Graduation Speech to the Class of 2008

In 2008, I was asked to give the graduation speech at the high school where I had taught thirty years. In the faces of that year's graduating class, my last as a high school teacher, I saw every student I had ever taught. To every student who ever sat in my class I would like to say, "I loved you all and it was an honor to be your teacher."
Here's the text of the graduation speech I gave in May 2008.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your graduation. I can’t tell you how much of an honor and a privilege it is for me to stand in front of you.

For what it’s worth, I think you went to an excellent high school. I was there thirty years and have a lot of inside information about the teachers, counselors, and principals that work there. I’ll let you in on a little secret — without exception, they believed in every one of you. They knew education was your big chance, and they believed in your future. For me, this high school was always a place with a lot of heart and soul, and I will miss it. I hope the same is true for you.

All of you have become experts at surviving high school. I’m not quite sure what that expertise is going to buy you. In the real world you’ll probably never again hear the words “tardy” or “mandatory,” and you’ll never again need written permission to go to the bathroom. As one of the main characters in the movie
ET says, “How do you explain school to a higher intelligence?”

I know at times that high school may have seemed absurd and surreal. However, you made it. Your parents and teachers are proud of you, and all of us congratulate you on your achievement.

I’d like to refer to another movie to illustrate a point I want to make about your graduation. I hope it’s a movie that all of you have seen:
The Wizard of Oz.

When you watch that film and follow Dorothy’s story as she leaves Kansas and meets some odd friends on her way to the Emerald City, you learn something about childhood. You learn that someday you too will have to leave home and face the challenges of life on your own. You learn, like Dorothy, that the adults you always depended on — the Great Wizards — are only human and have problems of their own. You also learn, like Dorothy, that when you’re traveling toward your destination, it’s okay to ask others for help.

This graduation not only marks the day you leave high school — in a lot of ways it marks the end of your childhood.

In the grand tradition of any graduation speech, I’m supposed to offer you some words of wisdom, to tell you something like “follow your dreams” or “reach for the stars.” I could tell all 435 of you sitting there in identical caps and gowns that “individuality” is the key to success.

However, I think it’s a little silly for me to offer you advice because the most import things you will learn to guide you through your life, you will learn on your own, not from a graduation speech.

If we lived in a world that made any sense, I would now simply congratulate you and sit down. But it’s not a sensible world and this
is a graduation speech. So, let me take it a little further and give you some food for thought.

Laugh often.

Appreciate beauty in all its forms.

Find something you enjoy doing and then do it with enthusiasm.

Nourish your spirit with the love you feel for others and hold on to those who love you.

Treat every end as a beginning.

And never forget how much these things really matter.

I have one more thing to add to all this, something I hope you will take to heart. The degree to which you live a good life depends on the health of the community in which you live, and if you think about it, you actually live in several communities. Your family is a community. Your circle of friends. Your workplace. Your city, state, and nation.

All of those communities count you as a member, and it should give you joy when those communities are strong and at peace with themselves.

If you took one of my classes, you learned that the word in ancient Greece for someone not interested in the community was “idiot.” It’s good to know the origin of that word, because it tells you something about the importance of community.

Again, the health of a community to which you belong has a lot to do with your own happiness, and you should do what you can to nourish all of your communities to good health.

You don’t have to be the President of the United States or Bill Gates to do something worthwhile. You only have to be yourself and use the talents you have at this time — whatever they are. Do the best you can to shine a light on the corner of the world where you are standing.

It doesn’t take much to shine that light. Simply be kind and true to your family. Choose your friends well and be supportive of those friends. Make your city stronger by finding a job and doing it well and doing it with good humor. Vote. Play a role in improving your state and nation. If you feel the calling, run for office or lead a movement. Do something that contributes in a positive way to the communities to which you belong. Do what you can to make this world more humane.

If you agree with all that, I’d like you to think about something you might do today for what is — for most of you I’m sure — the most important community in your life: your family. As I said earlier, in a lot of ways this graduation marks the end of your childhood. That can be quite an emotional experience for the people who raised you and who love you the most. Take time today to tell them how much you appreciate the sacrifices they made for you. Hug them, and tell them you love them.

The last thing I want to give you today comes from two quotes, both of them from the same person. He’s one of my heroes. He sings and plays the guitar. They call him the Boss.

Referring to the importance of community Bruce Springsteen tells us, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”

He also tells us, “It’s no sin to be glad that you’re alive.”

