Friday, June 15, 2018

Commencement Speech 2018

Yesterday was likely the last time I'll deliver a high school graduation speech for a while! I am making elementary school my new professional home.

It was my honor to deliver the keynote address for the Class of 2018 last night:

Dear Class of 2018, thank you for inviting me to speak with you and our guests tonight.

We are going to start with a little experiment. I am going to say some words, and you are going to listen and pay attention to what you hear.  





Maybe you heard me say Laurel.  Maybe you heard Yanny.  I sneaked a Jenny in there too, in deference to the fact that many of you will start calling me that at about 9:00 tonight if you haven’t already.  

Recently, the internet introduced us to this Yanny/Laurel sound file, and mysteriously, most of us could only hear one of those words when it played.  This prompted an online debate reminiscent of the photo of the famous dress that circulated in 2015, which people declared to be either blue and black, or white and gold.  We now know that hearing Yanny or Laurel depends on the frequencies your particular ears hear, and the color of the dress is related to how your brain processes ambient light.

When I was a teenager I copied quotes from song lyrics I thought were deep or relevant or really spoke to the devastating romantic moment I was going through, and I would share them with my best friend who was like, you listen to the lyrics?  I listen to the guitars.  My mind was kind of blown.  To me songs were mostly about their meaning.  To her, they were about music.  We were both listening to Oingo Boingo and hearing different parts.  

So what I find fascinating about our reactions to these internet debates about words and dresses is our absolute certainty that what WE perceive is the THE RIGHT ANSWER:  “It’s Laurel, and the rest of you are crazy,” “the dress is blue.  There is no white.”  WHY is it  so shocking to be confronted with evidence that we see and hear things differently from one another?   After all, there are people who like pineapple on pizza and who enjoy the smell of gasoline, and who can even walk on burning rocks without flinching.  Some of us are warm tonight, and others are cold, and you cannot tell someone they’re not cold. We see, hear, taste, smell, and feel things differently.   We also find different things beautiful, and funny, and gross, and sad, as well as easy and difficult.  We believe differently too. 

Thank goodness, by the way.  I enjoy having friends with houses of different styles and colors and eating dishes other people cook and I’ve appreciated YOUR unique approaches to fashion and differing preferences and viewpoints and influences.   I’m urging us to move beyond it HAS to be Laurel, it’s ONLY EVER a white dress, Crocs are universally ugly, and peanut butter and pickle sandwiches can never be good.  How about a different approach, like OMG, you love crocs?  Please tell me more about this affection you have for wide plastic shoes!  And then, we listen intently instead of shaking our heads in an inability to understand and ACCEPT that some people enthusiastically rock crocs.  Last week my daughter asked me to put diced apples in her tuna sandwich and I was like ewww, okay.  And then I was hungry, and there was extra tuna, and I tried it.  You guys.  This could be a new thing, like chicken and waffles, or bacon with maple syrup.  

We could stop replaying the Yanny and Laurel loop in search of hidden syllables (or to prove ourselves so very right about what we hear), and instead seek to understand one another a little more--how others’ backgrounds, experiences, and influences affect THEIR RESPONSES to the world and how things makes them feel--so often differently from ourselves.  I believe that’s one of the valuable lessons from Anthony Bourdain, who found no cuisine, from a villager’s daily porridge to the most expensive dish at a high-end restaurant, unworthy of his exploration and our attention.  Similarly, he valued the stories of the people he met, both humble and famous, and championed the challenges and contributions of dishwashers and executive chefs alike--as all essential members of culinary teams who feed us.  

Ms. Bice and I talked recently about how critical it is for everyone, regardless of age and experience, to feel they have stories to tell worthy of others’ ears.  She and your teachers have obviously had the purpose of teaching you, but the essence of that purpose has been to prompt and elicit your OWN analyses and understandings of what you’ve heard, read, seen, and experienced.  Our jobs are made joyful by the fact that WE KNOW your stories already matter, and that they’re important and instructive.  

We have much to learn from generations before and after us, if we don’t condemn them for lack of relevance or experience.  We are watching the elders in our society grow in understanding that high school students can be the greatest experts on topics which affect them most acutely, and when they speak up and demand to be heard.  Millennials are teaching our parents and my generation that money is best spent on experiences vs. things.  It’s wise to to befriend and consult older folks, too, particularly as you cross thresholds of life--we elders can empathize and share our own experiences of self doubt, of loves lost, of career pivots, and generally make you feel like you can get through, too, as we have before you.  

Class of 2018, you’ve already demonstrated the depth of your awareness and ability to listen carefully and perceptively not only to each other, but to members of your community.  You’ve paid attention.  It’s  a quality of this class we admire and celebrate.  You’ve honored contributions of all types of people who’ve supported you through your recognitions and recent notes of gratitude to teachers, coaches, youth group leaders, tutors, office staff, security guards, administrators, and substitute teachers.  

And on this journey we’ve all shared together students, staff, and families, we’ve listened to one another debate, play, sing, shout, joke, lecture, present, recite, whine, plead, argue, laugh, cry, apologize, and congratulate.  These are all sounds of being human, recognizable no matter what frequencies our own ears hear.  I’m grateful you and I were human here at CHS together.  Graduates, keep your eyes and ears and minds and hearts open, seeking to understand more about this rich, diverse, and fascinating world you’ll help shape.  Thank you, and love you all. 

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