Left to right: Esther Mogyoros, King David High School director of development; Shannon Gorski, PAC co-chair; speaker Josh Shipp; and Teaching for Tomorrow co-chairs Gaby Lutrin and Elaine Grobman. (photo from KDHS)
“What’s the difference between a watermelon and a cloud?” Josh Shipp asked the crowd. “Three percent. A watermelon is 94% water and a cloud is 97% water. All that separates them is three percent, but that little difference makes all the difference in the world. That little difference can be all that separates you from being average and being extraordinary.”
Shipp, a “teen expert” and motivational speaker, who graduated from Stanford and has lectured at Harvard and MIT, was speaking at Teaching for Tomorrow, an annual celebration of King David High School (KDHS), on May 17.
KDHS, which has 220 students and expects continued growth, is British Columbia’s only Jewish high school and one of six outside of Toronto. It is also one of the most successful Jewish high schools in Canada from the perspective of having growing enrolment each year.
The auditorium at the Chan Centre was packed, flanked on both sides by galleries full of KDHS students. After an introduction by emcee Liam Sasky, a Grade 12 student, the audience heard a concise, warm and humorous speech from school head Russ Klein. A musical interlude followed, with a duet about friends struggling with the romance that’s broken out between them. Following that came a video about KDHS and its values, focusing on the experience of current students and alumni – the students interviewed emphasized the sense of community at KDHS, and the feeling that they were known and valued personally at the school.
After that came the main event. Shipp was notable for his ability to get raucous laughter from the teens, who he seemed to hold in the palm of his hand throughout his talk. He peppered his speech with memorable images and questions, tech and pop culture references, and self-deprecating humor. Shipp, who was abandoned as a child and grew up a troubled delinquent in a series of foster homes, spoke candidly of his own horrific experiences of abuse and trauma. At the centre of his speech was the role that one caring adult can play; in his life, this was his foster father Rodney, who refused to reject Shipp, saving his life and turning it around. “All of you can be a Rodney to someone,” said Shipp. “Every child, every teenager, every human being is one caring adult away from success.”
Shipp challenged students to reach out to a “Rodney” in their own lives within 24 hours and say “thank you,” something Shipp said took him nine years to do after the day his Rodney turned his life around. Shipp also had a warning for students: face your ghosts.
“You guys are pretty serious here,” Shipp said. “I know it. I watched the propaganda video. You need to be unafraid to seek help for the things that are holding you back. This can be a problem in high-achieving communities like this. Don’t be afraid to seem weak, because talking about these things is not weak – it’s courageous.”
Matthew Gindin is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.