Women's Event 2020, Guest Speaker Academic Dean Jarrratt Clarke
I’d like to thank Millbrook for a wonderful introduction and for giving me the opportunity to wear business-type clothes and do some public speaking, two of my favorite things in the world. Next time, let’s just throw in a root canal, and I’ll be all set. Seriously, though, I am actually thrilled to be able to speak to all of you tonight. It is especially fun to see former students from my classes, dorms, and teams. When did you all get so old? I will conveniently choose to ignore the implications of what that means about me…
But anyway. This year our core value is that of integrity. I spend a lot of time thinking about integrity at Millbrook. Part of that is because it is literally my job – one of the things I oversee as Academic Dean at Millbrook is Academic Integrity. In other words, when students get in trouble for cheating or plagiarizing, they have to come speak to me about it. It is my role—with a lot of help from other people—to try to make sure that the students at Millbrook turn in work that is entirely theirs.
Some of my most rewarding conversations with students have actually been when they have gotten in trouble, actually, and are at their lowest. Those moments of real vulnerability make for some of the most honest conversations possible, and sometimes it is those kids who tell me in the cry line at graduation that making a mistake to cheat or plagiarize actually ended up being the best thing to happen to them, as it made them have to reexamine their entire approach to school and get their acts together. That’s a pretty cool thing to hear. What is high school, or life, even, besides a series of mistakes that we learn from? That sounds a little depressing on the surface, but it’s beautiful to me.
When Barbara Gatski and Nancy Stahl made what was undoubtedly the worst mistake of their lives and asked me to give this talk, they said that talking about the core value would be good. So I pondered that for a while, and even though delving into academic integrity would be an obvious call—as I said, it is literally my job—that’s not really what I want to do. In thinking about how integrity fits into my life at Millbrook, I realized I actually want to talk about a different type of integrity. Not academic integrity, but a kind of personal integrity, by which I mean having your inner self match your outer self as closely as possible. It sounds easy, but it’s incredibly difficult. However, I think Millbrook makes it possible, and my hope is that I’ve had a tiny part in helping that to be true.
But before I get to that, do you want to know the most absurdly wonderful thing? It is possible to earn a living talking about books. Talking about books with other people, many of whom are also interested in talking about books (though maybe less so at 8 AM on a Tuesday morning). I can’t believe how lucky that makes me. One of the things I love most about teaching English is that we—my students and I—spend our time imagining the world through someone else’s eyes.
When you read a novel, you are forced to find empathy for the characters – to understand what it feels like to be a Puritan woman who faces constant humiliation, or a world-weary Roaring 20s socialite with a questionable moral compass, or an exhausted grandmother in 1950s Chicago dealing with the oppressive weight of institutional racism. It’s possible that none of these characters seem very much like you, yet you might see a bit of yourself in each of them. And at the very least, trying to see the world through their eyes will give you a sense of empathy and compassion for each of them.
The idea that reading fiction helps you build real-life empathy has been a hot topic over the last few years, and I actually gave a chapel talk about it not too long ago that at least three or four students were awake to hear. And empathy is incredibly important, of course – particularly these days, for reasons that I imagine are fairly obvious to all of us. However, if it’s important to feel empathy for other people, it is just as important for us to feel it for ourselves. And that’s starting to get at what I mean by personal integrity - if we let our empathy and compassion for other people mean that we accept them for who they are, don’t we then have to accept ourselves as we are?
I look at the kids at Millbrook, perhaps particularly the girls of Millbrook, and I see how they are constantly bombarded by expectations. Some of that is the expectations they get from their teachers, coaches, and dorm parents, but even more than that I mean the messages they hear from the culture, their peers, and especially social media. It is overwhelming and can feel toxic to navigate, and I wonder how stifled they feel – how often they feel like they have to hide some aspect of who they are because it’s not considered cool or socially acceptable.
My vision of integrity is that these kids do not feel like they have to do that anymore. I mean, I look at the kids around me and I wonder how they have any energy left to devote to class or arts or sports or anything else since they’re so busy navigating the many messages—some obvious, others more insidious—that they’re constantly getting.
And that doesn’t end when you stop being a teenager. All of us in this room still have to face it every day. We are told that we are never [fill-in-the-blank] enough or we’re too [fill-in-the-blank]. We are not assertive enough. We are too assertive. We are not thin enough. We are trying too hard to be thin. We are not working hard enough. Our hard work means that we’re not paying enough attention to our families. We smile too much or not enough. We say “sorry” too much or not enough. I could go on and on. Trying to thread the needle of what it’s supposed to look like to be an American woman in 2020 is insane. I actually consider myself lucky in that I am so far away from that definition that I don’t feel a ton of pressure to try to live up to it.
