2012 Commencement Address

Commencement Speech

Mr. Conway, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, and most importantly, seniors – welcome. We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to honor and say farewell to the graduating class. This is a time for looking forward and for celebrating all that you – Class of 2012 – have accomplished.

When given the opportunity, it has been my custom to speak to you of important life lessons. Today I continue this discussion that I began last fall in the form of Bench Talks. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the seniors one last time.

One day when my son was in second grade, he decided he was not going to go to school. My wife had driven our three kids and one neighborhood classmate the 55 minutes to school, and when they pulled up to the front door, three of the four children hopped out of the car - but not Tyler.

As a twenty-two year old looking back on this day, Tyler chuckles about the ruckus he unintentionally caused. He was not a boy who liked public attention, and he does not remember why it was that he suddenly decided he would not go to school that day, but he does remember that as the car turned onto Tower Road, he simply decided he was going to keep his seat belt buckled and remain in the back of the car.

In general, Tyler was a very obedient child. He was solicitous of his twin sister who bossed him around; he was patient with his younger sister who always wanted to play with him. He says his resolution to skip school did not stem from feelings of oppression or being stifled. The idea just popped into his mind right before he was supposed to get out of the car.

If we had lived closer to the school, which was very much like the well-established K-12 schools in northern New Jersey, my wife might have simply driven home with him in the car and let him off the hook. However, she knew if she did that, it would potentially be a battle if he decided to do this more often. So she tried every tactic she could think of to get him out of the car. He would not budge.

Throwing up her hands, she went into the school and got the teacher, who came out to the car. The teacher tried every tactic she could think of. He would not budge. Together my wife and the teacher went back into the school and got the head of lower school. The head of lower school tried every tactic she could think of. He would not budge.

The head of the lower school realized they might have to use something besides reason. "Let's get Mr. Markley," she said. Mr. Markley was the extremely muscle-bound gym teacher. He had the kind of biceps and pectoral muscles you can see through a shirt. He looked as though he spent every waking hour in the weight room of Lifetime Fitness.

At this point my wife started crying, and she went into the building, where she would not have to watch the extraction of Tyler from the family station wagon.

Within five seconds, Mr. Markley had Tyler Caldwell out of the car. It was amazing the speed with which he got this little boy to go to school.

How do you think Mr. Markley did it? I will tell you.

As he leaned his giant torso through the front window of the car, he said: "Tyler, you have two choices. You can get out that door or you can get out this door."

Tyler chose the door furthest from the gym teacher, jumped out of the car, and ran into school. He later reported that the most horrifying aspect of this experience was not the part where everyone was trying to get him out of the car; it was being late for school.

And this very idea is my topic for this reflection: CHOICE.

We love choice. We tend to equate choice with freedom and empowerment. We like to feel in control and to know our options. And certainly Tyler responded fully to Mr. Markley's allowing him to choose which door he would use.

Choice is important to us. We want to be able to choose what we eat, what time we go to bed, what we wear. Beyond these small decisions, we want to be able to choose our school, our career, our life partner.

But choice can also be very scary because we do not know the outcome of our choices. When we are wrestling with college choices, for example, we might wonder: What will it mean for my life if I choose to go to college in Massachusetts rather than in Virginia?

Choices can be hard because choosing one option may close off other options, and we don't like to close off options. Also, choices invariably entail transition and change. When you make a decision, usually this has to do with your future and a change in the status quo, and that, too, is scary.

All of you seniors have faced a multitude of choices this year, some seem life changing and others may appear less significant. How do you know what route to take? What should dictate your decision on these big life-changing choices?

I would argue that the smaller day-to-day choices matter as much or maybe even more than the seemingly more significant ones. The small choices where one makes contact with another human being are the moments that endure. Choices where you have a conversation with someone even as you rush to hurry out the door, choices where you thank people for something they have done, or when you take the time to visit with your grandparent on grandparents' day.

Or when you help your mom or dad with something even when you don't really feel like it. These small choices matter, and they shape who you are.

I would submit that when these small choices turn into habits, you become gracious, and that is an attribute that is

enduring and increasingly scarce in today's world. So, in a word, learn to be gracious.

Virginia Woolf explores the significance of these small moments in To the Lighthouse. Over half of the book tracks the characters' lives during a single day, and by including all of the small moments that happen in one's daily life, Woolf emphasizes the importance of what she calls "little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark." Woolf exposes choices that endure: a look, a moment with someone, a conversation, a meal.

It is these small moments that I would like to celebrate in this year's senior class.

In early September, I gave you seniors several charges. I asked you to work harder than you ever had before, not just in school but in everything you do. I said to you that this year would define you NOT because it determines where you will go to college but because it will reveal how you behave under pressure and under the challenge of leadership. I reminded you that respect from the underclassmen does not come from your title as seniors but from the way you act. Leadership is earned, not inherited.

I could not be more pleased with this year's senior class. Individually and collectively, you were able to work hard for your personal goals, but you never lost sight of those around you. You have been a paradigm of leadership in your capacity to give to the greater good and be true to yourselves.

An eighth grader described one of you seniors on the softball team this way: "She inspires me every day. Even on the days when she isn't having a very good day, she would reach out to me and encourage me to work hard and to do my best, and that meant a lot to me especially when I knew she had hard things she was dealing with, too."

A freshman described meeting a senior on the first day of football practice and developing a relationship with him throughout the year. "From day one on the football field then throughout the weeks of football and the rest of the year he taught me how to basically survive high school from freshman year to graduating day in 2015. From school, to sports, to girls, he covered everything. I'll never forget his encouragement and advice and the moment when, after a particularly hard drill, he acknowledged me as a teammate and peer."

A group of eighth graders said they were studying in the lobby of Founders when one of you came up to them and congratulated them on their diligence and said, "Keep up the good work, guys."

A freshman girl recalls when a senior, noticing that she was having a hard week, came up and said, "I hope that you know that you can talk to me if you need anything at all." "At that moment," the ninth grader said, "she taught me what kind of person she was and showed me that she cared about me. That meant a lot to me."

An eighth grade boy said he would never forget a moment when the senior captain of the ice hockey team said hello and held the door for him.

These seemingly inconsequential interactions actually do resonate. The simple fact that the eighth and ninth graders remember these moments, these choices that you made during your busy day, demonstrates their durability and significance.

A couple years ago a maintenance man came to our house to fix our washing machine. As he worked, I chatted with him. As men often do, we complained about the challenge of raising our daughters, knowing full well how much we loved them. We talked about work and family for about half an hour. Although I had seen him around the campus and always said hello, this was the most sustained conversation we had ever had. As it turned out, this was our final conversation.

Two weeks later Bucky died from a heart attack, and his wife asked me to speak at his funeral. When she first asked me, I resisted because I could not imagine how he would want me to speak at his funeral. I had only had one conversation with him. She said that the half an hour we spent together, talking about family, work, and life in general was hugely important to him. That single conversation was most definitely "a small moment," yet it resonated. With that affirmation, I spoke at his funeral.

As you leave MBS and head off into the world don't underestimate these small moments. Choose to embrace them the way you have here on this campus. These small choices of graciousness and inclusion, habits that you developed here at MBS, will define you in the years ahead.

Class of 2012, parents and family members and friends of seniors, congratulations, and thank you for ALL you have given to MBS during your time here. As my first senior class, you will always have a special place in my heart. We will not forget you.


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