English and math teacher Pemberton Heath '08 delivered this Wednesday night Chapel Talk on Wednesday, May 5.
I was sitting in the faculty room last spring when I heard a familiar voice behind me. "You're back", he began, but tried to cut himself off, realizing that it wasn't the friendliest greeting after a few years away. I laughed and told Chris Childers, an old colleague, that it was ok to call me out on my third tour of duty at St. Andrew's. If you count the fact that I was meant to be in medical school right now but chose, at the last minute, to stay on for another year, you could call this my fourth go round. While there are a lot of great reasons to keep coming back to Delaware—first it was a movie theater, now Chipotle, who knows what's next—I can't say that the thriving metropolis of Middletown has had any pull on me. No, it's quite clear that something about this school is magnetic, and has continued to draw me back at key junctures in my life. Yet, fittingly, it has also launched me into new adventures at each of those moments.
To get situated, here is a brief timeline of my interactions with St. Andrew's: I came here for high school and graduated in 2008. After graduating from college, I returned to SAS for one year to teach math. I left and moved to Boston, where I did several different things, including taking premed classes, serving as a teaching assistant at Harvard, teaching high school math and a few more twists and turns that I'll discuss later. I can't say that I woke up one morning, thought, "Wow, I'm pretty confused about what I'm doing. Why don't I go work at St. Andrew's to get grounded, focused, and reconnect with what I value." But in hindsight, when I left Boston and returned to St. Andrew's in the winter of 2016 as a maternity leave replacement for Ms. Reddy, that was what I was doing. My plan was to leave at the end of that school year for medical school, but yet again I chose to return to St. Andrew's, deferring my admission to medical school for one year. Which brings us to the present moment. I'll be leaving St. Andrew's in June to begin med school in July.
In 2004 I came to St. Andrew's as an awkward prepubescent thirteen year old freshman still wearing braces and glasses, eager for all of the possibilities St. Andrew's had to offer, which at that time I perceived to primarily be friends, fun teachers, sports teams, taking lots of math classes—I was such an eager student I took two my freshman year—the colors black and red, and swimming in Noxontown Pond. What I learned quickly, however, was that St. Andrew's promised an intense experience where I would be pushed to be my best academically, athletically, and most importantly, as a human. Over those four years, my classmates and I developed the core belief that we were all capable and responsible for doing something to make the world a better place.
In writing this chapel talk I dared to look back at the graduation speech I gave in 2008, thinking I could find a good line capturing how I felt upon my departure from St. Andrew's that day. Instead, I found a lot of cliches, the phrase "we are blessed" twice, and some embarrassing emotionally intense lines. While it became clear graduation was an angsty morning for me, I still believe what I said in the speech: that our St. Andrew's experience gives us a kind of internal compass for navigating life.
What I did not know at the time, however, was how that inner compass would go haywire during college. I got confused about what it meant to live a good life; I got more focused on getting good grades and winning the approval of others; less focused on what I cared about and what I could bring to the world; more focused on winning prestigious scholarships to graduate school than the subject material I would actually study. After college, I came back to St. Andrew's needing to reconnect with my values, reset that inner compass, clarify what I held important. I found what I was looking for, and after a year of teaching I left inspired and confident about choosing medicine as a career—something where I would be devoting myself to serving others, while staying in touch with the teaching and learning I had always loved.
And yet, within seven months of leaving St. Andrew's for the second time, passionate and confident about my path toward medicine, I became deeply confused about whether to pursue medicine or just give that up and go into a totally different career. The going was slow getting ready for medical school. Two and half years of basic science, a year studying for the MCAT and applying, just to get ready for four years of school, three to seven years of residency, fellowship training...I felt like I was falling behind already. My friends were posting pictures of themselves on Instagram and Facebook, and they seemed ahead in life. More fun, more likes, fancier jobs, cooler vacations. Why was I taking chemistry with undergrads and spending time on the weekends studying so I could just devote the next ten years of my of life to even more studying?
So, I decided I'd like to try finance. Yes—between teaching, studying for medical school, and teaching some more, I went and worked on Wall Street—like the actual Wall Street of "Occupy Wall Street". In finance, I thought, I would "get going in my career right away." I'd start making money, get the Excel skills my friends in finance seemed to think were so important, and learn how global markets worked. It seemed that everyone else had already figured all of this out while I was busy figuring out how electrons were situated in their different orbitals. I threw myself at applying to consulting and finance internships, and basically set my mind against medical school. It seems strange now, but it was so real for me as I was living it. Just a year after I had left St. Andrew's passionately committed to becoming a doctor, and my thoughts were jumbled and entirely redirected!
