Good afternoon. It is my honor and pleasure to welcome you to the 44th commencement exercises of Georgetown Day School and to the graduation of the Class of 2015. Today it is our shared privilege to celebrate these terrific young women and men and to send them on their way.
Graduates: You are a remarkable class, and I am not the first person to point this out. In fact, some of you have told me this yourselves. Seriously, as seniors, you set a tone for GDS, and we, as adults, could not have asked for a better tone to be set. Your voice, leadership, talent, passion, integrity, and deep commitment to our mission have powerfully enriched our school community.
There are so many moments, I know, for each of you, that will embody your GDS experience, and so many moments, for us, that have helped to define you as individuals and a group: your astonishing vocal, theater, and dance performances; your outstanding “It’s Academic” and Quiz Bowl feats; your rein of championships in cross country and track and field; your activism; your stunning visual art; not to mention the fact that you were pretty good students. But I want to talk about a different moment, one that unfolded just a few months ago: your senior prank.
Having worked in schools now for more than 20 years, and having once been a high school senior myself, I know that the senior prank is something that is rarely done well, and has the potential to go horribly awry. What begins as a well-intentioned idea quickly goes off the rails and can lead to a variety of bad outcomes.
Cirque de GDS was something else entirely. Instead of wreaking havoc, you created a fun and festive day for the entire High School. There was a moon bounce in the Forum. Cotton candy. Snow cones. You even brought your tricycles up from the Big Toy so you could reconnect with your inner kindergartener.
And, seniors, unbeknownst to all of you, your prank brought me one of my more memorable, surreal moments of the year. At about one o’clock on the day of your prank, I was sitting in my office having a meeting. It had been a long day, a day where a number of things had gone awry, and I had had the distinct pleasure of learning about each of these things in great detail. So that afternoon I was meeting with a concerned constituent--I won’t share any more detail than that, and as this constituent shared his concern, I was doing my best active listening, nodding carefully and looking appropriately grave. And then, through the window immediately behind the person who I was so carefully listening to, I saw a llama. Or perhaps it was an alpaca--I sometimes get them confused. At any rate, it was tall, and graceful, and on a leash being led by one of you. And immediately behind the llama came a pony. The pony was tiny--I didn’t think they made ponies that small. Crowds of students were outside cheering, following the llama and the pony up and down Davenport Street. And all the while, I continued to listen and nod, and my constituent continued to share his concerns, and silently, I thanked each of you. And so, today, I get to do so out loud. Thank you, seniors.
Class of 2015, as you embark from our community and prepare to head off to college and your next adventure, I’ve been reflecting on what you’ll need for your journey, and what GDS has given you to take along. One thing that I urge you to bring is the joyful spirit that you brought to our classrooms and hallways every day, and that led to Cirque de GDS. You already know that life offers plenty of hard moments, plenty of cause for seriousness. Bringing a little spontaneous joy to the world every once in a while is a meaningful gift.
Several weeks ago, I wrote to you and asked you what you think you’ll be taking with you from GDS. I received a wealth of answers, far too many to share today. So here’s a brief sampling, seniors, of what you will be taking with you from 4200 Davenport Street.
Jenny Riemer writes:
I will be taking Joy with me. Even now it’s hard naming the many joys of GDS, but I’ll try. It’s the steps in the forum, the intense class discussions, the bond between student and teacher. It’s the everyday conversations that aren’t so everyday, because I know that at other places, people don’t talk about what GDS kids talk about. It’s the passion of the teachers. It’s the competitive yet supportive students. It’s being able to walk into C.A’s office and have a conversation. It’s the joy I feel walking into GDS everyday, the joy of feeling at home. You know how in your house you have a place you go when you’re upset? Maybe your porch or your bedroom, or a secret room you discovered in your closet. I had rooms like that in my house, but GDS was another place I could go, another safe place for me, one for which I’ll always be grateful.
Emma Stern writes:
I will take my white "GDS Mediator" hat, not only because it is a stylish and timeless piece but because putting it on makes me feel just as powerful and confident as it did when I put it on in 5th grade.
Chris Hopson writes:
I have changed a lot in the seven years since I began at GDS thanks to one thing I hope will never change about our school: the promotion of constructive challenge. GDS is a place of challenge. Some of these challenges are faced individually: academic challenges, social challenges, the challenge of navigating the bubble. Some of these challenges are faced collectively: the challenge of staying true to our history while not getting left behind, the challenge of honoring and affirming everyone in our community while working through occasionally stark differences. But with all this challenge comes support. Adults, students, and peers help each other as we and our School try to progress. Our search for progress is rarely easy and rarely cut-and-dry, but the only way for us to advance is if we turn the critical eye we’ve been taught by GDS back onto this school that we inhabit. Only institutions that are capable of self-reflection are capable of change. The same is true for individuals. And so the challenges we collectively face at GDS and the challenges we individually face become indistinguishable. We’re all torn between living by our ideals and being pragmatic. We all struggle to reconcile our differences with the people around us, and the people that we care about. So what I’ll take with me from this place is an understanding of the necessity to push and to be pushed, a willingness to criticize and to accept criticism. Because with those values, I know that change and progress are all but inevitable.
Aidan Pillard writes:
I’ll take away teachers as friends and friends as teachers. And my friends, from whom I learn so very much, don’t even judge me for being friends with my teachers. I’ll love GDS forever and miss it already.
Andie Asher writes:
I will take a constant desire to learn about and engage in the world around me.
Mac Andrews writes:
GDS taught me the impact of unconditional support. This year I went way outside of my comfort zone in auditioning for the one act plays. At most other high schools, as an athlete trying something new (in God forbid, the theater), I would have been ridiculed. But, at GDS, I was welcomed with open arms into a new, unfamiliar group. GDS has encouraged me to take risks and test my personal boundaries. As I leave GDS I will bring with me the value of risk-taking and the value of community.
Arianna Neal writes:
I will take wonderful memories, belly-aching laughs, and amazing friends.
