Be who you are

The following blog post is taken from the ethics speech that history teacher Sarah DeCamps (pictured above center) delivered to Middle School students and faculty. She shares how she learned that being true to who you are is the best way to connect with others and develop a sense of belonging.

Over the past few months, I have racked my brain on what topics I could discuss. I really wanted to find a topic that would resonate with you. And the topic I landed on was you. What is important to you is you. That is what I'm going to talk with you about today. More specifically, I want to talk about a concept called "belonging."

In college, I took a psychology class and studied someone named Abraham Maslow. He came up with a very famous theory, now called "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," which explains the basic elements of a good life. There's even a diagram to explain it.

At the bottom it starts with the things we need to survive (food, water, housing). Those are physiological needs. We have to have those to live. Then we have safety. We cannot do much in life if we simply aren't safe. Recall this a priority at Landon — keeping you guys safe. Then we get to the third tier — love and belonging. According to Maslow, this is something humans need to survive.

Belonging. Connection. These are basics — not ideals. That is what I want to talk to you about today. And I also want to talk about you — because this is your community and I want you to feel connected to it. It is even good for your health and wellbeing.

If I asked you to come up with a list of things your classmates do, outside the school day, you probably couldn't make that list very easily. I know this to be because I recently asked some boys to do that. That moment hit me like a ton of bricks. So how do I help you achieve that kind of connection with each other? I'm going to tell you one way.

Talk to each other. But not just talk to make noise. Talk, say things that you're thinking. Things that matter to you.

I recently surveyed eighth graders and asked them what qualities they look for in their friends since friends are usually the first people we talk to each day. They reported the same words over and over. Honesty. Understanding. Kindness. I also asked them how they know when they can count someone as a good friend. Over and over, they wrote: "I can tell him real stuff."

Hmm. "Real stuff." What is that? I did a little more research. I learned it is boy code for, wait for it... your emotions: things you're confused about, you're angry about, you're psyched about, you're disappointed about, you're hopeful about. These are hard things to talk about. Things you don't always like to admit, but you feel them every day. How do I know this? Because I see these emotions in your faces and I hear them in your words.

Happiness, confusion, anger, hysteria, surprise, sadness, frustration. You express these things on your faces every day. Just not always with your words. You don't like to ask for help or speak up when something bothers you. Or even tell people something personal and real about you. I want to suggest to you today that if you can muster courage to start to share some of these parts of yourself with others, you will learn that good people will accept you, and you will belong.

Throughout your lives, people will remind you that boys don't like to talk very much. Boys are less verbal than girls. Girls are better with words. I don't actually believe this. You guys love to talk. About school and friends and sports and social media and grades and girls. Here's the big difference, and I'm just going to say it: it's not talking you do less of — it's talking about certain things. Today I am going to challenge you to do something that might help enrich your life and help you deal with all this "real stuff."

Talk to each other. Like have real conversation, not just words and noise. To whom, you ask? Let me show you.

There are so many incredible people represented by this picture. You know some of them. But I guarantee you there are people you don't know in this picture who would enrich your life. Your circle of friends is definitely not set at 12 or 13 or 14 years old. Everyone in this picture has a different story.

In fact, I know awesome people everywhere in my life. Sometimes I wish they all knew each other. I love it when I can bring people together who don't know each other and watch what happens when they do.

That's the story of this picture (above) — these eight kids didn't know each other at all until last summer, when they all traveled with me to Central America. Now they're all good friends. And it's not just because they went somewhere together. It's because they got to know each other, they talked. Like every night, over ice cream and, believe it or not, waffles. Without knowing it, they debriefed and processed each day by talking face to face. Their conversations were deep, and I was beaming with pride listening to them so talk so honestly to each other.

This is not the first time I have seen these kinds of deeper connections happen so naturally. There's another place you've all heard me mention before that fosters these kinds of connections: Belize. Each year our groups starts out practically as strangers. By the end of the week they know each other. It's because they spend a lot of time in close quarters and they talk to each other. And every night they come together as a group and go through the day. They sit in a circle, face to face. It's is called "ANCHOR."

It is the end to every day. It is a totally open time. They can say anything — voice hopes, fears, concerns, share any cool stories from the day. The kids lead it, not the teachers. Some really funny stuff comes out of those moments. We all laugh a lot. But, also, some really powerful stuff comes out of these moments. And I can't help but notice that this circle of talking and reflection every night is something they embrace — even the boys. Many nights, no one wanted to get up at the end. They all wanted to stay and talk more.

