Graduation Speech (09.19.11)

I began my teaching career at a small start-up school in Sun Valley, Idaho. I ended up wearing a lot of hats there, eventually teaching 7th, 8th, 9th,10th, 11th, and 12th grade English, and being the school’s college counselor, assistant soccer coach and outdoors program director in the seven years I was there. In June of 2010 I was asked to return and give a graduation speech to a class of seniors who were about to go out into a world that seemed a lot more frightening to me than the world I had graduated into in 1968.

They did have youth, intelligence, and enthusiasm, all of which count for something. I crafted a speech that I thought would help them to use these assets to their best advantage, a matter of life and death in the future they faced.  If you have a seventeen-year-old in the house, you can read this speech aloud and see what he or she has to say about it.  Put it away for five or ten years and read it to the same person again.  Let me know how it turns out.

Community School Graduation Speech, June 6, 2010

Graduates, headmaster, trustees, faculty and staff of the Community School, and friends and family of graduates:

Thirty-five years ago, when I agreed to teach English and science at the newborn Ketchum-Sun Valley Community School, I did not know I would spend my life as a teacher, nor did I realize I would see my life-work as a source of joy.  So I wish to thank the Community School for setting me on a path that I continue to love.

Today we are here to graduate some wonderful people. I’m going speak to them, but the rest of you can listen in.

I can say with confidence that you’re wonderful people, because I’ve met you and I’ve seen the way you treat each other and I’ve talked to a few of your teachers.  Without much prompting, your teachers have described you as a hard-working group, deeply interested in learning new things, considerate of others, and humble in the face of your accomplishments.

That is extraordinary praise, and it reminded me of what an admissions director at Harvard told me when I was the college counselor for the Community School.  He was dishing some gossip about another school in the neighborhood.

“Down at M.I.T.,” he said, “They could fill every class with applicants who have perfect SAT scores.  They tried that, and got brilliant students who quit math and physics and engineering and were unemployed dropouts by the time they were twenty-four.  Now they’re looking for applicants who will peak out at fifty-five.”

M.I.T. learned to stop depending on standardized test scores to pick their applicants.  They began to look for people who were deeply interested in learning new things, who were considerate of others, and who were humble in the face of their accomplishments.

M.I.T. started searching for people who were going to become smarter and better educated and more involved throughout their lives. They learned to look for people like you.

The only thing that worries me is that you’ll peak out at fifty-five, and not sixty-five or seventy-five. Fifty-five seems a little young to me these days.

Here’s how the great science fiction author Alice Sheldon described her ambition to write better and with more intensity until the day she died:  “I want to burn right down to the waterline.”

That’s an unfortunate metaphor in a world that contains both oil platforms and the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s the privilege of writers to use unfortunate metaphors.

It’s not the privilege of anyone, writer or not, to peak out or burn out or drop out before he or she has given back to this world.  So I’ll say right now that you will not fulfill your life until you find out what it is you have to give to the people around you, and have given it, and they’ve accepted it in some way.

It may take years to find out what you have to give, and more years to turn it into something acceptable, but if you’re making the lives of the people around you better and happier, you’re going in the right direction.  If you’re making their lives worse and more miserable, stop and turn around.

For the past year I’ve been writing a book for people who want to become writers. At the end of every chapter I’ve listed rules for making good stories into great ones. I began to like writing down rules so much that I’ve come up with some for you.

A list of rules is probably not what you want to hear right now, but these are rules designed to improve the life stories of the people you will be when you’re fifty-five or sixty-five or seventy-five.  You owe those old people a good life, and you can imagine them sitting on the edge of their rocking chairs, thinking about how uncertain life is, and hoping you’ll get some good, solid rules to follow today. They like the idea that you might be able to change unhappy endings to happy ones, boring dialogue to exciting conversation, and scenes where nothing happens into action-packed triumphs of excellence over mediocrity.

