My Graduation Speech: One year later

A year ago toady I was the faculty speaker at commencement for the class of 2008. It was a hot summer evening that drew an immense crowd to the attention of the 50-yard line at Springfield High School. I was very nervous. It was the largest audience I ever had at my attention. My parents were there as well. It was the second time they had the opportunity to hear me speak at a high school graduation. The first time was when I presented the class gift as the class of ’98 class treasurer. We presented a tree. I think it has since died.

Recently, I was reflecting on what I said to the class of 2008. Was it relevant to their lives? Did it make an impact? Or was it simply a subtle message mixed with some funny stories? I hope it was all three. If you are out there and you heard it last spring, let me know, I would love to hear what my speech meant to you. Or if you missed it, I would love to hear what you have to say as well.

Good evening Dr. N., Members of the School Board, Administration, Faculty, Parents, Family members and the Springfield Township High School Class of Two Thousand and Eight. Welcome.

I am honored to be here speaking to you today. When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me from Chris S., Ken R., Barry W., Eric G. and the Dali Lama, I can’t help but wonder how I stumbled into this elite company. Who will ever forget the Dali Lama’s speech in ‘86? What a speech I mean really, to be in the company of Mr. R. and his holiness the Dali Lama, you must be doing something right. And let’s not forget Mr. G’s eloquent Beatles metaphors, Mr. W’s resounding “Ooo-Rah!” and Mr. S’s little blue suitcase. These are the moments you will remember. The little moments that tend to get overshadowed by the chaos and hustle of daily life.

When I first heard rumors that I would be speaking at graduation circulating through the halls of Springfield Township High School, I sort of brushed it off thinking that it would never happen or that my students were just plotting an elaborate joke. Then I won. I won a contest I never entered. That never happens! I’ve won one contest in my life and it involved naming a rabbit at a local department store. The rabbit had two black spots over his eyes so I went with, “The Lone Ranger”. That’s not even a good name. Most likely I was the only entrant in the contest.

Nadine Sheahan came into my room and asked me if I would like to speak at graduation and that it was not mandatory, but that I did win a majority of the popular vote. Unfortunately I did not win the majority of delegates needed to secure the nomination…Whoops. Wrong tangent. I smiled and said I would speak. Playing it off like a cool cucumber. Then she left and I realized that I had to write something. I had to write something good. I had to write something memorable. And according to feedback from most students I had to be funny.

So here is my story to you…

In April of 1990 – while most of you were still writing about your first days on earth in your super small baby journal – I was getting prepared for my tenth birthday party. I was all set to have my birthday party at a near by amusement park; my party and my friends. However this was not the case. My mother informed me that I would be having a combined birthday party with my cousin and our celebration would take place at the local skating rink. To most kids at this age, this would be an upgrade in parties, however, for my disproportionate, husky frame, this was a nightmare.

I arrived at my party to see all of my friends intertwined with my cousin’s friends skating around to the hottest pop music of the time, which most likely is now 80% of ring tones on all of your cell phones. Once I wedged my tree trunk ankles into the little boots on wheels, I decided to stand up as if I was taking my first steps as a child. For most of the party I became a fixture on the ledge that enclosed the skating area. Until, I decided to leave my comfort zone. I decided to release my grip on the ledge and push myself out on to the floor. Eureka! I was skating!

Then I decided to get greedy with my skating and move my left leg. My leg went out and never came back causing me to spread eagle in the middle of the rink. My husky size acid wash jeans ripped right down the backside exposing my superman under-roo’s as my body fell to the left. There I was, a giant heap of child lying on the ground, with my jeans ripped down the back.

The moral of the story is that sometimes in life we are forced to leave the ledge and skate outside our comfort zones; the places that are familiar and safe to us. Some of you will never live in Springfield for twelve months out of the year again. Eventually your parents will turn your room into a guest room or that extra work space they always wanted. The comforts will continue to become increasingly unfamiliar. However, you will find new comforts. You will embrace new friends, new rooms and new opportunities. Leave your comfort zone and embrace the time away. Learn from your new comforts and know you can always come home, even though the artist formerly known as your bedroom may look like a newly renovated condo in Ocean City, New Jersey.

I don’t need to stand up here and tell you that life is full of uncertainties that we all must deal with whether we want to or not. How you deal with these uncertainties is how you build character and establish new opportunities that will lead to life experiences. Some of you will eventually encounter the skating party and figure out how to adjust in an uncomfortable setting. And even though you fall several times at your skating party, get back up and try again. Know that it is okay to fail. Getting it right the first time is not always going to happen. Through failure we gain life lessons that translate into opportunities which yield life experience.

When I left high school I was shell-shocked. Because when you’re in high school it is very clear what you have to do to succeed. And I imagine everybody here knows exactly the number of credits they needed to graduate, how many Newsweek articles you had to read for Dr. D., how many minutes you had to speak for Mr. Mac’s Senior Seminar and what tie Mr. E would be wearing on the third Thursday of every month. But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement. So if there’s any real advice I can give you it’s this.

High School is something you complete. Life is something you experience. So don’t worry about your grade, or the results or success. Success is defined in a myriad of ways, and you will find it, and people will no longer be grading you, but it will come from your own internal sense of decency which I imagine, after going through the program here, is quite strong.

I will leave you with one final story.

In high school, I had the same English teacher for junior and senior year. Her name was Miss Stellfox and she governed the class room with graceful authority. When she walked into the room everyone would know what to do. She spoke softly, but engaged each student with clarified wisdom. It wasn’t until my junior year that I really appreciated language arts.

After my high school graduation I had my picture taken with Miss Stellfox and I still have it perched on my desk. Most of you ask why I don’t have any other pictures on my desk but the one of her and I. The answer is simple. She challenged me to do something different with my life. She challenged me to see the world through a different lens and convey what I witnessed to others. She dared me to visit another country and experience the beauty of immersing myself in another culture. I vowed to head her advice.

I corresponded regularly with Miss Stellfox while in college and after I graduated from college. She was always intrigued by the happenings in my life. The last time I spoke with her I was discussing my plans after graduate school. I was not sure if I wanted to get into teaching or take another path. This was the last time I would talk to Miss Stellfox.

In October of 2003, she was hit by car while crossing the street. It was a tragic event that happened to the wrong person, who was just beginning to enjoy her retired life. I never got to tell Miss Stellfox that I became an English teacher, but I know she is aware of my choice.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy, but simply, enjoy your days. Especially the days you are about to encounter. Enjoy a day that is completely spontaneous and unscripted. When the obvious choice is to drive; walk instead.

Try something you never thought you could accomplish. Yes, if you didn’t get it by now, this is the message I wanted you to soak up after I showed by Skydiving and bungee jumping videos on the first day of class.

Leave your comfort zone. Tomorrow you will all wake up and wonder what to do. There is no bell schedule tomorrow and no where to be. The summer will rapidly be eclipsed by the smell of fall and a new beginning will be under way.

And finally, call your parents. Call them frequently and listen to what they say. Treasure your time together and always answer their questions about technology with guided patience. Trust me, once you leave the house your parents’ tech support is basically gone. Most likely your first phone call from college will involve your parents asking how everything is going and then you will reciprocate the question. However, their answer will be something along the lines of your father hooked the television up to the typewriter but for some reason, he cannot access the inter-highway.

Enjoy this conversation. Enjoy the small things in life. Enjoy your days. And never throw your children a roller skating party.

Thank you

NOTE: Last names have been shortened to protect the innocent.