Committing to Excellence

Speech by Nevada Powe, Class of 1981
Magis Awards, November 24, 2010

First of all I would like to congratulate all the prize winners in the audience. I am honoured and humbled to have been asked by Headmistress Baston to address so distinguished a group from my alma mater.
When I asked Ms Baston what I should talk about she explained that the name of the award ceremony was the Magis Award Ceremony which meant committing to excellence for the glory of God. Committing to excellence for the glory of God. Wow that is some heavy stuff. Yet it seems entirely appropriate for the institution that continues to produce the best academic results in the country. Heavy stuff but entirely appropriate for the institution that has delivered the last 9 Jamaican Rhodes Scholars–two for this year. Why the rest of schools even bother applying is a mystery to me. I say this of course only among trusted friends. Please don’t quote me.
But seriously as I reflect on my own academic history which culminated in an MBA from Harvard, I have always contended that I got my greatest education at Campion. Not necessarily in the specifics of any topic per say but I learnt the value of committing to excellence and developed a strong belief in my own abilities to achieve whatever I wanted.
There is something remarkable about the Campion faculty. Everyone who leaves generally has one or two teachers whose voice lives with them as they go through life. They are the teachers who have inspired you to push for excellence. They are the teachers whose lessons you recite long after you have left their classrooms. They embed into your soul and you carry them with you wherever you go. Because of my 5 years at Campion, I have an abundance of these voices; the Science teacher Jean Chin, the English teacher Eaton-Smith, Religious Studies Father Reil, Science and jack of all trades Radley Reid and the Math guru Neville Smith. It is to these people I owe my livelihood, my lifestyle and my crushingly brilliant intellect.
In Forth Form, I had foolhardily signed up for what at the time was billed as the toughest course on the syllabus, Additional Mathematics, with the man who had the reputation of being the toughest teacher at Campion, Neville Smith; A man who walked the halls with a long stiff ruler.
Mr. Smith used to give weekly math tests to assure that you were keeping on top of the material. He said that the lessons built on each other so if you fell behind you would not be able to catch up.
In addition, Mr. Smith had a practice which today would probably be frowned on by most modern psychologists. He would read out aloud your name and your grade from these weekly tests in the order which you came in the class. So you know he start with say John Brown, 97%, Janet Lane 90% etc. You would then have to walk up to the front of the class to collect your paper. On one of these illustrious occasions when he was long past the people who had passed and meandering through the failures –Peter Simmons 50%, Jack Sprat 45% he finally got to my name Tyrone Nevada Powe 38% (yes I still remember the grade! A full 25 years later). Dying of shame but wanting to put on a brave face in front of my colleagues, I swaggered boldly towards the front of the class with a kind of “I do not give a damn about you or your stupid test” attitude. But he was not letting me off that easily: “Hang yu head in shame bwoy! Don’t walk up here like it does not matter! It does. Keep up that attitude and you will be selling sky juice.” I like to think that it was Mr. Smith who saved me from selling sky juice.
After that episode, I would not subject myself to that kind of public humiliation again. I busted my tail and worked harder. Slowly my grades in these weekly tests started to climb and when I surpassed the once seemingly unreachable 90%, and Mr. Smith called my name in the top 5 people in the class. As I walked to the front–this time of course beaming with pride–Mr. Smith’s single response was a very curt “humph”. That grunt has been the single proudest congratulatory moment I have ever felt in my entire academic career.
The best teachers get into your head and show you the best of what you can do. My brain was sharpened on the tools that these laudable Campion teachers provided. My confidence and fearlessness I owe entirely to them. Whenever I have faced a seemingly insurmountable problem–it is Mr. Smith’s voice or Mrs. Chin’s voice that I hear commanding me to commit to personal excellence.
And so here we are at The Magis Award Ceremony. Committing to excellence for the glory of God. Committing to excellence, I think, has to be distinguished from committing to success. Success generally means being the best. Excellence, on the other hand, is actually about doing your best. Success is doing better than others but excellence is “matching your practice to your potential.” Committing to Excellence means that you keep manning up, taking on tough challenges and maximizing on the talents. Recall the famous Biblical Parable of the Talents.
