A blog for and about The Nora School, an intentionally small college preparatory high school for bright kids who learn differently and want to be more engaged in their education.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Commencement Remarks, 2017
Well, gang, it’s time for the fun part of your day! I have to start by thanking you for picking a reasonable color for your caps and gowns this year. Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!
And so we gather again, at the 53rd commencement of our tiny school. I’m glad you all made it to the stage today, as that is not the case in all schools. A colleague from another school told me about the year one of his students, when told he would need to write a 5,000 word essay to graduate, got up and left the room saying “I don’t even know 5,000 words.” Fortunately, you’re a brighter group than that.
Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you. Birth, graduation, marriage, death are the biggies... you don’t remember the first one and you won’t enjoy the last, you’d better enjoy this one!
On Fridays we usually take a few moments to practice mindfulness, in preparation for those times in life when we need to draw upon inner reserves for whatever confronts us. Among our practices is the metta, or gratitude meditation, which, on a day like today, is particularly appropriate.
So I invite everyone here to join us. Sit up, close your eyes or allow them to drift into a soft unfocussed gaze, and bring attention to the breath. Bring to mind a person who loves you deeply, who always cares for you, who has your best interest at heart. And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them the following thoughts: may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.
And now bring to mind the person whose presence is responsible for your being here today, the graduate on the stage or the parents in the audience. And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them the same thought: may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.
And finally, offering the same thoughts to the entire class of 2017: may your lives be happy, may your lives be healthy, may your lives be free of suffering, may you live in peace.
Soon to be graduates, it’s important for you to remember that, as exciting as this day is for you, you did not arrive here without a great deal of love and support.
I would like to recognize those whose dedication to you included changing your diapers, reading you bedtime stories, and paying your Nora School tuition.
Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name.
There are many people who support the school behind the scenes, setting policies and ensuring that the Nora School will be thriving for the class of 2027 and 2037 as it is today, and has been since 1964. Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand. Beau Kaplan, Elaine Mack, Matt Harre, Andy Shoenbach, Dr. Val Wise, Judy Gelman, Jimmy Kraft, Chris Conlon, and Norman Maynard.
I’d also like to thank my colleagues on the faculty for their hard work with these young men and women over the past four years. Norman Maynard has done a tremendous job, as always, running the school during my absences, and usually during my presence, and was invaluable in bringing his architect’s eye to our construction project. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him.
Marcia Miller has seen you through these past four years with good counsel and a shoulder to cry on. The rest of your teachers have worked hard to get you here today, and while their contributions are too numerous to mention individually, I’d like to recognize them publicly: Allison Chang, Ave Luke-Simpson, Brennan Boothby, Chrissy Biederman, Chris Conlon, Christina Mullen, Hedy Szanzer, Nisaa Abdusabur, Prose Cassells, Will Simpson, and Yevgen Kryukov.
Scott Madden gets a special shout out for shepherding you through the transition to whatever college and life plans you have for next year.
Well, that’s enough self-adulation, it’s time to talk to, and about, our soon to be graduates.
You have worked hard to get here. You are survivors. Not only did you survive middle and high schools that were big, impersonal, and bureaucratic, you survived Nora, which is no easy task. Not everyone can handle it, but you did.
There is often a misperception that being in a small school like Nora is easy, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances, and all of that is true.
But equally true is that going to a small school is hard, because the teachers know you and work with you and give you lots of chances. There’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t written your second draft, your math homework always gets checked, and when it’s your turn to present there’s no one to hand it off to.
Your parents hear if you missed the trip to the Ice Rink, and they know when you’re not doing your Pre-Calculus homework. Yevgen notices when you show up late to Physics, and Brennan notices when you don’t have your Chemistry Lab.
It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have.
You’ve survived not only the classrooms, in three different buildings, but also the whitewater rafting of your sophomore year, the high ropes and goal setting of the junior retreat, and writing your own recommendations and sharing your life stories on the senior retreat.
You set up your own senior community service, late though it may have been for some of you, and you learned to balance two of the most precious gifts of adulthood: freedom and responsibility. The freedom part is easy, every teenager gets that. The responsibility part is a lot harder. Not all that many adults get that, as witnessed by, well, lots of what’s going on in the world. Learning when to have fun and when to work, when to sleep in and when to get up, finding where the boundaries are, and which ones it was safe to cross, these are things that your parents and teachers have to juggle every day.
You managed, if imperfectly, the four lessons with which we start every school year.
These same lessons will stand you in good stead as you move forward into your adult lives: Show Up On Time. Do Your Work. Care For Your Health. Treat Others Respectfully. These fourteen words are perhaps the most important lesson you take from Nora, because you have to keep living them the rest of your life if you wish to be successful.
Seth Godin posits that “small is the new big,” and as graduates of one of the smallest schools in the country, you should understand that it’s a big accomplishment to graduate from a small school. It’s a small accomplishment to find a clique of people you get along with in a big school, but it’s a big accomplishment to get along, intimately, with people who annoy you and get on your nerves in a small school.
It’s a small accomplishment to hide in the back of a big classroom and avoid the teacher’s radar and do the minimum necessary to get by, but it’s a big accomplishment to push through your resistance and actually do the work.
Small IS the new big. By doing something small, like saying hello and making eye contact with the cashier at McDonald’s, you can make a big difference in their day. All of us have daily frustrations, but by offering small kindnesses to others we can, collectively, make a big difference in the world. By cutting another person some slack when they’re having a bad day, you can make a big difference.
