Polly Robb: Live Out of Your Hearts

Posted by David Brown - 18 June, 2019

At this year's Baccalaureate service, Polly Robb, former Head of Middle School, was the guest speaker, just days after she was ordained as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. She recently graduated from seminary at the University of the South, and her remarks follow.

Good evening! It is wonderful to be with you tonight, Class of 2019, and an honor to be asked to speak as part of your Baccalaureate ceremony. Thank you for having me. Thank you also to my former colleagues Jay Rainey, Jane Daniel, Jerry Beckman, and Ryan Liese for inviting me.

Graduates, trustees, staff and faculty of the School, parents, family members and friends, it is so good to be with you. If it looks surreal to have me here in a collar, well, I am with you there. I’ve been ordained for 48 hours now but still it is quite tight. I guess it is going to take some getting used to.

Polly 1

Four years ago, graduates, we said goodbye as I retired from Randolph. We both knew that you would be my last 8th grade class, but I’m not sure you knew we were on the same timeline, that we’d both graduate from something in 2019. I wondered then how we’d both change over the following four years. Mr. Liese tells me that you’ve become a wonderfully inclusive class— that an important part of your identity is wrapped up in how well you’ve learned to relate to and accept one another, particularly as you come to the end of your time here at Randolph. Hearing this warms my heart. It means you’ve taken a step beyond just tolerance; you have opted for understanding and solidarity with others— or in the words of Randolph’s motto: you’ve chosen nurturing all.

I dearly hope you take this unity-building out into the world as you leave this place, as our world certainly is in need of it. I’ve also enjoyed reading about your accomplishments and listening online to many of you give Senior speeches. You made me laugh, and you made cry tears of joy, remembering our time together, along with Mr. Moore and Mr. Bluestein. I am reminded what bright, funny, and talented young people you are.

Middle school teachers walk that amazing journey alongside children who are discovering their independence and beginning to articulate their individuality.

People used to react in surprising ways when they’d asked me what I did for a living and I told them that I was a principal, that I worked with middle school students. I’ll bet my middle school colleagues experience this regularly, too. People seem to either put you on a pedestal, thinking middle school teachers have super powers in order to deal with 12-13 year olds every day, or they feel sorry us, as if we were in perpetual purgatory. Neither is true, of course, though I did try to make you all think I had the super power of knowing what you were doing or thinking at all times. The fact is, working with middle school children is a matter of faith and love--metamorphical love. Middle school teachers walk that amazing journey alongside children who are discovering their independence and beginning to articulate their individuality—not always well, I might add. The transformation is right before our eyes, but not fully completed. We send them off in faith that they will continue their journey of growth.

At the  8th grade slideshow in your Moving Up ceremony, even you all remarked at how much you’d grown since 5th grade. I heard you say, “Gosh, I was such a baby then.” Now, looking back at your 9th grade year, you surely have the same reflections—you thought you were so grown up entering upper school. In four or five years, when you graduate from college, you will again realize how you’ve matured from this point—intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.

I advise you never to take someone else’s advice.

I am belaboring this point about reflecting back because I hope to send you off with some words of encouragement tonight. Now let’s be clear, I’m not giving you advice, because when it comes to advice, I adhere to what Ellen DeGeneres once told a graduating class: I advise you never to take someone else’s advice.

So instead, I offer you my encouragement. First, to always Be Reflective! It is in looking back, in examining our past perceptions and revisiting our beliefs, that we come to a higher order of consciousness. We become more open-minded and gain a greater capacity for adapting to change. Being reflective is not only about acknowledging our own growth, it allows us to accept change in other people. I hope that when you are 20 years old, 25 years old or 50 years old or more, you will look at who you are, be grateful for all that has been, and set out for yourselves once again a path forward. For we are always in the process of becoming.

One of my favorite poems in all the world illustrates the wonder and power of being reflective. It was written in the 11th century by Jalal Al-Din Rumi (or just Rumi, as he is widely known), the founder of Sufism. It is called "The Guest House."

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.  

