This time last year I was binge-reading leadership books and John Adams’ diary, desperate to grow, desperate to make more of myself, before my 17th birthday.
I wanted to be a better student, a better friend, a better daughter, and a better leader and I was willing to anything to achieve that, as long as it didn’t take too long or interfere with any of my leisure time.
A week before my seventeenth birthday I read that George Washington copied down each of the French Jesuits’ 101 Rules of Civility when he was 16. I’m not sure if I wanted a connection to Washington or somehow thought that this activity he was probably forced to do was the key to his success, but I spent most of my last hours as a 16 year old furiously trying to rewrite these rules.
I made it to number 51 before I decided I should probably do something else other than copying advice like, “Kill no vermin as fleas, lice, and ticks in the sight of others.”
Looking back at my growth over the past year, I realize that I learned a little from the countless biographies and self-help books I read, I learned even less from copying down the 101 Rules of Civility, but I learned the most about how to be a leader from my classmates.
I learned the most about how to be a leader from my classmates.
The first time I recognized that my peers were paragons of the traits I wanted to have was the first day of school last year. I don’t need to remind anyone of how stressful the first day can be. I was just trying my best to get through.
During lunch, Molly sat down with me at a table of people she hadn’t been friends with the year before. Confidently, she led the conversation and even made the entire table laugh a couple times. Sometimes, it takes all of my energy to get up the nerve to talk to someone I’m not already comfortable with, but Molly probably didn’t even think twice about it. To this day, that one moment serves as inspiration for me to make an effort to talk to those I usually don’t, and I have made some great friends because of it.
On the same note of friendliness, last year, Nataly signed up to go on the Ecuador Interim trip, and it turned out she was the only sophomore who did. Nataly’s choice to stay on the trip is an act of leadership itself, however, when Skylar, a junior at the time, noticed this at our first interim meeting, Skylar stopped Nataly in the hallway the next day. In the gregarious, bubbly way Skylar says just about anything, Skylar told Nataly matter-of-factly, “Hey! I’m Skylar, we’re going to be friends.”
Again, Skylar probably didn’t think much of this one short interaction, but it meant the world to Nataly and erased any worries about mean, snobby upperclassmen ruining her trip. This small deed epitomizes what it means to be empathetic, to look out for an underclassmen, and to have a warmth of heart.
Ecuador Interim trip, Spring 2018
Then, on that Ecuador trip, I was handed yet another lesson in leadership by a classmate. During one of the most hilarious freestyle raps I have ever witnessed, Jack Benton got a little carried away and accidentally made a gesture that annoyed his friend, Maryam. Immediately after this happened, he stopped by her room to talk to her. Without the slightest hint of condescension or smugness, Jack Benton said to Maryam, “I want to apologize, but if I apologize then you’ll feel bad and apologize and then I’ll feel bad, and I don’t want either of us to feel bad, so why don’t we just agree to be better friends to each other?”
This apology was honest and diplomatic, and I’m sure their friendship was made even stronger because of it. I still think of this moment of strength through vulnerability every time I need to let go of my pride for something that matters.
Why don’t we just agree to be better friends to each other?
My last example of courageous leadership was shown by a young woman who graduated last year, Elizabeth Johnson '18. Anyone who knows Elizabeth knows that she is a powerful role model. If I listed all the ways she inspires and uplifts everyone in her life, we’d be here for days. However, there was one moment last year that I think perfectly embodies her attitude towards others and why I continue to look up to her.
It was a pretty normal Thursday track practice. Our coach wasn’t there and bestowed on Elizabeth the responsibility of leading the team through the workout. Our day began with short runs that gradually lengthened until a finale of two 400 meter sprints. The unique thing about the 400 meter run is that, somehow, both long distance and short distance people unequivocally despise it. But, as we began our workout, Elizabeth worked to pep us up and led by example by giving every run her all.
We were only a couple runs in when Liz had to take a breather. Her dedication to running meant she developed a condition in her hip, and that day her doctor was weaning her off meds for it. But even as she lay in the grass, gripping the ground in pain, she still cheered us on until she was ready to hop back in. Any time she sensed us losing motivation she simply just smiled and encouraged us. Right before we did our hardest runs of the day, the two 400s, another member of our team showed up.
Elizabeth, left, with teammates
It was a middle schooler who had made it a habit to show up to practice 50 minutes late. Admittedly, I, like others on the team, have gotten frustrated with him, not just because of his attendance record, but because he frequently broke a cardinal rule of a track work out: never be pessimistic. In my worst moments, I have gotten cross with him, but never Liz.
As the team fought our way through our first 400 run, the middle schooler took his sweet, sweet time warming up. I knew his game, cause I was at a pro at it, and I knew Liz wasn’t going to let him miss these last two runs. After some expert coaching, Liz convinced him to run the second 400 with us. As soon as I crossed the 400 meter mark I collapsed on the grass. I was spent, absolutely spent.
The middle schooler still had to run his second 400, but seemed apprehensive about doing so. As for the rest of team, it was the last run of the day, and some were already starting to leave practice. But not Liz. Instead, knowing that he probably would not ask for help, she offered to run the 400 with him. He immediately perked up and said it would help him with “pacing,” but really it was clear that he didn’t want to run it alone. So, in excruciating pain, after most of the team had gone, Elizabeth mustered through a third 400 and she and the middle schooler crossed the finish line together.
Watching this unfold, there were tears in my eyes because I knew I had just witnessed the definition of leadership. Elizabeth knew that a member of our team needed her, and put herself through enormous pain to be there for him. She didn’t do it for any kind of recognition. Our coach hadn’t been there the entire day. She did it simply because it was the right thing to do, albeit the hardest thing to do.
These stories are proof that some of our greatest teachers are our peers, and that anyone in this room can be a leader. My classmates didn’t have titles when they took these actions. They didn’t have coaches or parents assessing them. They acted like leaders because they are leaders, a potential everyone has. They enrich our community not only because they make a difference in the life of the person they’re helping, like Skylar helped Nataly, but also in how they show the rest of us what being a great friend, peer, and person looks like.
If you want to grow, you can read self-help books, you can read biographies, you can even make yourself copy down 101 Rules of Civility, OR you could just look around. Because the best lessons in camaraderie, sacrifice, and goodwill can be learned right here, from one another.