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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

Tiana Grimes-Wolfe P’21

Arts Weekend 2021 Chapel Talk by Tiana Grimes-Wolfe P’21

 

Good morning, St. Andrew's students, family, faculty, staff, and friends.

As introduced, I am Tiana Wolfe, mother of senior Zaia Williams ’21. I would like to thank Mr. Roach for inviting me and giving me the incredible honor of speaking to you today. 

To be standing here, in this moment, is a blessing I never expected. But here we are, five days before you graduate, five days before your transition into a new phase of your lives. And I have the privilege of sharing some of my life and my story with you.  

I thought I could be of greatest service to you if I shared what I think would’ve been the most helpful for me to know when I was heading to college and while I was in college.

The title of this message today is: "Making Space."

The word that I will share today comes from the New Testament, in the book of Mathews, chapter 6, verses 28 and 29. And in the tradition of my home church, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, I am going to ask everyone who is able to stand for the reading of this holy word.

28 Why are you anxious about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

29 Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all
his glory was not dressed like one of these.


Can we all bow our heads for this prayer?

Gracious and mighty God, we love you, and we adore you. 
We thank you for breathing the breath of life in us today. 
We thank you for the food, clothing, and shelter you continue to provide.  
We thank you for the privilege and the opportunity to be in this space together one more time.
We thank you, God, for your spirit that is already alive and well in this place.  
And we ask that you would blow through here by the wind of your spirit doing whatever it is you want to do, change, heal, and deliver.  
Open up our hearts and our minds that we would receive whatever it is you have for us right now in this moment. 
Search us, God, and find us to be fertile ground, that your word would be planted deep within us that we would bear much fruit in due season. 
And now, God, in this moment, my prayer is simple, and it is this. 
That you would make me small. 
That you would make me small so that your word might stand up tall within me that your people might hear a word from you on high. 
Amen.

The three questions

When I think back on all of my most memorable college experiences, I determined that the knowledge that would have been most helpful in navigating my journey into adulthood would have been the simple answer to the three questions I ask myself and the universe most often, then, and today:

  1. How do I feel good about myself?
  2. How do I know what to do with myself?
  3. How do I connect with others?

The answer to all three of those questions is to simply make space.

Let’s examine what I’ve learned in my lifetime about making space. When I arrived on campus at Dartmouth College in 1996, I was coming from a public high school in Brooklyn, NY. I was the oldest child between me and my brother Shawn. Our parents were divorced, and they both worked pretty hard as public servants to give us the best chance in the world.

Focus for college

My focus as a graduating high schooler was to continue to work hard in college, so I could continue to get good grades, so I could get a great job and career, and ultimately be and feel successful, so I could feel good about myself.

I worked really hard to feel good about myself.

Even after I broke my left knee during the 55 meter hurdles race, and enduring surgery, and a year of rehabilitation and physical therapy, I continued to run track and field with my team. Even though my times were not as good before my accident, I persisted because I enjoyed practicing and competing with my friends. I thought continuing to run made me stronger. And being an athlete on my college applications would definitely make colleges feel good about me, which made me feel good about myself.

I worked really hard to feel good about myself. I thought: if I do the most AP and Regents classes, I would get the most extra credits. And the idea of that made me feel good, so I graduated high school with close to 50% more credits than I needed to graduate high school.

I worked really hard to feel good about myself.

For my junior and senior year, I participated in a pre-college science collaborative program run out of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, where another NYC high school student and I worked together on a project out of an infectious disease laboratory at the Rockefeller University. We wrote a paper about our research where we discovered four genes responsible for causing ear infections in children. That paper won us a few national science awards and, frankly, some swag. I worked really hard for that swag.   

I worked really hard to feel good about myself. I worked hard to feel strong and more capable than others. I worked hard to feel like I achieved more stuff, more accolades, and a greater sense of significance because I worked so hard to feel good enough.

Again, I worked really hard to feel good about myself.

Who here can relate to any of that? Well, that was all before I stepped foot on campus.  

In high school, I worked hard with satisfying results. But when I got to Dartmouth, I ran into a number of challenges. One of them being working hard without the great results.

As an engineering major that tested out of the entry-level math courses, I was placed in some extremely challenging coursework that, after one week, I begged the registrar’s office to get me out of, with partial success. Some of the courses were requirements, and I had no choice but to complete them if I wanted to graduate with an engineering major on time. The academic rigor coupled with the harsh reality of Dartmouth’s ten-week quarter system completely flattened me my first year.

