It’s that time of year here in NJ… the time for graduations and, naturally, graduation speeches. Having attended, by my rough count, approximately 35 I’ve become a bit jaded. This week, in the district where my wife works, a remarkable young teacher shook me. In the tradition of the district, Jay Armstrong had the opportunity to share his thoughts as a result of his award as Teacher of the Year last year. He is a teacher and a writer. For more pieces of his writing and additional insight into his approach to teaching, I highly recommend that you visit his web site.
I realize that each of us is touched by different things… things rooted in our life experiences. Jay’s words touched me and I wanted to give him the chance to speak to you as well. I’ve reprinted the transcript here.
Note: In the event you’d like to listen to Jay’s talk, here is a link to access the audio file.
Transcript – graduation address, Robbinsville HS
Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)
First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.
Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.
It has not been proofread.
And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.
I’d also like to thank…
Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration, the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.
I appreciate it. I really do.
But I have a ask to question…
What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?
It’s the predicament I’m in right now.
Understand, I’m honored to be here.
But I know my role.
I am your impediment.
The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.
My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…
“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”
I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.
How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.
How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”
In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.
So… the question remains…what do you say?
Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.
My wife. Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.
My mom is here.
My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.
And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.
(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)
And that’s about it.
In the whole stadium.
My wife. My mom.
Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.
And one of the 87 Twamleys.
Let’s breakdown my situation even further…
What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?
Seriously. You do.
If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.
That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.
So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…
And then there’s everybody else.
To most people here I’m a stranger.
And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.
So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?
I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.
Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.
Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.
Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.
The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.
A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.
And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.
So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?
I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.
Two stories that have made me the person I am today.
One from high school, one from adulthood.
Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.
Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” (high five)
Do you realize what I just did there?
That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.
The First Story
The first story goes like this…
I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.
My teacher, Ms. Baker, is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.
I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.
As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.
Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.
She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.
Right then in freshman English class I submitted.
Right then I began to distrust myself.
If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.
For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.
I listened too closely to opinions.
I bought the fabrications the world was selling.
Don’t buy them.
The Second Story
The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.
On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.
A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.
This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.
Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail” available on Spotify and Soundcloud.
In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.
To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)
Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.
All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).
No, Joe Natalie*…
(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… if I was God.)
I am not God…
I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)
The second story goes like this…
It’s March 2010.
I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.
After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.
I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.
At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.
I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.
For 90 minutes author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.
Then it was over.
I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.
I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.
When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.
I turn toward him.
I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.
I step forward.
Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.
I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.
It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.
I take a step back.
What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?
The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me? What if he told me to shut up and go home?
I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.
Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.
Scoring your dream job.
Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.
And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.
But those chapters are often short.
The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.
They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.
My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.
Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.
For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.
A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.
You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.
But what will you do now?
Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.
Intuition does not get easier with age.
Self-reliance comes with a real cost.
And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.
I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.
You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.
Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.
Trust your change.
Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.
But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…
What will be the subject of your next chapter?
Will you be a minor character in your own life?
Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?
It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.
Don’t do it.
It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.
Don’t believe it.
Before I go…
I challenge you…
And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.
Finally, I have a last request…
To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…
“If you had one shot, one opportunity to
seize a picture with the class of 2017
would you capture it or just let it slip?”
Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…
It’s been an honor and privilege…
Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.