21 June 2019, Queens, New York City, USA
16 May 2011, Booker T Washington High School, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
The school was the winner of the 2011 Commencement Challenge contest.
Thank you very much, everybody. (Applause.) Everybody, please have a seat. Thank you, Chris. Hello, Memphis! (Applause.) Congratulations to the class of 2011! (Applause.)
Now, I will admit being President is a great job. (Laughter.) I have a very nice plane. (Laughter.) I have a theme song. (Laughter.) But what I enjoy most is having a chance to come to a school like Booker T. Washington High School and share this day with its graduates. (Applause.) So I could not be more pleased to be here.
We’ve got some wonderful guests who are here as well, and I just want to make mention of them very quickly. First of all, the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, is here. Please give him a big round of applause. (Applause.) Three outstanding members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, all of whom care deeply about education — Senator Bob Corker, Senator Lamar Alexander, and Congressman Steve Cohen is here. (Applause.) You’ve got one of Memphis’s own, former Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. is in the house. (Applause.) And the Mayor of Memphis, A.C. Wharton is here. Please give him a big round of applause. (Applause.)
I am so proud of each and every one of you.
STUDENT: Thank you!
THE PRESIDENT: You’re welcome. You made it — and not just through high school. You made it past Principal Kiner. (Laughter and applause.) I’ve spent a little bit of time with her now, and you can tell she is not messing around. (Laughter.) I’ve only been in Memphis a couple of hours, but I’m pretty sure that if she told me to do something I’d do it. (Laughter.)
Then I had the chance to meet her mom and her daughter, Amber, a little while back, and we took a picture. It turns out Amber actually goes to another high school. She was worried that the boys would be afraid to talk to her if her mom was lurking in the hallways — (laughter) — which is why my next job will be principal at Sasha and Malia’s high school. (Laughter and applause.) And then I’ll be president of their college. (Laughter.)
Let me also say to Alexis and Vashti — I heard that you were a little nervous about speaking today, but now I’m a little nervous speaking after you, because you both did terrific jobs. (Applause.) We’ve had some great performances by Shalonda and Tecia and Paula, and the jazz band. Give them a big round of applause. (Applause.)
Last but not least, I want to recognize all the people who helped you to reach this milestone: the parents, the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the sisters, the brothers, the friends, the neighbors — (applause) — who have loved you and stood behind you every step of the way. Congratulations, family.
And I want to acknowledge the devoted teachers and administrators at Booker T. Washington, who believed in you — (applause) — who kept the heat on you, and have never treated teaching as a job, but rather as a calling.
Every commencement is a day of celebration. I was just telling somebody backstage, I just love commencements. I get all choked up at commencements. So I can tell you already right now, I will cry at my children’s commencement. I cry at other people’s commencements. (Laughter.) But this one is especially hopeful. This one is especially hopeful because some people say that schools like BTW just aren’t supposed to succeed in America. You’ll hear them say, “The streets are too rough in those neighborhoods.” “The schools are too broken.” “The kids don’t stand a chance.”
We are here today because every single one of you stood tall and said, “Yes, we can.” (Applause.) Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can succeed. You decided you would not be defined by where you come from but by where you want to go, by what you want to achieve, by the dreams you hope to fulfill.
Just a couple of years ago, this was a school where only about half the students made it to graduation. For a long time, just a handful headed to college each year. But at Booker T. Washington, you changed all that.
You created special academies for ninth graders to start students off on the right track. You made it possible for kids to take AP classes and earn college credits. You even had a team take part in robotics competition so students can learn with their hands by building and creating. And you didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture — a culture that prizes hard work and discipline; a culture that shows every student here that they matter and that their teachers believe in them. As Principal Kiner says, the kids have to know that you care, before they care what you know. (Applause.)
And because you created this culture of caring and learning, today we’re standing with a very different Booker T. Washington High School. Today, this is a place where more than four out of five students are earning a diploma; a place where 70 percent of the graduates will continue their education; where many will be the very first in their families to go to college. (Applause.)
Today, Booker T. Washington is a place that has proven why we can’t accept excuses — any excuses — when it comes to education. In the United States of America, we should never accept anything less than the best that our children have to offer.
