Embrace the journey

Posted by scobbs - 08 February, 2013

Susie Cobbs delivered these congratulatory remarks at the induction for the National Honor Society and the National Junior Honor Society on February 5, 2013.

I’m so proud of your accomplishments but have to admit that I’m not terribly surprised. Naïve and awkward, as you were in Lower School, your curiosity and eagerness to learn demonstrated the potential that your teachers and I saw early on—and we knew that it would be realized before you left Randolph School.

Do some of you remember the “Christmas Bikes or Bust” service project? Chris and his dad, Spence, hitched up their trailer and helped us deliver more than 100 bikes to the Ashley Furniture store parking lot where local radio celebrity MoJo spent 104 hours camped up on a scissor lift. A few of you had been selected to help with the delivery and got to say something on the radio about our project.

Lauren, then an adorable 5th grader, was riding back to school in my car and said, “I wish we didn’t have to go back to school. It would be so much fun to go get some hot chocolate.” Actually, that sounded pretty fun to me, too, Lauren, so I said, “Let’s do it!” The kids were surprised as we headed to Starbucks. But not as surprised as I was when Lauren turned to a total stranger in line and said with breathless enthusiasm, “This is my principal. We’re not going back to school! And she’s buying us hot chocolate!” At Randolph, we call this an extraordinary opportunity.

Thinking about visiting with you this afternoon, I pulled out one of your old yearbooks. While almost everyone else was in a school uniform, there was Zaki, posed in a coat and tie with a great big collar suggesting that he would do a lot of growing in the next few years to become the handsome young man he is today. And hearing Molly and Natalie perform at the pep rally recently brought back one of my favorite memories of them as 3rd and 4th graders in the Optimist Talent Show when they did their unforgettable rendition of “These Boots are Made for Walkin.’”

One day recently, one of our 3rd grade teachers poked her head in my office to ask if I had heard a story on NPR that morning about a man who intends to walk across the world to trace the migration pattern of our ancestors of Africa—a journey he calls “A Walk Out of Eden.” He started in Ethiopia last month and it will take him seven years, during which he will cross 39 borders and will walk some 21,000 miles, more than four times the 5,000 miles that Andrew estimates he has run since Middle School.

I’m intrigued by journeys. I’ve traveled with most of you through much of your K-12 journey here at Randolph (even with some of you on the 12-hour bus ride to Williamsburg), but even more than the journeys alone am I fascinated by the people who embrace the challenges of their journeys.

But 21,000 miles? 30,000,000 footsteps? In one of the articles I read about this journalist, Paul Salopek, he says, “While this is a major, major undertaking, by my standards it’s not entirely out of character.” I was curious to know what kind of man embarks on an expedition like this.

Journey with me for a few minutes to consider this extraordinary adventurer. After college, Paul Salopek worked on and off as a commercial fisherman. But his life took an unexpected turn on a road trip when his motorcycle broke down in Roswell, New Mexico. With no money for repairs, Salopek took a police-reporting job at the local newspaper and a career in journalism was launched. Not long after, he got an assignment for National Geographic in Africa and landed the cover story for his piece on Africa’s mountain gorillas. Within a short time, he was honored with prestigious journalism awards. As I learned more about this man, I continued to think about journeys: How did Salopek go from police reporting to Pulitzer-prize recognition? From deep sea fishing to examining controversial topics such as the search for global genes, immigration and border control, and African disease epidemics?

Somewhere along his journey, Paul Salopek learned to write—and to write very well—and I suspect that as a kid, he was always reading, always asking questions, always challenging ideas. I suspect, too, that like you, he was nurtured by his teachers and family, encouraged to think critically about the world, to solve problems, and perhaps even to take risks.

The road hasn’t always been smooth for Salopek, however, and not all risks have paid off. In 2006 he was freelancing in Sudan for National Geographic when he, his driver, and his interpreter, were detained by the government on charges of espionage and entering Sudan without a visa. He was kept for 30 days with 15 other men in a 20 x 20 foot square cell. I paced off 20 feet in Rison Hall to imagine the size of that cell and thought about his mistreatment. I wondered what sustained Salopek during those days of uncertainty and fear, before the US government arranged his release.

I thought about friends I know who have embarked on challenging journeys. Many of you know Caroline’s sister, Kristyn '12, who participated in a summer Outward Bound program that pushed her out of her comfort zone. She recalls the challenges of a 50-hour solo, wilderness experience when, she, too, was restricted to a 20 by 20 foot space of a different sort.

About this, she writes:

“For the first afternoon, I was excited for the opportunity to rest and write about the things I hadn't had time to even think about for the previous two-and-a-half weeks. But, when I woke up with the sun the next morning, I quickly realized exactly what it meant to be completely and totally alone. I was hungry, tired, and further away from my Huntsville life than I ever could have imagined.”

In the NPR interview, Salopek was questioned about walking through a number of troubled countries. He responded: Yes, there will be challenges along the way, and often, they’ll be challenges that I’m not even thinking of. I’ll be stymied. I’ll find obstacles. That’s part of the beauty of this journey, improvising my way across the world.

Your time at Randolph is preparing you for life’s bigger journeys, some of which you will choose, others you won’t. Every now and then you may feel like your motorcycle has broken down in a strange, unfamiliar place, but the challenges that you encounter now—the mistakes that present the opportunities to reimagine, the teams that would be easier to quit than to cultivate, the relationships that may start at a Homecoming Dance and continue long into the future—will all prepare you in some way for your journey.

As you continue to grapple with new ideas and to make meaning out of your place in the world, know that others, many older and wiser, like Paul Salopek, are still trying to understand the world. My hope is that, like him, you might embrace challenges and find beauty in the solutions; that you might use your experiences to create new paths; and draw upon the strength of your education and relationships to sustain you.

Journey well, my friends. The roads are wide open, your motorcycles are well-tuned, and I have no doubt you will be prepared for a great ride.

Topics: 12th grade, 4th grade, After, character, friends, lifers, teachers, the world, traditions, Upper School, People

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