Ecclesiastes: “whatever your hands finds to do, verily do it with all your might.” Whatever task you undertake, do it with dedication, commitment and care. Moreover, maintain a positive attitude about it.”
My Campion 4th Form English teacher, Mrs. Eaton Smith, was the first to have told me the story of Sisyphus from Greek mythology. Sisyphus had challenged the Gods in an attempt to escape death. His punishment for his hubris was that he was forever condemned to roll a large boulder up a hill only to see it roll back down again as if he had not pushed it up the hill at all. The results of his herculean efforts would never hold. This was the eternal absurdity of his position. Indeed this is the absurdity of the entire human condition.
However hard we work or however much we accomplish we all eventually die. As Shakespeare says both Kings and Beggars in the end become food for maggots. Moreover, however great our achievements in life we will all eventually be forgotten. Billions have people have lived and toiled on the earth yet history remembers only a handful of names. Like Sisyphus we roll boulders up the hill only to have it rolled down again overtime. History eventually washes away all legacies.
The only way, therefore, to ennoble any enterprise that you undertake is by doing it well. By taking exceptional care and offering it up to God. What Sisyphus did is that despite the perceived futility of his efforts he kept pushing up the bolder with same dedication and care each time and thereby shaming the gods into recognizing the inherent nobility of human work.
Think about the process of doing praying with a rosary. One way to do it certainly is to say the Hail Marys very quickly; let your mind can wonder and be very distracted. This is probably how most people end up doing it. But on the other hand imagine if you are able to say each Hail Mary like it is the last time in your life you will say the Hail Mary–it is then and only then that you connect to the divine. You have ennobled the effort and imbued it with divine grace. It is not the task but the attitude and the care which makes it sublime.
Mr. Neville Smith was a teacher of impeccable personal standards. He was never ill, never late, never missed a class (in 40 plus years), always returned graded tests and homework the day after they were handed in, was smartly dressed and always exuded impeccable moral fiber. If I had not known him I would have believed him a work of fiction, a character straight out of a Victorian English novel–always fair, firm and correct. But here is the synopsis of his life. No one can ever say he was not the best teacher he could ever have been. Through this steadfast commitment I submit that he connects to the divine. And we his students and fellow teachers bear witness.
Science teacher Jean Chin is another example. Have you ever asked her a question? There is a particular way in which she engages with students; it is always as if you have her full attention. I saw it as an eager teenager and I saw it again when I was asking her a question about my godson thirty years later. Thirty years of the same silly questions from students and tons of sometimes obnoxious interaction with parents have not dimmed her enthusiasm or interest in teaching one iota. She remains present in the art of education. Each interaction is its own reward. In this way–by committing to excellence she too, I submit, connects to the divine.
If you go to a job you don’t like and then you don’t do a good job at the job you don’t like–you actually just corrode your own soul. You dull your own sensibilities and die a little death inside each day at your job. Two decades later you find that you are a hollow shell of what you once were. This is the marked difference between a life undertaken with care and one undertaken blindly and nonchalantly. It matters how you start, it matters how you perform, and the results will inevitably show in the end.
This past Christmas I was in India staying at a hotel that floats on a lake. The hotel has an open air lobby with a small pond in which hundreds of floating candles are placed to provide ambient light. There is a man whose sole job it is to keep the candles lit and the wind is constantly blowing the candles out. I watched him mesmerized as he lit and lit with exquisite care as the wind blew the lights out. It was as if he was communing with God and nature in a complex dance of prayer. There was no frustration, no irritation just dedication, seriousness and delight. He was communing with the divine.
At home I am fortunate to live with one of Jamaica’s most incredible aesthete–Karen Neita–a woman of impeccable style and elegance. Every night when we have dinner at home the table is set immaculately. There are candles, pressed cloth napkins and the food is architected unto the plate like we are at a 5-star restaurant. Friends and family who happen to drop by unexpectedly see the magnificence and always ask what is the occasion? And Karen’s response always is that “life is the occasion.” We are alive. We have health. We have food. We have friendship. We have love. What more occasion is needed? She, through the setting of the table with care, also in my view communes with the divine.
The only difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary life is your commitment to excellence.
