Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Nora School Graduation, Class of 2015

Well, here we are at that most highly anticipated moment of the graduation ceremony, the head of schools’ remarks, and I have to start by thanking you for picking reasonable colors for your caps and gowns this year.  Some years we have not been so fortunate, particularly the green and purple year!

Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, and death are the biggies, and you probably won’t much enjoy the last one, so you’d better enjoy this one!

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 Nora School tuition.  Please stand and accept our congratulations as I call your name: Ina and Ron Smith, Debra Prybyla and David Blockstein, Lena and Emerson Browne, Margaret and William Cornett, Rita and Don Harris, Leif Kjoita and Lajla Jakhelln, Kathleen and Chris Mantua, Lois and Michael McCabe, Patricia Eyster and Martin McGinley, Susan Blumen and David Mosher, Francine Blume and Matt Salomon, Catherine and Alex Savich, Paula and Edward Sella, Patricia Yeghissian and Arvid Muller, and Ruth and Raymond Zanoni.

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 2025 and 2035 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, Val Wise, Judy Gelman, and Jimmy Kraft.

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 I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank him.  Marcia Miller has kept the school full during her tenure at Nora, and will be running the show for a good part of the summer, for which I thank her. The rest of your teachers have worked hard to get you here today, and I’d like to recognize them:  Hedy Szanzer, Patrick Vongchan, and Nic Galloro. We’d like to recognize and congratulate Spanish teacher Ave Luke-Simpson and future music and digital art teacher Will Simpson on the birth of their daughter Ellis, and to thank Steven Watkins for coming in to sub for Ave for the last quarter of the year. I’d also like to thank Nina Hagan and Rachel Korr who came and pitched in as our enrollment grew this year, and finally a couple of folks who are moving on to new endeavors, Trey Harris and Robin Steitz.

It is a tradition at Nora to honor 5 year anniversaries of faculty, and today we thank Scott Madden and Chris Conlon who both arrived at Washington Ethical High School way back in 1995.  While bringing their unique perspectives to the classroom, Scott has coached all our sports at various times and served as athletic director, while Chris established the Nora Poetry series and has run our community service programs.  Both Scott and Chris have served as WEHS and Nora college counselors.   Today we’d like to recognize them for their 20 years of service.

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 done the reading, and 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 Corcoran, and they know when you’re not doing your Pre-Calculus homework.  Robin notices when you show up late to Physics, and Patrick notices when you don’t show up to Chemistry.  It’s tough to stand up to that amount of scrutiny, but you have.

You’ve survived not only the classrooms,  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 the various crises on Wall Street and Capitol Hill.  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 People 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.

Show up on time.  Or rather, Show up.  On time.  There are two parts to this one, and you have to master both, because if you don’t, someone else will.  The world you head into is more competitive and less forgiving that the world of Nora that you’re leaving.  Professors aren’t going to give reinstatement projects so that you can earn credit in college, and your boss isn’t going to let you come in early to make up a tardy.  If you can’t show up, on time, they’ll find someone who will.
Do Your Work.  Again, the real world is a competitive place, and it’s becoming flat.  You’ll be competing with folks not only from around the block, or around the country, but around the world.  Professors and employers don’t want to hear what you’re GOING to do, they just want to see it done.  And don’t do the minimum necessary if you want to get ahead.  The world is always looking for people who do the little bit extra as opposed to those who are out the door.   Be one who does more than is asked or expected, and you’ll find yourself trusted and respected.  Yesterday I came into school to find the place transformed.  When I’d left on Friday, there were papers strewn around, the bulletin boards were empty after the Arts Festival, and all-in-all the place needed a few hours of attention.   On Monday morning the bulletin boards were decorated, the bookshelves re-arranged, and the building looked great, because Scott, who was at school administering the SAT, took it upon himself to make The Nora School look better.  He didn’t do it because he was paid to, or because he was asked to, but because he saw it needed to be done.  Do more than is expected and success will follow.

Take Care of your health.  Let me be explicit: drugs and alcohol will mess up your lives, and you’ll have even easier access to both in college than you did in high school.  No one will be looking after you any more.  If you indulge then you won’t show up on time, you won’t do your work, you won’t treat people respectfully, and you won’t graduate. Only 25% of all college freshmen in the United States graduate in four years, and drugs and alcohol are a big reason why.  Stay away from both.  

Other pieces of taking care of your health include nutritious eating, which can be a challenge if you don’t make conscious choices.  Those college buffets are the reason behind the “freshman fifteen”, which will slow down your body and muddle your mind.  Get enough sleep, which means stay away from those video games in the student union, and turn off  your computer in the dorm room. Use the health facilities, the weight room, the running track, and sign up for intramural sports.  Life is a lot more fun when you physically feel good.

Treat others respectfully.  This can be a tough one, and as you head off to college it’s one you need to work on.  Those folks you don’t like or couldn’t get along with in high school will not only be in your classes, you’ll be living with them. You’ll find people in your dorm just like you, and others who are your polar opposite.  You’ll find people who are noisy, and want you to be noisy with them, and you’ll find people who are quiet, and want you to shut up.  You’ll have to get along with them all.  It may even be enough that you’ll appreciate living with your parents!

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 sometimes 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, because you know that in Chris’small classroom your missing homework will be noticed.  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.  We all have our daily frustrations, but by doing the 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.