As your teacher Steve McKinney — where’s Steve at? There he is. (Applause.) AKA Big Mac. (Laughter.) And I see why they call you Big Mac. (Laughter.) As Mr. McKinney said in the local paper, “We need everyone to broaden their ideas about what is possible. We need parents, politicians, and the media to see how success is possible, how success is happening every day.”
So that’s why I came here today. Because if success can happen here at Booker T. Washington, it can happen anywhere in Memphis. (Applause.) And if it can happen in Memphis, it can happen anywhere in Tennessee. And it can happen anywhere in Tennessee, it can happen all across America. (Applause.)
So ever since I became President, my administration has been working hard to make sure that we build on the progress that’s taking place in schools like this. We’ve got to encourage the kind of change that’s led not by politicians, not by Washington, D.C., but by teachers and principals and parents, and entire communities; by ordinary people standing up and demanding a better future for their children.
We have more work to do so that every child can fulfill his or her God-given potential. And here in Tennessee we’ve been seeing great progress. Tennessee has been a leader, one of the first winners of the nationwide “Race to the Top” that we’ve launched to reward the kind of results you’re getting here at Booker T. Washington.
And understand, this isn’t just an issue for me. I’m standing here as President because of the education that I received. As Chris said, my father left my family when I was two years old. And I was raised by a single mom, and sometimes she struggled to provide for me and my sister. But my mother, my grandparents, they pushed me to excel. They refused to let me make excuses. And they kept pushing me, especially on those rare occasions where I’d slack off or get into trouble. They weren’t that rare, actually. (Laughter.) I’m sure nobody here has done anything like that. (Laughter.)
I’m so blessed that they kept pushing; I’m so lucky that my teachers kept pushing — because education made all the difference in my life. The same is true for Michelle. Education made such a difference in her life. Michelle’s dad was a city worker, had multiple sclerosis, had to wake up every day and it took him a couple hours just to get ready for work. But he went to work every day. Her mom was a secretary, went to work every day, and kept on pushing her just like my folks pushed me.
That’s what’s made a difference in our lives. And it’s going to make an even greater difference in your lives — not just for your own success but for the success of the United States of America. Because we live in a new world now. Used to be that you didn’t have to have an education. If you were willing to work hard, you could go to a factory somewhere and get a job. Those times are passed. Believe it or not, when you go out there looking for a job, you’re not just competing against people in Nashville or Atlanta. You’re competing against young people in Beijing and Mumbai. That’s some tough competition. Those kids are hungry. They’re working hard. And you’ll need to be prepared for it.
And as a country, we need all of our young people to be ready. We can’t just have some young people successful. We’ve got to have every young person contributing; earning those high school diplomas and then earning those college diplomas, or getting certified in a trade or profession. We can’t succeed without it.
Through education, you can also better yourselves in other ways. You learn how to learn — how to think critically and find solutions to unexpected challenges. I remember we used to ask our teachers, “Why am I going to need algebra?” Well, you may not have to solve for x to get a good job or to be a good parent. But you will need to think through tough problems. You’ll need to think on your feet. You’ll need to know how to gather facts and evaluate information. So, math teachers, you can tell your students that the President says they need algebra. (Laughter.)
Education also teaches you the value of discipline — that the greatest rewards come not from instant gratification but from sustained effort and from hard work. This is a lesson that’s especially true today, in a culture that prizes flash over substance, that tells us that the goal in life is to be entertained, that says you can be famous just for being famous. You get on a reality show — don’t know what you’ve done — suddenly you’re famous. But that’s not going to lead to lasting, sustained achievement.
And finally, with the right education, both at home and at school, you can learn how to be a better human being. For when you read a great story or you learn about an important moment in history, it helps you imagine what it would be like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to know their struggles. The success of our economy will depend on your skills, but the success of our community will depend on your ability to follow the Golden Rule — to treat others as you would like to be treated.
We’ve seen how important this is even in the past few weeks, as communities here in Memphis and all across the South have come together to deal with floodwaters, and to help each other in the aftermath of terrible tornadoes.
All of these qualities — empathy, discipline, the capacity to solve problems, the capacity to think critically — these skills don’t just change how the world sees us. They change how we see ourselves. They allow each of us to seek out new horizons and new opportunities with confidence — with the knowledge that we’re ready; that we can face obstacles and challenges and unexpected setbacks. That’s the power of your education. That’s the power of the diploma that you receive today.