One ritual we had: each night one kid would share his "story" — something he or she had the opportunity to prepare ahead of time. Something about that person — a story or a memory — that speaks to who they are and what they care about. Over the years, I've heard kids talk about what they're proud of or favorite pastimes or fallen friendships or even the death of family member. One kid told us how overwhelmed he felt at school but that he was afraid to admit it. Another kid talked about how hard it can be to be an older brother to his younger siblings. Everyone in our group listened to each other. They realized they're not alone. They had a moment famously summed up by C.S. Lewis: "What, you too? I thought I was the only one."

This type of connection isn't dependent on a place, though. It's dependent on the people involved. They found a group they belonged to. It can happen at Landon too. You just have to choose to interact face to face. You have to choose to put down your cell phone.

I could give a whole other speech on that — what happens when kids put down their cell phones and talk to each other. It's a powerful thing — talking to each other face to face without the safety of looking at a phone to take you out of the conversation. Finding a supportive community and talking to them face to face actually means we live longer. Believe it or not, scientists have proven this. We need to practice healthy habits and avoid the unhealthy ones. But, it turns out, even above these things, our friendships with each other matter.

You cannot truly belong in a community just by occupying the same space with someone else every day. We have to get to know each other. But the kinds of connections that I've seen happen in Belize are rare — teenage boys and girls talking and sharing things openly.

So, how can you develop a sense of belonging and connect with others if words are too hard for you? How about: find activities to share with each other that matter. Sometimes, in order to connect with people around you, you need the right kind of activity to draw you together.

Think about it — there's a reason you really bond with the boys on yours sports teams in a different way. Shared activities have definitely me given me the chance to develop great relationships with kids. One Sunday this December, I got myself up at 6 a.m. to run a 5K downtown with this group of kids because we all have that in common.

I have a special connection with each one in this picture. I have learned so much about the things they love by talking to them. We share similar interests, like running or writing or traveling or photography. Some of the faculty around you share things in common with you too.

Let me remind you who I'm talking about. This could be the beginning of a great conversation you can pick up with one of them over lunch or in advisory. It could be your way to connect with them.

Let's start with Ms. Erin Duffy. She used to be a competitive figure skater! I swear. That's real. Ask her.

Or our school nurse, Mrs. Julie Acebal. We all know her in one capacity only, healing up our wounds, wiping our tears. Did you know she's a tennis player?

Or Mrs. Laurie Sears? She's a triathlon athlete. This picture is from an event she and her son, Jack, did together a few years ago.

Or Mr. Mike Lipari? He's just gotten into biking again. One time he even biked across the country. Along the way, he built houses. He went with this program called Bike & Build. It's like Habitat for Humanity on the go. They'd bike, build houses and camp.

Or Mr. Jamie Sorge? Did you know he has a deep connection with his family from Puerto Rico? His grandfather is 94 years old, they call him "El Capitan." He's been there many times. He loves Puerto Rico.

Or Mrs. Elizabeth Sears? She's a serious ultimate Frisbee player. Once a Chinese newspaper featured her.

Or Ms. Sara Plunkett? As a kid, she was a toy tester for the company Hasbro. They sent her toys and she played with them and tested them out. She even once met Michael Jackson in this gig.

Or Mrs. Karina Gershowitz? She was the U.K. tap dancing champion at her high school. Pretty cool.

Or Mr. Michael Cooke? Like Mr. Lipari, he builds things: cabinets in his kitchen, furniture in house. Shared activities make friends out of people.

And how about, do you all know Mrs. Katie Lamade? Before she came to Landon, she was the Director of Athletics at an all-girls' school. She is an athlete to her core and a former college lacrosse player. When she stopped playing team sports, she looked for a way to still compete. So, she started running. She's run five marathons. She chose running because it was something she could do to "connect" with her mom.

This is just a sliver of the awesome teachers in this room. They understand what it means to belong because they talk to each other. They feel connected. Now, let's talk about you. Let me introduce you to some eighth graders.

They have also done what I'm suggesting we all go out and do. They've shared a little of their world with me in an effort to connect. This group is a mere snapshot of 225 versions of awesomeness in this room. As a disclaimer, these boys gave me permission to share these things with you. I only chose them because I asked and they answered.

