The following was originally delivered to students, faculty and staff at the opening of Stoneleigh-Burnham School’s fall Honor Roll Assembly.
Thank you for allowing me to speak about why we are celebrating certain members of our community today. Honor roll is clearly about grades: certain grades either do or do not put your name on a list of academic achievement. That list, in turn, lands you at this ceremony receiving a certificate and applause by your peers.
Thinking about the nature of a grade is very confusing. How many of you have said one of the following: “I got a B on that last history paper”, “I got a C- on my chemistry exam”, “I got an A on my English oral presentation.”
As we have begun to police ourselves on the proper use of English grammar, I would like you to think about what I just said. I “got” an A, B, or C. “Got,” as if you were a submissive recipient of the grade. I “got” an A, in grammatical terms, signifies that the “A” passively happened to you. As if you woke up on Christmas morning, ran downstairs, grabbed a present from under the tree, opened the box and exclaimed, “Look! I got an A,” as if it was a puppy or sweater or some other gift that someone had given you.
If we are exercising proper grammar usage, we should not say, “I got an A,” but rather I “earned” an A. That, I, as an individual, actively participated in my achievement. That little designation makes you think about that grade in a different way. So, with that in mind, what does it mean to earn a grade?
In 2008, Malcom Gladwell published a book called, Outliers: The Story of Success. In his book, he tried to explain why some people attain astonishing success, recognition and achievement. The book was fascinating to read and since I finished reading it, I have been thinking a great deal about Chapter 2: The 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell argued that a person, any person, could succeed if he or she had the time, resources and dedication to doing so. Gladwell argued that by dedicating 10,000 hours, or 20 hours a week for 10 years, to a single pursuit you could achieve success.
Think about that. 10,000 hours. It may seem like a life time, but it’s not. Since finishing the book I have begun to look at my own life in terms of 10,000 hours. For those of you who know me well, you know that I am successful in a lot of things. I am a competent, knowledgeable career historian, I am a professional cook, an elite nationally recognized athlete, a fairly competent photographer and I speak a second language, Spanish, more or less fluently. I know that none of these things were a gift. I had to dedicate years of time to all of my skills and interests in order to get to achieve the success that I have today.
I started studying history when I was in 7th grade. I remember that class vividly. It was mostly a civics class where we learned about the 3 branches of government and famous Americans. I loved it. There has not been a day since where I haven’t been studying, teaching or reading about history. Even getting up on a Sunday morning and reading the newspaper, listening to NPR on the car radio or turning on the TV news when I get home from work is an act of studying history. So when I think about whether I have spent 10,000 hours immersed in history, I think, yes, I probably have invested that much time. I agree with Gladwell that in 10 years of dedicated study I have achieved success as a history teacher. I have also realized that if there is anything in my life that I hope to master, that I can be successful in a new venture, as long as I am willing to put in the time and the effort of 10,000 hours.
Gladwell cites some interesting examples in his book. One that struck me was Bill Gates. Did you know that Gates started programming computers when he was in 8th grade? He was fascinated by the new technology and what it could do. He went on to graduate high school and matriculate at Harvard. In college, he really didn’t have a direction, but spent all of his time in the computer lab. Part way through his college career, he took a leave of absence to start a computer company, Microsoft. He never returned to Harvard. Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest and most innovative people, wasn’t given his success. He earned it through hours of dedication to his passion.
Clearly, I cannot fully apply Gladwell’s theory to all of you. You do not have 20 hours a week for each one of your classes, nor have you had the time to take all of your subjects for 10 years, although in some disciplines, you might be close. I cite the “10,000 hour rule” to illustrate to you that you can be a success in everything and anything you set your mind to, as long as you make a concerted effort and give sufficient time to your courses. You may not, for example, be doing particularly well in your 7th grade French class, but if you want to and you are willing to put the effort into your studies, by the time you graduate from college you could be headed for a career in the United Nations as a translator. Here in high school, you are in the process of achieving success.
So, what does all of this have to do with earning grades and being here at the honor roll assembly? Everything. The people we are recognizing today have put in the time and dedication to achieve high grades across the board. Although everyone may have had an “easy A” class, in which earning a high grade was not a challenge, every one of the students honored here today also had a number of classes in which they had to work extremely hard and put in extra effort in order to earn success.
To be on the honor roll, each person who is going to come up here today has put herself on the path of the 10,000 hour rule and that is something that truly deserves recognition.
-Karen Levitt, Chair of the History Department