I remember earlier in the school year having a deep conversation with Nate about the meaning of life... alas, one of his favorite topics this year. As I thought about our conversation through the succeeding weeks I came up with my big four, which have guided me and with which you might consider placing your own paths in context. My big four are love, learn, serve, and savor.

Love is something we need to give as well as get, 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 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.

“Learn” is my second big one, and it’s not 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.

“Serve” is an idea that I hope we’ve helped inculcate during your years at Nora. Leave the world better than you found it, and try, in each interaction with others, to leave them a bit better 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 where and when we were born... if the rest of the world lived like we do we’d need 5 planet Earths to support us, so pay something back in recognition of this bounty.

And finally, “Savor.” Enjoy the moments of grace in your life, such as this one, 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.

Zachary, I hope that you are open to savoring and enjoying the new experiences that college will offer, and not focus on the ways in which it falls short of your expectations. Continue your music writing and production, find some like-minded fellow students, as you’ve done at Nora, and open yourself to the best that college has to offer and let go of the BS that is always present in everyone’s life.

Daelyn, your smiles and good humor and cheer shined the love you have on all your classmates through the years. Whether dancing in the talent show, singing Happy Birthday in the men’s chorus, or dressing up for spirit day, you’ve always been a sweet and loving presence in the Nora community. You’ve served to brighten everyone’s day, which I’m sure will be appreciated in the years ahead.

Julia, you’ve been such a good friend to so many students at Nora, and your group will sorely miss your company. You’re one of those folks for whom we can visibly see the benefits of meditation in your increasingly calm response to life over the years. I hope that you use this practice as life’s stresses increase.

Michael, the hole in our knowledge of upcoming Apple products next year will be immense. I hope that your technology passion expands beyond what you know and are excited about into areas that you don’t know about... which is where the real excitement lies.

Acie, your curiosity about cars, motion, electricity, and engineering of all sorts will take you far. We’ve enjoyed watching your enthusiasm for concrete learning even as you’ve become quite a good student at the more theoretical aspects of school.

Andrew, you’ve been savoring the activities these past few weeks in a really sweet way, almost like you want to leave, and you’ve savored the friendship of your classmates throughout your time at Nora.  I know that your love for your family, and particularly for your brother, over these past couple of years has had a profound impact on your life, and I hope that you are both able to savor this day, and the years ahead, together.

Ara, I remember when you were first learning to play the drums with Trey, and the band had some real adventures with rhythm and tempo. Over these past few years you’ve become rock solid, not only as a musician but as a human being.

Aden, you came to Nora already a great musician, and your music is a great service to the world. And just as the world has much to teach us, some have much to teach the world. In our little corner of the world you have indeed taught us much over the past few years.

Danielle, I’m sorry. Actually, I’m not sorry, because sometimes the way we best serve others is by challenging them, and I know that in the years we’ve known you that you HAVE been challenged, and that you’ve risen to every challenge, even when it’s been frightening, and by rising to challenge you’re on this stage today ready to move on with your life. Congratulations.

Rachel, we’ve quite enjoyed your infectious enthusiasm at talent shows and poetry readings throughout the years. Your dramatic readings and thoughts have livened up these events time after time, and I hope that as you pursue higher education that you get involved in drama and writing and music, and take advantage of all the college experience has to offer a person with your energy and ambition.

Eva, your curiosity, hard work, and enthusiasm for graphic design helped turn out the best yearbook ever, and is reflected on banners and doors throughout the Nora building as well as at the Silver Spring Fire Department.  While we’ll miss your creativity, I know that Trey will really miss having such a valuable assistant next year.

Max, each year you allowed a bit more of the veneer to come off and the real Max show through. And you grew more comfortable allowing others to know that Max. You’ve been one of those students whose curiosity, which was on full display in Italy, knows no bounds. Don’t be afraid of not looking cool... the coolest people don’t really care.

DeAnna, one of our “frequent fliers,” the hallways will be a little emptier without your presence next year. One of the things you learned over the past few years is to allow yourself to be vulnerable, to be your REAL self, and to trust that good things can result.  Just remember to wander INTO classes next year.

Nick, over and over during the past couple of weeks we’ve heard about how you’re the kindest student at Nora. In your own quiet way you’ve been an integral part of the community... really demonstrating what leadership is all about by serving others, in the classroom and on the playing fields. I hope that you’ll participate in sports at some level in college, and that if your Orioles manage to beat my Red Sox for the American League pennant that they go on to win the World Series.

 Torgeir, you’ve shown us that still waters run deep indeed. Your world travels taking on the chess world have been largely out of our sight, but your modesty and confidence have not. I’m pleased to note that you provided me with the high point of my chess career, for the one move when I put you in check before you mercilessly crushed me two moves later.  I don’t imagine it was the high point of your career.

Each of you has, in your own way, shown courage in passing through our halls. School has 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 51 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  A woman’s place was in the home.   What was good for GM was good for America.  From a space telescope that can see back to the beginning of time to our first black president here on earth, the world is unfolding in ways beyond my generation’s dreams.  What will the next 51 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it?

So, our newest alumni, remember to love, to learn, to serve, and to savor. The world is a wonderful place, and there is so much to love, so much explore, so much need, and so much delight . Whether you’re doing fashion design or song design, renovating houses or renovating economic policy, art or comedy, foreign or domestic, modern video or ancient wisdom, the world if 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 take a small action to make the world a better place, because small is the new big.

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