The John Bapst Convocation took place Monday, Jan. 23. Along with beautiful music performed by Kate Fogg ’18 and Laura Mock ’17, Mr. Umphrey delivered an inspiring speech, posted here. All the best for the new semester!
Thank you Mr. MacKay, and to all of you, welcome to the second semester. Or for this occasion, welcome to the final semester for the class of 2017.
In my time here, we have had many faculty and staff who I greatly respect who have been convocation speakers, so I am honored to speak to all of you today. In my six years here I have come to take great pride in being a part of the John Bapst family. I will start by saying that in full disclosure, I don’t love public speaking. I don’t love it for reasons I will explain later, but for my colleagues and all you, I decided to prepare, practice, and give it my best shot today. Besides life gets boring if you don’t try to conquer your fears from time to time. So here it goes:
When I interviewed for the school counselor position here in 2011, I met Mr. MacKay and we spoke in his office. The first thing he asked me was to tell him about my journey to that point. Since this was a memory of where my life at John Bapst began, I thought that “journeys” would be a good theme today.
As an adult, when you meet other adults, a common question you get is “What do you do for a living?” When I tell people I am a high school counselor, I get mixed responses. Mostly positive, but it is usually things like “I loved my counselor” or “I hated my counselor” or “What made you want to do that?” I have had many conversations just like this in my adult life and maybe once I explain my own journey, it will become clear as to how I got here.
I was born in Caribou, Maine and graduated from Caribou High School in 1997. Growing up in the 1980s and 90’s in rural Maine, life was very unique. I’m just kidding, this was really me in high school, without a mullet. My older sister and I were fortunate to grow up in the same house my parents still live in today. All four of my grandparents lived in my town, as well as many aunts, uncles, and cousins. We spent a lot of time outside playing with other neighborhood kids, and we often looked to ourselves for entertainment. The kids in my neighborhood did not have play dates, we rode bikes without helmets to each other’s yards, and the only adult supervision we had was your mother telling you to “be home by supper.”
Once I began school, I was a decent student, but in the beginning was treated a little differently. I mentioned earlier that I don’t love public speaking, and that is because I had a speech disorder that required speech therapy when I was young. The speech disorder made me reluctant to say much in those days because either people didn’t understand what I was saying, or I did not want to be made fun of or be mocked by adults or other kids. Even today, I am reluctant to speak much around people I don’t know well.
I was also the tallest in my class and reached my current height during my freshman year of high school. One thing that needs to be understood, for any kid living in rural Maine, is that if you are tall, you really don’t have a choice about whether or not you want to play basketball. In the beginning, I got hounded to play and eventually gave in because I wanted people to stop asking me. But I quickly developed a passion for basketball, and my dream was to play for the Boston Celtics.
After undergoing speech therapy, I was able to speak more clearly, but I was still quiet. I was learning to play basketball and develop my skills, but I was not very athletic. I was often told that I was not quick, and I could not jump high. During those years in the 80s, in New England, there was a sports icon who was revered then in a similar way that Tom Brady is now. Larry Bird. Larry Bird was also not very quick, and could not jump very high. So when I would get frustrated by people telling me these same things, I remembered that the same things had been said about Larry Bird. So I watched him play and observed how he used his intelligence and toughness to be a superior basketball player and make his teammates better. As time passed I improved, but I was still not good enough to make my school team in the seventh grade.
I was thirteen years old, distraught and angry about being cut from my school team. By that time, Larry Bird’s back was in such terrible condition that he wore a back brace anytime he wasn’t playing. Instead of sitting on the bench when he was out of the game, he had to lie down on the sidelines to relieve the pain. I was amazed at how Larry Bird would just keep playing even though his back required constant medical treatment.
To make things even more difficult at that time, my beloved grandmother was dying of cancer. I would go visit my grandmother in the hospital with my parents every day that summer as her condition worsened. With all that was happening, I was in a place in my young life where I could have gone one of two ways. I could have become angry, resentful, and jaded that life was unfair and quit OR I could open my eyes and look at the examples in front of me and keep going.