I don't believe I am the only one who experiences this. I think myriad college students feel this way too. Ms. Hastings beautifully wrote in last week's Friday News that part of the joy of being a college counselor is that she "gets to work with students as they share their hopes and aspirations for the future. They want to find schools that will help them pursue their goals, which, for many of them, include helping others and improving the global community." Sit in at an orientation, or convocation, at any university, and you will feel that energy—that optimism, idealism, passion—just bursting at the seams. And then consider this: at graduation from Harvard last year, 40% of the graduating class was headed into just two fields: consulting and finance. Out of every five people, TWO were going into these two fields. Major financial and management consulting firms offer prestigious first-year jobs that pay close to six figures and promise long term prospects for a successful career in business. To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with becoming a consultant or a banker. Not at all. But it is fascinating to me that of all of the dreams and aspirations and hopes and ambitions in a given class of freshmen, 40% of that energy gets funneled into two jobs that often don't connect with or support those initial hopes. Of the 18% of Harvard's Class of 2016 who are entering finance, less than 6% say that is actually where they want to work in 10 years; of the 22% heading into consulting, less than 1% say that's where they want to be. So how do we get to this point, where it becomes so difficult to remain thoughtful about and committed to your dreams and your choices?
Mostly, it makes me really wonder how it is possible that when we think we know something about who we are, or what we want to do, the world creeps in and muddles it all up. What makes us vulnerable to this muddling, to the competing voices and ideas about what is successful, what is desirable, what is good? If we can be aware of those vulnerabilities—and we all have them— we can try to protect ourselves against this frustrating confusion.
I believe that my own vulnerability in these moments has stemmed from two places: competitiveness and some degree of self obsession. It comes as no surprise that the finance thing didn't work too well for me. Whose voice had I been following in trying to go down that path? Certainly not my own. I was listening to others, valuing things that others valued, trying to win at a game whose rules I did not respect. I had gone down this path because I felt like I was falling behind in some kind of imaginary race—because I coveted the apparent victories of my peers. I also was pretty singularly focusing on myself—what would make me better, me more competitive, me more successful—and I had taken something so valuable—my impact and service to others—out of the equation. It only took a week at my fancy summer job to know that I had made a grave error. I knew my criteria for my life's work, and it not only included but prioritized doing something meaningful that I felt contributed to others. No matter which way I sliced and diced this new job, I just couldn't meet those standards.
Many of you, I believe all of you, share this conviction in doing something to make the world a better place. Yet, when you leave St. Andrew's you may not always be surrounded by people who remind you of that dream. The world often makes it easy to forget: we are a "selfie generation" and we think a lot about ourselves. To quote Drew Faust, Harvard's president, "think for a moment about the implications of a society that goes through life taking its own picture." If you review my thought process in leaving medicine and going into banking temporarily, you'll notice that I didn't think much of anyone but myself. I was pretty self-absorbed during that whole process, and this is perhaps the main vulnerability we must face when we are fighting against how the world might cloud our sense of purpose. In all of our self-absorption, our self-enlargement, we are apt to forget about our connection to, our dependence on, our obligation to others and our communities.
When I came back to St. Andrew's in the winter of 2016, I had crystallized my belief that I had to do something meaningful for the world. This might feel circular—isn't this what I felt like I took away both at my own graduation and during my first year of teaching? Well, the reality is that learning is not linear. I learned this once, then had to re-learn it a second and third time (and I might not be finished, yet!). And while I knew I was committed to pursuing a life of service to others, to actually locate, within the realm of doing something meaningful, what work I most wanted to do—the nuance of that decision was the hard part, and I needed time to discern which type of work—primarily between secondary school teaching and some aspect of medicine—I felt most compelled to do. It is certainly true that in large part I wanted to be back at St. Andrew's to have the chance to coach basketball and soccer again, to teach math and English, and to get to know you all, of course, I also required time to sort through that process of discovering my vocation, and I knew I was going to do my best and clearest thinking here.
Being here as a faculty is an incredible experience. From my time at the bank and even as a TA, it is a blessing to be surrounded with colleagues who are doing the work they feel called to do. This is uncommon. It is courageous and it is inspirational, and it was uplifting to be surrounded by others who displayed courage to follow their calling—this was an ideal setting in which to meditate and consider my own life's work.
Throughout the past year, as I've reflected specifically on whether I will study medicine, I've found myself recalling, time and again, a particular experience I had while shadowing another person who each and every day embodied what it meant to live the life he was called to do—after all, he only became a physician after being rejected from medical school three times and finally attending the only university that would admit him—University of Tel Aviv.
Dr. Kevn Raskin is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in orthopedic oncology, which means cancer found in the musculoskeletal system (bones, muscles, connective tissue), and nationally and internationally revered in his field. Beyond attracting patients from all over the world who want their cancer treatment in his hands, he is an incredibly kind and compassionate human. He remembers each of his patients by name, and spends time learning about their lives and their hobbies outside of their illness, even when a visit is urgent and the patient's prognosis grave.
I spent a year attending Dr. Raskin's weekly clinic, and one such visit sticks out as a clarifying moment for me in my decision to pursue medicine. A girl just about you all's age came into the clinic. She was a junior at high school in Boston, and she was frustrated because she was approaching her junior year rowing season, but she had a nagging pain in her left shoulder and couldn't row, at least not hard. X Rays, MRIs, and several appointments later, no doctor could find the cause of this nagging pain. Most had dismissed her as exaggerating the situation. She had found her way to Dr. Raskin because there was a small spot on x-ray that looked abnormal, but most of the doctors had thought it was just an errant piece of bone in her muscle; sometimes a tiny piece of injured muscle responds by calcifying and turning to bone, but it's a harmless process that's only painful in the short run. She went to Dr. Raskin as a last resort, hoping he would have an answer that would get her fixed in time for crew, instead of having to deal with this "wait it out" business about a little piece of bone.
