Your worth is not just what you produce
Your worth is not just what you produce. Last year I delivered this message to the graduating class at my high school alma mater. Today, halfway through my year of Grieve Leave, I’m still reminding myself of this mantra. So it’s on my trusty whiteboard this week.
Walking away from my 9 – 5 job that meant the world to me is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, but I know the work I am doing on myself will last a lifetime. No, I’m not “producing” in the ways I used to. But I am learning to recognize my own worthiness—the worth I have just for me being me.
I’ve shared the full text of my May 2021 speech below. I hope it’s helpful for someone else today, whether this is graduation season for you or you just needed a nudge in a worthy direction.
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Durham Academy Graduation
Rebecca Feinglos's Remarks
May 28, 2021
Hey there class of 2021! Congratulations to you - You who are graduating. You who parented. You who taught. You who advised. You who administrated. You who coached. Congratulations to all of you on this big accomplishment!
It is such an honor to be here today, back at Durham Academy, though it looks a lot different today than in 2007.
DA means a lot to me. Durham Academy helped me grow into a leader, a thinker, and taught me how to live a moral, happy, and productive life- Mr. Ulku-Steiner’s favorite slogan. One I’m sure he says to himself every morning in the mirror when he wakes up.
Here, I was productive both academically and in extracurriculars. I made straight As at DA. I hung out with everyone: I could roll with the wall kids or the kids who played lacrosse. (Are Wall Kids still a thing? Shout out to the Wall Kids!)
I learned to be a phenomenal writer and to stand up for my ideas in Mr. Phu’s seminar-style discussions - I was in his very first advisory in his very first year teaching here.
I loved Spanish with Mrs. Simon and built a passion for the language that has had a huge impact on my career.
I took chemistry with Mrs. Whiting. And I remember our reward for our class acing one particular test was that someone got to pull the emergency chemical burn shower and get soaking wet. It was awesome.
At DA, I ran and won my first elected offices- first as sophomore class president, then as student body president.
Also, I decided to try out for softball my senior year just so I could say I played a varsity sport. MAN. That was humbling – I somehow made the team, but an 8th grader started and I sat on the bench. The whole season. But hey, count it! I played a sport.
It was while going to school here at DA that I defined what it meant to be Becki Feinglos, what it meant to be me. Becki was an achiever. Becki always looked like she was put together. Becki was beautiful. Becki was kind to everyone. Becki was a performer. Becki was persistent. You could count on Becki to get the job done. Becki would always give 100%. “Sleep is for the weak!” became a mantra for me.
I also began to exhibit my first symptoms of anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder while I was in high school at Durham Academy - which I told no one about and didn’t recognize. It was typical for me to work incredibly hard until I got myself sick and needed to take a day off. But I wouldn’t really rest on that day off. I’d catch up on school work. And then I’d start the cycle over again. I was pulling my hair out – literally. My anxiety was as persistent as my heart beat. These symptoms never went away. I was producing at the expense of myself, at the expense of my wellbeing. And I didn’t even realize it, didn’t even recognize it was a problem.
And I got accolade, after accolade, and I got into Duke early decision.
So, I kept up this “productive Becki” through college, through Teach For America in Dallas-Fort Worth, through graduate school at the University of Chicago, through my first 5 years of marriage, through working for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, and through my first two and a half years coming home to work for Secretary Mandy Cohen at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Productive Becki was a rock star!
And then on March 14th, 2020, everything started to change for me. Everything changed for all of us.
“Productive Becki” got asked on Saturday morning to come into the State’s Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh to game plan how we would close schools across the state in response to the burgeoning Coronavirus.
I called my dad—my rock—on my drive over to tell him about the work I was about to go do. I talked to him all the time. He had mentioned he wasn’t feeling great, he was a little short of breath, but we had a typically wonderful, loving chat.
I was leading a group conversation in this basement high-security building when my colleague said “Hey Becki you have 3 missed calls—all from the same person. Your phone’s right here.”
It was my dad’s wife. I texted her “Hey I’m in a meeting, can I call you later?” She replied immediately “No, call me.”
I grabbed my phone and so many thoughts went through my head. “I hope Dad’s not in the hospital!” I thought- quickly calculating in my head what time I could leave Raleigh to make it over to Duke to be there for him. Productive Becki was always at the ready for what the next steps needed to be: she was hypervigilant.
I told the team I needed to step out for a sec to take a call and that I’d be right back. Out in the hallway, I dialed and said “Hey what’s up?” And she told me “I’m so sorry, honey. I hate to even say this over the phone. Your daddy’s dead.”
I don’t think I can describe to you what that moment felt like, exactly. It was so final. No matter what I did, it would stay true that my father was dead. He was gone. No matter how hard I worked. No matter how much I wanted it to not be true. I collapsed onto the floor. I don’t remember how or when I got up again. Sometimes I feel like I left my heart there on the floor that day and never found it again.
I had lost my mother when I was 13 to brain cancer, and my father and I were extremely close. I didn’t know how to be me without him.
This was the beginning of the end of the Becki I had been building up for decades.
