St Anne’s Leavers’ Dinner: Which direction will you choose?

I arrived at a very misty, drizzly St Anne’s and was quickly transported back in time to the atmosphere the thick, refreshing mist used to create around the school, no matter the time of day. I hadn’t quite realised it was also the last day of school for the Matrics, but soon saw the evidence of the celebrations lying at the entrance to the foyer and paraphernalia dotted around elsewhere!

img_20161013_144853After settling in at the Headmaster’s Cottage (quite surreal as I never thought I’d be staying there whilst at school!), I put on my running shoes and headed out to explore the grounds and see if all the paths I used to run along were still there. Down Lover’s Lane and into the Vlei, it was really wonderful to run through the wet grass and meandering paths again. I also stopped in at the really smart, new indoor centre and watched a bit of an indoor hockey match before, heading back up McQuade’s hill for some strength work, reminiscent of our  Athletics practice sessions!

Before the dinner, I attended the official opening of the new Art Block, along with the exhibition of the Matric’s art portfolios. I was really excited to see the new space, especially as I’d spent many hours in there during my school time, and particularly enjoyed the relaxing retreat to the art room on weekends. The diversity of the art work, and the mediums used, was really wonderful to see. I didn’t have much time to read the descriptions of the pieces, but one of the ones I did read was the following:

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Having been given a blank slate on what to talk about at the dinner, I spent a lot of time reflecting about my experiences and my transition from high school to the “real world”, and some of the challenges and decisions I’ve made, and how I’ve made them, which I was hoping would resonate with the girls. Seeing the above words, and the accompanying drawing, made me feel even more content with what I wanted to share later in the evening, and after a glass of wine, I headed over to the Dining Room.

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Final touches to the Dining Room.

Delicious food, great conversation and a really warm atmosphere made for a wonderful evening that I’m sure everyone there will cherish. The Deputy Head Girl gave a powerful and moving vote of thanks as she reflected on their form’s past 5 years at St Anne’s, interspersed with some really amusing anecdotes!

A huge thank you to Urasha Ramnarain for inviting me and organising the event, to the College and David Argyle for having and hosting me at St Anne’s and to all the teachers and girls for making me feel welcome.

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Good evening everyone

I’d like to start by reading from one of my favourite author’s, Dr Seuss, and his many nuggets of wisdom.

Congratulations!
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

Sho, sounds exciting. I can well remember the anticipation bubbling up as the countdown begins, and the end of school and life as you know it here at St Anne’s is quickly coming to an end.

Perhaps you’re heading off to study further, whether at university or a college, here in South Africa or overseas, or perhaps you’ve decided to take a gap year and au pair or stooge in the UK, work on the ski slopes in the States, or become a dive master in Thailand, perhaps you’re itching to kick start your own business or test out a start-up idea, or or get a part time job and study online to save some money, or volunteer in your local community or Church, go work on the cruise ships, or perhaps you just don’t know yet and just want to pack your bags and head out the door, because “It’s opener there, in the wide open air”.

It is incredible how from this point forward each and everyone of you will disperse and head out in so many unique directions. You’ll all be off to great places, so which direction will you choose?

During one of our varsity holidays in first year, a bunch of us were standing around the braai at a friend’s house and her father casually remarked to us that he thought “Wealth was a measure of the number of choices you have.” I don’t think I could fully comprehend the idea at the time, but it really stuck with me. What does it mean to come from a privileged background? We have choices because we are privileged. And, with this, comes the responsibility to continually interrogate our assumptions and think carefully about where and how we think we would like to fit into society.

Having choices is an honour and an advantage. It is really exciting to have all these options and the opportunity to make choices and go in any direction you choose. But perhaps also a little daunting? A little nerve racking? Overwhelming?

I know I certainly felt like this when I’d made my first big choice about the direction I wanted to go and headed down to Cape Town to UCT. It certainly was quite overwhelming, and mind-boggling, and eye-opening and challenging and stimulating, all at the same time!

And the choices obviously don’t stop there. One is continually deciding where to go, even if it’s just which groups of people to hang out with over the weekend. During my undergraduate, I also remember feeling quite overwhelmed with the choices at the end of each year, when I had to decide which courses to take and what to start specialising in. What if I make the wrong decision? Or choose something now that I’ll regret later? What if this? What if that? As though if I chose Biochemistry and not Microbiology, it would determine the trajectory of the rest of my life!

Well, as Dr Suess says:

I’m sorry to say so,
but sadly, it’s true
that Bang-ups
and Hang-ups
can happen to you.

So yes, in hindsight it’s much easier to be tempted to think, “Oh I should have done that” or “I should have done this”. But I’ve come to realise that you can only ever make the best decision with the information at hand. Reminding myself of this, has helped me feel more confident in the choices I’ve made.

Remember,when you are faced with decisions or choices, and are not exactly sure what to do, focus on the things you are passionate about. You will then be more driven to create them in your life.

When growing up, childhood provides a great opportunity to try a bit of everything. But, I don’t think we get the opportunity or time to really know what a true passion is. This is not a criticism of growing up at all! We are so busy discovering and being exposed to as much as possible. But then as our characters develop and we grow up into young adults, to truly understand and acknowledge what you are passionate about takes determination, and often also courage. You really have to figure out who you are first. And this is not a once off process! It takes time and experience and continual self reflection all our lives through, as we learn more about ourselves with each new experience, opportunity and decision to make.

