I recently wrote an article about the lessons students can learn from the commencement speech that J.K. Rowling delivered to Harvard University’s Class of 2008. In my article, I emphasized Rowling’s claims that we should not fear failure and that we must use our unique imaginations to create a more humane world. I’ve argued in support of these beliefs, but I myself don’t always put them into practice.
Most—if not all—of the regrets I have from high school relate to what I did not do instead of what I did do.
And why did I not take action when, in hindsight, I should have? Fear of failure. My freshman year, a few of my friends were applying to join the Mycenaean’s staff for our sophomore year. I could have done so as well, but instead, I chose to fill my schedule with more core classes, two of those being AP courses. During my sophomore year, I did choose to fill out that application, and I enrolled in Newspaper I for the fall semester of my junior year.
Only for the fall, though. In the spring, I did not want to sacrifice AP Calculus BC or Latin IV Honors to continue taking Newspaper. Those two courses would strengthen my forthcoming college applications. Newspaper II? That was just an academic-level elective, nothing special. To remain a competitive applicant, I need to take many AP and Honors courses. Despite enjoying my one semester of Newspaper, I accepted that I owed it myself to take calculus and Latin. I would not put an acceptance to the college of my dreams at risk for the sake of taking Newspaper II.
On the other hand, there was at least one instance when I did fail, but I picked myself up and kept pushing on. At the end of my sophomore year, student council elections rolled around. After participating in Leesville’s Executive Council for the past year, I decided to run for Executive Council Secretary. I put my whole heart into that election—I made and handed out hundreds of campaign stickers, hung my posters, and texted everyone I knew, reminding them to vote for me.
And guess what happened? I lost. I was devastated. But I took what I had learned about campaigning and used it to win the next year’s election.
Unfortunately, these experiences with failure haven’t been enough to quench my fear of failure. Along with drowning and the dark, it remains one of my greatest fears today. For example, even though I’ve submitted some of my college applications, I still fear receiving a dreaded rejection letter.
Another topic that J.K. spoke about was empathy—more specifically, how imagination creates empathy. Like I mentioned in my original article, people often tell us high schoolers that we need to be more empathetic, but no one really teaches us how; we’re expected to learn by example.
For me, learning empathy came from reading. As cliché as it sounds, reading has allowed me to see into others’ lives, the lives of the characters. I have had so many unique experiences, many more than I would’ve been able to have on my own, just by reading.
One of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s also one that teachers encourages us all to read at some point in our lives but for very good reason: readers of To Kill a Mockingbird learn to practice empathy alongside the main character, Scout.
Atticus Finch sums up empathy to Scout well: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I find Rowling’s claims about imagination and empathy to be idealistic. Not everyone is going to change the world in some way. Sure, we all may have the potential to, but very few of us will accomplish that goal.
Thinking about the legacy I will leave intimidates me.
I would love to change the world in some special way, but I recognize the difficulty of such a task. Instead, I focus on the fact that I don’t have to change the world to make a difference; having empathy can even mean imagining a better situation in one person’s life and brightening that person’s day. Comforting a friend? I think that counts.
One area of my life in which I could be more empathetic is with my family. I love my family, but I cannot resist the temptation to make fun of my nine-year-old brother, especially when my fifteen-year-old brother eggs me on. While he’s crying, instead of laughing at his screechy wails, I can imagine myself into his place. How would I feel if an older sibling whom I admired laughed at me when I cried? Hurt, that’s how.
Although Rowling’s vision of changing the world through the power of imagination may be unrealistic and difficult to achieve, I do agree with her that apathy is a huge problem.
This is especially true at Leesville—we don’t even have a Homecoming dance anymore because the school couldn’t sell enough tickets to pay for the dance. Apathy doesn’t just apply to school spirit, though; it also decreases our willingness to donate to charitable organizations. Every year, the Executive Council raises money for groups like the Juvenile Diabetes Research foundation (JDRF) and Victory Junction, and the Freshman Class Council holds a food drive. I know the feeling of asking myself, “Do I donate or do I not?” I hesitate, but I usually will contribute a few dollars.
Throughout the school year, I typically accrue a large number of service hours, but I have to admit that I don’t always volunteer because I want to. Too often, I’m helping out at that event because I need those last few National Honor Society hours, not because I care about making a difference in the community. I focus only on my life and my problems—not having enough service hours—as opposed to examining the larger issue at hand—doing everything in my power to better my community.
What does all this mean for me going forward? In just a few short months, I will start a new chapter of my life, living (if all goes to plan) in a different part of the country, meeting new people, finding my place in a new community. I’d like to take a leaf—or perhaps many leaves—out of J.K. Rowling’s book and live without a fear of failure, live with an imagination full of empathy.