Jacob Stern writes:
I will take what the school's mission statement calls "a lifelong love of learning." What this means to me and what GDS has instilled in me is an understanding of the intrinsic value of learning--an understanding that the pursuit of knowledge is not utilitarian but rather is a worthwhile enterprise in and of itself.
Julia Smith writes:
I am taking from GDS a worn out back pack, socks with grasshoppers on them, 31 dog-eared books from four years of GDS English, some calculus Christmas carols, a set of sturdy work gloves for farming, a box of well-used colored pencils, a pair of running shoes, a love for small green insects that hop, and my self confidence. GDS has taught me to not be afraid of what other people think. At GDS I have learned to trust my ideas and beliefs, to speak up for what I believe in, and to ask questions that don’t always have answers. At GDS, I have become comfortable enough with myself that I am not afraid to make mistakes or to ask for help when I need it. It is this trust in myself that has allowed me to take risks and to jump outside the boundaries of my comfort zone every so often. The self-confidence that I have gained at GDS has helped me to stay true to myself, instead of who the world tells me to be, enabling me to appreciate other people for the unique individuals that they are. As I prepare to leave GDS, I know that it will be easy to forget and doubt myself in the years to come. But I also know that I will have my socks, books, colored-pencils, gloves, calculus carols, shoes, and Hopper pride to remind me to have confidence in the person that I am.
Liam Albritton writes:
GDS undoubtedly gave me an education that I'll value for the rest of my life. I could write at length about the excellent academic foundation GDS provided for me, as I'm sure many others could. But what I want to write about is sports: yes, I'll take from GDS a lifelong love of sports. I came to GDS in ninth grade as a remarkably mediocre cross country runner who was in it for myself. At the time I thought, "Alright, yeah, I'll do this to stay in shape and because I like running." I could not have anticipated the profound friendships I would leave with; before long, I learned that we won as a team and lost as a team, and if part of GDS is about tearing down stigmas, then we destroyed the stigma of running as an individual sport. The team atmosphere made me not just a runner, but a competitor--I wanted us to dominate other schools because I knew (and know) that no other program does it quite like GDS. I have never felt more a part of something.
Rachel Risoleo writes:
I will take from GDS that it is okay to fail. When I was little, I was often told, "you learn from your mistakes," but I didn’t really believe it. I actually thought I should do my best to avoid failure. At GDS, however, some of my most important personal discoveries have been the product of failure. In some cases these products might take the form of a great college essay topic or a nice anecdote, however they often lead to much deeper realizations, such as the understanding that sometimes all you have to do is ask. At GDS we are actively encouraged to take risks, and are surrounded by those who do. It is celebrated to voice a dissenting opinion in the classroom, and we are constantly emboldened to take the more challenging class, surround ourselves with people whose ideas and ideals conflict with ours, or join a sports team for the first time. GDS has given me the strength to take risks without fear of "failure," and has inspired me to not only tolerate my own failures, but rather to embrace them.
and Kalila Morsink writes:
From GDS I will be bringing the Odyssey (annotated, starring Odysseus); four color-coded Hoppers (covers falling off); more Class of 2015 shirts, tank tops, and jerseys than I know what to do with; a disinclination to address adults using honorifics, and an inclination to look them in the eye. A quarter-zip fleece from the soccer team and a tie-dyed T-shirt from Rainbow Connections. The habit of smiling at people when I pass them in the hallway. The habit of starting conversations with them. An inclination to reserve all judgments, like Nick Carraway, and an inclination to start arguments, like Evan Smith. An hour-long conversation about the concept of infinity; an hour-and-a-half-long conversation about Ferguson; at least four Facebook conversations about whether or not we're going to have a snow day. The email addresses of several hundred people who will probably write me back should I write them, and who will probably hit reply all. And, an odyssey (not yet annotated, starring myself, who is ready to take on the world).
Seniors, as I think about you settling into your college dorm rooms and unpacking your laptops and running shoes and various musical instruments, don’t forget the other things that you are bringing with you, things that you’ve taken from GDS: Your memories, friendships and a sense of community, of course,but also courage, confidence, curiosity, a critical eye, a love of learning, an appreciation for diversity, and a strong voice.
On Wednesday at your graduation rehearsal, I added one more thing to your list, when I gave you each a book, Americanah, a novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah tells the story of a young Nigerian woman who migrates to the US for university and then stays. The book shares a number of rich themes, perhaps most powerfully, that of identity. I hope that GDS has taught you each to be proud of your own identity, and to know that the world is a better place for the unique voice you bring to it.
When CA hands you your diplomas--very soon!, you will officially be alums. Some of you have been part of GDS for just a few short years. Some of you are lifers. And then there’s Isabel Schneiderman, who is part of a 30-year streak of the Schneiderman family in our school, begun by Abby Schneiderman in 1985.
Regardless of when you began at GDS, we are counting on you returning often. When you return for your five-year reunion in 2020, we hope you’ll be returning to a unified GDS campus on Davenport Street. And yet you each know that GDS is much more than buildings, much more than a campus. GDS is the profound belief in the capacity of young people to grow, to thrive, to engage, and ultimately, to change the world. So, no matter what the nature of our physical campus, that is the GDS that you will be coming back to.
And when you do come back, feel free to bring a llama. And a pony.
We love you, Class of 2015. We believe in you. And we are very, very proud of you.
Good afternoon parents, relatives, faculty and staff, distinguished guests, and of course, Class of 2015.
So my message to you today is simple. In fact, it can be summed up in just three words: Practice Being Grateful. It’s three words and yet I know there is someone out there right now who because of the influence of our world of hashtags and twitter feeds, texting and celebrating everything that can be said in as short a sound bite as possible, is asking why isn’t is just “Be Grateful”? Why use three words when you could have said it in just two? Because that first word––Practice––is the key. And here’s why.
In study after study, those who actively practice gratefulness consistently report the following: improved physical health; improved psychological health; greater self-esteem; greater empathy, and reduced aggression. Those who practice gratitude also report that it opens the door to more relationships and improves the quality of those relationships. And finally, people who practice gratitude report sleeping better and waking more rested, even with less sleep. In other words, someone who actually practices gratitude is more resilient, less stressed, more engaged in life, and just plain old happier.