My reaction to failure

And in the end of it all, I was working really hard not to feel bad about myself. If I’m honest, the first disappointing grade left me shattered and shaken. I was embarrassed, and I told no one of my struggles. I avoided my teachers. I was terrified that I was going to be a “failure.” Looking back, I can see that I was suffering because my identity as this accomplished young woman was in question as far as my mind was concerned.

One of my favorite authors and spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, writes in his book, A New Earth, about why we humans suffer and what we can do to dissolve and diminish our personal and collective suffering. Eckhart explains that the cause of our suffering is our identification with the ego. Our ego is a mental construct or a story we tell ourselves about who we are. The opposite of the ego, the true “I,” is the one that can observe this stream of consciousness and thinking and does not get caught up in the story.

Looking back, I can see that I got caught up in my story about myself. We all do this. I built my identity on being a straight-A student who mostly did the right things, one who was a determined and hardworking athlete, a social butterfly, and a nerd with a bright future ahead of her. That was who I was. That was my story. Adults, of course, do this too.

We do this by identifying with our roles as mothers or fathers. We make our degrees or our job titles, or the things we own or have like, money, or privilege, who we are. We all suffer because we identify with our egos and these false narratives we have going in our minds. But the way that we can free ourselves is by understanding that our egos are structured such that they are driven by fear and the constant desire for more. All that is required to become free of the ego is to be aware of it. To do this, Eckhart says one must simply make space – meaning invite presence into your life.

So, what does that really mean?

Tolle shares that living in the present moment is the antidote to being consumed by the ego. Why? Because the ego only exists in time, either in the past or in the future.

Think about it. Do you ever worry about right now? Nope, you worry about what happened before, or you worry about what’s going to happen.

I don’t know anyone who says, “man I’m so worried about right now!” Never ever, right?

Your worries nor your ego exist in the present moment because it can’t. And it can’t because the ego is tied to thoughts and stories that are tied to, and exist in, the past or in the future. That’s it. So, cultivating your awareness, your presence in the “right now” is how you combat the ego.

In Matthews 6:28, Jesus offers some great tips for making space, inviting presence into your life.

Jesus says:

28 Why are you anxious about clothing?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
They don’t toil, neither do they spin.

Awareness is an act of grace

I have grown up hearing these verses all of my life. But it wasn’t until I read A New Earth that I truly understand what Jesus was trying to tell me here. Here Jesus had just finished teaching about wealth, and he turns to the topic of worry. Because he mentions worries at least five times in this sermon, one can assume this is an important message he really wanted to plant deeply within his followers, bearing many, many fruits. 

He says, “Why are you anxious about clothing?"—Why do you worry about things like food and clothes?  
 
"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow"—when you think carefully and pay careful attention to these wildflowers, to nature and the creative power of the universe; you will not just witness the life force within them. You will know that the life force, the essence of the flower, that thing that makes it grow, also flows through you. 

They don’t toil, neither do they spin. And flowers don’t struggle. They don’t work hard creating stories about themselves, nor do they cover themselves in things like labels and identities. Flowers are simply one with life and the universal intelligence from which they are created. Flowers don’t see themselves separate from this life. They sit still, and they “breathe,” and they grow, and thrive. The same goes for us. With these instructions, Jesus tells us to make space, and he offers two tips for making space easily.

Tip one for awareness: breathing

From Jesus, Tip 1: You can make space simply by taking a moment to become still like the flowers. 

You can make space in your daily life by taking a moment to take one conscious breath devoid of thinking about the past or your plans for the future. Become still and focus on this present moment. You will eventually learn and know in every fiber of your being that the point of power is in the present moment. 

The present moment is the entry point to the source of power within. Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment. When you become aware of that power within, you will not need to look outside yourself for who you are. When you practice presence, you get to know your being. The more time that you spend in the present moment, the more you will transform.

Tip two for awareness: being in nature

Tip 2: Notice the abundance of life around you.

Jesus tells us to turn our attention to nature because nature will remind us of the creative power of the universe that often is forgotten by us humans, or in some cases, never realized. Whenever I go camping with my children and Scouts, I tell them, when something in your mind worries you and makes you sad, try sitting outside for a moment while you focus your attention on the grass or stare up at a tree, or even a weed or moss in a crack on a sidewalk, and breathe. And remember, just as the grass or the tree or the weed grows and thrives through all types of weather, you have similar capacities because the same creative force flows through you, so remember you can thrive too. Practicing presence allows you remember that you are not separate from your maker.

