‘Working out puzzles’

This is a special class for me. I began my time here at Colorado Academy when some of you were entering Pre-K. Together, we have been fortunate enough to spend fourteen years in this amazing place. I enjoyed the privilege of seeing you in your classes, Mock Trial, Speech and Debate, music recitals, plays, musicals, sporting events, and many, many other extracurricular activities—including Interim, which returned this year!

During this time, you have grown from curious children to courageous adults. For a large part of your journey, you engaged in the typical experience of so many of our CA graduates. You thrived in a program committed to excellence. You were part of an inclusive and caring community. You participated in high-quality academics, arts, and athletics. But, then during your Sophomore year, the pandemic hit hard.

How the Class of 2022 persevered

 I don’t want to dwell too much on the pandemic today, but we need to acknowledge that this global event transformed your lives. It upended everything in your life. It limited your ability to see family and friends. Some of you faced the deaths and serious illness of close family members and friends. You endured detached Zoom classes, periods of quarantine and isolation, and limited interaction with friends and valued activities. We had a sense of hope that things would get better with vaccines, only to then find ourselves facing new variants of COVID, and the new challenges that came with them.

This class persevered in exceptional ways. When you welcomed the Ninth Graders this year, I sensed that this class was going to set an incredible tone for the year. You have been positive leaders in every aspect of the school. We knew that this year would be an important year for us to press the “reset” on our cultural norms. Many institutions have been permanently damaged by the restrictions that went along with the virus. Your leadership and tone has been so critical for saving the core aspects of our student culture: courage and kindness. You helped set that tone in the classrooms, in CLT, in Senior Speeches, in athletics, and in the arts. We just returned from Interim—a signature CA experience that only your class in the Upper School has experienced before.

As I wrote this, I was looking outside my window as this class was walking between Senior Launch Week events. One thing struck me as I watched you—no one was walking alone. Every member of your class was with two or three other people talking and, in many cases, laughing. You have been a class that has looked out for one another (except when playing Knockout—we had no idea you all could run that fast! One day, I was talking to a group of Seniors about the progress of the game, and Andrew Edelmann came running through us in perfect form to the parking lot, about as fast as Usain Bolt!) And I hope that you can stick together in some fashion for the rest of your lives.

Seniors collaborate on jigsaw puzzles in the Senior Lounge

The love of puzzles

One thing that I have loved about this class—that has been unique—is a shared love of collaborating on jigsaw puzzles in the Senior Lounge. Although a small thing, it says something about you. Perhaps it reveals your collective curiosity. Or, perhaps it’s that you love a challenge. Or, that you have found the benefits of working collectively to solve a problem. There’s an amazing photo Maude showed me of 30 of you celebrating solving a puzzle in the lounge.

But, there may be some deeper reasons. A puzzle—whether a jigsaw puzzle or Wordle—or even a video game—involves working out a complex challenge. In some ways it is counter-intuitive that during a day of working through calculus or an advanced level world language class, that you would spend your time pushing your brain even more. But you do!

There are evolutionary forces at play. When humans solve something that, only moments before, may have felt like an impossible task, we find happiness and joy. We have all felt it. Whether it is an “aha” or a “eureka” moment, we all know that feeling. It’s different from when we follow some methodical analytical process—it’s that moment of revelation that seems to come from nowhere into our brains.

According to researchers, “having an insight involves the brain’s reward system.” In a Drexel University research project, subjects had their brains monitored while they solved anagrams. After solving an anagram, activity could be detected in the right middle front gyrus, near the forehead, that revealed the subject had a moment of insight. Immediately, additional activity would appear in the orbitofrontal cortex—located above the eye—which is the area that processes rewards. For ages, humans have been motivated to solve problems and, in the process, improve their living conditions.

On an evolutionary basis, this is critical. As one researcher notes, that [insights stimulate] “curiosity and exploration of new ideas that induce the advancement of all aspects of human society, including science and technology, and culture. It has an evolutionary advantage.” We find reward, and that only makes us want to solve more challenges.

Another researcher notes that “puzzles give psychological order to the chaos we feel.” In the midst of a global pandemic and upheaval, it’s not surprising that you probably wanted to bring some order to your upended lives. There can be a calming effect when we sit down and try to solve a challenge.

If you picture your current life as a jigsaw puzzle, you are only about 20 percent of the way there. You are literally putting the pieces of your life together to form the big picture. You have made it through the first part of your education. Now, you will go on to college life and study. You are about to have a lot of freedom, and with that comes a lot of fun. You will make new friends and discover new talents and passions.

Then will come further study in graduate school for some. For most, you will get a job and begin to make a difference in society. I wish for all that you make relationships—both with your current friends and with new people you will encounter on your journey.

Tackle the puzzle and become a great leader

As to your relationships with today’s class of 2022, very few of you are your “best selves” at this moment in time. I don’t mean to be condescending—only honest. Give your peers some grace over time, and recognize that each of you will grow and mature and those adolescent memories of issues will fade over time. Don’t lock your peers into a box of the person they were when they were 17 and 18. Assume positive intent going forward, and know that all of you will mature and evolve. As you assemble these puzzle pieces of your life, I am hopeful that you will continue to live up to Colorado Academy’s mission: creating curious, kind, courageous, and adventurous learners and leaders. How is that not something to strive for?

In your lifetime, and particularly during the pandemic, you have seen some bad examples of leadership. And, you will experience more—both in college and in the working world. The complexity of the modern world is almost too much for most humans to take on and solve. But, every now and then, you will see great examples of leadership. Every so often, you will meet people who put the pieces of their lives together in ways that ready them for the challenges before them. Keep your radar scanning. They are not always your boss—sometimes they are just so-called ‘regular people’—and when you hear Maude’s address, you will realize you have already met a few of them.

But, one high-level example of leadership is the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He was once a stand-up comic with a pretty low-level sense of humor and is now facing down a nuclear-armed Russia. He has rallied his citizens, and the world, around the cause of freedom. It’s a remarkable story of a person who has met the moment. We don’t know how this will all end. But, besides living through a historic pandemic, you are living in an age of a leader who rivals Winston Churchill, who rallied the world to defeat hate and oppression.

You are entering a world rife with issues and problems. Racism, partisan division, mass shootings, and climate change are just a few of the many concerns that you will confront in your lifetime. Nevertheless, I have immense faith in you and your promise. And, I know you will ask the hard questions and try to understand all perspectives. Social media allows people to make claims and judgments without investigation. Go deeper. Ask questions. Interrogate and analyze.

As many of you worked out puzzles in that Senior Lounge, you looked at every piece from every angle to try to put it all together. If you think about the major societal issues you will confront, I hope you do the same. Take that piece, turn it upside down and sideways. Question it. And figure out how it fits.

I am so proud of you, and I am so proud to have been part of your educational journey. You are a remarkable group of students who have steadied our ship and brought joy back to our community.