While many of these effects have primarily been based on self-reporting, such findings are now being supported by more objective measures––like brain scans. Practicing gratitude positively and literally changes brain chemistry. The frontal lobes and cerebellum show increased electrical activity and blood flow. Meanwhile focusing on negative thoughts shows just the opposite. When your frontal lobes are functioning well, you are making high performance decisions that serve you well. And you’re getting that dopamine hit which feels really good to get, which is why it is known as the “reward” transmitter. And because of this, it’s a reinforcer as well. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for.
Dan Baker in his book What Happy People Know perhaps explains the chemistry of the brain the most simply: a person cannot be in both a state of appreciation and stress or anxiety at the same time. In other words, being mindful and actively practicing gratitude is an antidote to stress.
So what does practicing gratitude look like? Well, like a muscle, the brain has to be exercised, but unlike a normal workout, practicing gratitude takes very little time at all. And, the workout itself turns out to be pretty simple. Writing a thank you note or simply jotting down one or two things that you are grateful for even just once or twice a week seems to be all that is needed to begin experiencing the benefits.
Pretty simple, not very time consuming, and huge payoffs in terms of health, self-esteem, empathy, relationships, and again, don’t forget––sleep. So why don’t we do it more? Why don’t we sit down and write thank you notes or take the time to think about or practice gratitude?
Well part of the problem according to Robert Emmons, a Professor of Psychology at UC Davis and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, is that we lack a sophisticated discourse for gratitude because we are out of practice. Despite the fact that it forms the foundation of social life in many other cultures, in the U.S., we usually don’t give it much thought, with the notable exception of one day––Thanksgiving.
Indeed, we have a tendency in our culture to go first to a venting session or even a rant thinking it will make us feel better and yet, as mentioned earlier, expressing negative feelings decreases electrical activity and blood flow to the brain, sending you into a downward spiral. It does not improve your mood or make you feel better.
So how did we get here? How did we get to a place in our culture where we’ll vent more frequently rather than express gratitude and where gratefulness is not only practiced less and less, but we’ve come to overlook, dismiss, or even disparage the significance of gratitude?
Well, Emmons claims that some deeply ingrained psychological tendencies get in the way. One is the “self-serving bias.” When good things happen to us, we say it’s because of something we did, but when bad things happen, we blame other people or circumstances. The second is our need to control our environment and the third is the “just-world” phenomenon, which says that we deserve the good fortune that comes our way, that we’re entitled to it.
By practicing gratitude we contradict the first one––self-serving bias––because when we’re grateful, we give credit to other people for our success. We accomplished some of it ourselves, yes, but we widen our range of attribution to also say, “Well, my parents gave me this opportunity,” or “I had teachers. I had mentors. I had siblings, peers—other people assisted me along the way.” That’s very different from a self-serving bias.
Gratitude also goes against our need to feel in control of our environment. Sometimes with gratitude you just have to accept life as it is (without claiming it is unfair because it just is) and be grateful for what you have. A tight roof over your head and food on your table is a good place to start; it’s more than what a huge portion of the world’s population has. However, simply realizing that other people are worse off than you, is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your situation. It is not a comparison. Sometimes noticing what other people don’t have may help you see what you can be grateful for, but you have to take that next step. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have for it to have an effect. Again, you need to practice it.
Finally gratitude contradicts the “just-world” phenomenon, as well. With gratitude we realize that we actually get more than we deserve. I found this quotation of a gentleman who happened to comment on one of Professor Emmons’ talks and which to me, summed it up nicely: “It’s a good thing we don’t get what we deserve. I’m grateful because I’ve been given far more than I deserve.”
So Class of 2015 today is a day where it is easy to be grateful. It’s a milestone that we even mark for you with an event like this graduation ceremony, and I hope you will take the time to express gratitude to a number of people who have helped you get to this moment. But my message to you looks beyond today. It’s really about how to live your life. Will you wait until the next milestone to express how grateful you are? Or might you make a plan and commit to setting aside some time to practice gratitude?
Class of 2015, for your engagement, for your leadership, and for your legacy, we are simply and sincerely grateful.
Hello out there! Good afternoon to all of you—faculty, staff, administration, parents, relatives, guests, friends—and, most importantly, Class of 2015. It is great to be here with you all today.
Class of 2015, on this momentous occasion in your lives, I am honored to be up here, speaking to and with you. When I learned that I was going to be speaking today, I had to do some thinking on what you wanted to hear from me—on what you and others were expecting. I think you chose me partly because you know how much I love to talk—and because we have had such great conversations. And that’s not just for those of you who have been in my English classes because, in my experience, the conversations happening in the hallways and stairwells of GDS are often just as profound. But I also realize that you would expect humor from me—and maybe some unscripted, outrageous, provocative claims to really… shake things up. We have shared a lot of that over the years, but as I warned some of you back at school, that’s not what you are going to hear today. This occasion calls for something more. Traditionally, it calls for clichés and platitudes. I believe that I am supposed to begin by considering how this is a commencement ceremony and that the word “commencement” means “beginning” —so though this is the end of your time with us at GDS, it’s the beginning of the rest of your lives… blah blah blah. Not going down that road. Ultimately, I decided that you asked me to speak today because of how much we have enjoyed stories together. I am a storyteller as well as an avid listener of stories, and so are all of you. There seems to me nothing better in life than to share in some good storytelling and story-listening and then talk about it and pick it apart and ask questions and argue endlessly… you know how it goes.
While we can’t have an exchange from stage to audience right now, I hope I’ll throw out a couple of ideas that you won’t forget the second I step down from this podium and that you may even mull over tomorrow as the adrenaline of today leaves your bodies and you settle into the rhythm of summer.