And this is something that Booker T. Washington himself understood. Think about it. He entered this world a slave on a Southern plantation. But he would leave this world as the leader of a growing civil rights movement and the president of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute.
Booker T. Washington believed that change and equality would be won in the classroom. So he convinced folks to help him buy farmland. Once he had the land, he needed a school. So he assigned his first students to actually build the chairs and the desks and even a couple of the classrooms. You thought your teachers were tough.
Booker T. Washington ran a tight ship. He’d ride the train to Tuskegee and scare some of the new students. This is before YouTube and TMZ, so the kids didn’t recognize him. (Laughter.) He’d walk up to them and say, “Oh, you’re heading to Tuskegee. I heard the work there is hard. I heard they give the students too much to do. I hear the food is terrible. You probably won’t last three months.” But the students would reply they weren’t afraid of hard work. They were going to complete their studies no matter what Booker T. Washington threw at them. And in that way, he prepared them — because life will throw some things at you.
The truth is, not a single one of the graduates here today has had it easy. Not a single one of you had anything handed to you on a silver platter. You had to work for it. You had to earn it. Most of all, you had to believe in yourselves.
I think of Chris’s stories, and what he’s faced in his life: Lost his father to violence at the age of four. Had a childhood illness that could have been debilitating. But somehow he knew in his heart that he could take a different path.
I think of all the graduates here who had to leave their homes when their apartments were torn down, but who took two buses each morning to come back to Booker T. Washington. (Applause.)
I think of Eron Jackon. Where is Eron? Eron has known a lot of setbacks in her young life. There was a period when she lashed out and she got into trouble and she made mistakes. And when she first came to Booker T. Washington, she struggled. Is that right? There are plenty of people out there who would have counted Eron out; a lot of people who would have thought of her as another statistic. But that’s not how the teachers here at Booker T. Washington saw her. And that’s not how Eron came to see herself. So she kept coming back to school, and she didn’t give up and she didn’t quit. And in time, she became a great student.
And she remembered what Principal Kiner told her: “You can’t let the past get you down. You have to let it motivate you.” And so now here Eron is, graduating. (Applause.) She’s going to keep studying to get her barber’s certificate so she can cut hair and save for college. She’s working toward her dream to becoming a lawyer. She’s got a bright future.
Everybody here has got a unique story like that to tell. Each of you knows what it took for you to get here. But in reaching this milestone, there is a common lesson shared by every graduate in this hall. And Chris said it himself in a recent interview: “It’s not where you are or what you are. It’s who you are.”
Yes, you’re from South Memphis. Yes, you’ve always been underdogs. Nobody has handed you a thing. But that also means that whatever you accomplish in your life, you will have earned it. Whatever rewards and joys you reap, you’ll appreciate them that much more because they will have come through your own sweat and tears, products of your own effort and your own talents. You’ve shown more grit and determination in your childhoods than a lot of adults ever will. That’s who you are. (Applause.)
So, class of 2011, the hard road does not end here. Your journey has just begun. Your diploma is not a free pass. It won’t protect you against every setback or challenge or mistake. You’ll make some, I promise. You’re going to have to keep working hard. You’re going to have to keep pushing yourselves. And you’ll find yourselves sometime in situations where folks have had an easier time, they’re a little bit ahead of you, and you’re going to have to work harder than they are. And you may be frustrated by that.
But if you do push yourselves, if you build on what you’ve already accomplished here, then I couldn’t be more confident about your futures. I’m hopeful and I’m excited about what all of you can achieve. And I know that armed with the skills and experience and the love that you’ve gained at Booker T. Washington High School, you’re ready to make your mark on the world.
So thank you. Thanks for inspiring me. God bless you. God bless the United States. (Applause.)
28 November 2017, Melbourne, Australia
I think we need to talk about men.
It seems the world has finally had a gut full of the damage violent, abusive men do. Each day that goes by there is a new revelation in the media of their damage, particularly to women and girls.
It has been less than three months since the New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and in this time mostly women have come forward with reports of predatory sexual behaviour that run the gamut from unsolicited lewd texts to sexual assault by over 60 men in the movie industry.
There have also been allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated by 3 of America’s past 5 Presidents. In the case of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, these allegations were widely canvassed prior to and during their election campaigns yet both were elected regardless.
