Friday, June 14, 2019

Commencement Remarks, June 14, 2019

Remarks to the Class of 2019

Well, seniors, it’s time for one last quiz... what time is it? Yes, it’s time for the fun part of your day!  Thanks 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 55th commencement of our tiny school, over-half of which I’ve had the honor of addressing.  I’m glad you all made it to the stage today, as that is not the case in all schools, or, sadly, with all your classmates this year.  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.” Since it’s Friday, I have to work in one last dinner table story: Looking back over my early career recently I remembered that when I was teaching trumpet lessons I got into trouble... because I told my students to read band books.

    Today marks one of the few times in your lives that everyone will get together just for you.  Birth, graduation, marriage, death are the big ones... you don’t remember the first one and you won’t enjoy the last, you’d better enjoy this one!

    On Fridays, in addition to bad puns, 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 challenges confront 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 unfocused gaze, and bring attention to the breath.  Bring to mind the person whose presence is responsible for your being here today, the graduate on the stage, or the parents, grandparents, or supporters in the audience.  And as you hold this person in your mind, offer them this thought: may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

    And now offering the same thoughts to the entire class of 2019: may your lives be happy, may your lives be healthy, may your lives be free of suffering, may you live in peace.

    And finally offering the same thoughts to the world at large: 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 2029 and 2039 as it is today, and has been since 1964.

Would those members of the Board of Directors here today please stand.

    I’d especially like to recognize one Board member who is stepping off the Board this year, a few months shy of his 90th birthday. Dr. Louis, Beau, Kaplan was younger than I am now when he began teaching science at Washington Ethical High School 32 years ago.  Having retired from a successful career as a dentist, while continuing to teach dentistry at Northern Virginia Community College, Beau decided that his life was incomplete without wrangling ornery teenagers through Biology, Chemistry, and Physics at WEHS. The stories are legion, from the annual Bomb that the Chemistry class built and exploded on the lawn of the Ethical Society to his taking his morning shave in class to demonstrate to a student why doing makeup during Biology wasn’t really appropriate. Beau and his wife Linda have been generous philanthropists with the school over the years as well, helping us buy the parking lot that now houses The Nora School, named in honor of their late daughter Nora. Having served as a teacher, Board member, substitute teacher, baseball inspiration, and Board Chair, Beau has now achieved  Emeritus status at Nora. We’d like to present him with a token of our appreciation to help him fill up those lonely autumnal Thursday afternoons when the rest of us are debating the budget.

    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, Allison Chang, Dr. Avé Luke-Simpson, Brennan Boothby, Chrissy Jarina, Christina Mullen, Chris Conlon, Marcia Miller, Marylin Riptoe, Nisaa Abdusabur, Prose Cassells, and Will Simpson. A special thanks to Scott Madden, who has shepherded the Class of 2019, and their parents, through the anxiety, fear, and trepidation of their post-graduate planning.

We have a couple of teachers celebrating anniversaries with us this year. 20 years ago Hedy Szanzer joined Beau and Elaine and Chris and Scott, as a teacher at Washington Ethical High School. A generation of students has overcome their fear of math in her capable hands so we’d like to offer her this token of our appreciation.

Norman Maynard is celebrating 10 years at Nora, and 25 years as a teacher. As Assistant Head of School, Norman had big shoes to fill, following Elaine Mack and Mara Nicastro, and he has done so impressively, building upon the work they began, improving systems and operations, and providing wise counsel over the years to students, parents, teachers, and, most importantly, to me. Thank you.     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, and sadly this year, not everyone did, but all of 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.  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 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 year 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.  Too few adults understand responsibility, 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’s 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. Be Kind. 

   These thirteen 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. Showing Up, and On Time, cost a few of your classmates their graduation. Learning from others’ mistakes can be as valuable as learning from your own.     Your class had the unique challenge of moving the entire school twice during your four years. In your time at Nora many of  you have essentially gone to three different schools... Nora with one floor, Nora At Grace, and Two Floor Nora. It’s been quite a ride!

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 than in recent years, where knowing and mastering oneself seems increasingly rare.

We see on display daily the difference between trying to master 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.

    Knowing oneself is one thing that, so far, Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is unable to do. Regardless, AI is the next big thing that’s going to affect your lives. I’d like to propose that, rather than be dazzled by AI, you consider IA, or IAA, in terms of the things that robots can’t yet do.

    I is for Intention - each day, what 3 things do you plan to accomplish? This needn’t be work, it could be rest, reading, or calling a friend. The important thing is to have an intention. What is your intention for tomorrow? Get off of a robotic Autopilot and lead your life with intention.

    The first A is for Attention - to what do you pay attention... or are you just going with, whatever shiny new distraction is in front of you? Are you on Autopilot, checking Facebook and Snapchat, or do you bring attention to whatever it is you’re doing, even if it’s just breathing? You always have a choice, and we’ve practiced lots of tools to help you catch yourself and make that choice.

    The final A is for Adaptability - when the universe throws you a curve ball, how do you respond? Or do you just react, again and again, on Autopilot. The jobs that can be done on Autopilot are disappearing... we have to pump our own gas and check out our own groceries.

    Our robot overlords are, at least for now, mostly on Autopilot, not yet able to control attention or work with conscious intention. They’ll always have limits. Will you? This is why we wanted you to study Algebra and Chemistry and Art and Writing and Literature, so that you can be intentional, adaptable, and able to thrive. This is why we taught you mindfulness practices, so you can intentionally bring attention to your both your internal and external worlds and cope with the stress of change. I hope that you’ll continue to use these tools. Those without the capacity for adaptation, setting intentions, and bringing purposeful attention, will find life challenging in the years ahead. Be intentional, practice paying attention, and be prepared to adapt.

    Part of IAA involves your mindset. When you leave here today you’re headed off on your life’s adventure, perhaps knowing the next move or two, but without any real idea of what the next 5, 10, 30 years will bring. At my own high school graduation I was certain I’d be playing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra within a few years. And here I am! The one thing you can count on is change, noted by Siddhartha Guatama 2,500 years ago.  Can you approach the unknown with courage, and, dare I ask, excitement and anticipation? Or will you cower in terror and let change run you over? Embrace the unknown and enjoy the adventure it provides, even if it’s a bit scary.

    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, full of possibilities, indeed a fascinating place. When this school was founded 55 years ago, you could not have attended school together in many parts of this country.  What will the next 55 years hold for your generation?  How will you help to shape it? And you must shape it, get involved, because the world needs all the help it can get from bright, enlightened, joyful, mindful, compassionate, artistic, insightful  people like you. Keep in mind that, just as Beau was younger than I am now when he started at WEHS, and spent the next 32 years continuing to contribute to the world, in another 55 years you’ll be older than I am now! It goes quickly!

So to all of you members of the class of 2019, as you move ahead through the next few decades, keep in mind the notion of Ikigai (e-kee-GAI), the Japanese notion of “why do you get out of bed in the morning?” There are four aspects to consider why to get out of bed:   What do you love?
What are you good at? What contribution can you make to the world? What can you be paid for?

The more intersection you can find between the answers to these questions the more meaningful you’ll find life to be. I hope that we’ve contributed to your finding those answers.

The world is full of amazing things to explore and fascinating people to meet. You are among them.  Read, take action, stay curious, be joyful and mindful, and take every opportunity to do the small things that can make your corner of the world a better place. By doing so you spread those ripples of goodness and kindness out into a world that desperately needs it. Godspeed.

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