All at once, I watched my childhood sports hero, and my favorite person in the world, suffer from intense physical pain, and face their pain with all the strength they could find in themselves. By that time, my sanctuary was practicing by myself at the basketball hoop in my backyard. That summer in 1992, Larry Bird retired from playing basketball in August, and then my grandmother passed away in September. My grandmother remains very special to me, and I think of her often, especially when I need strength.
After this summer, I understood that there is an impermanence in life and time is limited, so I decided to make goals and go after them with everything I had. First goal was to make my school basketball team, and I did. My second goal was to make my varsity basketball team in high school. Third goal, well, maybe I could still play for the Celtics if I miraculously grew to be 6 foot 10 and more athletic.
As I entered high school, I started to really enjoy my English and history classes. I started to notice how many of my teachers and coaches seemed to really care about me. As my teachers cared for me, I also cared very much for the younger kids in my town. I enjoyed my summer jobs of lifeguarding, teaching swimming lessons, and working at basketball clinics much more than I did working on farms [harvest photo]. By now, I had accepted that I would not play for the Celtics. I figured out that being a teacher, a school counselor, or doctor would be more realistic. But I crossed doctor off the list when I became nauseous during a dissection in biology.
Through high school, I played freshman and JV basketball with the goal of making the varsity team. Again, I was told I was too slow and I couldn’t jump. I joined the cross country team, the track team, began using the weight room, and even did calisthenics with these. At first, my neighbors started giving me strange looks, so I would do these calisthenics workouts at 10 pm in the summer after my neighbors went to bed. I became stronger, faster, and in better condition and I made the varsity team my junior year.
At the beginning of my first varsity season, my coach told me that since I was winning all the shooting drills in practice, I better shoot the ball if I am open in a game, or I am not helping the team win. The next day in my first varsity game, I came off a screen at the foul line, got a pass, squared up and shot it and it went right in. I got open again, shot it, same result. I looked over at various people who once told me I was too slow and couldn’t jump, and they didn’t say anything but looked very surprised. I had met my goal of making the varsity team, and the confidence I gained from basketball helped my confidence grow in other areas of my life. After two years on the varsity team, I played well but never became a standout player. I still remember clearly the day after the last basketball game my senior year. The realization that I was no longer a basketball player set in. I had dedicated so much of my life to that point to this sport and now it was gone from my life. Who was I? What will I do now? I felt lost.
I would graduate from high school, and attend college really unsure about what I wanted to study. I applied the dedication and work ethic that I learned as a basketball player to my academics in college, and chose to major in Secondary Education with a History concentration.
In my college years, I made the Dean’s List regularly, and I would still play basketball occasionally for fun and competition. I was also making new friends with people, from different places, cultures, and of different ages. After four years of working towards my degree, I realized that I didn’t want to be a teacher. It just did not suit me or feel like the right fit.
Now at a cross roads, having just graduated with a degree that I was not planning to have a career in, I learned that the University of Maine had a graduate program in Counselor Education. This master’s program trained students to become school or clinical counselors. I thought I would try a couple of classes and see if I liked it, but I quickly realized that I loved it! From the beginning I was in a cohort with students of different ages who were some of the most kind and thoughtful people you will ever meet. My instructors were supportive, invested in my growth, and I learned so much from their classes.
It was during my two years as a graduate student that I lived literally, right across the street from John Bapst, on the third floor of one of those brick buildings on Broadway. I didn’t know a whole lot about the school across the street, but as I would go out to my car parked on the street, I would see kids go to their cars who seemed unusually happy all the time. People in my high school were never this happy, and I thought it was a little strange at first. After a while I thought to myself that: this must be a really special place, but they would probably never hire me to work there.
During my time in graduate school the September 11 attacks occurred in 2001. I remember where I was, what I was doing, and being glued to the TV news all day long as this awful tragedy unfolded. Being shaken by the events of that day, I went to my scheduled class that afternoon very early. A young woman in my class was also there early. I had noticed her in earlier classes, but we had not met yet. She and I talked about the events of that day together until class started. We would talk again.
