Convocation Speech: What Do You Do With a Chance?

Convocation Speech: What Do You Do With a Chance?

Good morning. Convocation is our official welcome to the 2022-2023 school year. It’s a momentous occasion that relies on the energy of the whole community. Thanks to everyone who took time out to be here today. Your presence is a testament to the commitment characteristic of the SCH community. I’d like to begin by thanking everyone who has contributed to the success of this occasion, starting with the uplifting student and faculty performances and charitable words from the board and alumni.

Special thanks to teams of people, particularly the Convocation Committee for its outsized efforts in carrying out this tremendous celebration. I am thankful to our maintenance staff, which went to great trouble to ensure this event would be enjoyed by all. I thank parents, other family members, and friends who have supported the education of our students, celebrated them when they won, stood up for them when they tumbled, and offered them a flashlight when times were dark. I’m delighted that my wife, Davirah, is here. Her love, support, and wisdom have made this very moment possible.

I want to thank the members of the Head of School Search Committee for their hard work. Led by Tim Levin, Mims Maynard Zabriskie, and Nadine Badger Stevenson, from the Class of 1990, the committee designed a demanding process to select Springside Chestnut Hill Academy’s head of school. I was thrilled that they recommended my appointment to the Board of Trustees and have been appreciative of the support I’ve received since my arrival in late June. 

Special thanks to staff and faculty, who give every measure of themselves to effectuate why SCH exists: to inspire unbounded curiosity and independent thought in every one of our students, nurture their knowledge of themselves and the world, and expand their full academic and personal potential while preparing them to lead lives characterized by a quest to effect positive change. Our teachers help students extend the edges of knowledge, mine considerations of history and literature, peer into the universe of science and math, and interpret the language of human experience. Foundational to our mission is an unmistakably magical and vigorous academic program in the sciences, the humanities, and the arts, fastened by core values of diversity, courage, thoughtfulness, resilience, and integrity. Families, thank you for choosing SCH and prioritizing the kind of education we provide.

When I was a very young boy, I thought I could fly. I had this idea that if my younger brother Rick and I tried hard enough we could float above the ground like tissue paper caught in a band of wind. We believed so hard in this dream that we spent a summer fashioning cardboard wings out of record album covers and jumping from the oak in our yard, flapping our arms like our very lives depended on it. We went for it, but we fell. The balding patch of grass became familiar with our tries. In each leap was a chance. And what is a chance anyway? An opportunity to succeed amidst an appreciable risk of failure. 

Though growing up I never truly went without, my beginnings were rather modest. When my parents split up, my mother routinely worked double shifts as a head nurse, especially at Christmastime, to make sure her four boys never went without. She was often exhausted, forced to retreat to bed in the afternoon to rest up for her overnight shift at the hospital or nursing home. I did well in school, but I really hit my stride when I transferred from my struggling, under-resourced public school to a small, start-up independent school a couple of weeks after the term had begun. (What do you do with a chance?) I slingshotted headfirst into school, bouncing myself into virtually every aspect of school life. I remember suiting up, on my very first day, in a soccer game, against Shipley, I think. I scored that day, not by firing the ball into the net, but by starting something new. The freedom and fortitude I felt at my new school stood starkly against the increasingly confined circumstances of my old one. For some, a chance for a fruitful life began to fade into the shadows of alleyways and urban decay. Meanwhile, I saw my own trajectory take shape, thanks, in large part, to adults at school who took a genuine interest in me, supplied me with confidence, and demanded excellence. The rest was in the details.

What Do You Do With a Chance? is the title of a picture book by Kobi Yamada. In it, a relatable character discovers a chance one day. But he lets it go because he isn’t sure about it. The chance comes around again. He takes it this time but falls and feels embarrassed. As a result, he is too scared to take another chance because he doesn't want to feel that way again. After realizing he’s missing out by not taking chances, something amazing occurs: He lets go of his fear and takes a chance which leads to something new and wonderful. 

Taking chances can be not only challenging but frightening. But What Do You Do With a Chance? encourages us to be courageous in the face of fear. Yamada’s book shows readers that holding back makes us miss out on amazing, even exciting and beautiful, opportunities that help us be our best selves. 

