Finding life paths that have resonance

Posted by Tim Barrier on 3/7/2019

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the National Association of Independent Schools’ annual conference. The conference brings together school leaders and teachers from across the association’s 1,800 school members and includes workshops on all sorts of governance, classroom, and school operations topics. The opening keynote speaker this year was Oscar-, Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis. She shared her personal life’s story, drawing on the archetypal hero’s journey to put her own experience in context of a greater, human striving to find oneself and rise above one’s circumstance. Her story was powerful and moving, with lessons for all of us, educators and parents alike, about how we can help our children find their own authentic path.


From Little Mermaid Ms. Davis talked about growing up in poverty in a Rhode Island neighborhood in which hers was the only African-American family. She described relentless racial bullying from schoolmates and frequent domestic violence in her home. She was one of the youngest of six children, and she described a pivotal moment in her life when she was reunited with her oldest sister after some time apart, and her sister asked her a simple question that changed her life: “What are you going to do to get out of this?” Her sister, playing the role of the mentor/guide in the hero’s journey, had planted a seed in her that grew and nurtured the drive to think about who it was that she wanted to be. Ms. Davis described seeing another mentor, Cicely Tyson, on the screen some years later and being transfixed. She found herself determined to become “an actress and an educated black woman who overcame poverty.” She did well in school, attended Julliard, found great success on the stage, and became one of the great actors of our time.


Ms. Davis described a critical moment in her late twenties when she “hit a wall” as she described it. By that point, she was well on the way to success, but she felt she couldn’t shake the negative self-messages that had been cast upon her by others throughout her childhood. She shared her own journey of overcoming these messages to make the point that so many people growing up suffer from the “need to belong, to sell somebody a lie in order to fit in, to become a messed-up avatar of yourself which gets in the way of your joy.”


She also talked about hitting another kind of wall later in her career, a “ceiling called greatness and success.” Our society, she noted, is obsessed with awards and competition. If anyone has experienced success, Viola Davis certainly has, yet she reflected that once she reached the pinnacle of her craft she had to “take the last step, one of significance and legacy.” Her realization has propelled her to dedicate her work to addressing issues of rights for women and people of color.


Her story inspired me to think about our opportunity and responsibility to create an environment in which our children can find what motivates them, what has meaning, and what they care about. Ms. Davis described our society’s “assault on individuality” that keeps perhaps all of us from being the best selves we can. She said, “the sooner you know you are divinely made, the more beautiful your life will be.” I think many of us may intuitively support this notion, and the question is what we’re willing to do about it. When someone asks us about our kids, do we describe what they do and what they have achieved, or do we try to describe who they are and how they are doing? How do we resist the temptation to overvalue the award-competition-achievement mindset? What are we willing to do to affirm the life paths that have resonance with our children as they grow, even if those paths are different from ones we might have imagined?


All the best,