The other thing that makes me feel lucky is to work at Millbrook. One of the things I value most about Millbrook – and that bar is high – is how it enables all of us, from the lowliest third former to the longest-tenured teacher – the space to be fully ourselves. Boarding school is truly a bizarre place. I didn’t go to boarding school, and, looking back on it, I can’t imagine how weird it would have felt to live in the same building as my math teacher, or eat dinner with my coaches, or see my history teacher in her pajamas. I mean, that’s nuts. But where else besides boarding school do you get the honor and privilege of seeing each other as we really are?
I am a pretty weird person – and my parents and my brothers would tell you that’s been true for a long time. I am a full-on introvert. As you have already made note of, I have the worst fashion sense of anyone I’ve ever met. I hate chocolate and bacon. I take social awkwardness to heights that few others have achieved. And yet – and yet – Millbrook is totally okay with all of this. Because of the love and support I get from my colleagues and from my students, I get to be fully myself on campus in a way that I am not sure I have ever felt elsewhere. That feeling is so freeing that it makes me a better teacher and administrator, of course, but it also makes me a better person. And that’s what I mean by integrity in this case – personal integrity not as simply doing the right thing, morally, and not cheating or plagiarizing or stealing or lying and any of the other things we know to be wrong, but personal integrity in terms of letting your true self shine through – of having your public and private personas match as much as possible.
I mean sheesh, that’s hard. And it’s particularly hard when you’re 14 years old and just starting high school, right? I mean, YOU don’t even know who you are, so how can you let your true self shine through? But maybe you try a new sport, or you join the zoo squad, or you have a roommate who’s really different from you, and you fight at first, but then realize hey, they’re kinda cool after all, or maybe your advisor is really all up in your business in a way that seems like a bit much at first because you’re used to adults ignoring you, but at some point it occurs to you that they’re just showing you how much they care about you. Anyway, at some point all of this helps you start to figure out pieces of who you are. And it strikes you that you’re a total weirdo in at least some ways. But then you realize that no one is giving you a hard time about it that. In fact, and this is crazy, it seems like other people appreciate you for it. And that is Millbrook to me, and, I am guessing, to you.
Maybe I am fooling myself, but I would like to think that I have taught a few students a few things over the years, whether it’s about crafting a clear thesis, supporting your argument with evidence, coming up with a hilarious title for your essay, navigating a tough conversation with your roommate, supporting your teammates, or learning how to bounce back from making a big mistake. That said, I am sure my former students have forgotten about 98% of anything I said in English V or in the dorm or on the field hockey or softball field, no matter how brilliantly inspirational I thought I was.
As such, it’s more important to me if there were any students—particularly the girls I taught—who saw that I was comfortable with who I was and took any value from that. I know that I don’t fit into a lot of boxes that society has told me that I am supposed to. I know it’s pretty obvious that I don’t care about a lot of the things that I am told I am supposed to. I hope it is also obvious to them that I am happy with who I am. I enjoy my life – I have an amazingly talented and beautiful fiancée (hi, Lindsay!) who, against all odds, tolerates my insufferable know-it-all personality and occasionally laughs at my jokes. I have wonderful friends who are also respected colleagues, and vice versa. I have a loveable dog (she looks like a black lab but is actually an unholy mix of golden retriever, rottweiler, and poodle. We’re trying to get the breed name “rottendoodle” started – stay tuned). I enjoy my job and find it to be immensely satisfying, even when a silly IV former is trying to brush her teeth after lights for the third time that week. I love being Jarratt R. Clarke.
My hope is that it’s apparent to my students that I am not only okay with being terminally uncool, awkward, unfashionable, nerdy, and whatever other embarrassing things that I am, but that I embrace it. And maybe one or two of those students will start to think that maybe it’s okay for them to be non-idealized versions of a girl or woman in 2020. And that they shouldn’t be ashamed of it, but should instead be proud of who they are, and let the world see who they are. And I sincerely hope that Millbrook helped you all see that about yourselves as well. I hope that as you drove down School Road towards 44 right after you graduated, you realized that you felt more comfortable in your own skin than you used to, and more true to who you really are. That’s my vision of integrity at Millbrook. And I appreciate you listening to me tell you about it. Thank you.