I graduated with my master’s degree in Counselor Education, and for the first time in my life, I could go anywhere I wanted to. This was my chance to live somewhere else or travel, but as it turned out, the best place for me to be was right here. Because the conversation I had with that young woman in my class on September 11, turned out to be the first conversation I would ever have with my wife. Today, we are both counselors and we have a son, one dog, two leopard geckos, three cats, and my mother-in-law living in our busy house.
I spent my early years as a school counselor at different schools, but as it turned out, that school across the street from my apartment, where the kids always looked so happy, that school actually did hire me to be a school counselor.
A lot of our work as educators is based in being nurturing, and it is easy to nurture others if you are nurtured yourself. My family has always provided me with much needed love and support. Also very critical in my journey was: teachers, coaches, and other role models.
What is fascinating about your role models is that over time not only do you remember them, but you remember how they made you feel, and you realize that you borrow something from all of them. Mr. Gallant, my high school counselor, also a John Bapst graduate, is a great counselor and a talented artist. I am fortunate that in addition to being his student, I also got to know him as his colleague. Father Nicknair didn’t speak to me from behind a screen, in a confessional booth. In face to face conversation, he made me feel at ease with his compassion and understanding during confession. Even when I told him how I said a few words that cannot be repeated. Coach Holmes taught me the importance of enthusiasm. And he let me shoot the ball in games. Mr. Atcheson, cared greatly about his students as people, but was also a passionate history teacher. Ms. Levesque, my English teacher, was tough!! She once passed back an essay to me and on it she wrote: “Good Job, C+”. It made me so furious that the competitive side in me said “okay, let’s see what she writes on my paper if I get an A.” Looking back, I realize that she knew how to motivate me. Well played.
And finally, my mother and father, whose example had immeasurable impact on me in ways that are too many to list.
In my journey, I have tried some things and failed, I have tried some things and I did okay, and I have tried some things and surprised myself with success. Even when I did not reach my goals, the journey toward those goals brought about great friendships and enlightening experiences. When I did fall short, I would eventually be at peace knowing that I did everything I possibly could, and there would be other different and even better opportunities ahead. The fascinating thing about my journey so far is that the very things in my life now that mean the most to me, were things I didn’t plan on. Who would have thought that on that horrific day of September 11, I would speak to my wife for the first time? I certainly didn’t plan on the unusually happy school across the street from my apartment being the place I would spend the most memorable years of my professional life.
So this was my journey, now I will explain why being a school counselor is just a flat out awesome job. When I hear of any of your personal victories whether: you are accepted into a highly competitive college, you are the first in your family to go to college, you receive a great scholarship, or you do well in a sports, music, or drama performance, I have a joyous reaction. On these days my joyous reaction happens when I drive home and while I am in my car, I crank the classic rock station, and as I rock out, I drum the ceiling of my car, let out a few primal screams of joy, and I feel an amazing sense of gratitude that our paths have crossed. Very few things on this earth bring me more joy than being a part of your journey and cheering you on in your victories. By a similar token, I am also humbled when I can comfort you in your defeats.
In my office for several years I have had a quote on my wall from Albert Einstein that reads: “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree, he will spend his whole life believing he is stupid.” Everyone in this room is blessed with a multitude of different gifts. Go forward and take advantage of educational opportunities you have in and out of school so you can learn what your gifts are. Learn about your gifts, and ask yourself how your gifts can bring about positive change in the community around you. By the same token, know what your faults are. Be honest with yourself about your faults, and learn to live with them in a constructive way. Never let your faults be a reason not to grow as a person.
When those dreary days of feeling hopeless and overwhelmed come your way, remember that there is no substitute for effort. There are many things in life that we do not have control over, but we always have control over our own efforts. Be grateful for your blessings and don’t waste too much time envying your neighbors’ blessings. Success is not always about earning money, what college you go to, or what people think of you. At the end of the day, it is what you think about yourself. Do you, not people around you, but you, feel fulfilled by your work? Does your work make a positive difference in the world around you?