Thank you and I wish you the very best.

George Washington

"I am sure the mass of citizens in these United States mean well, and I firmly believe they will always act well, whenever they can obtain a right understanding of matters.” – George Washington, 1796

At 6’3” and 210 pounds, George Washington was a muscular and athletic man who dominated every room he entered. He was a natural leader, and for the last 45 years of his life he found himself at the center of almost every significant event leading to the creation of a new nation — a nation proclaiming a belief in the rights and happiness of its people. As a man of the Enlightenment, Washington led a revolution against the Old World and its appalling superstitions, religious bigotry, and intolerance.

My presentation for AP U.S. history teachers, titled “George Washington, the Enlightenment, and the Creation of a New Nation,” demonstrates how teachers can frame historical events from 1754-1799 around the life of George Washington. In my opinion, it’s difficult (and almost impossible) to understand the creation of our nation without examining Washington’s remarkable life, a life that ended with a final revolutionary act — the emancipation of his own slaves in his Last Will and Testament.


This bust of Washington was created from a life mask made in 1785 by the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. It’s an image of Washington in his early fifties that has been described as one of the most accurate depictions of him in any work of art.

American Time Capsule

Here's an oldie, but goodie — a film telling the story of United States history from the American Revolution through the election of Richard Nixon. The story is told with over 1300 images shown in less than three minutes.

The film was created by
Chuck Braverman and first shown on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968. It became so popular that the Smothers Brothers showed it a second time and helped make it the best-selling educational film of the time.

I recommend showing the film several times to students. The more they watch it, the more they will see, and the more students know about the chronology of U.S. history, the more they will know what to expect during the film. The image of Truman holding up a newspaper stating "Dewey Defeats Truman" runs by so quickly we shouldn't be able to see it. However, if we know what happens chronologically and have seen the image before, we are more likely to catch it.

If you teach U.S. history, give this film a try. It can be great fun for students.

The Empathic Civilization

Several years ago I attended a presentation at Rice University on nanotechnology. During a fascinating discussion about the most recent research on that subject, a Rice professor identified what he thought were the top ten problems facing humanity in the next fifty years.
  1. Energy
  2. Water
  3. Food
  4. Environment
  5. Poverty
  6. Terrorism and War
  7. Disease
  8. Education
  9. Democracy
  10. Population
He then explained that the solutions to most of those problems could be traced directly or indirectly to energy. He also explained that many of the solutions to the energy problem would come from nanotechnology. Addressing the young people in the audience he said, “Be a scientist and save the world.”

I have spent my professional life in the humanities — music, art, and history are my forte. I don’t know enough about science to comment on what I learned that day about nanotechnology. However, I liked the tone of the presentation. I liked hearing someone encouraging young people to get into science, into any field for that matter, with the goal of trying to make a difference. I see no harm in spreading a little idealism and asking young people to do something to “save the world.”

In any case, I hope the people who promote science never forget the humanities. The humanities, after all, add a little empathy to scientific pursuits.

And I am not alone in thinking this. The merging of empathy and science has its proponents, as can be seen in the video I have embedded below, a video that features Jeremy Rifkin speaking about the “The Empathic Civilization.” (Rifkin is president of the
Foundation on Economic Trends and has written books about the impact of scientific and technological changes on the economy, the workforce, society and the environment.)

According to Rifkin, “[Our brains] are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we our experiencing it ourselves.”

That quote from Rifkin describes what teachers in the humanities are trying to achieve every day in the classroom. Teaching students to appreciate great art, music, or literature is nothing less than trying to help them see the world through someone else’s eyes.

By teaching students to avoid “presentism,” to understand the past by divorcing themselves from the world in which they live, humanities teachers help students get inside the minds of people from 2000 years ago, 200 years ago, or 20 years ago. Students who do this well can learn to understand people today who are different from them — people living on the other side of town or the other side of the world. In other words, the humanities help students, for a time, leave the world in which the live and learn to understand others, promoting Rifkin’s idea of an “empathic civilization.”

"For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together. … They're touching on the key lesson of childhood, which is that someday the child will not be a child, that home will no longer exist, that adults will be no help because now the child is an adult and must face the challenges of life alone. But that you can ask friends to help you. And that even the Wizard of Oz is only human, and has problems of his own."

– Roger Ebert, writing about The Wizard of Oz