TEDx speakers share stories of courage, controversy at UMass

Last modified: Monday, April 28, 2014
AMHERST — If she were to write a letter to herself as a student, Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a first-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., said she would say that while you cannot control what happens, you can choose your perspective.

“You are the captain of your ship, and you alone hold the power,” Roig-DeBellis said to a packed Mahar Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts on Sunday.

Roig-DeBellis was among nine speakers who took part in the second annual TEDxUMassAmherst conference. The independently organized program is designed to spark converations in the spirit of the nonprofit TED organization’s motto, “Ideas worth spreading.” The roster also included Derrick Gordon, a UMass sophomore who recently became the first openly gay Division I men’s college basketball player, and husband and wife Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, the best-selling authors of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (2011).

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Roig-DeBellis told the audience that she wanted to be a teacher all her life. While she spoke, several images were projected on the wall behind her, including one photo of her as a toddler pretending to be a teacher to rows of stuffed animals.

“Teachers are the common denominator of our world,” she said. “Teachers are why the world works.”

When she became a teacher at the age of 22 and had her first students, she recalled, “I don’t know who was more excited, them or me.”

At the start of her sixth year of teaching, in 2012, she said, she was the happiest she had ever been. On Dec. 14, she had taken a photograph of the sunrise before she left the house.

That day, 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into the school and shot 20 students and six staff members to death. Roig-DeBellis saved the lives of her 15 first-grade students by leading them into a bathroom where they hid during the attack. Since then, she said, she has had to choose the perspective of “choosing to overcome,” and “choosing hope.”

She closed her talk by reminding the audience that they can do the same.

“I am an ordinary person. I am a wife. I am a runner. I sat where you are,” said Roig-DeBellis. “You will have times left lost and alone. We each must set our own course.”

Her talk earned her a standing ovation.

“For her to have such an incredible outlook from something so tragic — it’s inspiring,” said Lindsay Moriarty, 22, of Boston, a 2013 alumna who helped organize last year’s conference.

Sunday’s student-run event was started last year by Kareem Agha, who graduated in 2013, and Nate Tepper, who is now a senior. This year’s event was organized by a team of 35 students led by co-presidents Henry Liu and Stephen Chan, with faculty adviser Scott Nielson as master of ceremonies.

About 500 people were in attendance, including 350 students, said UMass senior Alexandra Lane, the conference’s director of publicity, with some people in an overflow room where the talks were streamed live.

Agha, 23, who now lives in Boston but returned to campus for the event, said he and Tepper started the event as a way to bring influential mentors to campus, and also to give the students organizing the event a “real world experience” while still in school. Many of the speakers are recruited through cold calls, he explained.

Among his favorite speakers this year, he said, were Chua and Rubenfeld, who jointly addressed the crowd to present the ideas discussed in their newest book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” which came out in February.

In their talk, they explained that the triple package consists of a superiority complex, an inferiority complex and impulse control. Chua noted that the first two traits do not seem like a likely combination, and explained that Steve Jobs was an example: He believed he could transform the world, but was also insecure in a way that constantly drove him to prove himself, she said.

Chua and Rubenfeld said that some ethnic and religious groups are currently seeing more economic success than others because as parents, they are better at instilling the “triple package” into their children than others.

At the start of the talk, Rubenfeld acknowledged that their ideas are controversial. He shared an anecdote about a time he and Chua overheard what they believed to be someone talking about them in a New Haven coffee shop. When they asked the woman who she was talking about, she said, “It’s that crazy Chinese woman and her white husb — ” breaking off as she suddenly recognized the couple, he recalled.

Rubenfeld closed their talk by saying that the hope of teaching the “triple package” is that there will no longer be “successful groups,” but “successful individuals.”

The event closed with Gordon’s speech, in which he told the story of his coming out to his parents, to his teammates and then to the world.

“Growing up, I was always different,” said Gordon, 22. But by his senior year of high school in New Jersey, he said, he had the belief that coming from his background, it was impossible for him to be gay. He said that by his freshman year of college at Western Kentucky University, he began dating a popular cheerleader as a way to hide his identity.

“I was basically using her so people wouldn’t find out my sexual orientation,” he said.

Gordon became visibly emotional when he described crying himself to sleep at night when he was still afraid to come out to his mother, but the audience applauded him until he was able to continue speaking.

“Honestly, my whole life has changed for the better,” he said of coming out, which he did publicly April 9. “If I had known this before, I would have come out as soon as I came out of my mom’s stomach.”

He closed out his talk by telling the audience, “Stay true to y’all selves.”

Scott Savran, 23, another 2013 graduate and former conference organizer who now lives in Framingham, said he felt Gordon’s talk was a good way to conclude the event. He said he felt that many of the speeches touched upon the power of collaboration, and Gordon’s story described a fear of collaboration that became freedom when that fear was faced.

“That personal embodiment, I think, was a great way to end the conference,” Savran said.

The other conference speakers were Steve Gross, a UMass alumnus who founded the Life is good Playmakers, a nonprofit organization that helps children overcome poverty, violence and illness through play; Jackie Weatherspoon, a former member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives who rebuilt South Africa’s government alongside the late Nelson Mandela; David Ke, a UMass senior working toward social change through poetry and performance; Katherine Luzuriaga, an HIV researcher at the UMass Medical School; Alfred J. Crosby, a UMass professor and developer of Gecksin, a fabric that is based on the anatomical properties of a gecko and can hold up to 700 pounds; and C. Michael Gibson, founder and editor in chief of WikiDoc, a nonprofit foundation that provides the world’s largest medical textbook for free on the Internet.