Converse College Commencement Address

(For some of you who have followed this blog…there are two stories in here I’ve shared before …but the remainder of the content is all brand new!)

Thank you so much.  Dr. Fleming…what an inspired and authentic leader you are.  To the Board of Trustees and faculty…thank you for the work you do to empower women and for this distinguished honor.  And to you…the Women of Converse…what an honor it is for me to share your final moments as a Converse College student, with you.

I look out across this space and see your bright smiles, eyes…futures.  I look out across this space and see the joy, the wonder…the love of those here with you.

I am reminded of my own daughter.  Helen.  She is 13 years old, highly spirited, sometimes a bit dramatic but always beautifully and unabashedly herself.  I remember several years ago, one morning I was getting ready for work.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not a high maintenance woman.  But one day while getting ready for work, I heard this loud stomping noise coming down the hall.  I peer around the corner and here comes the “goddess” Helen…all four years of her majesty…was marching down that hall, decked out, might I add!  A pair of sunglasses was perched delicately atop her head.  A bright colored boa was draped comfortably around her neck.  A purse was perfectly positioned to match a “to die for” pantsuit.  And those shoes!  Walmart brand high heels…plastic with the beautiful jewels glued on!

I watched as she positioned herself in front of the mirror.

Several adjustements to the hair and glasses, she paused and then said with a breathy kind of Marilyn Monroe voice, “I just love myself.”

Well now as fate would have it I was in one of those times in my life when loving myself had been hard to come by.  We’ve all been there…hours, days, sometimes weeks of self-doubt…feeling a bit less than…certainly not the goddess like figure who stood before me in all her four year old glory.  Wanting to learn from the master of loving herself, I asked, “So, wondrous one…what do you love about yourself?”

Helen stood before that mirror, turned slightly to her right so to get a full glimpse of her profile.

A few more adjustments to her hair.  “I love my eyes,” the breathy voice continued.

A few more looks…as if seeing herself for the first time.  “I love my mouth.”

A shift of the purse and now a shift to her left to get a view of THAT side….and then words not said from any woman of this century…at least not that I have heard.  “I love my belly,”  as she gently gave it a pat.

I grinned…delighted with her love of self…but as if that wasn’t enough, she looked to me and with a smile as big as California, stated exuberantly, “And on yeah Mom.  I love my heart too!”

It’s no wonder the girl gets “IT”.  In 1996, two years before she was born, I started Girls on the Run… to provide an experience for girls to untangle from the “Girl Box,” the imaginary place many girls go around adolescence, where cultural and societal stereotypes limit choices as well as opportunities. The program began in Charlotte, NC in 1996 with 13 girls.  In 2012, we anticipate reaching 130,000 girls across North America

The impact is now far and wide and with it comes the privilege to serve as founder and vision keeper, to work hand in hand with over 37,000 volunteers.  I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of girls and women over the years.

And tucked in between the words of every single one of those conversations rests the story of every woman…this ebb and flow, the coming and going, the struggle, that Helen at age 4, had not yet experienced but certainly does now as a middle schooler, between the IN-HERE girl with the OUT-THERE girl.

The battle begins in adolescence.  In 6th grade my good friend Frances got breasts and I didn’t.  Suddenly the attention I had received the summer before, for my vibrant personality and great sense of humor disappeared.  I didn’t understand. Frances was getting lots of attention and like every other girl just trying to figure it out, with nothing but 11 years of life to go on, I figured that something about me wasn’t right anymore…something about me was downright wrong…something about me just wasn’t good enough.  The spirit of who I was wanted to be heard, valued and loved, just as we all do. But like every little girl (and boy) the messages coming at me were so confusing. The rules to “playing human” were often times in conflict with what my spirit knew to be right, just and true. The rules told me that the way I looked was more important than who I was inside; that being a woman meant keeping emotions like anger to myself; that having a boyfriend meant giving up part of my own identity. But I followed them anyway. Hours spent trying to mold my body, my spirit and my life into what the rules required were extremely painful.

Determining where our worth comes from, living in the world of “human,” can be challenging. I know that for me ever since adolescence, there was, this huge game of tug-o-war between the strong, empowered, self-assured, spiritual in-here-girl who knows she is worthy just because she is … with the physical out-there-girl who still at times wants so much to be liked, popular and accepted by others. The back and forth is constant, and so too is the growth and learning that comes with it.

I am reminded of Paul.

He is 39 years old. A handsome professional man, Paul drives a BMW and wears custom suits with starched crisp
white button-down shirts. He is respected and reserved. Yet little known to his friends is the hell in which he has lived. You see, eight years ago his wife, his life partner and best friend died. She died giving birth to their daughter Shelby.

Shelby’s entrance into this world wasn’t easy. For hours, over 20 innocent and vulnerable hours, Shelby and her mom worked tirelessly to take her from the warm safe waters of her mother’s womb to this world. So when Shelby was finally lifted into this world, her mother went on to the next.

Paul’s world isn’t what he had expected: the crisp starch of his collar, the million-dollar home and a daughter, who looked like every other 8-year old, but had the intellectual and conceptual understanding of a 4-year old.

His life felt like hell. It’s hard work being a single Daddy with a developmentally delayed little girl. Every morning as he would gently brush her hair, Shelby would tell him stories—stories that break a father’s heart. Stories of how she is afraid to speak sometimes, because the other students at her school make fun of her. Stories of how they call her dummy or generally disregard her as anything, but a nuisance. Paul didn’t know what else to do and so when the Girls on the Run brochure floated home in her book bag, he enrolled her. Shelby’s spirit soared at Girls on the Run. Her teammates understood her uniqueness and accepted her not in spite of it, but because of it.

