Commencement at my high school a long time ago
The best graduation I ever attended was my own at the end of high school. Instead of renting some famous hockey player (my elementary school) or activist poet (my college) for the occasion, the head of the board of trustees gave us a simple and inspiring speech that I’ll never forget. Like every good teacher, his words inspired because he knew us and gave us something to do.
Let me step back for a second and add that it is very important to remember that high school graduations are quiet moments during which most soon-to-be ex-students are thinking about whooping it up, throwing objects in the air and having the first beer we can’t be thrown of school for. Reflection comes hard to a seventeen year old, and I was no different.
The words were quite bracing. The Head-of-the-Board fellow told us that we were lucky to have received the education we were now completing, and that it was an honor that also conferred a responsibility.
What? I thought to myself. Responsibility to whom? I wanted to be free of all responsibility.
Our job, he said, was to take this education that we had been given and put it to use, giving back to society. It was not intended only for our own gratification or betterment, but was a tool that we were now charged with using for the good of others.
These were strong marching orders, and I had never looked on what I had been doing during my high school years this way. But it made sense, and it gave such a sense of completeness and purpose to the ups and downs of my adolescent high school years that I was deeply moved — and immediately on board.
The memory of this moment stuck with me and came in handy years later when I suddenly found myself rudderless after college. I’d worked hard, found my talent and my path in the arts, but was left without a sense of direction when my first job left me disillusioned and cold. Applying glitter to plastic fruit on a sweltering day in July had a purpose, but did not constitute the higher mission that I now realized had been planted into me and which I longed for.
It took two years of work (carpentry, barista, etc) and travel (by bike and foot in Europe and Northern Africa) before I went back to school to become a teacher. After getting my MA in English Literature, I ended up teaching elementary school for seven amazing years.
While this may seem like a strange left turn, it was a direct path to get back on mission, and while I was deeply scratching the itch that wanted a mission, the germ of an idea that was to become Apartment Therapy was born.
By falling serendipitously into teaching in a Waldorf school for five of those years, I deeply learned the impact that an environment has on a person (particularly children). I saw, first hand, that the children who did best in the classroom came from the best homes, but this had nothing to do with any rich/poor divide, and all of the ingredients of the good homes that I witnessed were accessible to all.
While teaching, I came to see that the design of our homes and the things we put in them were far more important than I'd thought, and that they affected how we did in the rest of our lives.
After one lifecycle working with children, I left teaching in 2001 with the idea for a company that would help people improve their homes at affordable rates. It was nearly fourteen years since I sat at my high school graduation and the beginning of finally putting together my passion for design with the marching orders I had received all those years ago.
It felt great.
That August, I took on my first client, but then a few weeks later the Twin Towers collapsed. Sara and I stood on Broadway watching them with a crowd of people — no one knew fully what was going on. It was a day I'll never forget and over the next few weeks, it seemed the single worst time in history to try and start a new business in lower Manhattan that had only the bare outlines of a plan.
It worked out.
I have learned since then that when you marry your passion and your skill to a mission that has a greater good in mind, the world supports you.
You still have to work your butt off, but it supports you.