When I was in high school, I was outspoken and irreverent. I didn’t like following rules and I was… hard to contain. I know, that’s very difficult to imagine because of how unassuming, quiet, rule following, and demure I am today. As fate would have it, I returned to my high school, nearly a decade later, as a so-called “adult,” to teach alongside my former teachers. I was humbled and a bit self-conscious, and so I gratefully allowed them to mold me into a teacher. I saw my work at my alma mater as part of my finally growing up—as a redemption of sorts. When I stood before my seniors as they graduated that year, I warned them to put aside their adolescent cynicism, to enter adulthood realizing how much they still had to learn and to be open to it. Many years and a couple of schools later, I stand before you in a different posture. I am an experienced teacher now, older, and I’m a mother. This lends a new perspective, and I find myself with a different message. Now when I look back to that rebellious teenager I once was, I see that she actually understood a lot more than she later gave herself credit for. Her cynicism was, in many cases, warranted. Her commitment to unmasking phoniness and sniffing out hypocrisy was right on—as is yours. Right now, today, there is so much that you actually get. Don’t discount that. Hold on to that, because you will need that confidence later. You actually see things more clearly today than many of the so-called adults around you. So when I get to the end of this speech, the part where I’m supposed to define you and then list off all of our grand expectations for you…well, take that part with a grain of salt.
So let’s get serious. Whether you arrived at GDS fourteen years ago or just this past September, you sit here at this moment as a graduating class, like many have sat here before you; and as you walk across this stage today, you will join the ranks of adults that can call themselves GDS alumni. This is more than a badge—it is a shared inheritance of an uncompromisingly intellectual and ethical institution. I think right now it’s important for us to reflect on what it is that makes being a student and graduate of GDS so important. And so I think we should bring up the GDS bubble metaphor that’s trotted out so often—and maybe it’s time that we deconstruct it and—dare I suggest—put it to rest.
(To the students) Bear with me while I first try to present the premise.
(To the audience) It goes something like this: GDS is a bubble. The bubble signifies a separate world—a utopian, rarefied world that is starkly different and even at odds with the “real world.”
First of all, I have to comment on the imagery. Bubble? Really? Well, I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty sure that a bubble is a sphere of liquid that’s filled with gas. Hmmm. Not loving the comparison. Science aside, the imagery of the bubble conjures up childhood innocence, magic, and fragility. Bubbles are ephemeral. Bubbles are not grounded. Bubbles always burst. This also seems to me nothing like GDS. Does the foundation you’ve built while studying at GDS—reading closely and critically, considering multiple sources while piecing together our pasts, writing analytically, composing music and poetry, solving abstract mathematical equations, observing scientific phenomena, acting in plays, speaking in multiple languages, glimpsing other cultures, competing on the athletic field, connecting with our outside community in authentic service projects…do all of these experiences seem childlike and ephemeral to you? Full of just air and no real substance? I hope not.
At GDS people from all different walks of life can learn together and laugh together and develop amazingly close relationships based on their many points of found commonality while still seeing and celebrating how different they are from one another. But, according to this metaphor, that’s not what the “real world” is like. The Real World. Capital R. Capital W. The one you are allegedly about to enter. So let’s talk about this Real World. When exactly do you enter this supposed “real world”? Is it waiting for you as you cross this stage? Is it tonight when you go home to sleep? Is it in the fall when you go off to college or to some amazing adventure during your gap year? Is it when you graduate from college? From grad school? What if you don’t leave school until you’re 30? Is that when you’ll enter the Real World? Because all of this implies that school is not the real world, that school, in part, keeps you from entering the Real World. School is the bubble. But what about when you follow the passions you’ve developed while you were living your lives through all of these schools and finally embark upon a career? Is that first “real job” when you leave the bubble? If there’s anything that our GDS education has taught us, it’s that there is no one set of experiences that can be held up and validated as “real” while others’ lived truths are dismissed as less so. Following this logic, then, our experience at GDS is no less real than anyone’s experience at any institution. GDS is not a bubble—GDS is an intentional community, where the realities of the outside world, no matter how tragic, ugly or horrifying, demand our attention, discussion and action— and we give it. The fact that we learn together here and make it joyous—that on any given day you can walk into a classroom and overhear intense debates on the heaviest of topics, while right next door you can witness the playfulness and deep respect that all of us have for each other—that isn’t unrealistic. That’s not hot air. That’s what learning should feel like everywhere! And places where it doesn’t feel that way are no more “real” than we are—they are just places in need of some of this. They need us. They need you. You need to scatter throughout the world and make other institutions great. You know what’s possible.
As you graduate from GDS today, it’s important to understand both the freedom that this allows you as well as the responsibility that this requires. You have been given a gift that can never be taken from you—the gift of a foundation of knowledge, a way of seeing the world, of questioning it, engaging with it and feeling empowered to do something about it. This gift carries a weight. It means that you have to pay it forward in some way. What way? That is for you to decide. And that’s the freedom part. An education like this one should endow in each of you a sense that you are important, unique, and special. Just think about it: there is no one else in the world that is just like you. You, each of you, are the only ones.
So, storytellers, it’s time to write your stories! You are walking into a world that has, in many ways, been perverted by generations before you. A world crippled by poverty and hatred and division—but also a world that possesses indescribable beauty. You need to seek out the beauty and find ways to overcome the ugliness. That’s a lot to ask—and I don’t expect you to answer that call from me or from anyone else. In fact, I don’t want you to worry about what any one of us expects. Look to yourself to find the answer. I am not going to stand up here and tell you to change the world—it’s too tall an order and it’s not mine to give. What I want you to do is take what you have been given and write your own stories—ones that don’t include eye rolling about injustice, ones that don’t include hate and dominance, ones that don’t include people being trapped by race or by gender or by class or by sexual orientation. You get to write the story now, so write what you’d like to read.
Oh, and keep reading—had to fit in that plug here: keep reading literature. It can save you.
Class of 2015, it may not always seem it, but we trust you. We have been here, watching you, teaching you, learning from you, always so proud of who you were—and now, who you are. We’re not just proud of what you have accomplished on paper, not just proud because of the diplomas that you’ll receive today or the awards or the college acceptance letters. We’re proud because of who you have shown yourselves to be—in the small moments, the quiet, private times where you weren’t performing, when you thought no one was watching. We were. And we were amazed.