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” In our own neighborhood this positive change gets accomplished everywhere. Down the street at St. Joseph’s Hospital as medical professionals do their daily work caring for the sick and injured. Positive change gets accomplished by people working at Bagel Central making your bagels just the way you like it. This positive change is accomplished by our employees at John Bapst that you don’t always see who: maintain the building, prepare your food, and do those infinite tasks behind the scenes that are vital to your educational experience every day.
You can instill positive change today by doing these few simple things. By smiling and saying hello when you walk by anyone in the hall. By opening a door for someone with their hands full or offering to help them carry something. By apologizing to someone who you have wronged. And, by taking the time to express your gratitude to somebody who has made a positive impact in your life, just because.
My speech disorder taught me that if you notice that someone is having difficulty, don’t make things harder on them by being judgmental of them, talking behind their back, or by belittling them. Because you never will know what it is like to be that person. Everybody has faults and insecurities, as I shared with you today my own insecurity about speaking publicly. The next time you want to comment or even playfully tease somebody about an imperfection that person has no control over, whether it is in person or on social media, take a moment and think of how you would like some of your own imperfections highlighted.
If somebody is annoying you, don’t expect that one comment from you will make them suddenly change, and they will magically become a tolerable person. Show patience for those difficult to deal with.
Understand that you are responsible for you. You, as individuals wield more power than you often realize. One comment from you is enough to ruin someone’s day, or it can also make someone’s day. You can be the change you wish to see in the world by treating others with the dignity and respect you wish to be treated with. You can be a crusader in your own right by elevating the people around you. By supporting them in any way you are able.
Our John Bapst family is a broad one and our individual journeys are complex and varied. You never truly know, what somebody’s journey has been like as they are sitting in the desk next to you, or currently in the seats around you. We have many students here who live away from their families for months at a time while they are here getting an education. Say hello to each other, get to know each other’s names and interests, and take the time to learn from each other in class, chorale, spring musical, and athletic teams. I am sure you will find that you are more similar than you are different.
As for what makes us all different, well, that is another part of my job that is flat out awesome. The truth is that we would have really boring jobs if you were all similar to each other. In this school that I came to work at, and embrace as my professional home, well our strength has always been, you. Your many talents, abilities and character enriches and inspires us all. From, the student who does cheering and the robotics club, the student heading to college for nursing but also has a SCUBA certification, the student from China who rocks out to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix for our enjoyment, the local student whose family speaks another language at home besides English, and the student whose learning disability causes them to take a long time completing their homework every night, and yet they still manage to stay positive, and courageously do it again the next day.
I will often advise students to: “embrace your nerdiness.” By this I mean that you should embrace what you love, especially if it makes you unique. In the not too distant future, many of you will don purple caps and gowns and march out of this building for the last time. Until that happens, don’t sell yourself short! Take the opportunity to learn something you are intrigued by in a class, club, or activity. Don’t avoid these opportunities because your friends aren’t doing it. Take the slightly more challenging course even if you are not guaranteed a grade that is up to your typical standards. What you learn is not always measured by the grade you receive.
Take risks not with the fear that you may fail, but with the understanding that what you pursue may not be part of your journey. If what you pursue is not part of your journey, have faith that even though things aren’t certain, your journey will still be gratifying. The outcome will be different for all of you, but your ultimate gratification comes from facing yourself in your mirror every day of your life knowing that your abilities and efforts make a positive contribution to the world around you.
In closing, I wish to express my gratitude to all who have been part of my journey. To my family at home for being the most extraordinary part of my journey. I wish to express gratitude to Mr. MacKay, Mr. Armistead, and Mrs. Colleen Grover for adopting me into the John Bapst family back in 2011. Finally to all of you here today, thank you for allowing me, and allowing us, to be part of your journey. It is truly an honor and a joy. Thank you all for your kind attention today.