Emily Garlock, a senior at Steller Secondary School in Anchorage, Alaska, joined us at Fall Forum 2016 to share her thoughts about life and learning at her school, leading off a three-part keynote that also included remarks from Benadette Manning, a teacher at Fenway High School and Dave Lehman, the long-serving and now retired principal of Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, New York. We’re honored to share Emily’s remarks here.

emily-garlockI am a 17-year old student Anchorage, Alaska, which is pretty far, but I wanted to come and share my story with you and why being at a school like mine is so important. Most of you here have had much more educational and life experience than me, but no one here has had my experience.

Two years ago, I went to the Fall Forum in San Francisco. I had read about CES and the ten Common Principles. I knew that my school, Steller Secondary School, was based on CES, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I wasn’t sure what to expect. It wasn’t until the sessions started that I really got engaged and interested in CES and what it means to be a CES school.

Being at Steller has helped me grow into the person I am today. Of course there’s the academic piece that has made learning fun and interesting and engaging and challenging. But I think what I love most about Steller is that it is not just a school. It’s a family. It’s a place where you can always go back to. I walk in, and even if I plan to be there for five minutes, I’m there for a couple hours.

I want to tell you about the Steller graduation. Not that I’ve graduated yet, but I’ve been to five. I think the Steller graduation really captures the idea of what Steller is: a family. When you’re looking from the audience onto the stage, you see an array of couches, bar stools, bean bags, and you don’t know what to expect, but each student gets to choose what they want to sit on. No one is wearing a cap and gown, everyone is wearing what they feel comfortable in, whether that is a t-shirt and jeans or a formal dress or suit and tie. My favorite part of the graduation though is that every student gets five minutes of their own. A lot of students make slideshows with pictures of them growing up and a song that they feel represents them. Some students have speeches. Some play a musical instrument. One of my favorites was when a senior choreographed a dance that the entire class performed.

Steller is small, and we know each person’s name. By the time you graduate, a lot of us have been together for six years. And when you think about how much you change in middle and high school, that’s a lot. And not everyone is your best friend, but you’re still a part of the same community and we all come together for what matters.

With a supportive family like this, I have a lot of advantages. And I know that inequality exists. But in the community where I have grown up, I don’t see someone and think that they are going to be more or less successful because of how they look. I know that as a white, straight female, the one discriminatory thing I can be associated with is gender inequality. But I don’t make those associations. I know that is very prevalent. But in the community where I have grown up, the education that I’ve had is more idealistic, and that makes me feel that everyone can achieve greatness if they work hard for it.

To me, this is an amazing high school experience. That despite the inevitable struggles of being a teenager, you have a family, a place like this full of support and people who believe in you and that helps you believe in the world.

What would it look like if that was everyone’s experience? That everyone believed that they could do whatever they set their mind to if they worked hard for it? That every child, no matter where they came from, was told that they could do it, that someone believed in them. It sounds clichéd and idealistic and improbable, I know. And the reality is that today’s society is not ideal, with so many stereotypes and so much discrimination. But children grow up and become the adults, and if we raise a generation of students who believe that they can achieve greatness, doesn’t it make sense that the world would be better?

What are the things that set these people apart… the people who believe that they can achieve anything? Well, first, they believe that if they work hard they can do it. And this means that they are ALWAYS working hard. These people know that success is not a product, it’s a process. We’ve all heard of the stress of finals week. Students cramming until the wee hours of the day, living off quick carbs and coffee to study and finish final projects and papers. They know how much of their grade is dependent on this product. This one single product.

Working hard to achieve a goal is important. But too many schools teach to a test, or a graduation, a product of some sort. Products are important, but they are not the heart of education.

The people who believe they can achieve, think about their work as a marathon, not as a sprint. Life is not preparation for anything else, and learning should not be either. These people see themselves as in it for the long haul.

These people see education as being about risks. It’s not about whether you succeed or fail, because both are inevitable, but it’s about if you try, if you just give it a go.

These people are deeply curious. You’re not looking for an answer, maybe you’re not even looking. You forget that you have an assignment, you just want to learn and be curious. You’re just in it. Some of the best classes are when we lose ourselves in the process. Maybe we’re having a discussion about World War II, and then we branch off and talk about the perspectives of the Japanese people, the German people, and the Jewish People. Or maybe we talk about what motivates people more: fear or love? Maybe we talk about why people do the things they do. It doesn’t matter so much where the conversation goes. It matters that the conversation is happening.

These people want it all. They seek more knowledge, to broaden their horizons, to expand perspective and understanding. We want teachers who teach us how to do that. We want to learn how to think, not what. We want teachers who help create leaders that constantly look for ways to better the community and the greater good.

And finally, these people want to find a way, their own way to matter. In life you do something, not for a college application or resume, but because why not? Why not learn more? Why not do something that contributes to your family, or your community, or the greater good, because you are the only one who can do contribute in your own way.

I came to Steller because I was looking for something. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I just knew there was something missing from my education.

At Steller I found a family. A family of learners who helped me feel inspired and feel a sense of belonging. I found a community that brought people together of all backgrounds with no judgement. I found people who were curious, like me, and wondered what if there is more?

Everyone at Stellar came from different places, but we all wanted something in our education that we couldn’t get somewhere else. And it’s that desire for more that matters the most.

What if every child had the chance to get that spark for learning, and education wasn’t a chore, but something exciting? What if everyone had that spark? What if everyone had the opportunity, like I have had, to not just settle, but to get the most out of their education?

And so, I want to thank every one of you. You are showing the world what believing in learning can look like. You are helping. And whether you are a teacher or a student, you are helping the people around you to grow. And that is what will make the world better.

Thank you.