writings and Reflections

Commencement Remarks to the Class of 2017
Tara Christie Kinsey

Good morning! And a warm welcome to all here gathered for this joyous and momentous occasion.

First and foremost, I want to thank the Hewitt Board of Trustees, faculty members, staff, families, friends, alumnae, and guests not only for gathering here today but also for understanding and perpetuating the importance of this school: what it stands for, and what it will do in the years ahead. And I am especially grateful to be here today with members of the Class of 2017 to commemorate this significant moment in their lives.

As this year’s Hewitt yearbook suggested, it takes a unique combination of ingredients to make a Hewitt girl. Parents, guardians, faculty, and staff: thank you for all that you have done to make these young women understand that life is full of possibility and promise — and that they are well-prepared and well-positioned to contribute to the world using the ingredients that are uniquely their own. Your unconditional love and support have built the foundation for the rest of their lives, and they and we will never forget the important role you have played in bringing them to this moment.

Exactly three weeks ago, the seniors and I had a mini-retreat in my home. As we conversed in my living room, suddenly one of the seniors heard faint sounds coming from the next room and asked, “Wait a minute...is that the Mockingjay from The Hunger Games?” Everyone suddenly got very quiet. And there it was, the sound of the Mockingjay. I said, “Oh. Yes. Someone’s calling me. That’s my ringtone.” The seniors looked at me in utter confusion.

You see, when I first joined the Hewitt community, someone asked me this question: “If a Hewitt girl could be any character from a movie, who would she be?” I wasted no time in answering, “Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.” 

So why Katniss Everdeen? When I stop to reflect on the answer to this question, there are three main reasons, and I’d like to share each with you in turn.

First, Katniss is a 16-year-old girl who becomes a leader not out of self-interest or blind ambition, but out of a deep-rooted urge to be of service to humanity. She is, in the best sense of the term, a servant leader. She lives according to Hewitt’s motto “by faith and courage”: she has faith in herself to rise to the challenge before her, and the courage to act on her moral conviction and do what she feels is right — even, and especially, when the odds are not in her favor, when there is challenge or controversy, or when she fears retribution. To borrow Lisa Damour's description of Wonder Woman, “She is not bowed down by anguish; she’s pulled back like a catapult.” 

I see Katniss’ servant leadership in Hewitt girls when they stand up to someone who is being unkind or when they express genuine concern for a fellow student. I see it when they help an elderly woman cross Lexington Avenue, and not just to the edge of the sidewalk but all the way to her apartment. I see it when they serve meals at All Souls Soup Kitchen to our neighbors in economic crisis. I see it when they spend time and effort raising money to help fund cancer research. I see it when they turn down a prestigious summer internship to work at a camp for autistic children. Like Katniss, a Hewitt girl is a servant leader who listens to the voice inside of her and is willing to act on it, using her power to do something that is both meaningful to her and of valuable service to others.

Second, armed only with her bow and arrows, her wits and her grit, Katniss has the kind of personal authority that defies narrow, traditional gender stereotypes. Unlike most girls and young women on screen, Katniss is the protector of others. Her mind is as sharp as the arrows in her quiver — she outsmarts the Gamemakers more than once — and her heroism and power are not linked to her body’s attractiveness or desirability to others. Katniss saves herself and others, using the power she has within. 

I see Katniss’ personal authority alive at Hewitt when our first graders rewrite the Cinderella play so that she saves herself and lives “boldly ever after.” I see it when girls double-down on their efforts and work before and after school with a teacher when the material has stumped them. I see it when they resist personalizing the feedback they’re given and take full responsibility for their learning, mistakes, and growth. I see it when they resist perfectionism and tune in to how their performance actually feels to them, not how it looks to others.

Third, Katniss’ bravery on screen has a real-life counterpart in the brave activism of the academy award winning actress who plays Katniss — Jennifer Lawrence. In October 2015, when a significant gender pay gap in Hollywood was accidentally leaked, Lawrence published an essay in Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny Letter. Lawrence writes:

When...I found out how much less I was being paid...I didn't get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early….But if I'm honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn't say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn't want to seem "difficult" or "spoiled."...until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn't worry about being "difficult" or "spoiled."....Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn't "offend" or "scare" men?....I'm over trying to find the "adorable" way to state my opinion and still be likable!

I see Jennifer Lawrence’s bravery in Hewitt girls when they channel their power into respectful acts of self-assertion in negotiating, rather than avoiding, conflicts. I see it when (to borrow a phrase from our Girls’ Research Scholar in Residence Rachel Simmons) they do not let kindness come at the expense of truth. I see it when they resist the powerful pressures placed on them and opt for being respected over being liked.

Every time my phone rings, it reminds me of the kind of young women Hewitt strives to send out into the world. To the Hewitt Class of 2017: may you always channel your inner Katniss. And when the odds are not in your favor, as you know they won’t always be, remember that you have the faith and courage to rise to the occasion, overcome the odds, and be the servant leader who does what she knows is right. We will be cheering you on and look forward to your return to 75th Street from time to time. 

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