Excerpted from a chapel talk by Brooke Dennison ’18, delivered January 12, 2018. Brooke is co-president of the student body and shared her personal journey of transformation, which brought her to some simple but powerful truths.
In order to best understand my story—of myself, and my growth while at Peddie—you must first understand two things that have been integral to this growth. These two "truths" that have shaped my Peddie experience are, first, my love for musicals. And, second, my Junior year English teacher, Mr. Pat Clements.
Four years ago, I was a fourteen-year-old girl from a small town in Delaware headed to a new school, getting the chance at a new start—one I hoped would utterly transform me. And transform me it did, but not in the ways I expected, and not by the timeline I initially desired.
This prospect of a new start was insanely exciting to me, and I did not want to mess it up; I wanted my “new life” to be absolutely perfect. Because of this, I was completely paralyzed by the fear of failing. I was so consumed by the desire to be perfect that I was actually restricting my own growth, though I was entirely blind to this fact. I spent the first year of Peddie taking very few risks, thinking that the fewer risks I took, the less chances there were for failure. I did not audition for solos unless Ms. Green forced me to, I did not try out for Varsity Lacrosse because I was too scared, and I did not even run for Student Council.
I woke up every morning at 6:30 a.m. to put on a full face of makeup, curl my hair, and pick out an outfit that would theoretically maintain some irrational image I’m sure I conjured up in my head.
By the end of the year, though, I felt overwhelmingly average—like my quest in becoming a new person left me ultimately unchanged. Freshman year, I generally had a great time, but something in me was off—I felt like I had no idea who I was. I did not feel as though I had a sense of self or a grasp on the type of person I thought I wanted to be.
By sophomore fall, teeming with uncertainty, I felt like the one thing I did know for sure was that I was not afraid of hard work. So that’s what I started to do—put in a lot of hard work—but, at the time, I continuously felt like I was coming up short. Fall term, I consistently started left bench on Varsity Field Hockey, I dropped down from Honors Bio, and I was overall miserable most of the time—but I was so terrified to show any of this. I felt like, for some reason, I had to maintain an image that I was okay—that I was happy, and successful, even—all the time, because that is what I thought people expected of me.
When the winter came around, I had a few great months in the musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, but my happiness high did not seem to last much longer than show week. Leading up to this point, I was trying my hardest to make time for other people as well. I really wanted to be a prefect junior year, so there were many nights I would suppress any of my personal needs to help with check-in in Masters Dorm or sit with Mrs. Honsel or Mrs. Loughran on duty. I thought I had done everything needed to become a prefect, but when I applied at the beginning of spring term, my application was rejected. I was told this outcome was to “save me from myself” due to my “already too busy schedule,” but this did not help ease the disappointment.
I honestly did not feel like I had anything to put my effort into anymore. With the musical over, I slid under the radar spring term, attempting to focus on schoolwork and making myself increasingly happy. The problem was that I still felt like I was losing myself. The determination, the excitement, and the passion I once felt had somehow, slipped away. In all honesty, at a few points my during sophomore year, I was ready to pack my bags and head back to my little town in Delaware.
It was just then, when the thought of losing Peddie crossed my mind, that I knew it was time to change. As the poet Sarah Kay wrote, “Getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.”
When I returned for junior year, I knew I had a choice: I could either let myself dwell on the past year, and constantly wallow in the fact that I was lost, and confused, and unsure of myself, or I could grab myself by my New Balance shoelaces, and stop making excuses. I chose the latter.
My newfound resolve to become more determined proved to be extremely beneficial. I was taking every day and every challenge in stride and really felt like I was improving. It was not always simple or easy—in fact, there were plenty of times I felt let down. But instead of resorting to my old ways of disappointment, I used these “failures” or “rejections” to better myself. I forced myself to get up and just do it. Like Emmet sings in my favorite musical, Legally Blonde, “with the chance you’ve been given, you gotta be driven as hell,” and so I was.
