What is Excellence?
Presented by Class XII student Neve R. to parents at Waterford School's first Parents Association Meeting of the year, Sept. 1, 2021
Hi Everyone, thanks so much for having me.
During my freshman year of high school in an English class, I remember we moved our chairs into a circle in the center of the classroom, and we discussed each of Waterford’s core values and how they impacted us as students. Integrity, Curiosity, Responsibility, Caring, Excellence. It was a lot for us as 14 year olds to tackle at the time, but now three or four years later here I am to speak to you on just one of these values, and how Waterford has instilled it upon me. Excellence.
I don’t think excellence is a value anyone is born with. I think striving for excellence is something that we, as Waterford students, pick up in our time on this campus, almost without knowing. To me, excellence is learning a topic, then wanting to learn even more. Excellence is trying new things, failing, then trying again with new knowledge and perspective. Excellence is when we push to become our best selves.
How can I so confidently say that Waterford has taught me, my classmates, and is teaching all of your children the value of excellence? I’ve experienced it. And while I may not have realized in the moment, looking back now I can see that excellence has shaped who I’ve become as a student today.
The highlight of many Waterford students’ second grade experience is learning about an endangered species. I picked sea otters. From the surface they seem a bit boring (they sleep a lot), and especially so when compared to my classmates' animals: orca whales, elephants, Bengal tigers. But they weren’t to me. From her example presentation on pandas, my second grade teacher, Mrs. Kovacs, gave me, along with everyone else in my class a love of research, animals, and writing. After taking trips to the library to find books on our animals, we took notes and wrote our papers on behavior, habitat, offspring, and whatever other categories came up. She gave each person in the class a single piece of lined paper to start our reports. I filled the whole page and asked for a new one. Then another. The same thing happened to many of my classmates. See, we weren’t forced into writing more than a page, but the love of learning, the interest in the project and the inspiration and encouragement from our teacher allowed my second grade class as a whole to bring excellence into the project. Without even knowing it, I was beginning to embody excellence at Waterford: working hard, and pushing beyond what was expected of me.
Flash back to my first year of high school and I’m right back where I started this speech: In my freshman year English class sitting in a circle with my classmates discussing excellence at Waterford. When I was preparing for this speech, I tried to look back at my notes I took during the discussion, and while they were pretty sparse, I don’t think we were being graded on them, I did notice one thing. Underlined twice was the statement: Excellence is not perfection. I realized it first then, and I still know it now: Waterford is not teaching us to be perfect, flawless students. Waterford is teaching us to learn and grow.
I failed the first math test I took in high school. I can still picture the bright red ink circling my score at the top of the test. I just remember thinking “This isn’t excellence, this is anything but! It took a while but I know now, excellence isn’t getting an A on one test one time. Excellence is learning to better yourself, and better the world as a whole. Waterford teaches us this and I know because even after the failing test grade I wanted to get better at math. Not only did I search to improve, but I did it for myself. Not for my parents or my teachers, but because I wanted to improve. I went to the math lab (where the math teachers have their offices) at least once a week until the end of the term for help on homework and studying. The next term I did the same. I learned to study concepts in a way I had never done before. I learned to be more productive and thorough, to SHOW MY WORK and TO ALWAYS CHECK TO SEE IF I REMEMBERED THE NEGATIVE SIGN.
I’m a ballet dancer—everything in ballet centers around striving for perfection, so of all people I think I’m qualified to say that excellence is not perfection because perfection is impossible to demand. Even when you lift your leg above your shoulders, it can go higher. Even when you land a triple turn, you can try for four next time. Excellence is about expressing yourself. It’s not perfection, and never will be. I’ve been dancing since I was 3 years old and still I’ve never had a performance I was completely satisfied with. But yet I keep dancing. I keep working on jumping higher, and getting more flexible because I’ve learned from my time and teachers at Waterford that in order to embrace excellence as a dancer I can’t expect perfection from myself. But what I can and should expect from myself is continued hard work to improve. Excellence of effort.
When Mr. Menke asked me to speak on excellence at Waterford I was surprised. Why me? I’m not first chair violin, I’m not the basketball team captain, I’m not in AP physics C, I don’t have a 36 on my ACT. But when I considered the parts of my life I thought could embody excellence at Waterford I realized that it has to do with the opportunities I have taken advantage of here. There really are more possibilities than you could ever take part in. And believe me, I’ve tried. Starting in lower school I learned to apply myself fully to my projects. Last year I was the captain of the debate team. I’m on the ethics team. I’m a part of the outdoor club and the community service club. Last year, I took advantage of the opportunity to start my own club and with some friends and Mr. Rosett as our advisor, I started and published the first school newspaper. This year I’m the student body vice president. In my own life, excellence is being able to push myself to explore so many different things and apply myself fully to everything I do. To me, excellence is not just being defined by one thing or excelling in one area. Instead, it’s working hard across the board and investing myself in improvement in many different activities. I wasn’t always like this. Through 6th and 7th grade I wasn’t involved in every aspect of school. I sat towards the back in most of my classes, and didn’t raise my hand, but as middle school progressed I got more and more involved. My teachers continued to inspire me, as well as the new opportunities presented. I embraced excellence by stepping out of my comfort zone and grabbing on to new possibilities. To me, excellence is improvement, excellence is putting effort into projects that you are passionate about. Excellence is striving to try new things.
So parents, you’re lucky. You’re lucky to send your kids to a school that not only teaches advanced classes and has many extracurricular opportunities but that teaches your kids the value of excellence in their lives. The value of self motivation and striving to be your best self in and out of the classroom. And yes, your kids will fail math tests, and lose important sports games, but the most important thing is that under all this is that your kids are constantly growing and developing into excellent people. So please, take some of the pressure off your kids. Waterford’s teachers and community of students already push your kids to become better by encouraging them to apply themselves fully to everything they do. No matter what college your kids get into or what their GPA is, students at Waterford learn to bring excellence into all aspects of their life. From daily homework, and practicing the violin building all the way up to final projects and major concerts, students here learn to care deeply about not just the ending grade, or the success of the concert, but about the whole learning process. The Waterford mission and values state that excellence is embracing elevated standards of knowledge, performance, and character. But most importantly before embracing excellence in the classroom, or on the concert hall stage, we begin by developing excellence of effort.
I hope you all have a good school year ahead.