Best-selling author Leslie Morgan Steiner let the Briar Woods High School Class of 2014 know that all life’s misfortunes are not irreversible during its commencement exercises on June 16, 2014, George Mason University’s Patriot Center.
“A few years ago, a close friend from high school, who had known me since I was 12 years old, offered an observation about my life that got my attention. My friend told me ‘You have had so many bad things happen to you.’ Her tone of voice made it clear she felt kind of sorry for me. And in many ways, my friend was right.”
Steiner said she grew up with an alcoholic mother.
“My mother was a smart, beautiful woman, whom I adored and admired tremendously. She got drunk every night of my childhood. My mother was not a silly drunk. She was a mean drunk.”
When her mother was drunk, Steiner said she was violently abusive toward her children. As a 17-year-old, Steiner became anorexic, losing 40 pounds in two months, and went off to Harvard weighing 90 pounds.
“In my early 20’s, I fell head-over-heels in love with, and married, a fascinating, talented, utterly brilliant man who had been beaten as a child by his stepfather. He proceeded to repeat the abuse with me. He beat me on our honeymoon, on Christmas Day and my birthday.”
Despite these hardships, Steiner said her friend was wrong about Steiner’s life.
“My mother’s alcoholism showed me – up close and personal – how destructive drinking could be. Watching her addiction destroy my family, I vowed when I turned 18 that I would not let alcohol ruin my life. I haven’t had a drink or taken a drug since that day.”
When she reached college, Steiner realized that anorexia would kill her. “I wanted to live. I asked for help from people who understood eating disorders.”
Steiner recovered fully and graduated on schedule. She then wrote an essay on anorexia that launched her writing career. Steiner left her abusive husband and learned to put herself first in life and love.
“My words of wisdom for you on this beautiful, memorable, exciting day in your young life; embrace the personal problems.” Steiner told the graduates not to let their personal troubles shame them. “Be proud of the cards life deals you, because everybody gets some terrible hands. Obstacles and tragedies can actually be wonderful opportunities to discover your own courage.
“For the record, you can make a lot of mistakes in your life and still grow up and leave the hard times behind, especially if you have a little help from friends, adults, teachers, parents, coaches who believe in you when you are not able to believe in yourself. Always ask for help. Always tell others your problems. You are never alone. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t asked for help or if I hadn’t gotten help.”
Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) Superintendent Dr. Edgar B. Hatrick III has attended all eight of Briar Woods’ commencement exercises. He said at the first such event, the faculty and students were able to sit on stage in the school’s auditorium with their parents in front of them. “That gives you some idea about how much you have changed over time.”
Hatrick urged the graduates to create a culture of kindness in their life and the world around them. “In every relationship that you get into, if you will give back more than you get, you will be improved, the relationship will be improved and the community you are a part of will be improved. In every relationship there is give and take; just make sure you are always giving more than you take.
That you are being kind; that you are willing to step out and demonstrably show someone that you care about them.”
Principal Ed Starzenski asked the students to develop the people skills – beyond their academic skills – that will make them successful employees.
“There’s a lot more to being a productive, effective employee other than knowing your stuff. You’ve got to be able to have people skills and you’ve got to be able to work with the people around you. That’s important; even more so than knowing your stuff.
“At some point in time you’re going to be working someplace and you’re going to be a member of a team. That team is going to have a common goal. You’re going to have to rely on one another in order to achieve that goal…
“When employers are looking for prospective employees, they are looking for problem-solvers, not problem-creators.”
Valedictorian Toshali Randev spoke about the graduates’ future.
“When you get through this event tonight, I want you to look forward to that ‘great perhaps’ that keeps me going. I can see for miles and miles and I can see that among us sit the professional athletes, the doctors, the engineers, the teachers, the leaders of the future. We are so immensely privileged to have the education, and the opportunities, we’ve had at Briar Woods and within Loudoun County. But now it’s time to take chances, explore possibilities; build on this strong foundation these teachers have given us.”
The co-salutatorians were Ameera Farooqi and Michael Holohan.
Some facts about the Briar Woods High School Class of 2014:
- There were 479 members of the Class of 2014.
- 390 of the graduates received an Advanced Study diploma.
- 122 students graduated with a 4.0 grade points average (GPA) or better.
- 57 seniors had a GPA of 4.3 or better.
- The Class of 2014 completed 1,800 Advanced Placement (AP) classes during its high school year with more than 80 percent of the graduates taking one or more AP course.
- 96 percent of the Class of 2014 will be going on to college at 97 different institutions of higher learning in 30 states.
- The Briar Woods High School Class of 2014 earned $5.2 million in scholarships.
School Board Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge District), Tom Reed (At-Large), Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run District) and Jeff Morse (Dulles District) attended Briar Woods’ graduation.