Class of 2015 Graduation Speech

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Photo courtesy of Kimi Zadeh

Congratulations to the MIHS class of 2015! For those of you who didn’t attend graduation or for those of you who want to experience it all over again, here’s the transcript of Mr. Randolph’s graduation speech.

“Thank you. That felt really good.

Dr. Plano, the Mercer Island School Board, our MIHS administration, staff, coaches, teachers, and parents, thank you for your tireless work in seeing through the excellence that is the class of 2015.

Graduates, my name is Mr. Randolph, I will be your commencement speaker this evening.

It’s good to see you guys. Thanks for coming out. I didn’t think you’d all make it, but, yeah, we got a pretty good turn-out.

So I have taught senior students throughout my career, and over the years I’ve noticed some commonalities. I imagine you have a number of emotions running through you. Excitement. Anxiety. Relief. In the last month or two of the school year, my seniors always say the same things, like “I can’t wait to get out of this place.” Or, “I’m so done with high school.” And, I get it, you’ve been here four years, and you’re ready to experience something new.

I’ve been here eight years, that’s like two high school careers. But never mind that. Mr. Noble’s been here 17 years. Don Carlos has been here for 24 or maybe 25 years, he’s not too sure. Ms. Miltune has been here for forty years. So, when you said you can’t wait to leave, did you ever stop and think about how that must make Ms. Miltune feel? No, you probably didn’t.

It’s bad enough that you are all young, extraordinarily bright, attractive, dedicated to service, and good at sports and art, you didn’t have to go and remind us that you also get to leave. That’s just rude. I mean, do you have any idea what you will be doing the second Saturday of May next year? No, you probably don’t. I’ll be at prom again. Just hoping that after next year’s seniors have all eaten that there are still leftovers at the buffet. You never know. Maybe next year will be plated, and the chaperones will have to settle for Costco sandwiches in the supply room. That’d be pretty cool, too.

And in late August, early September many of you will be going to college, and some of you will attend your first college football game, joining 80,000 screaming fans in massive stadiums all cheering on your school’s team in nationally televised games. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching the homecoming assembly, watching the flag dudes race around on tricycles while wearing diapers.

But whatever, hopefully after you complete your four or five years of college, you might come back to MIHS. And you’ll pop your head into my classroom for a visit, and you’ll see me and you’ll have a mildly astonished look on your face, and you’ll say something sweet like, “Oh my God, Mr. Randolph, you’re still here?” And that’s okay. It doesn’t hurt. No, it’s funny.

Or maybe you came to visit a different teacher, we just happen bump into each other in the hallway, and it’s been awhile, and you had to make room in your brain for everything you’ve learned, so maybe you don’t exactly remember everything about high school, and you’re a little confused when see me, so you’re like “Hey, Mr. Willecke!”

And, that’s okay because it’s been four years, and I have taught nearly 500 students since you left, so I don’t remember you either and I’m like, “hey, you!” Come here. “Yeah, APUSH forever!”

And all of that is fine because it’s precisely what’s supposed to happen. You are supposed to leave now and have new experiences. Maybe you come back for a visit, but it is time for you to go, take what you’ve learned and move on.

That leads me to the other sentiment common of graduating seniors. Outside of the I-can’t-wait-to-get-away-from-this-place there’s the “Wait! What now?” The overall anxiety associated with starting new. Most of you are leaving home, and eighteen years of security and routine. And you’re a little scared because now your lives are a surprise to you, waiting to be unwrapped like a series of Christmas mornings.

Consider the alternative. Come next December, Twombley, Dino, Laughary and I will be playing Hamlet tag again, suffering the slings and arrows for the seven hundredth time. So that’s fun for us.

You have a right to your anxieties. A few weeks ago, after the AP Lit test, I asked my students what it is they wished to learn with our remaining time together. I foolishly expected them to want to learn something fun related to English class: creative writing, movies, post-structural feminist critique. But instead, my students asked things like how do I do laundry? Do you have any suggestions for healthy meals? What about making new friends? They instead wished to learn about the adult world. And then, a student in the front row of the class, for the purposes of the story, let’s call her “Allie Casper,” she asked me, “How are you not bored?”