Public figures who until then had been universally admired such as Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby and Jimmy Saville have been charged with systematically preying on young women and girls over decades. Their predatory behaviour was no secret to many of their colleagues yet these colleagues remained silent and allowed the abuse to continue.
This wave of disclosure and exposure exemplified by the #MeToo movement has also reached these shores, as inevitably it would and should. In the past month, 500 Australian women have come forward naming 65 men as abusers in the media industry alone. The first high profile case of Don Burke was broadly in December. No doubt here will be many more.
I have no doubt that a culture of systemic and pervasive misogynistic abuse of women is not confined to the media industry alone. Let’s consider a uniquely Victorian industry.
In the past decade, the Police have instigated investigations into sexual misconduct perpetrated by over 30 AFL footballers. Most recently this has included a Richmond player distributing an explicit image of his girlfriend to his mates immediately after the Grand Final after assuring her he had deleted it.
Earlier this year, two of the AFL’s most senior executives were sacked following revelations of predatory sexual behaviour towards young women in their workplace. This is the same workplace where a list of the Top ten hottest female staff members had been circulated amongst most of the male staff.
There are three very hard truths we must confront about this as men.
First, we can no longer dismiss this as the behaviour of a few bad apples. There is a false comfort in confining and defining this problem as the despicable acts of an evil few. If this were true we just pluck out the bad apples and the problem goes away but unfortunately the core of this evil lies much deeper.
The second hard truth is that these abuses were enabled and perpetuated by the systems of power surrounding these men. The senior managers of Children’s hospitals in the UK welcomed Jimmy Saville’s charity visits to their wards in full knowledge that he would use those visits to sexually assault the young children in their care.
When a woman made a police report of sexual assault by an AFL footballer, senior officers intervened saying they needed to make the complaint disappear. A young actress’s publicist sent her to Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room in full knowledge of what she would encounter, alone.
It’s not just the apples that are rotten. There is something very rotten in the systems that overtly and inadvertently protects these men and moves to marginalise and silence those who speak out. In the words of one Hollywood insider who had heard ‘stories’ about Weinstein’s predatory behaviour:
Since this story broke last week, I have been struggling with my shame. It shouldn’t matter what my place was, my level of success, my degree of power. It should only matter that I knew this was happening and I stayed silent.
We all stayed silent.
The final hard truth is that there is something rotten about the way we men think and act towards woman and the way we think and about ourselves as men. You only have to look at the raw statistics to understand the magnitude of violence and abuse towards women in Australia.
Every week at least one Australian woman is killed by her current or former male partner. One in every 3 Australian women over the age of 15 has been physically or sexually assaulted by a man they know. Almost every Australian woman has been subjected to some form of sexual abuse or harassment.
These women are our sisters, our daughters and our mothers. But they are not defined their relations to men. They are every woman.
But there is another way of looking at these statistics.
Every week at least one Australian man kills his current or former partner. One in every 3 Australian men will physically or sexually assault a woman they know. And almost every Australian man will subject a woman to some form of sexual abuse or harassment or at least be complicit in this.
These men are our brothers, our sons and our fathers. These men are us.
To all of the men out there who want to say back that is not me, I have never done any of these things, I sincerely hope that it true. But let me ask you this.
Were you ever in a group of men when someone made a disparagingly sexist or misogynistic remark or joke about a woman? Did you do anything about it? Did you snicker uncomfortably about it but otherwise let it pass?
Have you ever witnessed a woman being wolf whistled or leered at in public? Did you do anything about it or did you decide it wasn’t your business? Well it is your business.
I want to light upon street harassment for a minute to illustrate why it is your business and I do so deliberately because I am guessing and hoping that there are not too many wolf whistlers in this audience.
A 2015 US study found that 85% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the street by the age of 18. I wonder how many men have been subject to sexual harassment in the street by the age of 18?
What is the motive, the message and the impact of street harassment?
This is how one woman has described it.
The words of street harassment fall on a spectrum of disrespect. They are not just words, they are a threat. The threat of implied violence lies behind every word. The words are nothing compared with what they could be and they are intended that way, as a smirking warning to all women.
It is our responsibility as men to face this uncomfortable truth about our own culture, about masculinity. Men are not inherently violent or abusive but we make ourselves so by our silence and inaction and permit others to be so.
