believe you’re here to be a better person, to be the best version of yourself. And you now have on your card what you want to be.”