So go out there—you’re ready—and always know that you can come back… to visit.
Come back to us to be reminded of how much you are loved. Come back to remind yourselves of who you are and what is important.
We love you. Thank you. Farewell.
Good afternoon teachers, administrators, coaches, grandparents, parents, relatives and friends, and the GDS class of 2015! What a day of accomplishment, excitement and promise.
As my first child graduates from high school and prepares to leave the wonderful world of GDS, I have been feeling nostalgic. At what other high school could our children have studied under teachers more talented than most university professors, offering curricula more sophisticated than some of what you get at the best colleges, and at University prices? But really, Class of 2015, I imagine that you are feeling wistful as you mark the close of your time in this community.
So here’s some happy news: The school’s Board and Administration has authorized me to make a very exciting announcement. You know the big real estate purchase of the Safeway property; the school had an opportunity to purchase the adjoining parcel down to the Pete’s A-Pizza. I am proud to share with you that it will be used as the site of the new Georgetown Day College. That’s right. You don’t have to leave GDS after all!
Seriously, it has been great. But you are ready to move on. I have only a few minutes to try to say something useful and profound to send you off.
I’m not sure whether Russell understood what he was getting into when he asked me to speak to you today. When I was sitting where you are, graduating from high school, I had been to three different high schools in four years. No, I was not an Army brat: The family never moved. I graduated from a small, quirky and intellectual school in Boston—not unlike GDS. When I was sitting where you are, on high school graduation day, I had not so much as applied to college. Much like a GDS student, I was questioning and skeptical. If I were to go to college, I wanted to understand why. I can only imagine how annoying I must have been.
Decades have passed since then. When I look back over my life—and this is true, I’m sure, for most of the adults in the room—when I look back, the terrain seems clearly mapped: The college major, internships, law school, clerkship, fellowship, the jobs that follow one after the next. Until here we are, as if it were all planned. In hindsight, my career has logic to it centering on equal rights, public service, access to justice. But when I was sitting where you are, looking forward, I did not have a life plan.
What I did have is what you have: A certain kind of education, and the loving support of my friends and family. And that is very important. It gives you the ability to make choices. What I chose after high school was to go to a place in the world that was as different as possible from where I grew up. I found that doing antipoverty work in a village in India. There I lived, as much of the world’s population does, with no running water and intermittent electricity. It set me on my path.
Each step from there I chose incrementally, and at least in part just because I had to: pick a major, get a job, do something, support myself. With growing sureness over time, I chose to do things that I discovered were meaningful to me, that answered my sense of purpose, that became my passion—to advance equality and justice.
Upon your high school graduation, you may not have a life-sized passion—regardless of what you may have said in your college essay. And, like me when I sat where you are today, you may not have a plan. But you can be intentional about the choices you make. Your path will be different from mine. It will be your own. And you will find it.
So what advice can I offer? This is tricky. I am here as a representative of all of us parents at a moment when our relationship to you, our graduating children, is about to change more fundamentally than at any time since we first dropped you off at daycare, teary-eyed (at least we were).
In fact, this transition made me recall that one so much that I was moved to pull down my old copy of the famous parenting bible of our generation: What to Expect: The Toddler Years.
I want to share with you what the book says about deciding whether or not your child is ready for the transition to preschool:
Is your child ready for preschool? Take this brief quiz:
Can your two-year-old do this? Can my graduating senior do this!? This list gave me pause. You need to do these things. They are not unimportant, these basic life skills. Some we master, some we manage, and some we work around.
The good news is that, with just a few basic life skills, some self knowledge, and your GDS education, you have more than enough to take the next step on your path. We are so eager to see where your paths lead.
So what advice can I give you? I thought about emphasizing perseverance and resilience; keeping your eye on the big picture, on what matters. I have a favorite quote from Nelson Mandela: “Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” I thought I could elaborate on that, and give you a few insights from my own life.
But you are the GDS class of 2015. You know this already.
The hallmark of GDS is that the adults stand back and let the students figure it out. I remember when Aidan visited GDS as a prospective third grader, and he came home wide eyed. He was amazed that, between class periods, the kids walked from one classroom to another without having to line up and have a teacher accompany them. (I understand the high school allows that as well). Aidan wanted to come to this school, where kids are given a lot of freedom and trusted to take responsibility for their own learning.
GDS is a very challenging place. This is not just your average excellent private school: You have had tough, unstinting feedback from your teachers. You have faced the dreaded “interim.” You have forgotten a line in a One Act, or missed a step in Fata Morgana, or had the microphone scream at you or go silent during Cabaret. You have forgotten to bring your lunch to school, and you’ve picked yourself up by the bootstraps and run on over to Coffee Nature. You have gone toe to toe with extraordinary competitors and had some painful losses on the field, and at the debate podium. (Well, maybe more on the field than at the debate podium.)
In thinking about what to say to you today, I also considered advising you to put your sharp minds, excellent education, and powerful hearts to work on issues of pressing social justice. You will face enormous challenges in your lifetime. They will require more creativity, more commitment, more investment of yourselves than we can know. Thinking about those challenges brought to my mind this uplifting insight from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
But you are GDS graduates. You are already committed to healing our world, making it more beautiful through art, better understood through science and with the written word, and fairer by advancement of decent treatment and dignity of every person. You came home to us during freshman year and enlightened us about the Big Eight. You are masters of new technologies with magical capabilities. You have been holding feminist bake sales, where the girls pay 79 cents for every dollar the boys pay. You have written essays for classes, and articles in the Augur Bit that have opened our eyes. Just this past semester, we heard about GDS students’ trip to Selma and the visit to GDS of Congressman John Lewis, a leader of that famous march. You know the importance of decency to others – not only in your immediate circle, your family, your school and your community, but in the larger world.
This is not really a moment for parental wisdom or advice-giving. You are graduates. You are moving up, moving out, moving on. This is a time for us to step back and trust you to meet your own journey fully and completely.
So I will do just that. After one more piece of advice. We have an essential rule in our family, which I hope Aidan won’t mind my repeating here: “Keep talking to your parents.” That may require you to speak through your phone, not just text.
