Text of Graduation Speech

Thank you Principal Saliani, Ms. Miller, and Mr. Gladding for the work you have done to make today as special as possible.

Faculty and staff of Eleanor Roosevelt, thank you for the work you do every day. Your passion and professionalism make this school what it is. It has been an honor and a privilege to be counted among you.

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews, any family members I may have missed, and friends; thank you for being here, and for being there, supporting these students through the moments that became years that have become what we celebrate today.

Members of the Eleanor Roosevelt High School graduating class of 2000 and 9... I know it sometimes felt as if today would never come, but here you are, and in a few minutes you will walk across this stage and become graduates.

I’m going to repeat that because I think it's important, and I want to ask you a few questions about it.

“In a few minutes you will walk across this stage and become graduates.”

  My first question is, which word in that sentence is the most important to you, right now?

How many of you agree with that answer, “graduates?”

I think, under the circumstances, “graduates” is a reasonable answer. We are here to celebrate that achievement. Being graduates is important

But I am going to make a case for the word “become.”

Today you become graduates. This is your rite of passage. It is the end of something and the beginning of something else. It symbolizes change.

And there have been many changes. While you have been in high school, we have surged in Iraq and redeployed to Afghanistan, suffered the most severe economic collapse since the Great Depression, and my apologies to Knicks fans everywhere, especially Mr. Jonas, but Lebron James stayed in Cleveland. And that probably won’t change, actually.

But, Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals. John Legend won the Grammy for Best New Artist, an award that once went to Milli Vanilli. I think that’s an improvement. Myspace took second place to Facebook, and Twitter, well, that reminds me (while texting on phone) “Giving…graduation speech.  Seems to be going well.”

We have also been witness to, and some of us active participants in, a most historic American election. I mean, who could have predicted Kris Allen would win American Idol? I totally did not see that coming!

About that other election…there is now a Black family in the White House.

President. Barack. Obama.  People in prior generations, and some people in this very room who wanted it to happen thought this day would never come to pass. You have had the privilege to be in high school when it happened.  

You live in a world that is changing, that is becoming something else. A world experiencing its own rites of passage.

That world will defend its status quo, it will resist change by telling you you are too small to make a difference. It will define you by test scores, by gpa, and the dollar value of your house and your salary.

But, I promise you, you are not limited by your iq score, your creativity, or athletic skill because these things are limitless. They are not possessions like socks in a drawer.

Your capacity to do good in the world is not measurable by any standardized test or dollar amount.

You cannot tell the world it is wrong about this. You will have to go out and prove it. We, the people gathered here to celebrate your achievements today, know you can because we have already seen you do things you did not know, or even believe, you could do.

So, what are you going to do? Who do you want to become?

[pause]

The word “graduation” comes from the Latin root “gradus,” which means step or walk. In other words, this is your journey, it is not a destination or even really a rest stop along the way.

 

If I could choose your travel companions for the journey ahead, I would give you these graduation gifts:

Curiosity, because with openness and wonder you will never be bored.

Empathy, in the 21st century understanding how other people experience the world will be critical to your success.

Tolerance of Ambiguity, because not all solutions will be clear or obvious, you will need to be comfortable with uncertainty.

Inspiration, that you are not only inspired by others, but that you become people who inspire others.

Ambition, so that you are motivated to take the next step.

Skepticism, ask good questions, and many of them. There are people in this room who understand the power of good questions. Those who ask the right questions change the world more, and better, than those who give the right answers. Question everything.

Humility, to temper ambition and skepticism. Never believe your own answers, or fail to listen to, and hear, your fellow travelers.

You do not need our permission to make the world a better place.

All you need do is decide to begin. We have just spent four years preparing you to do exactly that, to make that decision. But this is not about us, or even you. This is about the kind of world we, together, will leave for those who will come after us.  Today, you become a part of that bigger journey.

So, here you are.

And in a few minutes, you will walk across this stage and become…?

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