We Are Shaped By Our Stories

Below is my message to the middle school at the opening day assembly, 9/2/15.

When the faculty and staff reconvened for 2015-16 school year last week, we explored the theme “We Are Shaped By Our Stories” by sharing about our favorite story from our elementary years and how that story has shaped us even now as adults. You can see all of our responses on display in McKinne Lounge. This morning, we heard from Annabel about how stories from our own experiences also have the power to shape us. As Annabel suggested, maybe the story that will shape you has yet to happen. I would like to suggest that if our stories have the power to shape us, we also have the power to shape our stories. In this way, we are all authors, making up and editing our own stories as we go.

A new chapter in my own story started today as my daughter Millie began kindergarten here at Hamlin. Over the past five years of her life, Millie has been contributed to many experiences – many stories – that have shaped me, mostly in humbling ways. I have also had a lot of experience making up my own stories, bedtime stories. It is no longer enough for me to simply read Goodnight Moon, The Giving Tree, or even a chapter from Little House in the Big Woods. Now she almost always requests I tell a made-up story. The other night, Millie made such a request, and I was thinking about a message that might serve her well as she starts kindergarten. It turns out I don’t really know much about kindergarten, and the story ended up dealing with more middle school themes like changing friendships and ignoring your inner critic. I thought I might give this one another try, but with perhaps a more appreciative audience. Here you go…

There once was a little purple dragon named Penelope. She was smaller than all the other dragons. She didn’t have sharp teeth, she didn’t have sharp claws, she couldn’t breathe fire, and she couldn’t fly more than a few feet off the ground. For most of her life, Penelope did not realize she was different from the other dragons. In fact, she considered her small size an advantage when playing hide and seek. She could squeeze into the cracks and crevices of the Great Cave and almost always be the last dragon found. But recently, her dragon friends had lost interest in playing hide and seek. They wanted to sit around comparing their sharp teeth and sharp claws. They wanted to show off their fire breathing to each other, especially in front of dragons from other caves.

One day at lunch, the biggest, scariest dragon flew away quickly to a different lunch table when Penelope tried to sit down with her. This made Penelope incredibly sad. Instead of viewing her small size, nubby teeth, and round claws as what made her special, in that moment, she came to see them as what made her different. With her head hung low, Penelope left the Great Cave and wandered to the Fields Beyond.

In the middle of the field, she found a small flower with drooping petals and tiny little leaves. It was so much smaller than the other grand flowers that surrounded it and who were boasting vibrant colored petals that rose upward toward the sun and broad leaves that held suspended heavy dewdrops from their strong limbs. Penelope looked at the sad little flower, which was so unlike the others surrounding it, and made a wish that it would realize its own beauty and confidently push toward the sun so that it would survive amongst the other bigger plants that surrounded it.

Just as a tear fell from Penelope’s eye, a dewdrop from one of the grand flowers also fell onto the same leaf and shot her tear up to the sky above. Her teardrop carrying her wish ricocheted off of a star in the sky and showered light down on the sad little flower below. Some of the light hit Penelope as well. Penelope, feeling suddenly warmer, wiped away her tears and looked up. Little did she know that the light that shone down on her was her wish spreading over her and her sad little flower. Penelope saw her sad little flower straighten up, stretching out its petals and leaves as far as it could, bolstered from the confidence of Penelope’s wish come true.

Walking back home, Penelope came across the big dragons baring their teeth and claws and showing off their fire breathing to each other. As she passed, they all looked her way, enthralled by the light that seemed to shine all around her. The biggest, scariest dragon called over to her, “Where have you been?”

Penelope hesitated, considering if she should lie and say she was practicing her fire breathing or sharpening her claws. Suddenly she remembered her sad little flower that now stood tall with its newfound light, and she thought to herself, “How can others like me if I don’t first like myself?” She replied, “I was out wandering in the Fields Beyond.”

The dragons looked to each other, and then the biggest, scariest dragon said, “That sounds really fun. Can we join you sometime?”

Surprised by their interest in her, Penelope stammered, “Yes, I’d, uh, like that.”

As the biggest, scariest dragon thanked her for being willing to include them, Penelope straightened up, stretching out her wings as far as she could, bolstered from the kindness of the dragons toward her. In that moment, she thought to herself, “I am glad I am a small purple dragon with nubby teeth and round claws, who can’t breathe fire and who can’t fly more than a few feet off the ground. I love myself just the way I am. And because of that, others will love me too.”

The star in the sky above twinkled just a little bit brighter. And so did Penelope.

As you begin the 2015-16 school year, I encourage you to remember Penelope’s story – maybe it is similar to your own story – and, most importantly, to remember that you are the authors of your own stories. We may be shaped by our stories, but we also have the ability to shape those stories for ourselves