Students: Find Your Passion

05/04/2015 11:08 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

I have been lucky enough to teach for 15 years. I have taught juniors for the last five years, and I must say that it is my favorite year to teach. I believe that it is in your junior year, that you grow and change the most. It is throughout this year that I humbly watch as you speak out and up to be heard above the fray, as you settle into your work habits, which will follow you through college and graduate school and into your careers. It is during this year, that in seeking to be that "all around student," you often find your passion, and with it, what Ralph Waldo Emerson would call, your "genius."

Emerson believed that every child had genius within him/her and that it was the teacher's job to help the child to find it and hone it. To lead her in the right direction, and then to watch her soar. More than anything, I hope that you have found a passion. If you have not found it, I hope that you at least remember to look for it. Because throughout your lives, it is this passion that will matter the most. And it is so easy to push it aside, and to get caught up in the daily stress of life.

I am lucky. I knew when I was in elementary school that I would do one of two things with my life. I would be a teacher or an actress. When I was home, I would surround my little brother with stuffed animals, and I would give him math quizzes and spelling quizzes. I would read books to him and talk to him about the pictures. In fifth grade I got the chance to tutor special needs kids, and I was hooked. I loved everything about it. But I still acted in plays. I still loved the stage and the lights and the audience. I wasn't ready to give that up.

Like many of you, I have parents who had, and still have, very high expectations. So in high school, I took the advanced placement classes. I got a tutor to do better on the S.A.Ts (my math scores were very much the math scores of an English major... terrible). I played two sports for a while. I played the trumpet in the band for a while. I did everything I could to prove to that college admissions counselor that he wanted me on his campus. He needed me on his campus. I worried when my A.P. U.S. exam score wasn't the one I hoped for. I got nervous when I earned Cs on math or science tests. I felt the same pressure you do to go to the best college. It was competitive then. It is much more so now.

I see this every year. I see my juniors slump into my room in March, sleep-deprived and nervous. I see the weight of the year upon them as they work to build the "perfect" future for themselves. And every year, before A.P. exams, I have this talk with my juniors. We talk about perspective. We talk about how hard they are working, and how many hours of homework they are struggling through each night. We talk about the choir practices and the hockey games, and the swim meets and the debates and clubs. And I try to remind them to breathe. They tell me that they NEED to do all of this. It is what is expected. It is necessary. And I tell them, they will be fine. I tell them that what matters is knowing who they are and what they want. I tell them that any place can be the best place if they make it so.

I know these things. Because I played the game. My senior year, I got accepted to Tulane University. I went down, into the humidity of New Orleans, and I worked. I learned how to balance being without my parents and studying anyhow. I learned about myself for the first time, about the me that I wanted to be far away from everyone I knew before. And it was a different me than the one who tried to hide in the hallways of my high school. I realized I was a leader. I had never been a leader. I realized I had a voice. In high school, I only had a voice when I was on the stage. I realized that I could be happy with one or two really good friends. In high school it was numbers that mattered. But the friends I made in college knew me in a way that few of my high school friends did. These were friends I could trust. These friends would be my shield when I needed it, and would take care of me when I couldn't take care of myself. I could be weak around these friends, and that made our friendship stronger. At the end of my freshman year, most of these friends left. They transferred to other schools, and left me by myself. They did what they had to do, but this experience made me realize that who I was and what I did was not determined by where I was. The next year, I made new friends. I knew what I was looking for and I found it.

If I had known all of this earlier, I may have realized that it didn't matter so much that I went to the best college. What mattered was that, wherever I went, I took the time to make it mine. I found out who I was, what I wanted, what I could be passionate about, and I soared. Somewhere in there, I decided that I hated waiting tables, and therefore could never be an actress, and I put that passion on the back burner. I majored in English and minored in theater, and went on to become the loud, passionate, genuinely happy teacher you see before you.

My hope for you is that you realize that all of the pressure of this year, all of the stressors and worries, have set you up to succeed wherever you land. It is up to you to find the career that will make you genuinely happy. Because when you have a passion, and it's one that is enduring, everything else will fall into place.