Graduating seniors, on behalf of all the parents and everyone else here, thank you for lighting up our lives. Please know that, anywhere you are, you will always be surrounded by our love.
Congratulations. We are so proud of you!
We’re used to answering questions at GDS: The integral from 0 to 1 of the function quantity (3-x) squared dx is equal to what value? Which of the following words means “lofty, pompous language”? Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood. Where are you going to college next year?
There are few questions we haven’t been asked to answer during the past four years. Our teachers and administrators asked us about capillary action and completing the square; they’ve prompted us to think critically about political messaging, about the Eurocentric nature of the history we study, about the biases that shape our politics and Facebook newsfeeds. Our amazing parents have also peppered us with questions: not just about whether we’ve finished our homework or submitted our college applications, but about who we are going out with, will their parents be home, whether we remember that nothing good happens after midnight.
Luckily this graduation ceremony marks the end--we did it. We’re done. No more APs, no more CollegeBoard, no more DBQs. We’ve wrapped up our high school days and put in our rearview those never-ending questions, standardized or otherwise. We’ve spent the last four years of our lives, the last 18 really, being told what boxes to check, what questions to answer, “how high” to jump. Isn’t it time we, pardon the pun, graduate from that?
High school is about checking boxes, about tasting samples from a menu that our parents and our school and our community and our friends prepare for us. We all tried on lots of personas in high school: I dabbled in theater (lots of eyeliner), ran very slowly with the track team (I still have shin splints), and edited for the Augur Bit. Speaking of the Augur Bit, make sure you check out the latest edition, which is now online! You can find it at www.the--forum.blogspot.com. We’re in the process of shedding some of those labels, clinging tightly to others--deciding which to keep and which to leave at home with the extra shoes and stuffed animals. But those boxes, those labels, don’t have meaning unless we make them our own. The process of graduating means we get to step away from the parental and predetermined. We’ve checked other people’s boxes for a long time, subscribing to an outsider’s definition of success: an SAT score, a math grade, a soccer goal. But now we must find meaning in a phase of life that doesn’t come with pre-created boxes for us to check, or with instructions of “yea high” to jump or “complete this” to succeed. Are we ready to create our own boxes to check, our own menus to order from? If so, we’ll need to find space between t-shirts and toiletries to pack the willingness to be vulnerable--that intangible, powerful stuff that will help us figure out for ourselves what is really important, what does success look like, how will we find fulfillment and happiness without someone else giving us the multiple choice to pick from.
There’s this weird thing at GDS where we actually enjoy being tested. Our teachers, parents, and friends assume that we’ll push ourselves to do more, to do better. But in our passion for learning and doing and succeeding, we sometimes become too focused on the next assessment, too invested in what our grades say about who we are. We check so many other people’s boxes that we neglect to create our own. On this, I defer to the ever-eloquent John Green. In one of his CrashCourse lessons, study videos that saved many an AP US history grade, he pretends to be an overeager student.
“Mr. Green, Mr. Green! Is this going to be on the test?” Green answers the grade grubber as follows: “Yeah, about the test. The test will measure whether you are an informed, engaged, and productive citizen of the world. It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and dorm-rooms and places of worship. You will be tested on first dates; in job interviews; while watching football; and while scrolling through your Twitter feed. The test will judge your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages; whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric; and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context. The test will last your entire life, and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that, when taken together, make your life yours. And everything--everything--will be on it.”
A test with everything on it seems overwhelming, to say the least. We’ve proved in these past four years that we’re really good at pushing ourselves (and succeeding in doing it) in the context of GDS and ACTs, the tests and challenges that others give to us. But we’re about to enter a world where the tests – the true tests – are not going to be given to us, but created and voluntarily chosen, by us. And that, in and of itself, is a pretty daunting test.
On MLK Day, our keynote speaker Pastor Lamar remarked, “Privilege endows us with the responsibility to use it productively.” Privilege endows us with the responsibility to use it productively. We are fortunate to have been at a high school where our questions are not only answered, but encouraged. Some would say too readily encouraged, for I’ve seldom finished an English class without someone questioning the validity of the author, whether we really “need” to read this poem or do that homework. To be productive, we can start by acknowledging privilege: we are lucky to be able to ask questions at GDS. We have been surrounded these past 4 years by teachers, parents, friends, and family who are compassionate, creative, and caring – who have patiently indulged us, and who have created a safe, supportive environment where we are encouraged us to ask. I hope we will continue to question even, and especially, in places where we are discouraged from asking. Privilege is an inescapable part of our identity as GDS students; but it isn’t bad unless we don’t talk about it. When we do, we start to question and think critically about our time at GDS itself: what things are we given growing up where we do, getting the education that we did, experiencing GDS at this moment? We are privileged to be able to check all kinds of boxes, to be successful in ways others cannot. Have we taken this for granted? Having had the benefit of such privilege, how are we now going to use it productively and responsibly?
We’ve seen the power in taking this responsibility to heart: our most meaningful moments as a class and a school have been ones of discomfort, of discussion and change, of times when we stepped back and looked big picture about what it means to be a student here. (When we took time in each grade to talk about Ferguson, or to talk about gender with over 100 students and faculty.) We’ve even begun to push back against GDS norms. A heated argument on the Class of 2015 Facebook page featured more tough questions: Should we conform to the long history of white dresses symbolizing purity and virginity? Are we perpetuating a limited expression of gender through our graduation apparel? We began to ask questions not only of the world, but of ourselves.
Yet we still have another question to answer: are our actions consistent with our aspirations? We talked big about changing the culture and starting a new cap and gown tradition, but here I am in a white dress. We asked the question, but stopped there. We instill a passion for diversity in GDS community members but have selected two white students to speak at graduation. Are our actions consistent with our aspirations? More important than asking good questions is acting on them: which requires we be aware of our privilege, roll up our sleeves, and get a little vulnerable. Perhaps the most challenging question we are about to face is this: Are we ready to institute the values we’ve been taught?