So here we go:

  1. If it’s the wrong thing, don’t do it. I borrowed this rule from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. The people who have followed it have improved their own lives and the lives of the people around them for centuries.  When people complain about how hard it can be to know the right thing to do, they’re usually planning on doing the wrong thing and don’t want to deal with the guilt.
  2. If it’s not the truth, don’t say it. Marcus Aurelius again. In college, you’ll hear from your fellow students and even from some professors that truth is relative, but that’s generally when they’re about to lie to you.
  3. Buy yourself a pocket calculator. Use it to add up what it’s cost your family to get you to this point in your life.  Your family will be happy to supply you with the raw data. You can also use the calculator to figure out the true cost of loans before you sign on the dotted line.
  4. If possible, don’t go into debt for college. Families, credit card companies, and financial aid officers will be offering you what looks like free money for a while.  The key words here are for a while.
  5. Get a job. The best way to keep your debt at its lowest is to get a job during college and during your summer and winter vacations. The biggest gap in quality between college students is not between rich and poor, smart or not so smart, private-schooled or from inner-city high schools.  It’s between those students who have a job during college and the ones who don’t. If you fight fire all summer and turn all the money you’ve earned over to the college business office at the start of fall semester, you’ll get more from your economics class than if you’d sat around all summer playing Grand Theft Auto.  If you tell your roommate you can’t go to the party because you’ve got the graveyard shift at the local 7-11, you’ll be a step ahead of everyone else when you study feudalism in your Medieval History class.
  6. Don’t Make Unconscious Life Decisions. What your major will be, the type of person you fall in love with, and your after-college plans are the first draft of a story.  Like most first drafts, it’s got some missing scenes and tedious sentences.  You’ve got some rewriting to do, and the more consciously you can do a rewrite, the better the final draft is going to be.
  7. Don’t start anything you can’t finish. Today, you’re finishing a story. You know what a mixture of joy and sadness that is, and how a mixture of joy and sadness makes a story better than if it were completely happy or completely sad.  When you say, “Of course I’ll pay you back,” or “I’ll love you forever,” or, “Let’s raise a kid,” you’re starting a story you need to finish. If you don’t finish it, you’ll deprive yourself of the joy part of the mixture.
  8. Pay attention. Woody Allen famously said that half of life is just showing up.  That’s the easy half.  The harder half is being a careful witness to what’s going on.  A few details are often the difference between what you think is going on and what’s really going on.  Scientific revolutions have come from a single small detail that didn’t fit the story people were telling about the world.
  9. Don’t limit your plans to what you’re sure you can do. Plan things too carefully, and you’ll exile Mr. Dumb Luck from your life. Not a good idea. Mr. Dumb Luck is your friend even though he’s a big old goofy guy who dresses funny and tells people that you have no imagination.
  10. The toughest rule of all. Embrace grief when it comes. If you can’t embrace grief when it comes, you won’t be able to embrace happiness when it comes.

I’m going to end with a short parable.

An ordinary grown-up is working at an ordinary job, living in an ordinary small town, a town full of quiet streets lined by summer trees and flower gardens and small houses reflecting modest incomes.  But in the town a child has been abandoned, a tiny child only a few months old, and this quite ordinary grown-up takes on the responsibility of raising that child.

Here the ordinary ceases to be ordinary.  The grown-up makes extraordinary sacrifices for the child, and assembles extraordinary resources to protect and nourish it.  Yet the grown-up doesn’t see the effort or the sacrifice—it’s simply what has to be done. There’s no wonder in this great task, except in the eyes of the other people in the town, who see that a once-ordinary person’s love for a child is so powerful and so freely given that there is a soft and golden glow around them both.

The child’s contribution to that glow is a mixture of happiness and openness toward the bright beauty of the world and the joyful awareness of being protected and well cared for. Whatever caused the abandonment in the first place doesn’t matter any more.

That grown-up is you. That child is you.

Take care of yourself.

Thank you for letting me share this day with you.

John Rember

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