“In the Clutch of Circumstance” by Director of the Anderson/Cabot Center for EXCEL Ben Snyder
When Nelson Mandela was held in Robben Island Prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa (where 12 Nobles students visited over March break) for 27 years, he carried with him the poem, Invictus by William Ernest Henley. In the second stanza Henley writes,
“In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance,
My head is bloodied but unbowed.”
This spring break 130 Nobles students – from Sixies to seniors with 27 faculty and staff – witnessed how the “clutch of circumstance” impacts those whose lives are far different from our own. From the deep South learning about the civil rights movement to New Orleans where the grip of post-Katrina poverty and racism continue to hold tight to many; in Vietnam, Cambodia, South Africa and Rwanda where the legacies of war, apartheid and genocide still resonate; or in urban China or rural Guatemala where economic opportunity is severely limited — all over the world Nobles students grappled with the complexities and hard realities of lives held back by “the clutch of circumstance.”
During a late evening “circle time” in Rwanda, one of our students said “while I could read about what we have seen, there is nothing that can replace experiencing it – and really learning about the overwhelming challenges people face.” Such a realization can be disconcerting. “What did I do to deserve all that I have? What can I, just a high school kid, do to not just understand but also make a positive impact?”
With our partners all over the city, country and around the world, our students have the opportunity to meet those whose “clutch of circumstance” has not diminished their spirit and determination and whose personal and intellectual capabilities match or exceed our own. They meet leaders, young and old, who commit their lives to helping others and who see the unlimited nature of human potential in places most Americans will never witness. When we immerse ourselves in environments like these, we become more empathic, better critical thinkers, and understand that big changes in the world begin with smart, determined, creative and passionate individuals.
Invictus concludes with:
“It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
The gift of a Nobles education (our circumstance) allows our students to truly be masters of their fates. For so many we encountered along the way, their circumstance will not give them the opportunities we have been afforded.
In the midst of a particularly thoughtful late conversation around a campfire and under a night sky filled with stars in a circle of students in Rwanda, I was reminded of a quotation attributed to Oprah Winfrey (yes, Oprah Winfrey) – “Now that you know, you can’t pretend that you don’t.” The challenge for all of us upon return is to find the places in our lives – when we are masters of our fate and captains of our souls – to remember what we’ve learned and to act upon what we have seen and assimilated to become our best selves.