With the Help of Others

The beginning of each school year Senior Master Richard “Nick” Nickerson addresses the community with words of wisdom and his insight about the school’s motto “Spes Sibi Quisque.”  “Senior Master” is a title held by the longest tenured faculty member at Nobles.  See below for Nickerson’s assembly speech.

Nick Nickerson

I screwed up.  I was hiking this summer with my daughter and some of her friends and I screwed up.  We were camped in the Sierras and had spent a long day climbing Banner Peak, a beautiful remote summit that you get to via a short glacier and some airy rock scrambles.  It was so special to be on that favorite 13,000 feet summit with my daughter that I admit I broke into tears when we hugged on the summit.

Back at our campsite, cold and tired after 11 hours on the mountain, I discovered that I had forgotten to pack a necessary piece of our camping stove, and without it, the stove wouldn’t work.  Now, I am a fairly self-reliant camper, and so I ran down our options: We could just eat the next day’s lunch for our supper, then do the same the next day, and hike without food on the third day; or we could abort the trip, hike out back to the car through the night with flashlights; or I could ask for help.  There were, after all, others camping at the same lake that night, and so I swallowed my pride, and I went to ask the nearest group if we could borrow their stove.  “Absolutely,” they replied. They couldn’t have been nicer. The next night, at a different lake, the very first person we asked was more than willing to lend us a stove, and we ended up chatting with them and sharing some hot cocoa later.  Sometimes, you just need to ask for help.

A change of direction here:  I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but have you read the school’s mission statement?  The first line goes “Noble and Greenough School is a rigorous academic community dedicated to inspiring leadership for the public good.”  Wow, talk about aiming high. Do you feel that you are a leader for the public good?  Do you believe that you will become a leader for the public good? (We’ll get back to that….)

On the first day of school, new President of the Board of Trustees Beth Reilly talked about resilience; she mentioned about an advisee who struggled with this issue, and Beth said how it would be important for students to develop self confidence this year in order to be able to overcome the inevitable minor setbacks that occur for all of us. In fact, the school’s motto is “Spes sibi quisque,” a passage from Vergil’s Aeneid, which roughly translates as “Each person finds hope within him or herself.” Our school historian has noted that this motto first appeared on athletic medals awarded in the early years of Nobles competition, but it is not only in athletics that such belief is needed.

To succeed at Nobles, you will need to put yourself out there, both in the classroom and in your activities, and if we [faculty members] do our job correctly, at times you will be pushed beyond what you think you are capable of.  At such times, you will need to trust and have faith in yourself, something that Beth Reilly felt her advisee lacked at the end of her time at Nobles, and why she gave her that book.  No significant achievement is possible, no hurdle successfully mounted, unless you first have a deep core belief in yourself.  Spes sibi quisque.

Here is the thing and I can’t stress this enough, you don’t have to develop this core belief totally on your own.  In fact, I believe that we often gain confidence in ourselves only after someone else believes in us first. We seek out the hope that is within ourselves only because we are first inspired by the examples and opportunities that surround us.  And so as a companion piece for “Spes sibi quisque,” I propose the following motto this year: “Per alios nos meliores fimus,” which translates,  “Through others, we become our better selves.”  We are not meant to do this journey alone. It is through others that we become our better selves.

Last year, I taught a student who was one of the most capable, talented and motivated students I have ever taught.  She was about as self-reliant as they come:  hardworking, organized and smart.  She never needed any help in my honors math course.  She was a spes sibi quisqueen.  That is, until she suffered a concussion.  This was a student who would never think to ask for an exception to be made on her behalf, but last year, she really had no choice.  She needed to ask for help. Accommodations had to be made, tests needed to be forgiven never to be made up, extra help sessions had to be scheduled to help her catch up on what she had missed, etc. There will be times this year that you will need to ask for help for whatever reason. So yes, find hope within yourself, but also let others help you along the way when needed.

Per alios nos meliores fimus. Through others, we become our better selves.

I will be honest with you that I have grown in so many ways because of the people at this school. Through others, I have become a better self (and yes, I still have a long way to go). For example, I now write more thank you notes. Why? Because I have received such notes from Ben Snyder, Mark Sheeran, Vicky Seelen, Sandi Macquinn, Fred Hollister and many others.  I am now more conscious of picking up litter when I see it around campus. Why? Because I have been walking to Castle lunches with Bill Kehlenbeck for 39 years, and he always stops to pick up litter.  And I try to prepare my classes well, and meet all of my obligations because I am inspired by and see that in Tilesy Harrington and Steve Toubman and so many others.  I try to be as cheerful and helpful and competent in my job as Dianne Balfour in human resources and Al Dull in Building and Grounds. We learn from others in this community, and we are inspired by those around us.  This place is not normal.  We expect great things at Nobles. Don’t ever underestimate the impact that you have on those around you in the alcoves, in your classes and in your programs.  Through others, we become our better selves.

This leads to my final story, a true story about the headmaster who hired me so many years ago, the Rev. Ted Gleason, a man who was and is to this day an important mentor to many of the older faculty in this room. As a young boy, Ted Gleason spent his summers at a lake in New Hampshire, and at this lake, he had a small open boat with a little outboard motor.  One summer day, when Ted was just about the age of our new sixies, that outboard motor died.  Not knowing what to do, Ted brought the motor to the camp’s caretaker and asked if he could fix it.  Over the course of the new few weeks, with Ted eagerly looking on, this man carefully took apart all of the pieces of the outboard motor, cleaned some of them, adjusted others, fiddled with things and then put all of the pieces back together again.  And sure enough, the motor worked.  It was some years later that this man finally told Rev. Gleason that that was the first and only time that he had ever repaired an outboard engine, and that he possesses no knowledge whatsoever about the inner workings of a motor.  When Rev. Gleason asked him, “Well, how was it that you were able to repair the motor?” the man gave Ted an answer that he remembers to this day—“The only reason that I was able to fix that motor is because you so clearly believed that I could do it.”

And so we sit here at the start of another exciting school year, poised with our new notebooks and our list of things we hope to accomplish. Each of us in this room will play both the part of the young boy and the part of the older caretaker from the story during the course of this year. We will believe that others can help fix our motors when we need them, and we will achieve great and good things because that is what others around us believe we can do.

We must find hope within ourselves, strengthen our core belief that we can cope with whatever challenges come our way (what Beth Reilly called resilience and which I refer to as Spes Sibi Quisque), and we must also accept both the help and the inspiration of those around us at this wonderful school.  Per alios nos meliores fimus.  Through others, we become our better selves.  The school’s mission is ambitious; it is intentionally so. But yes, you can become a leader for the public good, and make a difference in this world because at this school, at Nobles, we clearly believe you can do it.   So yes, you will become a leader for the public good because, if we do things right, you will see examples and inspirations of such around you each and every day.  Through others, we become our better selves.  That is what this wonderful school is really about. Through others, we become our better selves.  Let’s get started.

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