Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to:
- connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
- share ideas about learning and human development;
- spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy.
Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing.
Michael Ulku-Steiner, Head of School
More summer reading, along with Chris Villani's “little things, big things, and stuff”
This month it’s time for the Upper School students, who are likely feeling the pressure of their looming deadlines (along, of course, with the anticipated joy of getting up early and seeing their teachers every day).
In July I also shared the advice offered by Kathy Cleaver (Co-Director of College Counseling) to the Class of 2017 as they prepared to launch toward colleges, universities and beyond.
This month I’ll share the words of that Senior Dinner’s other speaker, Chris Villani ’17. Chris is packing now for his move to Princeton University. I trust he’ll include a few whimsical items in his suitcase. Enjoy his remarks – and these last days of summer freedom.
Hello I’m Chris Villani. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
The lowest point at Durham Academy Upper School - is a spot between the track and baseball field. It’s this little grassy indent behind the batting cages but in front of the woods, and I know that it's the lowest place on campus because when it rains, all the water trickles down and congregates into one giant, temporary puddle.
Last September we had a few particularly rainy days in succession, and my friends and I saw from the classrooms that the entire area was flooded - not just muddy, but a full two feet underwater, and we spent most of tutorial with our shoes off, walking around the little lake and kicking water at each other. The recess was pretty nonchalant until a friend remembered that he had this beach toy, a giant, inflatable whale from Costco in his car, and then someone else said they could drive home during a free period and bring their canoe to school, and all of a sudden, the DA Boating and Whaling Society was born on a grey September the 19th.
After D period, we spent our forty minutes of lunch in the pond with our shorts rolled wayyy up, learning how to three-point-turn our watercraft and recreating scenes from Jaws and Titanic, until our stunts and the small crowd of boating aficionados we had accumulated drew the attention, the ire, of Mr. Wilson. In good humor, he said that, while there was nothing in the Student Handbook that prevented kids from sailing boats on campus, none of us were wearing shoes, which violated the dress code. And so the charter of the Boating and Whaling Society was revoked less than an hour after it had been drawn up. But man, we all felt good. We were dirty and grimy and smelled a lot like swamp water, but we’d made our own fun.
And that’s what made it so great, right? That, independent of anyone else, we, a few kids - “young adults,” came up with an idea and saw it through. We did it all on our own, using our brains and bodies and resources to do something memorable. That feeling’s pretty rare when so much of our life is structured around answering prompts and filling in blanks.
I think there are three types of knowledge: little things, big things, and stuff. Little things are practical and day-to-day: brushing your teeth, cooking, apologizing, cleaning up. Big things are nebulous, cosmic questions: what makes me happy? what am I here for? when will I die? And then there’s stuff. The impacts of the Crimean War on agriculture in Europe, the Malthusian Catastrophe and its critics, the chemical structure of dinitrogen - that all falls under stuff, those things we learn to become smart.
Schools are for stuff, of course. Sometimes you get little things and big things secondhand from textbooks and teachers, and lately DA has been doing more and more outside the box through courses like Cavalier Capstone and some truly incredible guest speakers. But when do I learn how to call the poison control center or raise a child or grapple with mortality?
I think it’s assumed that we absorb the little and big things from the environments around us, and it’s clear that somehow this process must work for the little things at least because we all know capable, practical adults in our lives. Lately though I’ve been wanting to cut through the slow absorption of life skills and get right to it, so I’m trying to slip it into normal conversation; for example, “hey Mom, I got a 93 on my English paper and what types of clothes have to be washed in hot water?” or, “what’s for dinner Dad and what do I say if I get stopped by a cop, no reason, just asking?” but, though I might be making progress on the little things, conversation tends to stop after, “school was fine and am I just around until I mate and then die?”
So where do we get the big things directly, the answers to questions that seem silly when said aloud but shape great swaths of our lives into years of happiness, goodness, and productivity? For that, we allocate a few minutes every year for these types of speeches. If schools were here to teach us the little and big things instead of stuff, maybe we’d have classes in laundry, conflict resolution, and dreaming, and then speeches like this would have some student talk for ten minutes about American gothic literature or teach us a few simple phrases in Vietnamese. But instead, it’s the other way around and my job is to give you something that satisfies a different part of your brains, a quiet, airy place with few handholds, far from the concrete jungle of stuff and the clockwork machinery of little things. And that big thing that I want to impart on you is small and delicate and happy, and I hope you find it compatible with whatever other structures you’ve already built in this ethereal place.
My big thing is to lead a life sprinkled with whimsy. Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you end up doing, let those odd little ideas trickle in. And act on them, or at least one or two of them every so often. It might feel childish or unproductive or absurd, but it will mean a lot to you. These ideas can be anything. They can be meeting up with an old friend for lunch or finger painting or taking a hike or taking yourself out to a nice dinner, or remembering someone you’ve lost, or praising the sun, or asking your grandpa what it was like when he was your age, or telling your mom that you love her, and these things will complete you.
The enemy of whimsy is the, “I shouldn’t, really” when there’s nothing behind it besides that it’s out of the ordinary. Not every whim has to be entertained, but every once in a while you’ve got to see one through to completion, if only to prove to yourself that you can do it. Entertaining whimsy is the best big thing I can impart because it acts as a catalyst for more big things; it helps you break out of tedium and listen to yourself.
They don’t always last or succeed in any measurable way, but whimsies make stories and stories make people. I find so much joy in the whims I’ve shared with my friends here: endless cookout runs and last minute play rehearsals and my fellow DA Boating and Whaling Society ranking members. Wherever you end up, lead a life sprinkled with whimsy and you’ll be happier for it. Congratulations to the great class of 2017
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