Head of School Will Laughlin on turtles, hermit crabs, and finding home.
When I was five, I found a three-legged box turtle on my great-grandparents’ tobacco farm in Kentucky. I fed him some lettuce and bologna and named him Henry. My mom put Henry in a shoe box and hid him in her carry-on luggage for our Pan Am flight back to California. He lived in our backyard and mostly ate snails and sunbathed. But whenever he wanted some lettuce and bologna and a tummy rub, he would show up at the back steps of our house. In late fall, Henry would lumber crookedly into the shrubbery one last time.
I would worry about him all winter.
Then one day in late spring, after the frosts, there he’d be, waiting at the back steps for bologna and lettuce and a belly rub. This went on for about twenty years until, one winter, old Henry left for his long nap and just stayed asleep.
Henry’s success made me confident of my herpetology skills. So, when I was ten, I decided to try my hand at crustaceology. I walked two miles to the pet store on University Avenue in Palo Alto with my allowance, bought a hermit crab, and walked home.
I named him Henry.
He came in a small terrarium and I fed him smelly hermit crab food from a shaker. One day, though, only a few months into our life together, I found Henry outside of his shell, deceased. I have had 43 years to reflect on this tragedy. I have since had opportunities to live among the wild hermit crabs of California, Costa Rica, and Maine. I’m sort of the Jane Goodall of hermit crabs.
Hermit crabs, it turns out, have a lot to teach us about ourselves…especially how to handle transitions, like the one you all are facing today.
What I now know is that Henry did not make it because he simply outgrew himself. Hermit crabs, like people, go through life stages. They are not born with shells, so as they grow, they periodically need to transition into a larger shell, a bigger identity, a more spacious version of themselves. They have to make the outside match the inside because the inside has grown.
During these transitions, they are vulnerable, like you are right now as you transform from “high school you” to “semi-independent young-adult you.” This process will force you to figure out what to abandon, what to keep, and what to add. It’s time for you to pick a new shell. Here’s how hermit crabs do it.
Hermit crabs have been found wearing all kinds of things. Most settle for the traditional used sea-snail shell, of course, but others have been seen sporting coconuts, pen caps, coca cola bottles, doll heads, you name it. They try all kinds of things on for size; if it doesn’t fit, they move on.
If it does fit, however, they wear it regardless of what it looks like, because it’s the fit that matters most. What their shell looks like is everybody else’s problem. A hermit crab can’t really see her own shell anyway. She’s mostly just looking ahead.
They aren’t afraid to try things on for size and they know it’s the fit that matters most.
When a hermit crab finds an empty shell on the beach that’s too big for it, but that seems cool, it hangs out next to that shell. Other hermit crabs cruise by and say, “hey, what’s up?” “I’m just hanging out by this cool shell that doesn’t fit me.” “Oh, cool.” And then that hermit crab hangs out too.
And so it goes with other hermit crabs that pass by. Pretty soon there’s a crowd of hermit crabs. What’s super cool is that they start sizing each other up, spreading their claws out to see who’s big and who’s small and who’s in-between. And when that’s done, they line up accordingly — just like you did a few minutes ago — biggest to smallest. Then they just hang out and drink coffee and discuss shells and wait.
Finally, a hermit crab comes along who is just the right size for the shell that started this party. All the hermit crabs in line get excited. “Dude, try the shell on! Try it on!“ The big crab crawls out of his shell and into the new one. “Hey, y’all, I think this one works. How does it look?”
And the other crabs say, “Don’t worry about how it looks to us, how does it feel?”
“Feels good. I think it fits!”
Then something amazing happens. All the other hermit crabs crawl out of their shells and into the empty one in front of them. They trade up. Now, they all have a shell that fits.
Through fellowship, frank feedback, and cooperative effort, they all understand what fits them in a way they could not have alone.
Finding your young-adult identity will be a community effort. It requires friends who are willing to size you up and give you an honest sense of what you’re ready for and what you’re not ready for.
So next year, you will need friends. Friends who are willing to tell you the truth. People who know you, care about you, and have your back. Remember as you enter your new world that many of those people are right here in this room.
So stay connected to us and ask for help when you need it.
I have seen hermit crabs on the beach, underwater, in the forest, and on rocks. As long as their shell fits, they are at home wherever they are.
That’s our goal for you and, hopefully, your goal for you. But finding a shell that fits requires leaving the one that no longer does. That’s pretty scary. It leaves you vulnerable. Naked. As you enter college and independence, there may be some parts of your high school identity that just no longer work — that you have outgrown. Don’t be afraid to leave those behind. Don’t be afraid to try new things on for size, to step out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to abandon experiments and ways of being that don’t work, that don’t fit.
If you are patient and diligent and committed to finding an authentic, well-fitted version of yourself, you will.
And then, like the hermit crab, you will be at home wherever you are.