At the urging of my colleagues, I took the next month off work. And I didn’t even want to do that! We were in the middle of a crisis! I knew I could help!
“No. Take this time to rest and heal,” I was told by literally everyone.
It was the first time in my life that I wasn’t working, I wasn’t in school. I didn’t have my father. I felt absolutely worthless. I had always defined myself by my achievements, I had always been praised for my incredible work ethic. Who was I if I wasn’t doing....anything?
I fell back into old habits by April. I dove in head first into COVID projects- even though my colleagues were cautious at first to load me up with work. But I was insistent that I was ready to lead our school reopening efforts for the state.
So I did. Every single person on our team at DHHS was working around the clock. I slept for maybe 4 - 5 hours a night, in fits, from April through December 2020. I coordinated our public health requirements for schools to operate safely in our state when we knew so little about COVID-19.
I was in constant webinars, calls, meetings with school leaders, public and private, with teachers calling me on my cell with their caller ID blocked so they could anonymously share their fears that their principal wasn’t enforcing masking. I coordinated communications systems, criteria for state intervention and support for schools when a student or staff member died, I wrote our FAQs...it never stopped. I was flying by the seat of my pants. We all were.
Somewhere along the way, my old concurrent habits of anxiety and OCD overcame me. All of that mixed together with my grief for my father during quarantine...it all felt unbearable. I was giving every ounce of energy I had and I still didn’t feel like I was doing enough, like I was productive enough.
There were no accolades to be gotten during those first months of COVID. There was no one to tell me I was doing a good job. I’d always gotten that support from my dad, or from a manager, or I got an award…I had never learned to tell myself I was good enough.
I got the shingles virus in November— that shouldn’t happen when you’re 31 (which to you graduates is elderly, but to your parents is like “WHOA! She’s a child!”). I had shingles across the right side of my face and in my eye, which is incredibly dangerous and can lead to blindness. The shingles virus is a bit of a mystery – I can tell you all about it later if you’d like – but, in short, it can be triggered by acute stress. My doctors said: “You HAVE to rest. You HAVE to recover from this virus.” My manager said “You should take time off.” But all I heard in my head, was, “You suck. You’re not strong enough. You couldn’t do enough.”
So, feeling defeated, I took this past January off on family medical leave...another month not working – that’s two months in less than a year. I felt worthless all over again. The Productive Becki who had never let me down— she finally did.
I spent that month doing two things: (1) sleeping, and (2) in therapy. And I started to realize that living a productive life, only, isn’t sustainable for me. I can’t ignore my own wellness in order to achieve outcomes, in order to produce.
In January, my therapist told me: Your worth is not just what you produce.
Let me say that again. Your worth is not just what you produce.
Today, I am trying to remember that every single day. The person you see standing here is still struggling. But I’m learning how to be balanced. What it looks like, what it feels like, to prioritize rest, stillness, being grounded in my own worth, and also being proud of the work that I do. This is a whole new way of being for someone who used to drink three diet cokes a day.
Ok. Let me bring this full circle, now.
Imagine you, 2021 Durham Academy graduates, you and your family had decided to take the fall semester off: from school, from work, from this daily grind we can get lost in. And imagine that that time off meant you couldn’t be here graduating today.
Would this imaginary you still deserve to be celebrated? Really think about that. What would you think about yourself if you hadn’t made it to graduation today on time? What if it were someone else? I honestly don’t know – maybe there are people in the DA community for whom this is true, and they’re not graduating today. They, their families, in this hypothetical, prioritized wellness over production.
Here’s the truth: Someone who didn’t make it today—who COULDN’T make it today to graduate—still deserves to be celebrated. Simply because they are a human in this crazy world.
Something, at some point in your life, is going to stop you from producing, maybe just temporarily, or maybe permanently. Someone’s going to get sick, and you’re going to have to stop working to take care of them. Or heaven forbid you’re going to get sick—physically, mentally or maybe both. That’s when you have to remember your worth, even when you’re not producing.
You have inherent value just for being you.
Your accomplishments, like graduating today, are amazing! And they will keep on coming because this place, Durham Academy, these brilliant educators, this incredible community, has set you up for success.
And there will come a day where you will have to stop what you’re doing and recalculate what you can achieve. It might not be soon but it’ll happen.
This brings us back to DA’s mission statement, which I’m sure Mr. Ulku-Steiner has tattooed somewhere on his body: “The purpose of a Durham Academy education is to prepare each student to live a moral, happy and productive life.” I feel like I somehow missed the message about the “happy” part when I was sitting in your seats. But I hear it now. And I’m working on it. I hope you hear it today and remember it tomorrow.
As you go off to whatever and wherever is next for you, I want you to remember this: you matter, you are worthy, you have value, you deserve rest, and you deserve to love yourself, no matter what.
Your achievements today matter, and graduating today has taken an incredible amount of work and effort from you, your families, and your educators, and you should be so proud.
I congratulate each and every one of you for all you’ve ACHIEVED and all that you have PRODUCED. But much more importantly, I congratulate you for striving to be authentically, happily, YOU.
Congratulations, Class of 2021.