As we move forward, we keep testing ourselves, creating our own boxes. And soon, the test that Mr. Green talks about is less about being right than it is about showing up, being aware, pushing and learning and testing in a way that goes beyond Socrates and subintervals. The point isn't that we’ll always win or be successful: it is, hopefully, that we’ve learned how to ask the right questions, how to look at ourselves critically.
We didn’t just learn integration and imperfect subjunctive here: at GDS we’ve begun to ready ourselves for a different type of test, one that Mr. Green assures us doesn’t end anytime soon. This test asks whether we arbitrarily let others ascribe meaning--or if we create that meaning ourselves, enabled by the privilege we have. It questions whether we are eager and driven for things other than multiple choice. It forces us to prepare for the fact that we have to start grading ourselves now, and sometimes we might not do so well. It is filled with the questions that strike to the chest, that force us to evaluate the person we’re creating and what work remains to make ourselves better.
We need not fear that next test. We’re ready for it. GDS and our parents have prepared us well and, perhaps most poignantly, we have prepared ourselves. So I say to the class of 2015: Good luck. I know that we’ll begin asking the difficult questions, and I’m confident that, on balance, we’ll get the answers right. Congratulations, you deserve it!
|Having heard of GDS, a school where students experience exceptional growth, two parents decide to visit on a tour. They walk into the forum and immediately find two teachers quarreling over how it is their students grow. One teacher is a small, bald man of biology named Bill. The other teacher is called Topher, and he wears a hat. |
“Topher,” Bill exclaims, “Excuse me, but I am a man of science so I know the way that all biotic life grows. Look at the senior Evan Palmer,” he says as he points. “Look how high up into the air Evan’s head is, aloft and above all the rest. Obviously, our students grow from the bottom up.”
Topher shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Bill,” he says. “But I am a man of fashion. Notice how all the students’ pants hit their ankles at different positions. Obviously, our students grow from the top down. And,” Topher continues, “If the pants aren’t reason enough look at Marcus Lustig for God’s sake,” he says as he points. “Look how close to the ground that kid is.”
What escaped those two arguing teachers, besides maybe some careful sensitivity, and the visitors on-looking is the modest truth which all here today have learned the past four years: that really at GDS students don’t grow top down or bottom up, but from the inside out.
And what does that mean exactly? It means our teachers taught us to stretch and reach, not only up to grasp for the stars but for the hands of another; it means we learned that our intelligence is worthless without integrity, that happiness begins with humility, and that, rather than solemnity, empathy is the hard evidence of maturity. We know now that achievement does not bring success, character does. And we know our own success will not be won; it will be woven, as we tether and tie together our own life-stories.
Some of those lessons, however, we did learn from our parents. And briefly, parents, thank you. Thank you for doing what is right but not always easy. Thank you for your support and your sacrifice. And to my own mother, thank you for packing four more years worth of lunches than any reasonable parent should be expected to.
Softly, quietly, our world’s great old storyline has been played out again: others have sacrificed so that we, the young, could grow. And now the world asks us, “Where are you going?” For about a year and a half we have sought out a destination in answer: this program, this college, this university. Seduced by expectations, we have carefully and graciously chosen visions for our futures. A theologian and university president, often a seller of such expectations, once shocked his audience with this pertinent rule about college. His rule was a double-one: “If you find what you expected,” he said, “Transfer at the end of the first year; if you find what your father expected, transfer immediately.” The events of tomorrow will not and, as this university president suggested, should not follow our designs. Our plans will be undermined, our preparations rendered insufficient; that is when we will grow. But how can we ensure that ultimately, whether way out in California or way down in Texas, we are going towards a life of value?
Two brothers are traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus. The younger brother leaves first to secure for them a room in which to stay. The older brother leaves later but not long into his journey finds his younger brother sitting off to the side at a five-way fork in the road. The younger brother explains despairingly that the signpost with arrows pointing to the five different cities has fallen down and so he doesn’t know which road to take towards Damascus. The older brother calmly lifts the fallen signpost and points the arrow marked ‘Jerusalem’ back toward the road from which he had just come. The older brother explains, “If you know where you’ve come from, you’ll always know where to go.”
And so it is with us: if we remember where we’ve come from, remember practice in the gym running late or striking the set in the theater until early morning, remember Friday long lunches and Wednesday long mini breaks, remember grade-wide field trips, Safeway chicken-noodle, and the winter dance we had in the parking garage, remember that, when you got your paper back, the grade didn't matter because the two pages of comments made it clear that you mattered, remember when he skipped class with you because you asked, remember when she came to the show although you hadn’t asked, remember the warmth of entering the forum to familiar faces and the hum of morning conversation just before the eight fifteen bell, if we remember where and from whom we have come, then we will never falter.
No single day, no single moment was wasted, because all were spent crafting the young people we are and molding the dreams of the better people we will become. And so, as we begin to shape our own legacy, I’ll share with my class the advice of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is an illusion that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year. No man has learned anything rightly until he knows that today is a king in disguise. Let us unmask the king as he passes.”
I WALK through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way —the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
I'll take a piece of candy from the college counseling office. I'll take a cool sweatshirt I discovered in the lost and found. I'll take the knowledge that Tony is always watching. But most importantly, I'll take a step towards the rest of my life with fourteen years worth of GDS weirdness in my back pocket. All those numbers and dates and formulas that we've crammed into our brains are going to allow the class of 2012 to build bridges one day. But it's the quirky confidence that GDS taught us outside of the classroom that's going to help us cross those bridges.
I will take a life-long love of learning and exploration. I will take perseverance and problem-solving from my math classes, curiosity from my science classes, open-mindedness and worldliness from my language classes, understanding and awareness from my history classes, analytical thinking from my English classes, creativity and collaboration from the arts, and finally, discipline and community from athletics. After thirteen years at GDS, these tools are a core part of who I am. On top of all that, GDS has provided me with a "Hopper lens" through which to view the world. This green "Hopper lens" tinges my view of the world with great compassion, a quest for quirkiness, an eagerness to build community, a spirit of inclusion, and an understanding of difference. The formation of these tools and the creation of this lens is entirely the product of my relationships with teachers, coaches, school administrators, and classmates.
