Good morning. This year we are talking about the importance of how we do things. How Matters.

Today, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the how. Our mission statement – the three sentences that guide our school – lists four values: kindness, integrity, respect, and self-reliance. I want to focus on that last one, self-reliance.

Self-reliance is exactly what it sounds like, relying on yourself, counting on yourself to do what needs to be done. I had a very memorable lesson in self-reliance the summer after I was in 8th grade. That summer, I went on a 14 day canoe trip through the Northwoods of Maine. For 14 days, we canoed lakes and the Allagash river and then camped on the shores at night.

Mud Pond Wavus.jpg

Early in the trip, we had to carry all of our supplies – our clothes, tents, food, and canoes nearly two miles from Umbazooksus Lake to Mud Pond and Chamberlain Lake. That task, called a portage, is hard regardless of the trail. The canoes we had weighed over 80 pounds and were nearly 15 feet long. That portage was particularly hard because of the word Mud in Mud Pond. We are not talking a little puddle here and there. No, this was nearly two miles of ankle to knee - even thigh - deep mud. To make matters worse, when you get the canoe up on your shoulders and start walking in the mud, mosquitos attack, and you don’t have a free hand to bat them away.

I gave the portage a try. I picked up the canoe – no small feat for me. About a half mile down the trail, soaked in sweat and the first mosquito bites starting to itch, I gave up. I dumped the canoe off my shoulders into the bushes, sat on the trail, and started to cry. A few campers passed me carrying similarly heavy loads and unable to stop and help. (Once you get going with a canoe on your shoulders, it is best to just keep going.)

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw one of my counselors coming. Surely he would comfort me and say that I should go back and carry a lighter load. He didn’t. He too was sweating, itching, and working hard. He knew that we had ten more days of canoeing and a resupply with new food awaiting us at the other end of the trail. We had to carry the canoes across the trail. I sat there a few more minutes and cried harder. No one came to help. I realized that I had to rely on myself.

This realization, coupled with the fact that the mosquitos are worse when you are not moving, inspired me to pick the canoe back up and start walking again. It was not all sunshine and rainbows after that. It was hard. It was miserable. And I did it. I relied on myself – self-reliance.


What did self-reliance get me? In this case it got me to new, fresh food, and ten more amazing days of adventure. Self-reliance made so much more possible. When I knew I could endure and rely on myself, I was able to do so much more. So what is self-reliance? It is not so much picking up the canoe the first time. Self-reliance is picking the canoe back up when you don’t think you can carry it any more. There are no canoes to carry here at MTS, and we don’t let you on the field when it is muddy, but there are lots of ways to practice self-reliance.

This summer Rachael told me about the Fabulous Five. This is the idea that for five minutes at the start of Writer’s Workshop, you try the assignment on your own, not asking the teacher any questions. You rely on the instructions, models at the front of the room, and charts on the walls to answer those first questions. You rely on yourself.

Another place you can practice self-reliance is with assignments like math homework. When you start in on the first problem you might think, “I have no idea how to do this!” Rather than giving up and calling for help from your mom or dad – or the internet – stick with it. Look back to your notes from class. My bet is that there is a problem that looks pretty darn similar. Still stuck? Don’t drop the canoe – skip to the next problem, and try it. Maybe you will be able to solve that one. Learn to rely on yourself.

Now, I want to make one important thing clear about self-reliance. People who are self-reliant still know how to ask for help. When my counselor passed me on the trail, I didn’t ask for help, and he didn’t stop to give me help because he knew that I could do it. Deep down inside, I knew I could do it too.

A self-reliant ask for help sounds different than the “I don’t get it!” or “I can’t do it!” Instead it sounds like, “I have tried a number of things, and I am stumped. Can you help me?” or “I have tried doing it for a while and can’t figure out how to do it. Can you help me?”

In the weeks ahead, I encourage you to practice self-reliance. Pick the canoe back up. If you have given something a try and need assistance, ask for help. Just as relying on myself opened up ten more days of adventure for me, self-reliance will allow you to learn and experience so much more here at Mount Tamalpais School and in life.