May Your Torch Burn Bright

Mihan House McKenna Taylor '95

Written by Dr. Mihan House McKenna Taylor ’95
(In accepting the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award)

Thank you, Greensboro Day School! It is an honor to be recognized for what I do—blowing things up for the betterment of humanity! In all seriousness, the motto of the US Army ERDC is Making the World a Safer, Better Place, Every day. My career has reflected that in all that I have done, and it has been a fun, wild ride at that. I’ve been to places most people will never see, and blown up things most people would never imagined were flammable! We joke that our motto should be, “There is no day that cannot be made better through the proper application of C4”, and while it is true that detonations can be good therapy, you can also get it wrong. Like the time the team accidentally blew up the field truck instead of the target. Whoops.

There can be no explosion without a spark. I would like to invite you all to look to the emblem of the GDS—the torch. While a student here, I imagined the torch as a light-bringer, but as I grew, I realized that fire has a power to transform. The nuclear explosions I researched could turn the desert sands to sheets of glass. So, too, will you take the discrete grains that make up your experiences in life and forge them into something new, like glass blowers use flames to create works of art from sand and fire. Right now, you’re in a glass mold created by your families and your teachers. You’ll have the opportunity to take the shape they gave you, or break the mold and become whatever you can dream. When I was sitting where you are now, I thought the mold my past gave me was the only option, and admittedly, the goblet I became was fabulous: a sparkly vessel to toast my own successes!

But like the time that truck met the great mechanic in the sky due to a perhaps overzealous and incautious application of explosives, the world can change in an instant. We fear the fragility of our own existence, the crystalline perfection of our imagined glasses. About eight years ago, my goblet was obliterated into a million shards: I died in public, in front of work colleagues and friends, came back, was given two years to live, got divorced and had to figure out how to rebuild my existence. I have to say, that was a pretty big unexpected explosion.

But I was still holding tight to the torch that GDS passed to me, those qualities of leadership, scholarship, sportsmanship, drive, and determination, and told the universe, “Not today. I will take these fragments and remold myself into something new, something better.” So I swept up the shards, and forged myself into a pitcher to pour out a better future for others. I beat back the darkness, beat my life expectancy, rebuilt a future that I fully intend to inhabit. Today I can say thank you to the school that gave me those tools.

So I say to you all, you are more than the sum of your fractures. Do not be afraid of shattering, because GDS has given you the skills to be your own mold maker. Just as I may not have been able to see what I could become, the Empress of Weird Science and protector of the USACE and Army’s basic research, until I was nothing but sand once again, you won’t know what you are capable of until you have done it. So I challenge you to be a pitcher and not a goblet, to light the fires of your own explosions, and to never let the light GDS gives you go out. Burn bright!

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