Thursday, June 04, 2009

Unused Speech 2009

Members of the board, principals, fellow faculty members, and graduates: Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak here today. I am incredibly grateful to be allowed to be part of this tremendous moment for the graduates here today.
Let me begin by saying 35,063 hours. That's roughly 2,103,780 minutes. Or, to make it more salient: that's the amount of time the class of 2009 had a high school career.
That may seem like a long time, but when all is said and done... when the lights of your lives begin to dim, this will be but a moment. A flicker in the corner of your eye.
I have always found it fascinating that people will call high school the greatest period of their life.
That is an old, tired, and incorrect platitude, and you all know what a platitude is.... That's right, it's a platypus with an attitude. And if you've never seen either weren't in or weren't paying attention in my class.
This will not be the best time of your life. The world is changing in fascinating ways. We have a new president who brings about a feeling of hope for so many. We have instant communication with each other across computers and cell phones.
(Pull out cell phone and check it)
Which means I now get texts from the graduates asking me to speak faster and get to the point. Thanks (fill in the blank).
We have economic uncertainty which can be your worst enemy or your best friend depending on how you approach it.
And yet through all of this, you will have memories, experiences, and moments that will make all of this fade into the back of your mind.
Now, I cannot guarantee there's nothing scary hiding underneath your bed, but I can say that you are not alone on this journey through life. You will always have your teachers here should you need us. Our job has been to prepare you for what lies ahead.
And I know you all heard that a lot over the last four years. Think about it: how many times did you ask, "What's the point of this?"
And how many times did you hear, "To prepare you," or "Because you need to know this," from your teachers?
So I give you one more thing to prepare for.
Regardless of what your teachers have taught you, you must be prepared to be surprised.
The best part of life is not knowing what will come next. It's the thrill of an unexpected and positive surprise. It's the power of overcoming a sudden and negative astonishment. And this is the real reason why your teachers have worked so hard with you: Because the future is never written. There may be no accidents, but there is also no way to know how every piece will play out. Even the best card counter gets surprised.

As you step out of HP and move into the jungle of the real world, I leave you with an explanation of one of my favorite riddles.
My students know this question very well, and they have often asked me to give them the answer, to which I always reply, "Wait until graduation." One student told me she was excited not just to be here to graduate but to also get the answer to the question that has been plaguing her for two years. So...

There's a duck in a bottle (no groaning). You may not break the bottle, and you may not harm or touch the duck. How do you get the duck out of the bottle?

Over the course of my life, I have heard two definitive answers that were backed by zen masters.

Answer #1: Because I am the man who put the duck in the bottle, only I can remove the duck. Thus, the answer is to do nothing.
While this answer makes sense, it also means that we have no real control over the situations of life. This also means that we ignore situations as we truly feel we have no ability to affect the outcome. A very cynical way of looking at let's try #2.

Answer #2: Open the bottle, let the duck out, and close the bottle. I truly like this answer because of its simplicity. We often miss the simple ideas of childhood as we grow older. I can remember when I was in high school and a teacher asked my class, "How do you put a hippo in the refrigerator?" My class immediately launched into planning about changing the dynamics of the icebox, cutting up the hippo, and even inventing a shrink ray. And when he told us the answer of, "Open the door, put the hippo in, and close the door," I was not alone in thinking how I would pelt him with eggs later. Still, he was right. We ignore the simple because we are used to the complex. Rainer Maria Rilke, a writer I quite like said:

"If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you..."

This quote helps illustrate the point of answer #2: The simpleness of things is often right when it isn't drowned in complexity.

However, I believe that there is a third answer. A better answer.

Answer #3: Whatever you would do. This may seem like a cop out on my part, but you have to develop your own answer. I asked a colleague of mine about this the other day.
"What would you do?" I asked.
"I would smash the bottle and free the duck," she exclaimed.
"But that violates the rules," I replied.
"Sometimes a situation calls for breaking the rules," she said. "That's why it's my answer."

She's not wrong. I often tell you that I cannot give you the answer because it is my answer and not yours. As you leave here, go out, and find your ways, you know as well as I do that while teachers, family, and friends will help you, YOU must develop your own answers to life's questions. Someone will not always be there to tell you the answer. If you come across the duck in the bottle, it's up to you to decide what to do. The duck might be as simple as what class to take, or as difficult as what to do with an aged parent. It's your choice to make... no one can make it for you, and you should never want them to.

I am proud to have spent the last four years with you, and I look forward to seeing the great ways that you will take on life head on and bend it to your will. Make your teachers, your families, and yourselves proud with your choices and your definitions. And while some will tell you it isn't, failure is an option, because it is from failure that success will be born. You cannot have one without the other, and it is in those failures that we learn to find our answers. Once again, as Rilke said:

"Live the questions now."

Good luck graduates.


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