Congratulations Graduates, And . . .

At the request of a neighborhood high school principal, I recently gave a short speech at their commencement. I was honored by the request, but to tell the truth, the invitation gave me pause. I’ve been to several high school graduations, including my own, and for the life of me I cannot remember who spoke or what they said at any of them. What does one say to that many teenagers?

Canvassing friends, colleagues and family did not offer a clear direction. Nor did direct contact with teenagers in my orbit. My best interactions with high school students have usually been when I have listened, not talked. Brevity, I knew, would be appreciated. Humor is always a plus, but being funny is no easy task. I decided it was beyond my reach. I chose to focus on two themes.

The first is that grateful people are happy people. There’s a fair bit of science behind this, as well as a cottage industry in the business press. I believe it – and I also thought that it might be a good way for different groups in the audience to thank each other.

The second theme was about the power of choice: we become our choices. It’s a crib on a quote by Albert Camus: “life is the sum of our choices.” During the speech I didn’t want to go into French existentialism, Camus or really any substantive philosophy. My angle was that with increased agency, the graduates would have more opportunity to define themselves through active choice. Calling attention to this, I figured, would be a good way to acknowledge their maturity and the responsibilities – and possibilities – accompanying it.

Was it successful? I have no idea. It went very quickly, as speeches tend to do. What I took away from the ceremony was the tremendous good will, the enthusiasm, and the happiness that the graduates shared. It’s a very well run high school with a high graduation rate. Seeing smart young people on the cusp of the next step of their lives is a wonderful thing. It’s a powerful motivator for anyone in education. It is, by default, encouraging – and I am grateful (and happy) for sharing a moment with them.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. David – On gratitude, I’d offer up Marty Seligman’s “Flourish.” It is one of many books I read on the topic as I sought to increase the resilience and happiness of our students at Champlain. It is a good place to start with the father of positive psychology.

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