Your class in particular has had unique challenges, yet you handled moving the entire school twice in a year with minimal hassle and aggravation. In the past 16 months you’ve essentially gone to three different schools... Nora with one floor, Nora At Grace, and Two Floor Nora. In 500 years, when archeologists dig up the Nora School, they’ll find where you inscribed your names on the steel girders... congratulations!
In addition to spending the last year in challenging circumstances in school, you’ve also come of age in a time of extreme technological, political, and social upheaval. It’s hard to believe, but the iPhone is only 10 year old, yet it has transformed us in ways we barely understand yet. And don’t get me started on the political and social landscape, suffice to say that Nora is more counter-cultural than ever before, and proudly so.
In the Tao Te Jing, Lao Tzu tells us that
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
Never have these words been more resonant that in recent months, where knowing and mastering oneself seems increasingly rare.
Let me repeat:
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
We see daily displays of the difference between mastering others, in which the external validations of strength are provided by society, and the mastering, or lack of mastering, of oneself.
Which is not to say that this is a place at which any of us arrive. Knowing ourselves is a lifelong journey, mastering ourselves is an ongoing challenge. But in having the wisdom to strive for this knowledge and mastery, and in using the tools we’ve tried to teach with which you can work on them, you’ll find that, indeed, the journey IS the reward.
Let me connect Lao Tzu’s 2500 year old writing with the Golden State Warriors, (a professional basketball team for those of you who aren’t fans) the coach of whom is Steve Kerr. In the 1980's he was a marginal basketball player barely recruited for college, who’s father was killed by terrorists in Beruit during his freshman year, who wound up having a successful career as a member of the Chicago Bulls championship teams, who is now coaching for his second championship in three years at Golden State.
When he became a head coach, Kerr spent several months talking with other coaches in basketball, football, and other sports, about what was needed for success. Why? Because he knew that he didn’t have all the answers, he knew that he didn’t know everything. Like the sign outside my office says, “Smart People Ask For Help.” Pete Carroll, who as coach of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks taught the team mindfulness meditation, told Steve to be authentic in relating his core values.
That conversation caused Kerr to reflect on his core values in a way he hadn’t prior to this. What he came up with, and what he teaches his team, are four core values: Joy, Competition, Compassion, and Mindfulness. Please note that only one of these is what might be considered a “hard” value... competition, and this in a business that measures success by the results of competition. Yet the most successful team in the NBA over the past three years, a team that last lost a game on April 10, promotes three other values that many might consider “soft” Joy, Compassion, Mindfulness. Note as well how little these last three values are promoted in our cultural and political discourse, Joy, Compassion, Mindfulness. Note how important they are in our own personal lives.
As a result of a similar conversation with a senior several years ago I came up with my own core values, which are love, learn, serve, and savor. ...
... as one last homework assignment I urge you to spend some time this summer thinking about your own core values, what it is that makes life meaningful to you, and in that examination you’ll find, I think, some clarity about your own choices and direction in life.
Love is something we need to give as well as receive, and today would be a great day to let your parents and grandparents know how much you love them, and appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made for you out of their love. It’s said that we can never love our parents as much as they love us or we’d never move out and get on with our lives, and from my perspective as both a parent and a child I completely understand that. But you’ll be amazed at how much smarter your parents get as you get older. And don’t be afraid to love, and perhaps more importantly, forgive yourself, when you mess up, as, indeed, we all do.
As you’ve learned, hopefully, through our mindfulness practices we can be our own worst critics, putting up with self-talk that we would never accept from anyone else. Take the time to be aware of what’s going on in that thought-stream in your head... is it kind and loving, as your parents have been to you?
“Learn” is my second big one, and it’s not really about school.
The world is an amazing place, full of interesting people and things, and there’s so much to explore. Foster your curiosity and follow your passions, when you stop learning you’ve taken a step into an intellectual grave. Look at Chris and Christina as role models, heading off to the Peace Corps in Africa in their 20's to learn about themselves and the world, and taking a leap of faith that as they continued to learn and grow success would find them. Never stop being curious.
“Serve” is an idea that I hope we’ve helped inculcate during your years at Nora. Leave your small corner of the world better than you found it, and try, in each interaction with other people, to leave them a bit better off than you found them. It’s easy to take, to BE served, but all of us in this room have already won the lottery just by virtue of our birth... if the rest of the world lived like we do we’d need 5 planet Earths to support us, so pay something back to the world in recognition of this.
And finally, “Savor.” Enjoy the moments of grace in your life, such as today, or a good meal, or a beautiful sunset. While we all have challenges in our lives, which are always on our minds, take a Dot-B from time to time to savor and recognize all that is wonderful about your life, and about this moment in time.
Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls. School, and life, have not always been easy for you. Despite this you persevered, and we are proud of you. Now that you have finished high school, the world is open to you, and the world is a fascinating place indeed. When this school was founded 53 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country. What will the next 53 years hold for your generation? How will you help to shape it? And please do shape it, get involved, because the world needs all the help it can get from bright, enlightened people like all of you.
So to all of you members of the class of 2017, bonded by the unique high school experiences of the past few years, like me, try to remember to love, to learn, to serve, and to savor. Like Steve Kerr, bring Joy, Competition, Compassion, and Mindfulness to everything you do. The world is a wonderful place: there is much to love, much to learn, great needs to serve, and much delight to savor. But the world also needs your Joy, your Compassion, and your Mindfulness. Whether you’re doing fashion design or song design, renovating houses or renovating economic policy, creating art or creating comedy, fighting for justice overseas or in America, climbing Everest or climbing the corporate ladder, studying modern video or ancient wisdom, the world is full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them. Read, take action, stay curious, and take every opportunity to do the small things to make your corner of the world a better place, because small is the new big. Godspeed.