It was a good question, one that I not been prepared to answer on that particular day of class. After all, it was a personal question touching on the existential struggle. Solving boredom is no easy task. At least, not in the long term. Short-lived boredom can be temporarily corrected. Drive a different route to work, make friends with someone who’s wearing a cape, don’t watch televised golf.

But, I didn’t think “Allie Casper” was asking for solutions to those brief moments of boredom… So, I asked for clarification. “How do you know I’m not bored?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” She said “You seem happy.”

Realizing now that Allie had equated navigating boredom with being happy, I asked her and the rest of the class to give me an opportunity to think about the question further. And so I did, and then I wrote this speech. So here’s the lesson:

“Allie” committed what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error, the tendency for an observer, when analyzing another’s behavior, to underestimate the impact of the situation and to overestimate the impact of personal disposition. In other words, “Allie” attributed the absence of boredom in my life to my personality, but she failed to consider the crucial fact that she had only observed me in the classroom and amongst students. Because she gets to see me at my best, doing what I love to do, which is teaching, she assumed that I am happy and unbore-able.

The truth is, I do get bored. My students don’t see me grading their essays. They don’t see me at the DMV. Or reading aloud the banal and profoundly unimaginative Thomas the Train books to my daughter Esme again and again and again, Dada. Nor do they see me falling victim to the pathetically mindless distractions of our day: blindly scrolling through Facebook & Instagram, reading click bait, or taking pointless internet quizzes like “Which TV Mom am I?” Lorelai Gilmore. (Always thought of myself as Claire Huxtable, but oh, well.)

Ironically, it is through attribution error that Allie actually stumbled upon my very answer to her question. When I’m teaching, I’m not bored, I am engaged and extraordinarily happy. And I know I have found my calling because I’m willing to endure the routine and tedium of the job. And given that we are trying to make productive citizens out of you, allow me to advise you only once this evening:

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” That’s Frankl for those of you who read close enough, and though I don’t love his book, he’s onto something. Using the tools of an education, you must search for meaning, discover purpose, and as it relates to the here and now, the commencement of your professional lives, find your calling, a thing integral to your life and identity, and learn to do that well.

Please don’t mistake my advice for the bumper sticker platitude: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” because that’s stupid. And, if high school was occasionally boring, and your teachers unnecessarily demanding, or inflexible, that’s good. You must learn how to endure things you don’t like, so as to acquire the fortitude and patience and grace that will enable you to do the thing you love. Then you will not cower from the inescapable bureaucracy or inevitable tedium that will accompany whatever the calling because not all things will be pleasant no matter what you choose to do.

It may sound a little sad or embarrassing for me to admit, but in my professional life, few days are as satisfying as graduation. Watching you all beam with pride over your achievement and excitement for the moment and promise for the days to come, I get to share in your elation, and feel a small part of it. It’s a day I’d happily relive for the rest of my life. Having said that, I know my experience is but a fraction of what your parents and families feel. Please remember, alongside you, they’re feeling some excitement, anxiety, and relief. With an almost two-year-old daughter of my own, I’m only beginning to understand the depths of love and meaningful sacrifice. So please, do your parents a favor, and when you can, let them know how are you managing in the adult world because they’re thinking about you, and how you’re doing more than you can possibly know. Call, don’t text, or better yet, Skype or FaceTime; show them around your untravell’d worlds.

Your teachers, your parents, we all wish for you to live meaningful, happy lives, but we know that does not come to the passive. So don’t rest on this moment, and if I may continue to plagiarize Tennyson: “How dull it is to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!” Hopefully you have acquired a love for learning, inspired “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” and that search for your calling commences tonight. Or tomorrow. It’s getting late.

Class of 2015. I will miss you. Thank you; it has been an honor. And, Word.”

 

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