What I didn’t know during my college years and beyond is when you are absorbed by the ego like I was, you will constantly try to do more and more, and have more and more, because you will mistakenly believe that what you strive for will remedy the lack you feel within.

In reality, I could never feel happy or good enough, carrying around all the labels and identities obtained from the world. I had to get in touch with my true spirit, my true self, first. I wish I had known that all I had to do was make space when I found myself caught up in the search for how to feel good about myself. Had I known then what I know now, when I worried about not being good enough, I would be aware that my ego was taking over me.

When I am aware of that, I am empowered to respond to whatever life brings with a greater sense of who I really am. In addition to my response to life coming from a place rooted in the knowledge of who I am, knowing who I am, helps me know with greater confidence what I need to do. Making space actually helps me notice my Being, and it also clarifies my Doing.

What to do with myself?

Looking back, when I asked myself, “Self, how do I know what to do with myself?” The answer was still: make space.

In my college days, I was doing everything. I tried this club, and that program, that job and this new activity. I remained busy doing many things because I wasn’t quite sure what I should do. I wondered a great deal about what my purpose was. Even after college, I wondered about that aspect of my life often. Mostly I worried about never finding my purpose.

Who here also worries about that?

How do you know what to do with yourself? No one else can tell you what to do with your life. For some of us parents, it’s really hard to embody the practice of letting go of this idea of parental control. Of course, our friends, or others can try to tell you what to do. But only your true I, your true sense of self, can determine for you what your purpose in life is.

Make space: find your purpose

Over time, I’ve learned that when you make space and disentangle yourself from the incessant stream of thinking, you are better equipped to live a more joyful and full life.

Jesus says:

29 Yet I tell you that even Solomon in all
his glory was not dressed like one of these.

Tolle interprets this portion of Jesus’ teaching to mean “while nature is a beautiful expression of the evolutionary impulse of the universe, when humans become aligned with the intelligence that underlies it, they will express (they will do) that same impulse on a higher, more wonderous level.” Said differently, when you make space and invite presence into your life, you will be empowered by the creative forces of the universe. And the light of your being will guide your path and illuminate for you what your purpose is and what you should do.

Isn’t that amazing?

Somehow, by being present and experiencing that shifting and evolution of your consciousness, your practice of presence, Being will inform Doing.

It’s a guarantee. Please try it. Without it, you’re just doing a lot of things. Knowing this back in college definitely would have helped. It would’ve gotten me more sleep, as I did not practice the art of sleeping in college. And I don’t recommend doing that.

Connection

One thing I did get a lot of practice doing was navigating relationships. Not to get into details, but you will have all sorts of new relationships in college. I’m certain you experienced that here at St. Andrew’s. Sometimes it feels easy, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to do in our relationships.

As humans, we are designed to seek connections. So, we find ourselves often asking: How do I connect with others? Now, what do you think the answer is?

Make space.

Yes.

When you consistently invite presence into your life, and your Doing is informed by your Being, you will also be capable of navigating your relationships on a higher level. Somewhere along the way, far along the way, I discovered this for myself.

Boarding school

When Zaia first asked us to consider letting her go to boarding school, my initial response was, “Nope, not going to happen kid!”

At first, in my head, all I heard was, “Can I go off and live apart, separate from you all sooner than you, Mommy, had anticipated?” Also, somehow, I had got it into my head that boarding school was the kind of place you sent kids who you couldn’t quite control or needed to be fixed in some way. I’m pretty sure I got that from watching 1980s movies like Dead Poets Society.  

Who’s watched that? 

Well, then you might understand how I was a bit misinformed.

Then I heard from my family and some of my friends. “So, you’re not really going to send this child away from this family, right?” And on and on.  

So, when we showed up here for our interview, I was curious but not quite convinced that our family would let Zaia go to ANY boarding school. During the application process, we drove down from NYC for that interview early in the morning. When we got here, we found out we didn’t have an actual appointment scheduled for an interview at St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, DE. Somehow, I scheduled the visit to the wrong St. Andrew’s School.

I will never forget Mrs. Duprey and her kindness for as long as I live. She figured out how to get us in, so we didn’t have to make another trip down, and it all worked out. Zaia was interviewed and later accepted. We came back for a visit for accepted students. But now we really had to commit to this decision or not. I will tell you that what allowed us to feel comfortable, in the face of all the uncertainty, was Mr. Roach.  

I’ll explain.

Mr. Roach invited us, on the fly, to his office to speak with him that weekend. I was so nervous. I didn’t want to show any hesitancy or concern because I didn’t want to come across as ungrateful for this amazing and highly coveted opportunity.