With my GDS treasure chest of memories, tools, and a "Hopper lens" I have no doubt that I'll be able to walk on to a campus of strangers next fall and build myself another invigorating, illuminating, and incredible community.
GDS has taught me about going after what you are passionate about. Within our class are elite debaters, quiz bowlers, athletes, actors/actresses, and artists. Not to detract from these individuals' abilities, but I believe that GDS has greatly facilitated their success.
… a newfound confidence in my opinion, because of the incredible teachers who have assured me time and time again that my voice matters, and now I believe it.
The belief that “all you have to do is ask.”
The world is not as mysterious as we have been led to believe, and if you are bold and take that first step, you will see results.
So in college, if I need something or I’d like to see something changed, I’ll send that one email. I mean, it couldn’t hurt.
GDS has shown me that if a community is to succeed it needs to recognize and honor what each individual brings to the table. Similarly, I will leave with the understanding that, even though many will inevitably disagree with me, it is vital to understand their positions. Acceptance and respect are about as pertinent to GDS as the color green.
GDS has also given me a space where it is OK to be wrong. Our teachers really encourage us to take risks and to step out of our comfort zones. I have concluded that it is healthy and beneficial to not get everything we want. It may be difficult, but it’s worth it. Whether it is a grade or a girl, mysterious challenges await us at every turn. GDS is full of them, and I am so, so thankful to the school.
My teachers made me feel as though what we were studying was the single most important thing in the world and inspired me to think, read, write, and be better. At the same time, they had the hearts to turn my gaze outward, to contemplate the world around me and consider my place in that world. It takes a special kind of teacher to impart knowledge of a well-crafted sentence or a pesky derivative while also doling out profound life lessons. GDS taught me history, math, French, and so on, and it taught me that well. But more important, GDS taught me new ways of thinking, new ways of asking, new ways of disagreeing, and new ways of arguing. New ways of being confused, new ways of being interested, and new ways of being curious.
I think this is fitting for a place that opened its doors as the first integrated school in a segregated city. Then, the act of learning served a vital political and social purpose. Today, GDS is still a place where education means so much more than a blackboard and some rows of desks. I've learned the most here in those chance encounters with a teacher sitting on the floor of the first floor hallway or that awkward moment when someone in class asks an off-topic and maybe even slightly inappropriate question, at 11 p.m. in the black box or at 5 a.m. on the way to a debate tournament.
These are the principal moments that I'll carry with me as I move onto college and beyond. I'll think about the intensity of Richard's explanation of Descartes and human existence and about the hilarity of Suzie's AP pep talks, while I reflect on a school with a soul that made me love learning and made me feel like I could do anything in the world.
My mama told me when I was young
We are all born superstars
She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on< br /> In the glass of her boudoir
"There's nothin wrong with lovin who you are" She said,
"'cause he made you perfect, babe"
"So hold your head up girl and you'll go far.”
"During the graduation ceremony, you want to say a few words to the eager audience. . . . Very often, people don't realize that a funny graduation quote always works with audiences. Use one to add mirth to your speech. After googling "mirth" to figure out what it was, I eagerly scanned the list of "funny graduation quotes," I'll share the first two.
1. Your schooling may be over, but remember that your education still continues [Not funny]2. A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that 'individuality' is the key to success. [Funny, but we don't wear caps and gowns]
Embrace Your Freedom.Make choices.And maintain your honor.Thank you and congratulations.
Have our roots been just bitter enough to enjoy the taste of the sweet fruit? Will the fruit be so sweet that we never forget our GDS roots? Have we been given the ability to see past our weaknesses and still find the strength to chase our dreams? Have we developed enough dreams to send our imaginations soaring? Will we stay attached to reality just enough to keep us grounded? Have we been given enough independence to develop and accomplish our own individual goals? Do we have enough dependence to know when and where to seek the help and support that we need? Will we give just as much help as we receive? Do we have enough freedom to make our own choices? Will our free choices be bounded by responsibility? Are we open-minded enough to accept conflicting views? Are we just closed-minded enough to have firm opinions? Will we ask enough questions to get all the right answers? Will we stay silent long enough to really soak up the knowledge? Has the joyfulness of our friendships given us the ability to rise above the sadness of saying goodbye? Is this final goodbye really just another beginning?
Speak with integrity and say only what you mean in truth and love. Strive to not have to say, "I'm sorry".What others say and do is a result of their own life experiences and reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you can never be a victim.Trust your instincts—if it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.Always do your best. When you have done your best, you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse and regret. Don't be attached to the outcomes.Remember GDS: You have just been inducted into the GDS Alumni Association. It is important to continue your active membership, keep in touch with your classmates, and give back to GDS—through service and resources.Call your parents, regularly—just to check in, not just for a check.Make the most of your life's gifts to build a better life for yourself and others, full of love, respect, laughter, and strength to overcome sadness and obstacles.This is your world. Each of you can bring about real and lasting changes in it.The change begins with you: be the change you wish to see in the world.
We gotta get out of this placeIf it's the last thing we ever doWe gotta get out of this placeGirl, there's a better life for me and you
Come mothers and fathers throughout the landAnd don't criticize what you can't understandYour sons and your daughters are beyond your commandYour old road is rapidly aging
Cause love's such an old fashioned wordAnd love dares you to care for people on the edge of the nightAnd love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselvesThis is our last danceThis is ourselves under pressure
We shall not cease from exploration.And the end of all our exploring,Will be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.
If you make a deal, you stick to it.If you go out together, you come back together.A Van der Kolk always enters through the front door.
This morning I asked my wife,Who are the most beautiful students alive?O, use your head.That's easy, she said.It's the Class of 2005.
"The day is short, the task is great. It is not up to you to finish the job. But neither can you desist from it."
Are you the best and brightest class to ever graduate from GDS?Are these the best moms and dads, Grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters, brothers and friends anyone could ever be so lucky to have?And are these the best educators and coaches any student could ever ask for?Good. Now that we've taken attendance, we'll get down to today's lesson.