So, here’s a little homework for you. One: Think about a time when you took a chance, such as saying hi to someone new or trying a new food. How did the chance make you feel? Scared? Excited? Worried? Two: Ask a friend, parent, or relative about a time they took a chance. Talk about what you do when you see someone who takes a risk and falls down. How do you encourage them? How do you intervene if others laugh. Three: Be a chance hunter! Seek out chances—ones that allow you to grow, ones that create a sense of wonder and add meaning to your life.

That’s precisely what I did when I joined this beloved community! And now I want us to take a chance together. What does our school do with a chance? We go for it! Why? Because that’s who we are! And why is it who we are? Well, the thing we do best is create community. The strength of SCH derives above all else from the quality of its people. When I first visited SCH as a candidate for head of school a year and a half ago, I heard time and time again what makes this place so remarkable. The way people spoke about this school evidenced a sincere and energetic love for this place. What’s more, I could not escape the warm smiles, the knowing nods, the held-open doors, and the vibe of “we’re all in this together.” The affection people had for the school was clear and present. I felt it deeply. And my own affection for SCH swelled over the course of my many visits. And so I took a chance and let love happen. And now I am experiencing firsthand what I’ll describe, quite simply, as a superpower of community. At SCH, people feel attached to a shared history. Moreover, there is a profound connection between people here. It is of the heart.  

When I think of this community, I think of a place of purpose that adapts, a place where anything is possible. Why? Because we have a kind of secret sauce, the kind only grandma could cook up, that makes our school so incredible. The ingredients are worthy of note. One of them is belonging. Our school strives to have all students feel connection and ownership. Here you can feel like you are a part of a group while knowing you are special for who you are. At SCH, there are heroes everywhere. Each of us has someone who believes in us and who is there when they need them. Another ingredient is a sense of accomplishment. Here we recognize people for many different types of success, including hard work and being a good person. The fourth ingredient, fun, and excitement, is all about making sure you enjoy what you are doing, in and out of the classroom. 

Curiosity and creativity are seared into our school’s academic program. Students are encouraged to ask "Why?" and "Why not?" about the world around them. This is paired with another ingredient, a spirit of adventure: “Being excited to try new things, even when you are not sure if you will be good at them.” And there are the opportunities for leadership and responsibility. We encourage students to make their own decisions and accept responsibility for their choices. Finally, we stir in confidence to take action. SCH is a place where students are taught to set goals and take steps to reach them. These ingredients reflect my most deeply held beliefs and inspire my approaches to teaching and school leadership.  

And, as the year will show, there will be challenges that may impact our community, perhaps even make it tremble. And sometimes the community may even disappoint you, falling short of your expectations. When or if it does, invest in it rather than disinvest from it. I urge you not to become a cynical critic because you believe you’ve been wronged. There are enough cynics and critics out there. Be productive, not destructive: Put your energies into making our community better and building bridges across islands of difference.   

As we turn the page to this next chapter in the book of this beloved community, let us stand as guardians of the school’s mission. Let us provide a gracious, enriching experience for all of us, steeped in respect and dignity our humanity demands. Let us build an SCH that refuses to let fear get in the way of doing the right thing. Let us build an SCH that allows us to be open to new experiences and take risks rather than be too attached to what is safe or familiar. And may these experiences inspire awe, wonder, and a spirit of togetherness. In our quest to effect positive change, let us imagine an SCH even more fastened to people and institutions of our great city and beyond. In my vision, SCH is the school the world deserves, graduating people the world desperately needs! 

As you walk this campus—these woods, these halls, these fields, these sidewalks—today and every day, listen for a chance, one of deep delight whose outcome is not yet known. Look for the ledge. Then leap beyond it, as that’s where the learning occurs. And what will you do with your chance that comes this year, this month, this week, tomorrow, today? It is our chance that has invented the leap. Leap with me. Let’s go forth! Seek and seize our chance. Unfurl our wings and soar towards an excellence that really matters.  

Read more from Dr. Dinkins