Owning your actions

This is an ethics speech given by Upper School Math Teacher Anna Vice to Upper School students and faculty on the topic of responsibility. Ms. Vice explains how her father’s health impacted her family and the decisions she has made throughout her life.

Mr. [John] Bellaschi approached me a couple of weeks ago to present on the topic of responsibility. My first thought was a laughable, “no way,” but after ruminating on it for a couple of days, this topic weighed heavier and heavier on me, and I felt compelled to share.

I am the youngest of four children from a working-class family in Somerville, Alabama. Growing up, my mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my dad ran a manufacturing business. My mother raised us in her devout catholic faith, and we all received a catholic education from the very beginning. During first and second grade, my mom home-schooled us. At the time, I was too young to know the real reason or even care to ask why.

One spring morning during first grade, my siblings and I were sitting at the kitchen table waiting to go through the morning routine before splitting off into our independent studying, and we heard our mother scream from her bathroom. She ran out and told my eldest sister, Mary (who was 12 years-old), to call 911 and tell them that Dad was lying on the floor unconscious, not breathing, and with no discernable heartbeat. She ran back to the bathroom to give my dad CPR until the paramedics could arrive.

Our home is at least 30 minutes away from the nearest hospital, but in the panic of it all, it felt as though they arrived in a matter of seconds.

In college, my dad was on the rowing team, soccer team, and taught weightlifting. Throughout my entire childhood, my dad continued to play soccer and tennis, and enjoyed getting us all to perform calisthenics as a family. This usually involved him telling us to “take a lap around the house” when he was annoyed by us. He did not finish college due to an injury that cost him his athletic scholarships, but that didn’t slow him down. He became the youngest and most profitable salesman that company had seen, and when I was born, he took over his father’s business.

In the late 1990s, this business took a turn for the worse, and my dad struggled to support his family and his employees. It was the stress of this that caused him to have four episodes and one heart attack. During the long drive to the hospital, the paramedics were able to get my dad’s heart started again. He was dead for several minutes, and a fourth of his heart was deadened.

Over the next several months, my mom needed to focus all her attention on him, and our home life drastically changed. We were all now responsible for our own laundry, meals, and hygiene. I have no memories of my mom cleaning my or any of my siblings’ rooms. My sisters took over teaching my brother and me for the next few months. Eventually my mom was able to resume her role as educator, but the shift in the other responsibilities never returned. From then on, it was my responsibility to get myself ready for school, make my own lunch, feed my pets, prepare for sports, and have my schoolwork done.

From that summer until each of us went to college, we worked for my dad. We would separate parts, build elevator buttons, print golf balls, whatever was necessary. He paid us for our labor and treated us like employees. There were no excuses for being late or doing a poor job. He taught us the importance of saving our money, and if we every complained about working in the hot aluminum buildings around people smoking cigarettes, then he would tell us we better do well in school so we could go to college and get a good job.

Neither of my parents graduated from college, but from the way they promoted education and the power of knowledge you would think they both had their PhDs from Ivy League schools. Because of them, I love learning about everything under the sun. I love reading, going to museums, watching documentaries, experiencing art in all its forms. I especially love math and fun math tricks –so any time you want to learn a math trick or show me one, I am down for it. While my parents are the ones who modeled a passion for knowledge and self-growth, this is a mindset that I chose to adopt and continue to choose every day. I’m not successful all day every day, but it is a daily choice I make. I am responsible for that.

You are responsible for that. You are responsible for how you affect every room you walk into, and how those rooms affect you.

In high school, this mentality is difficult to foster and perpetuate. By senior year, your life may be reaching its first real fork in the road. You are choosing what to do next, as an adult. The decisions you make for your life after high school are real and matter a great deal. This can be terrifying. If I go to this college, I could have exorbitant debt, but I loved the campus and the people. I could go to this school and be debt free but have to make sacrifices and not get to have the full “college experience.” The pros and cons of each school make this decision seemingly impossible.

This quote from “Into the Wild” by Chris McCandless helped me through some tough decisions in high school and has never been far from my mind. 

“Circumstance has no value. It is how one relates to a situation that has value. All true meaning resides in the personal relationship to a phenomenon, what it means to you”

That line, “Circumstance has no value,” resonated with me for years. Growing up visiting my dad in the hospital surgery after surgery, I had a chip on my shoulder. My classmates had these “perfect” lives. In my mind, they were able to drive anywhere, hang out with whomever, whenever. Their parents gave them whatever money they wanted to spend. Thinking like this put me in a very dark place, and I resented everyone. I resented my friends for their seemingly easy lives. I resented my family for not affording me the luxury of continuing toward my dream of being a professional equestrian, for having to babysit and work for my dad for spending money, for not being given a car and therefore not being able to drive to see friends, and for having strict parents who cared about the person I was becoming.

This was my prerogative as a teenager. I was just angry.

Being responsible doesn’t mean you’re perfect and you never feel these things. You are going to falter, make mistakes, and be resentful. Just recognize that you have the power to control how you react to these situations. If you make a mistake, you can either throw your hands up and say, “Oh well, I’m a screw-up,” or you can try to learn from it for the next time you’re put in that situation. That is being responsible. Owning your actions, both the good and bad, and aiming to not do the bad anymore.

After abruptly deciding to take a gap year after high school and choosing to estrange myself from my family for several months, I finally came to my senses and owned my actions.

I chose a community college that offered a basketball statistician position which afforded full tuition, books, and fees, and moved into an apartment with my dog. I chose this school because it kept me close to my parents and was free. At this point, my dad’s health had deteriorated severely. and he was spending weeks at a time in the hospital. He would go days without sleeping which put him in a very dark place. The summer before my senior year at Alabama, my dad was placed in the hospital and put on the heart transplant list. He was given a couple of months to live and placed at the top of the list for Alabama and the surrounding states.

A few weeks into my senior year he got a new heart, and it has been a trying few years navigating anti-rejection medication and reclaiming a body and brain weakened for years by a poorly functioning heart. Since my time at Landon, my dad has had a couple of serious stays in the hospital where it looked as though he might never leave. It is difficult to be away from him, but I am doing what makes him incredibly proud.

To this day, my dad doesn’t accept excuses, and I no longer give them to him. His voice is always in my head, and I try not to give excuses to anyone. He has taught me to be tough, own my mistakes, and never stop bettering myself. I’ll never be perfect or able to control everything, but that isn’t my goal. My goal is to choose a positive outlook and own my actions each and every day. This is what I am responsible for.