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Posted at 12:10 PM ET, 06/30/2010

How a school changed a girl’s life

By Valerie Strauss

Here’s a speech delivered by 18-year-old Lauren McDowell at her graduation this month from private McLean School in Potomac, Md.

I’ve heard a number of commencement speeches this season; this one speaks beautifully to the power of a school to change a student’s life. McDowell is headed to Temple University in Philadelphia this fall.

mclean mug of senior.jpg

By Lauren McDowell

Good morning. On behalf of the senior class, I would like to welcome all family, teachers, faculty, staff, alum and friends to the graduation of the Class of 2010. I’ve had the privilege of representing my class through the position of student body president, and I could not have chosen a better group of people to represent.

This year of all four years of high school, I feel, has been the most anticipated, yet most stressful of all. Some of us have spent our whole lives at McLean. Some were adopted into the community more recently. Either way, each student brings their own uniqueness to the community and makes McLean feel like a second home.

Though I’ve only been here for five years, I would like to share the story of my personal journey through McLean. And in sharing this story, though each graduating senior is different, we can catch a glimpse of what it was like to be a part of the McLean community.

For a long time, I’ve anticipated what it would feel like to actually leave McLean, and even now that I think about it, the feeling is almost surreal.

As some of you may know, I came here in eighth grade against my own will. Before McLean adopted me, I attended a fairly urban arts middle school called Thomas G. Pullen in P.G. County. That was the one place that felt familiar to me. I was forced to leave there due to many unfortunate circumstances, such as receiving terrible grades and an inability to respect my elders. If anyone can believe it, I used to talk all during class and crack jokes just to make people laugh. In leaving Pullen, I was leaving behind the only world I had known.

I’ll never forget the first day I walked though McLean’s wooden and glass doors; to be quite frank, I’d literally never seen that many white people in my life.

But right away, it was noticeable that students weren’t throwing smaller kids against lockers and the students actually went to class when the bell rang. I had an epiphany that there was another way to act in school other than insane. I sat in each class, trying not to focus on the fact that I was the only black kid around, and watched the other students take notes and listen to what the teachers said. Not wanting to be ever more of an outcast, I copied what the students did and I would listen to the teacher speak, like the students did.

Though my grades in the first semester didn’t reflect my attempts to seem studious, I began to adapt to the environment and I became more comfortable in McLean’s low-key, almost serene atmosphere.

It took until the end of the year for me to actually appreciate the fact that teachers would pursue after students until work was turned in. I’d look at my grades from the first quarter and compared them to the fourth quarter, physically seeing that I had made some improvement. The teachers’ passion and love helped me grow and learn in a way that worked for me. Through their persistence, which could be irritating sometimes, they helped me keep from failing, which is most likely what would have happened if I stayed at Thomas Pullen.

Over the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I decided to turn a new leaf and change myself from the inside out. I chose to let go completely of the angry, insecure, hurtful, disrespectful person that I was and tried to be more positive for a change. I cut my hair and changed my attitude; no longer letting the negative environment that I’d previously been in define who I was.

In the upper school, people were more accepting of me, and I was able to feel comfortable with who I was becoming. Unlike the high school that I would have attended, McLean’s upper school was small, intimate and welcoming. I was able to express my artistic side though joining the jazz band, exploring my passion for theater through literature classes, and eventually, taking an art class and blossoming into an artist.

Over the following years I became more confident and more independent. Teachers would chase after me less, and I realized that I needed to take responsibility for all of my actions. So when an assignment was missed, the grade reflected that, but with some trial and error I learned that I could make a difference if I worked hard for it.

In running for class representative in my freshman and junior year, and later class president, I found that I could express my desire to influence others in a positive way.

With the opportunities that I was blessed with at McLean, I discovered that anything that I desire to do is possible, as long as I am prepared to work for it.

As you look at each young man and woman on this stage, you witness the end of only one chapter that begins the story of each one of their lives. For me, this chapter has a happy ending because I have grown to love McLean as a second home. And every opportunity that I’ve seized here has been completely worth it.

To my peers, classmates, friends, I hope that this chapter will only be the first to many more that complete the stories of your lives. And I know for sure that I’ll be reading some great stories about all of you some day.

Thank you.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 30, 2010; 12:10 PM ET
Categories:  High School  | Tags:  best graduation speeches, graduation speeches, mclean school  
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Congratulations to Lauren.

Interesting commentary on peer pressure.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 30, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Here is a thought for your column.

NYC is revamping their prekindergarten tests for their gifted program.

The city is using the Bracken School Readiness Assessment, which judges early childhood knowledge like shapes and colors. It is not a gifted measure, but rather a measure of school readiness, as its name indicates.

The city uses the equivalent of 120 I.Q., or the 90th national percentile as the cut-off scores for gifted programs.

Apparently in our democratic society everyone will agree it is fair and best for education of gifted children to separate children before they enter public school based upon scoring the equivalent of 120 I.Q. on a test.

Why would it be so wrong to use a test on all children entering public schools and separating them into classes based on this test? Is it really fair or best for education in NYC to haphazardly place children into classrooms when tests are available for children? Is it not obvious that it is not helpful to education to place children that score the equivalent of 119 I.Q. in classes with children that score the equivalent of 75 I.Q.?

Like most large cities that are plagued with the problems of Title 1 poverty public schools, NYC has enough resources to separate children based upon test results in class rooms where children will have the best chance of obtaining the most from education.

Is it not time for this country in urban areas to stops looking for quick fixes and simply start placing children in class rooms based upon their capabilities and not haphazard chance.

New York Times
New Gifted Testing in New York May Begin at Age 3

Posted by: bsallamack | June 30, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

What a lovely, articulate message from this young lady.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | June 30, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

So much for the charge that private schools are more succesful because they only select the students that will succeed and don't have to deal with the problem students. This young lady, by her own admission, was a problem student at her former school.

I was especially interested in her remark that "I was able to express my artistic side." Could it be that the public school she left was so overwhelmed with standardized testing that it had to shortchange or even eliminate arts programs, leaving artistically talented students bored and frustrated?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 1, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Wow!!! what a great story. Thomas B. Pullen PG County Schools take a look at her now. I agree stop grouping kids according to test scores!!!

Posted by: michellemkt | July 3, 2010 11:58 PM | Report abuse

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