When I was in the third grade, my teacher told the class that one day, I would be President of the United States. We were learning about the US political system, and Vincent Lee had asked her if she had ever taught a president before (she was in her first year out!) or if she thought any of us would ever be president. When she called out my name, I was very embarrassed, and Vincent’s subsequent mocking of me with ‘Madame President’ every time he saw me for the next few years didn’t help. I look back on that time with wonder. Our school was made up of low socioeconomic kids. The main industry of the town was working in the prison system. In fact, of the 15,000 people in town, 9000 were incarcerated. How could my teacher have seen a future President in her midst and spoke such powerful words? How was I not destroyed by the mocking bully?
Whether it was good practice or not, that day, my teacher had conferred an aspiration onto my little shoulders. What it did for me was to begin dreaming that, if I worked really hard at school, then maybe, I would go somewhere. My aspiration had not started there. My first grade and second grade teachers had both conferred ‘smart girl’ on me. I finished my work first and would be asked to help the others. I built an identity around their naming, their singling me out as somehow special. I was fortunate to find this happened throughout my schooling, where teachers would remind me that I would be successful. While there were always naysayers like Vincent, for some reason the positive drowned out his mocking.
I have often reflected on the ways that adults in my life reinforced this positive message and therefore built my own aspirations to leave my small, county town. I am sure that without others speaking their aspirations and encouraging me, I would never have left. Vincent, the mocker, the naysayer, would have won.
Our stories, our experiences, often shape how we see our mission in life. I believe that I am on this earth to help young people get where they need to go. It is my job to speak aspiration into their lives. It is my job to ensure that I help them recognise and articulate their gifts and skills. It is my job to forge a path to help them in any way that I can. I am never ‘off-duty.’ When I see my students, I smile at them and say hello. I ask them how they are doing, and what they are thinking. I tell them what I see in them, and speak aspiration into their lives. I never, ever, let them settle for ‘good enough’ and try to help them do even better.
If you have come this far with me, I want to challenge you. Who in your life needs to hear your aspirations for them? Who is in your sight that you can help by connecting them, giving them a new opportunity or getting a note from you that commends them for a job well done? What sort of world would we have if every capable adult spoke aspiration and affirmation into others’ lives instead of looking for ways to pull them down?
St Hilda's College is a living community and residential college on campus at the University of Melbourne.
We acknowledge and pay respect to the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which our college is situated. We pay our respect to all the Elders of Indigenous students who call St Hilda’s home. We also acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of our community, the University of Melbourne, and the wider world.