Junior year taught me the importance of resilience. It taught me that if I fall down seven times, I had better get up eight. It taught me that I did not need a title like prefect to validate who I was, because in the end, I am only as good as I think I am, and what other people think or say is not how I should value myself.
The thing is, unless you are one of my close friends, or if you live in my dorm, or potentially if you have been in a class with me, you probably would not know any of this.
You probably would not know that my insecurities and fear of failure can be debilitating or that for three years I have tried to hide all of this. The way I can best describe this feeling is, obviously, by quoting a Broadway musical - this time, Dear Evan Hansen:
“'Cause I've learned to slam on the brake
Before I even turn the key
Before I make the mistake
Before I lead with the worst of me
I never let them see the worst of me
Cause what if everyone saw?
What if everyone knew?
Would they like what they saw?
Or would they hate it too?
Will I just keep on running away from what's true?
All I ever do is run.
Some of you may remember Mr. Clements - PJC - who was an English teacher here for over 25 years and just retired last year. He is one of those people that everyone wishes they knew just a little bit better. Mr. Clements wrote a thesis on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which he argues, “Nothing is ever as it seems. In fact, it is almost always the opposite.”
In this context, this means that though to some people I may look like I always have it all pulled together, in reality, there’s plenty of times that I don’t - and that is more than okay.
Even throughout my junior year when I felt a lot more content, and successful, I still knew I was running from something. It was this past fall when I finally realized what it was.
I realized this in an 8:00 a.m. Musical Theater class this September. It was performance day, and I was not ready. I was tired from work, stressed about college, questioning myself yet again. I prayed not to be called on, but Mr. Jaski chose me. I walked out into the center of the room and, voice shaking, I muttered, “I’ll be singing ‘I Have Confidence’ from The Sound of Music by Richard Rogers.”
As the music began to play, the irony hit me dead on, and tears rolled down my face. I was not confident. At that moment, I felt something inside me finally crack. I was supposed to be professing so much confidence in this song, but in reality, I had none. Despite the success junior year brought me, I still felt lost.
I did not just quit singing and walk away that Saturday morning, but I still felt like a complete failure. That feeling of cracking showed me how much weight I was carrying on my shoulders. I felt like I could not mess up, I could not cry, or I could not fail because I thought I needed to be a perfect role model, a perfect president, a perfect person. However, I learned something extremely valuable that day. I learned that I do not have to be perfect. Why? Because there is so much strength in vulnerability and accepting uncertainty.
That’s the thing about high school; we are not supposed to have it all figured out yet. And this is not always easy to accept. There are plenty of times you will feel lost, unsure of yourself, and scared—at least I have. And plenty of times where you will be resentful, angry, and sad, too— and I have felt all of that. But high school, and life, are not supposed to be easy, either. Life is designed around failure, because inside your failures you find who you truly are. Every “failure,” every imperfection, is what makes you who you are. Kavya Borra does crack on high notes sometimes, Binglun Shao does mess up on her violin solos, Mac Naggar does miss soccer goals, Nicholas Gordon has (once) skipped a class, Michael Blank does occasionally gain seconds at a meet, and even Ellie Timko sometimes misses church. But all of these things make them better artists, athletes, students, and people along the way. They make them stronger, more determined, more who they are.
And, herein lies a third truth, one that took me my first three years and one month of Peddie to figure out: who I am is enough. Who they are is enough.
Who you are is enough.
To anyone who is thinking maybe parts of this relate to you, I hope you trust yourself enough to know that you are the exact person you are
supposed to be. And if you do not think you know who that person is? Give yourself some time, and you will find them eventually, and, along the way, the truths that define you.
So here is me. Now a seventeen-year-old girl still terrified to fail. I am often too cautious, too self-aware, and usually too stressed. I still wear makeup (though I am okay without it), I plan to a fault, and I am the first to criticize my mistakes. Like Jenna sings in the show Waitress, “I am imperfect, but I try; I am good, but I lie; I am hard on myself; I am broken
and won't ask for help; I am messy, but I’m kind.”
And I now know, I am all, 100%, mine, and that is enough.