Dr. Raskin followed a hunch that this could be a cancerous tumor showing up on the image. A biopsy later, and he had diagnosed the girl with an osteosarcoma--a very rare, treatable, but no joke bone cancer that sometimes appears in teenagers. Quickly, the girl's life turned upside down, and this was no longer about getting back for crew season. It was first about radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery; then, it was about making it five years, then ten, then fifteen.
The sacredness of Dr. Raskin's work was immediately evident then, and remains so now. This moment resonated so much with me because I was, at that time, working closely with high school students in Boston, and had worked here at St. Andrew's. Here she was, now worried about matters of life or death, not the next regatta or her college process. The entire scenario reminded me of a quote in a text I taught in my tutorial a few years ago, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: "The physician's duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence." I disagree with this quote, to some extent, because Dr. Raskin's work was about saving this young woman's life; it was about staving off death and getting her back to her old life, as much as possible—but that was not his primary or even most sacred duty. His most sacred duty was to care for this young woman and her family. To embrace her and them, to help them navigate their new life, their new journey, and all of the questions it raised.
His calling, therefore, was actually to be a teacher. To be a guide. To be of comfort. To be a leader. I stood in exhilarated reverence as he administered his care to this patient and her family. The feelings and memories of that patient visit, are the feelings I have reconnected with here, as a teacher at St. Andrew's. The interweaving of this memory with my current experiences has helped me to re-calibrate my compass and has pointed me firmly and positively in the direction of medicine.
So for now, I think that I have it figured out. But when I'm staring down a week of exams and getting worried about the grade, or when I'm beginning residency, still years out from practicing as an independent doctor, or when I make a mistake that has a life or death consequence, there will certainly be moments when I ask myself, "am I doing the right thing?" I know those moments will happen. But what I have finally learned is that, this time around, it will not be a disaster when I get confused—it will be normal, and I have begun to develop a sense of how to proceed in those confusing moments.
As one of my favorite authors Abraham Verghese writes, "Life, too, is like that. We live it forward but understand it backwards." It is hard to understand life forward. It certainly has stymied me. What seems clear to me in hindsight is that there are places in the world where we feel truest to ourselves. For me, this is St. Andrew's. And then there are places and environments and experiences that will challenge our beliefs. For me, this was college and my three years in Boston. Sometimes those challenges will highlight how firm we are in our convictions. Sometimes, we'll get lost. However clearly you hear a voice inside you, compelling you or calling you toward a path, the world presents a cacophony of louder, competing voices that may drown yours out. What I said in my graduation speech about having an inner compass was not wrong. It was that I did not understand that the signal of our compass is stronger in some places than in others, and we have to maintain our compass by cultivating it.
In Verghese's Cutting for Stone, the book's protagonist, Marion, goes to his mentor for advice on how to live his life. She says this:
"Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don't leave the instrument sitting in its case my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for 'Three Blind Mice' when you can play the 'Gloria'?... Not Bach's 'Gloria'. Yours! Your 'Gloria' lives within you. The greatest sin is not finding it, ignoring what God made possible in you."
Whether or not you believe in God, some other higher power, or just the power that resides inside of you, the message in this quote is clear. We all have to find the music we are meant to play, and then play it. St. Andrew's has encouraged me and allowed me to find my "Gloria", and it has supported me as I have found that to be (for now!) the craft of medicine. My hope for each of you is that, during your time at St. Andrew's, and long after you graduate, you are successful in unearthing and playing your Gloria to the fullest extent of your abilities.
Ultimately, making a decision about what you want to do is not about what others think you should do, or even what you think you should do. It is about what path makes you exhilarated and excited and nervous because of all of its possibility. And it is about finding a way to stick to that path despite all of the distractions and obstacles and discouragement the world will throw your way.
So how do we do this? Return to work at St. Andrew's! Yes, but no. If every St. Andrew's graduate who came to a period of turbulence and confusion took this approach, it would create a very bizarre staffing problem for Mr. Roach. For me, I know that St. Andrew's is a place of clarity and focus and a place to nurture and cultivate my values and a place to hear what I already know—but accessing this place doesn't necessarily mean coming all the way back. I can urge you to stay connected to this place by talking to friends and former teachers, reading the Friday news and the Wednesday night chapel talks, but that is something you will figure out how to do on your own. What I can say, from my experience, is that you have to know that it is ok to backwards before you go forwards. To, like the fox in Berry's Mad Farmer Liberation Front, "make more tracks than necessary, sometimes in the wrong direction." And, however you stay connected to this school, Know that through your connection to St. Andrew's, you have a web. It is a "rig to use in rising." It is a ladder, a connection to the place and a community and a group of people where you have begun an exciting journey. And most importantly, it is a place to which you can return. "Thus I, gone forth as spiders do In spider's web a truth discerning, attach one silken thread to you For my returning."