I remember when I was twelve. You were only four then, all eyes, cheeks, and energy. Life was Pre-K, ballet, playdates, and National American Miss pageants. And to think that yesterday, while we were at dinner, I caught glimpses of the glorious teenager just around the corner. Before we know it, you will be in high school—where hormones, heartbreaks, and house parties become a part of growing up. I write to you in your twelfth year. And I hope that as you blossom into a lovely young lady these words may be of value to you.
I have been at the center of quite a bit of controversy in the last year, most having to do with bringing offensive speakers to campus and expressing unpopular opinions about free speech and racism. When I received my first article of hate mail, last October, I thought about you. Most black people wouldn’t want to hear a racist speak publicly (or privately) and at twelve, I certainly didn’t see myself ever wanting to listen to a racist spew racist speech. But I thought about you when I read the letter slid under my door the night before. I thought to myself, what if when Maya is 20 she does something very controversial and for similar reasons—how would she deal with character attacks? I thought about how you might handle the experience of receiving hate mail and being subject to ad hominem attacks on social media and knowing you, I know that you’d be deeply hurt. I thought about how you would feel if you knew that you were being judged by people who had never spoken to you.
You probably know this already, but I will say it anyway: being judged unfairly is a part of life and in life you will make difficult decisions of all kinds and people won’t always agree with or like you for what you decide to do. But no matter what you do or where you are, know that you are loved and respected by those who know you best.
Being who you are, you will naturally try to bring out the best in others and you will try to give people the benefit of the doubt and you always should; however, don’t expect people to care about your feelings. Don’t expect people to do what is in your best interest. And don’t expect people to understand your intentions. To expect those things of anyone who does not love and respect you is to set yourself up to be let down. It sounds harsh, but its true. It is far better to be pleasantly surprised by or happy with an outcome than it is to be let down by one. Of course it is only natural to expect these things of people and I’ve done so myself (even more so when I was younger). So this really is just something to keep in mind.
More important I think is finding things—constructive tasks, goals, projects, opportunities, etc.—that motivate you and doing something every day—it can be anything—that gives you joy (if only for an hour). The two—what motivates you and what gives you joy—don’t necessarily go hand in hand, but if, by chance, they happen to, then that’s something to cherish. The reason I encourage you to find and pursue things that motivate you is because motivation usually brings out the best in people in terms of their virtues, abilities and talents. The reason I encourage you to find joy every day is because life is too short to only be preoccupied with things that you don’t enjoy and find meaningful.
Since I’ve been at Williams, I’ve found joy and motivation and, at times, I’ve had trouble sustaining both. Some people say that college is supposed to be the best four years of your life. And for some people, that is the case; for others, college may be a mix of any number of things, among them, a learning experience. What I have tried to do in the last two years is shape Williams in my image at my best and allow myself to be shaped in its image at its very best. What I want for you, not just in high school or college, but in life is only the very best of the best. And if there were any way for me to protect you from the inevitable doubts, disappointments, and downsides that come with adolescence, I would do so in a heartbeat. But the reality is that there will be highs and lows, there will be good friends and bad ones, and the same goes for experiences. It sounds cliche but if and when the going gets tough, I want you to know that the true measure of your humanity rests not on what you do, nor on what people think of you, but on who you are and who you want to be as a person.
You should always have a strong belief in yourself and you should always have respect for yourself. What matters is not the mistakes you make or even the accomplishments you earn; what matters is the integrity, intensity, and courage you bring to the effort. Come what may, know that I will always be close to support you in all that you endeavor to do.