One of the things I used to do in undergraduate, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed and needed a place to think by myself, was to go to the Natural History museum. I would just walk around or sit on a bench and read. I found it soothing to be cordoned off and have my own space for a while. It was important for me to have my own space, to just be myself and to renew my energy. This also helped me develop the confidence in myself to make the choices I wanted to make, knowing what I know.

So, find your place next year where you can go, relax, be yourself, be open and reflect. Start as soon as possible by interrogating what drives you, what are you passionate about? What do you love? Define yourself by those things, rather than the things you don’t like. And pursue those passions.

And then, if you choose to head out in a direction, don’t be afraid if you get to a point and feel like you’ve come so far that you can’t go back, because you can, or you can take a hop, skip and a jump to an alternative path. Nothing is ever a waste, you only keep on building on past experiences.

I studied a Bachelor of Science, and thought that my path was laid out for me and I was going to become an academic at University. I went on to do Honours and then Masters. But during Masters, I started to feel I was heading into a career that I actually was not passionate about, if I was completely honest with myself. I loved certain parts, but something was missing. I didn’t feel driven each day in the lab. Towards the end of my Masters, I really started to interrogate how I was feeling and explore other ideas. I went to some talks one evening the role of maths and science in society and education. By the end of the evening, I suddenly felt inspired again, and that there was a niche that I could fill by using my skills to make a difference. I contacted one of the speakers, went in to chat to him and started volunteering at the organisation the next day. This developed further and I was offered a full time position for a project and a mission that I felt really passionate about. At the time, the most obvious and logical step for me to follow was to pursue the options I had to study for a PhD. Much to the shock of some of my classmates, I decided not to, and five years on, I have not looked back!

The crucial learning experience for me here was to allow myself the time to pause, lift my head up, reflect and just be open in the choices I was making. Be open to opportunities you might have brushed off before, ideas or places you hadn’t considered before, people you might have disregarded before. Take advice from friends, family, colleagues, but ultimately only you can decide what direction to steer yourself in.

I also used to think that I hated computers and technology, and I wanted to be working outside, in nature! But, I have found a way to combine my love of the sciences and rigorous research with a creative, innovative outlet, and the advances in modern technology are what enable me to be creative, and design and build meaningful educational experiences. And, importantly, I apply the skills I gained in science studies every day. Nothing is ever lost.

However, even though we have all these choices in life, we often have no control over what life will throw our way. I can think of the first real disappointment I experienced. I actually first applied for Medicine at UCT, and when I wasn’t accepted, I was devastated. More so, because I felt like everyone was expecting me to get in, and this was the path I was meant to follow. But, looking back now, I know it wasn’t the right choice for me. I’m actually still squeamish even when I watch medical drama on TV! That choice that I thought would be ideal for me, was closed but another, different path opened that I hadn’t considered before, and because of that I’ve learned a lot more about myself and what I want to be doing.

I feel extremely privileged for the education that I had and for having parents who have continually invested in and supported me. I am especially grateful for my teachers that I had here at St Anne’s who stimulated me, stretched me and inspired me, each in different ways. These experiences have transcended time for me – each day I’m driven to working towards a country where a good education, especially your basic schooling, should not be a privilege, but a basic human right. We know this is not the case. But, it’s what we need to work towards, no matter how mammoth or overwhelming the task may seem.

I don’t have one big life long dream or goal, but know that I am most driven and passionate when I’m working and living in a space that’s at the intersection of maths, science, art, design and technology, and I can have a positive impact. To me, when I know, understand and appreciate Maths and Science, I also know, understand and appreciate the world around me, and when I can further use that knowledge to innovate, build and create, I am able to connect with and advance the world around me. This is where I experience wonder and curiosity and feel inspired about the potential. And especially the potential for our country.

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. So use them! Don’t stop learning and moving forward. I know you have exams looming around the corner and that you cannot wait to be done with studying, but please don’t let the idea of “having to study” deter you in the future. One of the greatest gifts we have is that we can continue to learn throughout our lives, whether formally or informally, for professional or personal reasons. Especially with all the resources we now have at our fingertips online, the opportunity to develop yourself, inspire yourself, challenge yourself, and continue to learn and grow, is even easier to do. But again, it takes time, and determination and courage.

Each one of you sitting here is in an amazing position to have so many options and choices ahead of you. It is a privilege. But it can also be overwhelming, so much so that you can actually become paralyzed and not end up doing what you want to do. Remember, knowing what you want to do means you first have to know yourself. Develop and pursue your passions and interests as soon as you can. But also realise that life just happens and not everything is in our control. Be open. As Tim Minchin said, “Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you… you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.”

Last year when I came back to St Anne’s for our 10 year reunion, I saw again how cosy the reading corner in the library was, and so invitingly warm in purple to make you want to curl up with a book. So, I’ve bought this copy of Dr Seuss’ “Oh the places you’ll go” for the library and I would really love it if each and every one of you took some time in the next while before exams start, or even during and you need to get out of your room for a study break and a change of scenery, to go and read it for yourself. And think about the places you’ll go.

Because,

Ladies, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!
You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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