Dr. Jeff Devens, a high school psychologist at Singapore American School, takes a breather before speaking to the Class of 2021 on a slow morning. His tentative half-smile confirms his nervousness as he takes a quick scan at the faces waiting in anticipation for his first words.
“Thanks, guys, for taking time out of your morning to come and spend some time with me,” Dr. Devens begins. Students mutter about what the presentation could possibly be about, jumping to conclusions while recognizing the word ‘STORY’ plastered across the large screen behind him.
Dr. Devens then touches on a subject we all know well: Advisory. He explains how advisory, the 30-minute sessions that make it tough to develop lasting bonds, must be addressed. He wonders how we can improve advisory to “cultivate relationships” and hopes that sophomores recognize the privilege of having one advisory teacher throughout their entire high school experience. Dr. Devens changes his tone when speaking about how these relationships have the potential to develop into something truly special and express how it can be difficult to find successful ways for students and teachers to “discuss life.”
Dr. Devens moves across the stage, simultaneously flicking through the projection to flash a quote by Barry Lopez. It reads, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together—stories and compassion.” Dr. Devens quickly points out that he does not want to “preach” to the room; he is conscious of the fact that he will potentially run the risk of sounding like a parent or teacher, especially because of the conditions in which he will be telling ‘his story.’
Dr. Devens then launches headfirst into his story, making a special effort to mention Erik Erikson, a German-American psychologist who introduced the idea of “identity crisis.” As a small child, Erikson never felt as though he belonged in the society he grew up in, both his outward appearance and inner morals never lined up with those he shared his environment with. Dr. Devens summarizes the psychologist’s career, demonstrating how he feels that his own story resonates with Erikson’s. There is a sudden feeling of unity shared amongst the sophomores in the audience, many of them feeling understood and instantly connected to the message of the presentation.
Dr. Devens offers his experience to the audience, telling first of his turbulent childhood that featured constant migrations from school to school, the difficulties of living on welfare, and the questions that often came with the absence of his father. Dr. Devens was the only one of his four other siblings to have graduated from high school. Unfortunately, his siblings dropped out of school in order to work or simply because of the unforgiving environment they were all in.
Dr. Devens walks across the stage again, then reflecting on a man who changed his life as he now knows it. “Tenth grade, for me, was that pivotal year,” He looks down on the audience, pauses, completes his sentence by saying “...And Steve Taylor was that pivotal person.”
Steve Taylor was the person to offer then a teenager, Dr. Devens, a place to stay. He was the person who dramatically changed the trajectory of his life, giving him opportunities that hadn’t previously been offered to him. However, Taylor had some requirements before he could allow Dr. Devens to become a part of his life. The advice that followed his acceptance of Dr. Devens was likely some of the most painful conditions that Dr. Devens had to deal with. Taylor wanted something more from Dr. Devens than just his gratitude for a warm place to stay at night.
As the volume of his voice rises, Dr. Devens begins to explain how, at that time, he had begun to feel as though the world owed him something. He felt that because of his situation and difficult circumstances, he had a reason as to why he would not work as hard, or why he was acting the way he did sometimes. Steve Taylor instructed him to reject that mindset, essentially stating that the only way that Dr. Devens would turn his life around is if he stopped “expecting” something from the world, and began to simply do. He paces the stage, repeatedly ingraining the truth of the matter to the students, “Life is not fair; it never will be.”
Dr. Devens takes a moment to scan the audience as he did in the beginning, watching the sea of faces focused on him. The sophomore class connected with him. Yes, their experiences may not involve money troubles or homelessness, but connections like these can transcend these seemingly insurmountable obstacles between people. As Dr. Devens enforced, at the end of the day, we are all just people. We are all simply trying to find our way in the world around us, stumbling over the hurdles that come with finding out who you are and what you stand for.
Dr. Devens told his story. Now it’s time for us to tell ours.
- high school
- power of a story