An Oasis of Dignity
Submitted by Donna Hicks, Ph.D.
It was pouring down rain on Friday June 7 — graduation day for the class of 2013 at Landmark High School in Beverly, MA. This was no ordinary graduation, and the rain did not put a damper on the joy that infused everyone in attendance.
It was victory day for 82 students who struggled with learning challenges early in their lives. As many of them reported, they were headed down a slippery slope in public school, where they felt overwhelmed and depressed. They did not respond to traditional teaching methods that were geared toward the average learner. Given their unique ways of processing information, they needed instruction that was designed for their particular learning style. Their parents found Landmark school—a life-saving educational institution that has graduated thousands of such students for more than 40 years. I call it an oasis of dignity.
I was asked to deliver the commencement speech. It seemed clear that these young people would understand what it meant to have their dignity violated. So many of them suffered from feeling marginalized and shamed simply because they had a different way of learning. Landmark School, with its remarkable faculty and administration, turned that around for them. They were transformed into accomplished graduates, all of them attending college in the fall.
My message to them was simple. I told them that they needed to remember three lessons. These would apply to the next phases of their education, and to all people from all walks of life.
1. You have inborn value and worth. The minute you doubt it, you're heading for trouble. People out there might want to make you feel unworthy; the world can be a cruel place. We humans can do very hurtful things to one another.
Many of us make the mistake in feeling that if someone mistreats us, that there is something wrong with us. It's certainly embarrassing and hurtful when our dignity is harmed but it doesn't mean there is anything personally wrong. It means that something wrong happened to us. Whenever you start to doubt your worthiness, say to yourself, "I'm invaluable, priceless, and irreplaceable.” That will get you back on track.
2. No one can take your dignity away from you. It is always in your hands. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and stated, “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.” It can be wounded and trampled on, and it needs to be cared for, but you are the only one in charge of your dignity.
When your self-worth is intact, you can get through just about anything. It's the key to resilience. We may need time to heal from the wounds, but it is always there. You may betray your dignity (by losing sight of it) it but it will never betray you.
3. By honoring dignity in yourself and others, you become an outstanding citizen of the world. Success certainly requires technical training and education. However, what is going to set you apart from all the other people competing for jobs and opportunities is your character.
Knowing how to treat people well, how to recognize their dignity, and how to live your life in an honoring way, will not only bring you success, but it will make you the kind of human being that people want to be around. It will make you a leader. Give back some of the dignity that Landmark created for you. Go out in the world and treat others the way you were treated here. Not only do we make others feel good when we recognize their worth, but we look good, too. When we honor others’ dignity, we strengthen our own.
Donna Hicks is the author of Dignity and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Dr. Hicks delivered Landmark's 2013 commencement address.