Over the program-weeks, Shelby had come to trust her teammates. They didn’t make fun of her. They wrapped their little souls around her and walked her through the Girls on the Run games and activities. The Girls on the Run girls were different. They listened to her when she had something to say and they saw the humanness of her. They valued her for who she was.

On this particular day, Shelby was running in her first Girls on the Run 5k and her father was there to see her. I stood at the finish line cheering, clapping and high-fiving girls as they crossed that finish line. One hour later, every girl had finished. “No wait,” the police escort informed us, “there is one more little girl.” And so, while most folks had moved on to the after-party in the nearby park, a handful of us waited.

When off in the distance I saw a little figure walking, as if on a mission. Her arms pumping beside her like pistons. Her blonde pigtails flopped on either side. Her coaches were beside her, smiling and crying. Slowly word spread that Shelby was finishing and one by one folks returned to the finish line. As Shelby made her way up that last stretch of road, hundreds of people ran to take their place roadside.

The momentum was building and then as if directed to do so I looked to my right and there dead center in the finish line stood Paul. His starched shirt, khaki pants and polished loafers. His hair was perfectly placed. Shelby’s jacket was neatly draped across his left arm.

The man was stoic, reserved, empty eyed… and alone.

And then without warning, this man, this brave, brave man dropped to his knees…Shelby’s coat falling to the asphalt below…and with wild abandon, he lifted his arms to the heavens above and wept from the depths of his soul. Tears were flowing down his cheeks to the earth below, like small blessings on the path of his daughter’s approaching feet.

I won’t ever be able to shake the image of this man as he fell to his knees, surrendering his pain, revealing his willingness to shed the external armor of the man he had become, trapped in the box of cultural success and first impressions, to reveal the little boy he once was…unafraid and willing to share his soul, his core, his vulnerabilities… To welcome his little girl, Shelby, as she ran to him, there at the finish line. Welcome her with his arms around her small body to lift her high to the sky above. Welcome her to this new life, this new heaven, the one in which they could inhabit peacefully together.

And this is where I want to hold you, embrace you…show you…delicately place the perspective of my 51 year old life into yours…give you permission to lean into this ebb and flow and know that the spirit-you will at times scream from the inside just as it did for Paul, “let me out, let me out, let me be myself”…and that it’s good and okay and normal to have these feelings and to want to shout, and stomp your feet at the world…and not to fear these times, for they are sure to come, but welcome them…know that they will pass and that soon to follow will be those flowing times of peace… as they did for Paul at the finish line, for me when I run, for my daughter through the lens of her camera, for my son when he sings, for you to discover..peaceful moments where the spirit you is in unison with the human you… have faith they are there and are coming…for it is in those times you will get a glimpse of your spirit’s greatness.

I want to tell you that you will be okay and that all the pain, fear and self-doubt you will feel and that will challenge who you are and at times in your life may actually challenge everything you believe in… are leading you to your life’s work, your calling, your purpose. But I can’t.  No matter how much I want to protect you, warn you and tell you that you are beautiful, whole and powerful, this is something you will have to realize in your own time and in your own language, through the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, the comings and goings…the evolution of your own life.

I want to look you in the eye and lovingly show you that it is in those most vulnerable moments, those moments when it’s hard to breathe and the ability to see outside the moment is blinded by self-doubt, the spirit-you is waiting on the other side…the strong you.  The Empowered and overwhelmingly beautiful woman you are becoming.

I remember vividly in the late fall of my first Girls on the Run season in 1996, I was wrapping up with my Girls on the Run girls at Charlotte Country Day School.

Madeline came to me, her tiny hands cupped around the corners of her mouth. She whispered, “Molly, come here. I have something I have to show you. I must show you. Please.”

I was busy handing out game pieces and cheering for each girl as she ran by me. “Sorry Madeline, but I really need to stand here and cheer on each girl.”

“But Molly you have to see this.” She continued to cup her mouth with hands on either side and whispered, “I think I see heaven.”

Well, that’s certainly interesting, I thought. If Madeline sees heaven, surely I must see it too. So we each grabbed the hand of the other and ran as fast as we could to the far end of the track, so that our view was not limited by trees or buildings.

“Look!” she said. “Look. I see heaven.” I turned to my right and was struck speechless by what appeared before me. Dark black clouds surrounded a brilliant white light. Like the blade of a silver knife the light pierced the sky and sent beams of itself down on the earth miles and miles away. “See,” she said, completely convinced. “Heaven!”

“Madeline,” I said. “Yes. Heaven, surely.” But I didn’t need to look to the sky. I didn’t need to look to some distant space in time. I only had to look at the two small, but brilliant rays of light, there in Madeline’s eyes to know that indeed, heaven is right there, resting inside her little girl soul, that little girl body.

Heaven rests in me and you and the brilliance of our own lives. I am convinced, as convinced as Madeline was that she saw heaven on that stormy day, that the spirit of who I am, who you are, matters: That we can, unabashedly and with intense joy, embrace this human experience, the ebb and flow of it, the ups and downs, the comings and goings…We can lovingly hold the self-doubt near, lean into it, own it, share it so that others may feel safe sharing theirs and delight in the joy we are certain will come because of it…to as children do so freely, dance unabashedly in the all of it…to create a heaven right here on earth, where everyone – every last one of us – can feel safe and at peace simply being ourselves, wherever we are in our own lives and in the process of becoming our greatest, biggest, most beautiful selves.

I figure today is as good a day as any to start.  Thank you.

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2 Responses to Converse College Commencement Address

  1. Betsy says:

    Oh Molly, this was wonderful and brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for posting this. And for being fabulous. Sending you a great big virtual hug from Germany.

  2. scarpetta says:

    it was hard to breathe lately due to an aching heart. thanks for your beautiful words and for the gentle reminder that it gets better in time. though i don’t know when it would be, i am keeping the faith that all will be well with me

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