First, we have eighth grader Andre Schnider. Did y'all know he's really into climbing?

And Zach Lammers. He loves dogs! He has a dog that was, at one time, bigger than he was: 115 pounds.

And Owen Fernandes. He loves summer camp. It's his happy place.

And Will Single, Jack Bernstein and Bobby Rudzki. Did you know they played in the World Series of Youth Lacrosse a few years ago?

How about Will Amorosi? Let's call him the luckiest guy in the room. He's won three of the four raffles at Landon. He even won a flag signed by 36 pro golfers and a football signed by Kirk Cousins.

Or Jerry Ji. He's really into snowboarding.

Or Colin Flood. He's the only blonde in his family!

Or Preston Lugar. He's what you might call a "foodie." In Belize, I noticed he would eat just about anything. I recently learned he loves sour cream chicken enchiladas. And guacamole. But he isn't the only who in inspired by good food in this eighth grade. There's Josh Lederberg too. He once shared with me his family recipe for tomato relish.

How about Austin Lambert? When he was a kid, he was on a figure skating team and participated in national competitions.

And Cullen Brown. He loves basketball. You probably all know that. Bet you didn't know he's aiming to visit every NBA stadium in the country. So far, he's been to six.

And Charlie Muller. Charlie has a lot of interests. Here's a cool one: He's learning to fly!

There's also Trevor Neeb. This kid loves paintball.

And Kevin Fou. Did you know he coaches legally blind kids in hockey on Sundays?

And Rett Abeles. He's making a documentary about Appalachia. He and his brother are going there in March to film it. He's not the only one into technology and the arts. There's also Palmer McTague. He's gotten into animation.

And Josh Herbert. He has embraced a new form of exercise to get in shape — jump rope.

And Grant Dougherty. A few years ago he ran in a Spartan race and raised more than $4,000 for low-income kids to play on a hockey team.

And Roman Wilkinson. He's a boy scout.

And Sebastien Blanc. He takes part of a hip-hop dance team that competes nationally.

And Alden Adkins. He's really into wakeboarding.

And Mike Gray. Do you know how proud he is of his sister? She plays basketball for Miami and in 2015 was awarded "Gatorade Player of the Year."

Or how about Alan Mirzoev? What an incredibly brave young man. Nothing will break him, which he bravely told us about in his Form II This I Believe speech. He loves to write stories. His latest story is 32 pages. He has an army of editors helping him, some sitting here among you.

Or Benny Starks. He's into creative writing too. Ever heard of Cthulu Mythos? It's a book series. He has submitted character additions to their online "fan base." Some of his work may soon be published.

And Jack Farber. Top student, great athlete, awesome person. Bet you didn't know he's super fascinated by outer space stuff.

I could keep going but these are all the sharing rights I have today. I hope this serves as a reminder that this room is full of greatness. But you have to talk to people to figure that stuff out.

Each of you tries to be a good student, a good athlete, a good son, a good brother, a good friend. But, there have been some heavy things we've all had to manage this year. Landon is an incredibly supportive community, but no one here is a mind reader. I would not have known these things about these guys if I hadn't asked. I spend a lot of time with you, and often the image I have of you each is day is like a duck on a pond. Your head is above water and you are floating along, keep up the facade that everything is "all good." But, below the water, things can be tough. And you're moving your little feet as fast as you can. You don't want anyone to know just how hard it is. So you just keep pretending, even if you don't talk about it.

Instead of that constant paddling, you could be flying. It's a lot easier to fly when you have a tribe of others around you, supporting you. Some of these people may be outside your circle today. But, they don't have to be. Talk to them, ask questions, get to know them. Don't forget that while the majority of your day might be around boys and men, there are also awesome girls and women to get to know too. They are part of your world, even if you don't see them every day. And they are powerful.

Look for ways to get to know them too. I know some exceptionally smart, well spoken, talented girls your age. I want you to know them too.

All I ask is that you remember this: if you share part of your story with others, you will likely receive just as much in return. These things won't just happen to you. You have to look for them. Take the risk, open up. Get to know people. This is an action.

There might be someone in this room right now who you'll be sharing a laugh with at 85 years old. He might be your lifeline. True belonging does not actually require that we change who we are; it just requires that we be who we are. So don't be afraid to show us your real self.