Remember that in this vast universe the chance that you exist is a total fluke. And then for all eternity you pass this way once. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on. In effect, we all have one shot at the title. One shot at a magnificent life. If you do not live up to your potential now in this life–there will be no other time to live up to your full potential. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is it. This is the stage, the first and the final act. This is the only time you will have to strut your stuff.
And at various points in your life you will find that you will ask yourself how far are you from the life you had imagined? If you fall short in your own eyes, you will suffer from a profound sense of your own failure. You will silently pass judgment on yourself. How well did I turn my potential into a reality through tenacity and discipline is a question that haunts everyone in the end? No one escapes this judgment.
“Time is the currency you pay for the things that you do.” It is the only currency we have at the end of the day–and it is the scarcest currency in the world because it is finite and we do not even know how much of it we have. Any moment could be your last.
If you fall into the trap of offering your second best or bare minimum effort with the intention that you will do your best tomorrow or next week then overtime you will lose your way. Eventually you will come to a point where you cannot even remember what your best is because it is so long since you have done it.
“I am too tired today to be a good student. I am too busy today to be a good friend. I am too distracted today to be good at the job for which I have been contracted. I am too bored to be a good husband.” Bla bla bla and then it is over. Without the pursuit of excellence–life remains terribly, terribly bland.
Remain conscious about your choices and honour the things that are important to you by doing right by them and by engaging with care. Create positive rituals and patterns around your job/profession; your marital/romantic dalliances; your friendships; your community etc.
There is a general mistake that many make believing that some jobs are more important than others. But in truth dust to dust and ashes to ashes is what becomes of all of our efforts. At the end of the day the only meaningful question to ask yourself is whether or not you were the best you could have been in any life you took on? Were you the best street sweeper you could have been? Were you the best CEO you could have been? Were you the best wife or husband you could have been? Were you the best parent you could have been? Were you the best homemaker you could have been? Were you the best neighbour you could have been? And this is a judgment only you make entirely on yourself. How committed were you to personal excellence over the course of your life? Where did you put your best efforts and intentions? Would others agree? Would God agree? How well did you help others to achieve their best? If you believe in people more than they believe in themselves then you can show them a path to their own greatness?
And when you do see people giving their best you are duty bound to congratulate it.
Honour it! Sing out their praises and help them along on their journey–the way so many of our Campion teachers have honoured us and helped us along on our journey.
In that context, I want to urge you to consider giving to the school. It is a thank you for a job well done. It is an encouragement for the staff to continue to give their best. If you believe that Smith and Chin and Barrett and Baston etc. are truly doing a magnificent job then say it. And say it by giving to the library, to the lab, to the teachers with the St Edmunds Trust. Give money to the school–don’t hamper them and their efforts. Let their work shine and flourish. If you don’t believe they are doing a good job then by all means starve the effort. Don’t give them a dime of your money. But if you believe in your heart that they have taken an extraordinary interest in your child and committed to excellence then they should be helped and pushed along.
If the education of the next generation of Jamaicans being undertaken by underpaid committed people is not worth getting behind then what cause in your life is? I have no children at Campion yet I continue to give because I remain humbly grateful for what these people did for me. They lifted me from nothing and propelled me into an extraordinary life. What happens at this school is a most critical to what happens in Jamaica. Consider the moral imperative to support those in your midst who are striving for excellence.
And to the prize winners here is the challenge I submit to all of you on this auspicious awards day when you are feeling on top of the world. Today you are a believer in yourself. Campion, in awarding you a prize, is also saying that the institution believes in you too. Hold on to this moment. Hold onto to this feeling. Do not let that spark of belief in yourself go out the window and then find yourself 20 years later living with the not quite, the not yet, or the not at all. Do not yield to the frustrating mediocrity of a life that could have been, should have been but never was. Do not succumb to those who tell you that an extraordinary life is not possible and that real life is not like that–take them at their word that THEIR life is not like that but that you will craft a different life for you. In every aspect of your life take a shot at the title: decide to become an incredible friend; an exceptional lover; a fantastic father; an ace businessman; a passionate artist; a committed teacher. Whatever it is–give it your all. You have one chance to do so. This is the time!
Congratulations again on all of your success to date! May you continue to believe in yourself and all that is possible for your life!