It is the honesty in Rumi’s work that I admire. He shows so simply how living reflectively allows us to grow.It is one of many paradoxes in life, which brings me to my second hope for you: I hope you will always look for the irony, the ambiguity, and the enigmas in life. Enjoy ruminating on these things. Resist the temptation to reduce everything to having to have a right or wrong solution. Don’t try to smooth out all the things that seem to be opposing forces, Rather, see how they tug on one another to create a balance.The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison that it is in creating discipline in our lives that we find freedom. This is the kind of openness to paradox that I am talking about. Be okay with this tension, for having certainty about all things is a slippery path.Polly 2

In seminary these past few years, I read and read, and I wrote enough papers. But we also get to practice our theology, to do the work of pastoral care. I worked as a chaplain in several settings – in a hospital, in a hospice - and I served as a chaplain at summer camp in a session for rising 8th and 9th graders. Go figure. Maybe you know Camp McDowell. Its tagline is “The way the world should be,” and part of the goal is to get the campers to embrace this motto as they hike, play, swim, dance, and canoe, to treat one another kindly, with forgiveness and grace.

The session I attended had several campers new to camp, new to this way of living, and one of them I got to know pretty well. He was a very smart young man we’ll call Terry. About halfway through camp, the staff saw that Terry was surrounded by a few girls who were awfully teary and hanging closely to one another. When anyone inquired as to what was wrong, they declined to say. After a day and a half of seeing their hugging and their failed attempts to suppress tears, the staff met and discussed a plan to find out what was up.

“The problem with philosophy, Terry, is that it teaches you to live out of your head and not your heart.”

One counselor heard that Terry had confided in the girls, telling them that he had a terrible heart condition and that he was dying. He told them that he wouldn’t live beyond the age of 20. Terry didn’t want anyone else to know because he wanted to live normally, without a lot of commotion about his illness. Of course, the girls were devastated, but something smelled fishy to this old middle school head, and a few of the counselors weren’t buying it either. So I went to investigate. It took only a quick trip to the nurse who knew nothing about Terry’s condition and a look at Terry’s health form—there was no heart condition.

One of the counselors and I then met with Terry, telling him that we had heard about his health and were very concerned. We wanted to respect his wishes, but we had to make sure we knew exactly how to manage his heart condition and see about any meds he needed. We asked if it would be mom or dad we should call? It did not take long for him to confess to his lie.

Terry had a long, complicated reason for doing what he did. Wanting to assure us that he had no malignant intent, he quoted in his explanation from Plato and Nietzsche, and I, retorting with some of my favorite philosophers, had an equally long lesson on reasoning for him that evening. Then I told him what his “sentence” would be, part of which was to spend time the next day with my fellow chaplain, a young man and priest of the church who had been a philosophy major in college. I was sure that would do the trick.

The next day, this priest dutifully walked and talked with Terry a long time, and I heard the beginning of their conversation as they walked away. It was exactly what I needed to hear: “The problem with philosophy, Terry, is that it teaches you to live out of your head and not your heart.”

We forget sometimes that living a life of wisdom is not about accumulating all the knowledge we can and spewing it back out.

You see, at the ripe old age of 13, Terry had it all figured out. Based upon what he’d read or heard, he knew just what to do with all his learning. He was certain about how to approach life. We forget sometimes that living a life of wisdom is not about accumulating all the knowledge we can and spewing it back out. In fact, what we already know for certain can prevent us from learning something new. Instead, wisdom literature teaches us of the fluidity of learning. The spirit of wisdom is described as intelligent, subtle, mobile, and humane. It learns from reflecting on life—the good and the bad—and welcomes the struggling that comes with hard questions. It does not look for easy or quick answers.

So, my young friends, my hope for you is threefold.

I encourage you to be reflective, to open up your guest house; the insight that you gain from looking deep inside yourself will help you set a path forward to becoming who you hope to be.

I encourage you to embrace paradox. Where you find tension between two ideas is the place you can see things anew.

And finally, while you take with you from this place abundant knowledge and the vital skills of learning, my hope is that you strive for a life of wisdom, living not out of your heads, but out of your hearts.

I wish you all the best. My love and congratulations to you all.

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Topics: advice to graduates, graduation, Polly Robb, Bacclaureate


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