But I needed to know some things before I could determine if we were going to really drop our Babygirl Zaia Marie in Middletown, Delaware, and get back in our cars and drive back to NYC without her with us. That was still beyond me, a worry in the future. It was important to me to figure out if this was going to work for us. What most concerned me was wondering or worrying: will this experience be the best experience for Zaia?

My Dartmouth flashback

When I first stepped on St. Andrew’s campus, it reminded me of being at Dartmouth. It reminded me of my college days, and some of the funniest times in my life, AND the most difficult times as well. In my mind, for Zaia, that could, in theory, be her experience, happening four years earlier.

As I remembered my college days at Dartmouth, I remember all the ways I stretched and safely landed and grew. I recalled the good times. But if I’m to be honest, what was indelibly etched into my mind were those times, early on in my experience with some of my classmates, particular within my engineering coursework, when I felt like I had to present an inauthentic version of myself to make some of my peers and in some cases my teachers, feel comfortable with me.

In too many moments, I couldn’t just be me. I had to be just like them. Not for me. But for them, for our relationships to barely function. That was a very painful struggle because while in the struggle to protect me, I learned to make myself smaller and make whatever I needed to make bigger, appear bigger, get through certain moments, many moments. That was a habit or a practice I did not want Zaia to adopt, because making yourself small is the opposite of freedom. And I was and continue to parent for liberation. I didn’t want Zaia just to survive her journey; I wanted her to thrive along the way. This was in the back of my mind when Mr. Roach invited us to his office to talk. Would my Babygirl be seen, heard, understood, and protected here? Would she be loved by her community?

In Mr. Roach's office

I did not feel like we were speaking to a headmaster of a prominent school. It was such an easy and enjoyable experience. As I sat on his sofa, I thought in that moment, this man is such a beautiful human being. He gave all of us his fullest attention. He was so curious, he was so open, and he listened to all of us and showed us he cared. He clearly valued our presence and perspective within the SAS community. He did not make us feel like we could not just be ourselves. We did not have to change in any way to fit in here in his family.

Mr. Roach made space for us.  

I thought we were special, but it’s clear, Mr. Roach kind of makes space for everyone. It makes sense, though. Just look at the makeup of this wonderful community he has worked so hard to cultivate with great care.

By a show of hands, who agrees that Mr. Roach has made his mark on this community? You all, and the lives you live, are in many ways the results of his making space and practicing presence. For you see, when you practice presence long enough, your Being and Doing become aligned. And you become capable of completely accepting “the other” as they are. That is powerful in any relationship because true acceptance is vital for real connection. This works on an individual basis and on the collective one too.

Mr. Roach, I want to thank you for extending your friendship to my family and me. I can honestly say your presence in my life has also been a blessing to me. I walked out of your office knowing this was the right place, the right experience for Zaia.

Along with the incredible staff you’ve attracted to this community, your Being and your Doing are what enabled us to make the decision to drop our Babygirl Zaia Marie off in Middletown, DE, and drive back home to NYC without her in the car with us. By his Being and his Doing, Mr. Roach revealed Zaia could be her full self here. We sent her to this community, knowing she could just be Zaia as she unfolded. That meant everything to us as parents. I imagine many of your parents felt similarly about Mr. Roach. I thought I was the only one, but it’s clear Mr. Roach spreads the love to everyone. I am not special.  

I want to encourage all of you when you leave this place and transition into your new communities to make the conscious and intentional choice to make space for others in your life. Particularly those you might consider on the surface to be different from or other than you. Use Mr. Roach as your example of making space.    

In closing

If you want to figure out how to feel good about yourself?

Make space, practice presence. This will rid you of the ego and the false stories you tell yourself allowing you to know your true self, your true being.

If you want to know what to do with yourself?

Make space, practice presence, align your Being with your Doing, so the universal intelligence can guide your steps and you will know and feel confident about what you do in life.

Finally, if you want to know how to connect with others?

Make space, practice presence, which again informs your Being and your Doing.

And the power of your presence will be a guiding force and light to those around you. And you will find yourself attracting the right people in your life and having and experiencing the right kinds of relationships with others. Just remember Mr. Roach’s example.

I want to say congratulations on your achievement. You all have worked so hard. Zaia Marie, I love you so very much. And I am so proud of you. I am so proud of all of you. I wish you the greatest of success. I wish you space.

Thank you for letting me share space with you today.

God bless you.
 

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