Wednesday, May 30, 2012

To the Class of 2012

With graduation season well upon us, there is no shortage of witty and wise graduation messages to the class of 2012.  We pointed out last year that the Teaching Underground isn't likely to make any of those wise and witty speeches, but after teaching the class of 2012 for the last nine months I'd like to offer the second annual Teaching Underground Graduation Speech.

To the Class of 2012::

Congratulations!  Welcome to the 88% of adult Americans with a high school diploma.  Some people will tell you it doesn’t mean that much anymore.  But do you remember your first day of school.  It was probably a big deal.  Pictures, special clothes, extra attention—some of you might have even brought a tear to your parents’ eyes.  The fact that it was the first day of school for every other five year old in the county didn’t diminish the significance of that day in your life.  A high school diploma is an expectation in our American culture, but don’t let that convince you that what you’ve accomplished is anything less than a success.

With this success, I do have a little bad news.  People have been telling you otherwise for a while, but it’s time you know the truth.  You can’t be anything you want to be anymore.  You have set a course in elementary, middle, and high school for yourself that has laid parameters for what you may accomplish into the future.  The sooner you discover those parameters and work toward maximizing your opportunities within them, the happier you will find yourself in life.

For example--  If you’ve never picked up a golf club in your life, don’t count on winning the Master’s.  If I just crushed your dream, you can still practice hard and make some sacrifices for the next twenty-five years of your life and hope to earn a spot on the senior tour.

If you meandered through high school doing just enough to pass your classes with a “C” or “D”, you’re not likely to find yourself in the 2016 entering class of Harvard Law School.  Don’t leave high school with the false impression that now you’re going to ace the next two years of community college, transfer to a top tier four-year university, and graduate into a six-figure salary.  Good intentions alone won’t change over a decade of learned study habits and attitudes.

Success takes hard work, but just as importantly, it takes wise work.  Chasing a dream makes for great books and movies when they work, but tune into American Idol in January—you know, when they host try-outs and everyone laughs at the terrible contestants who thought they could sing.  Some dreams are best left in the middle of the night.

You’ve earned a diploma, so I hope that you’ve learned to listen critically.  I don’t want you to put your dreams aside and move into the real world at eighteen years old.  Frankly, that’s not even healthy for a forty year old.  But you’ve been told the opposite for too long, so long it almost sounds cruel to say otherwise. 

It helps to remember your failures.  Some of you haven’t been allowed to have very many of them, but think.  Remember not getting picked by your classmates, being cut from a team, not getting the part in a play, failing a test, college rejection letters.  Despite it all, you’re still here today.  You’re still sitting in a cap and gown, ignoring the speaker, wishing it would be over, not sure whether you should be happy or sad, nervous or excited. You’re experiencing a richness of life that only comes through effort, failures, perseverance, then success.

You can’t do “anything” you set your mind to, but you can set your mind toward significant and lasting accomplishments that you can be proud of.

I teach Psychology, and students this year learned that individuals who are motivated to succeed choose challenging but reachable goals.  If you want to get better at basketball, you don’t stand right under the basket to practice shooting.  But, standing well beyond half-court taking shot after failing shot is just as much a waste of time.  Waiting for luck is different than looking for success. 

This will determine where you are ten, twenty, fifty years from now.  Complacency breeds mediocrity and unfettered idealism breeds justified failure.  Challenge yourself with realistic goals.  Stretch just beyond your comfortable ability and when you reach comfort, stretch just a little more.  Don’t rest on past accomplishments or give up because of current failures.

Take a lesson from the cap and gown you’ve earned the right to wear today.  Life is not lived for a single moment of achievement.  Each achievement is a commencement for a new chapter of life, a new series of set backs and successes, both of which propel you into the future.  Embrace that future by welcoming the challenge.  

Keep your eyes on the stars if that’s your destination, but don’t spend a lifetime stuck on the ground because ignoring reality and refusing to fight gravity.


  1. Well said Steven...but you changed some of what I wrote for you. Not bad though.

    I would respectfully add a few things. I would remind the honored graduates that we have a common bond as I sat exactly where they now sit, actually I sat across the street in an older building without air conditioning...proof of how tough I had it. In the time since I was "them" so to speak, I have learned a few things. I have learned perhaps a great deal more about life since high school than I learned up to and during it.

    It was that foundation that directed me and set my course. And led me to, well, nowhere. I have gone nowhere. But what a journey it has been. Life is about getting there and not arriving. My, correction, our high school helped me define not so much in what I would become, but who I would become. And that is far more important. Turner mentioned that you can't be whatever you want anymore but you can still be who you want to. As you strive to become what you want make equal efforts to maintain an maximize who you are. Surround yourself with good people who care about you. Treat the people that matters most to you well, then do the same for those that don't. So assuming the Maya were wrong, and they are, I do very sincerely wish each of you the very best.

    In addition I will include an assortment of meaningless graduation advice:
    The tassel's worth the hassle.
    When you leave here don;t forget why you came.
    Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.
    You should be cared the first day you walk into school and the last day you walk out.
    If all you make in business is money you've got a crappy job
    During my second year of nursing school our professor gave us a quiz. I breezed through the questions until I read the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?" Surely this was a joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank. Before the class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward our grade. "Absolutely," the professor said. "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello." I've never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.

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