In my monthly message to upper school students, I shared reflections in honor of Martin Luther King Day. I challenge my students, and you, to reflect on the question: How are you preparing yourself for a life of impact?
It’s January in New England. Cold has locked in. Trees are bare. ‘Rona spawns her offspring to keep us a little on edge and sticking Q-tips in our noses. And a full, rich and challenging semester of learning has come to a close. As you wait this week for your first semester grades and comments, I want you to lift your vision higher. I want to remind you that how you spend your time now prepares you for something larger -- for a life of impact.
You don’t know yet where you’ll be called to make an impact, or how small or wide your reach will be, but what I know is this: You are unique and unrepeatable. Others need the gifts you are honing during this time in your life. The work you do each day matters. The habits you build over time matter. Because each of our lives is made for impact -- to impact and uplift others. So I ask you today: How are you preparing yourself for a life of impact?
In order to help you see your life on a broader canvas, I’m going to share a couple of personal stories today to show you how our history as a nation is embodied in our lives. For, as we look back on our lives and we reflect on our history as a nation, this question will recur: Where was I then, and where am I now?
This past weekend, we got a little extra rest and a little extra time to reflect -- thanks to the legacy of a life that made a wide impact: Martin Luther King Jr. He lost his life because he evoked fear and anger in someone who resisted the changes brought by the Civil Rights Movement. He lost his life because he called upon all of America to reflect on the injustice of laws that sanctioned the segregation and diminishment of black Americans. He lost his life because he helped expose the legacy of racism that both caused and enabled such injustice to persist hundreds of years after the enslavement of black Americans was outlawed in 1865 -- following a Civil War that led to over 600,000 casualties, more than any other American war. It took American legislators 33 years to embrace this national holiday, which spanned almost half of my life.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed the law that set aside January 15th -- or the third Monday in January -- as a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and to show us how one person’s life has an impact. Notice that they did not choose to honor the day he was assassinated -- April 4, 1968 -- but the day he was born. To me, this signals something important: Think about the birth of a baby, and imagine your parents receiving you into their arms that first day that you breathed air. It is a moment of tremendous hope and grace, of incalculable joy. While you don’t remember that day, your parents will never forget that moment, and they see you always as a mystery that continues to unfold. They carry you as far as they can, but ultimately, you take charge of your life by the choices you make, the habits you form, and the vision you hold before you for the impact you’ll make in the world.
Your time now is devoted to your education, and Martin Luther King had a high aim for students. He said: “We must remember that developing our intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” Martin Luther King Jr took his education, which included his doctorate from Boston University, to help lead a nation to confront racism and to change some unjust laws.
A week before my 7th birthday -- April 4, 1968 -- I was watching the TV news broadcast Martin Luther King Jr.’s 39 year-old body recoil and fall and bleed amidst a barrage of gunshots on the balcony outside a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, my mother had returned to work and we had a nanny who took care of my older brother and me, the youngest of six. My nanny’s name was Mary -- and I loved her like a second mother -- and she was black. That day, when the news showed King’s assassination, on what seemed like a video loop, I looked at Martin Luther King’s amber-toned skin on the screen -- and I noticed Mary’s amber-toned skin at my side -- and I cried alongside her as we huddled on the sofa. I remember reaching out to hold her hand, and she engulfed me in a giant hug. Her body was racked with sobs, and my tears trickled alongside hers, reflecting both my love for her and my confusion.
Fast forward 18 years -- all the years when I was a student -- to January of 1986 when 17 states honored the first Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday (it took until 2000 for all 50 states to recognize this holiday). At that time, I was engaged to my husband, who is black. He grew up in a segregated world in Richmond, VA. His father was the principal of a black elementary school, his mother was a teacher in a black high school, and he drew on a rich legacy of relatives who built successful businesses, earned advanced degrees from elite universities, and distinguished themselves in their professional and civic lives. He lived in a suburb where all of his neighbors were black professionals; he went to a black church, he had a black doctor and dentist, black teachers, and his family ate in black-owned restaurants. He went to a black movie theater. When he took the bus around town, he had to sit in the back.
When he started 8th grade, his civic-minded parents told him that he had to help integrate a white school. He was terrified, and the fear and anger of white classmates and teachers that he faced daily caused his grades and confidence to plummet. Yet, over time, he saw how the racist trauma that he experienced daily in middle school transformed into a few interracial friendships in high school, with a rich legacy of tributes in his yearbook -- from both black and white classmates. He went on to continue his family’s distinguished line of achievement, and he was the first black teacher ever hired at Middlesex School, where I began my teaching career, a month after we married and six months after the first Martin Luther King Jr national holiday was celebrated. Recently Middlesex School endowed a speaker’s series in my husband’s name, to honor his legacy.
I share these stories with you because I want you to see that each of us is a part of history. I will never forget the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, and my husband’s entire life is a case study of the Civil Rights Movement. His broader family legacy includes relatives escaping enslavement, a relative who resisted slave catchers with the help of neighbors, leaders in the Abolition Movement, and a multi-great grandmother -- for whom my eldest daughter was named -- who attended President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball with their good friend, Frederick Douglass.
Like everyone else, when I think about Martin Luther King Jr., his “I Have a Dream” speech echoes in my mind, especially this line: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I have five daughters and a grandson on the way, and I share that hope as well. I was only two years old when Martin Luther King spoke those words, but I’ve heard the film clip so many times that I feel like I was there. My husband remembers watching the speech on TV in his home in Virginia and wondering: “Why aren’t we there with everyone else?” I challenge you to spend time with your family and watch some of these clips. Reflect on the past and on where you are in this moment in history, and lift your aim high as you envision your future.
Martin Luther King Jr., though he was not perfect, inspired us to live for others. He lived his life for impact, and he saw his time in school as a time to prepare both his mind and character to aim high and focus on “worthy objectives.” As you work to develop the habits of heart, mind and character and discover your gifts and talents in this new semester, remember that you are ultimately called to engage the world. Your work now matters. The habits you build matter. The people you get to know and the stories you gather matter. So, work hard to prepare yourself -- because what you’re preparing yourself for is much more than what can be measured in grades and college admission letters. There’s a world waiting for your impact. How will you prepare for impact?