Not all men will abuse or assault women but it is the responsibility of every man to call out both friends and strangers when they perpetuate the sexist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviours that allow abusers to go unchallenged. Unless you speak out, your silence will be taken as complicit support by perpetrators.
The research clearly shows that allowing everyday low-level sexism and sexual harassment to continue feeds the climate and attitudes that perpetuate sexual violence. It is the seed from which the rot grows. The research also suggests that if a man is called out for using abusive language by their peers the risks of them progressing to more serious forms of abuse drops by 80%.
It will take a critical mass of good men to turn around the male culture that allows the rotten seeds of sexual violence to propagate.
It will take a critical mass of good men to change the way their peers think about and treat women. It will take a critical mass of good men to root out the rottenness in the hearts of men that engenders violence and harassment of women.
Every year this school will send out into the world 330 good men to add to that critical mass.
I hope sooner rather than later, the tide will turn.
As Edmund Burke said, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
18 June 2017, Wyoming Area School District, Pennsylvania, USA
When Valedictorians 'go rogue'. Class President Peter Butera had some criticism for the way his school is governed. It didn't please the school authorities and he was shut down.
“Good evening, everyone. The past four years here at Wyoming Area have been very interesting to say the least. To give you an idea of what it was like, I’m going to take this time to tell you all a bit about what my Wyoming Area experience was like and the people who were a part of it.
I would like to start off by thanking my mom, my dad, and my baba, who have raised me since the day I was born and have helped me become the person I am today. Every one of us graduating have those special people in our lives that care for us every day, and love us unconditionally. And to all of you here today, we cannot thank you enough for everything you’ve done for us.
I would now like to recognize a few teachers who are extremely committed to their jobs as educators, and have worked to make me and many others, better students every day: Mr. Hizynski, Mr. Pizano, and Mr. Williams. In addition to these three, there are a number of other very good teachers at our school as well. It is dedicated teachers like these that truly help to develop students and prepare them to further their educations.
Not only does Wyoming Area have some great teachers, but a couple great administrators as well. Mr. Quaglia had been our principal for 3.5 years, and was as great a leader as they come, always extremely caring and reasonable. Over the summer, our school hired a new principal, Mr. Pacchioni, and despite the hesitancy that some students may have had about getting a new principal our senior year, he quickly put that to rest by coming in and always looking out for the students here since day 1.
Throughout my time at Wyoming Area, I have pursued every leadership opportunity available to me. In addition to being a member of Student Council since I was a freshman, my classmates have also elected me Class President the past 4 years, which has been my greatest honor, and I would like to thank you all for that one final time, it really means a lot. However, at our school, the title of Class President could more accurately be Class Party Planner, and Student Council’s main obligation is to paint signs every week. Despite some of the outstanding people in this school, a lack of real student government and the authoritative attitude that a few teachers, administrators, and board members have, prevents students from truly developing as leaders.
Hopefully in the future, this will change. Hopefully for the sake of future students, more people of power within this school, who do not do so already, will begin to prioritize education itself as well as the empowering of students. Because at the end of the day, it is not what we have done as Wyoming Area students or athletes that will define our lives, but what we will go on to do as Wyoming Area Alumni. And I hope that every one of my fellow classmates today, as well as myself, will go on to do great things in this world, and find true happiness and success. Thank you all for coming out to this great celebration today.
The full text is also on Peter's facebook page.
Related content: Sarah Haynes, Ravenswood school captain, 'Ravenswood's not perfect", 2015
"I don’t know how to run a school. but it seems to me that today's schools are being run more and more like businesses where everything becomes financially motivated. Where more value is placed on those who provide good publicity or financial benefits."
30 May 2016, Bandra East, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Thank you, David and thank you everyone for inviting me here. This is a huge privilege, not because I’m the chief guest. I think it’s a privilege mainly because I’m one of the parents who have had the opportunity. And I’ll take this opportunity on behalf of all of you to put my hands together and thank Dhirubhai Ambani International School for doing what they’re doing to our children. So, I want to thank all the teachers, all the heads of departments, Zarine and Fareeda, I mean, you’re the people I used to come to, when I have trouble I come and look at your faces and go away, and I’m calm; everything will be sorted out. Kava sir was fantastic at cricket matches and shouts louder than anyone else in the world can, all the staff members, the management, the gentleman who man the security outside; so wonderful and so even the guy who does the parking back there, everyone for the last 13 to 14 years that I have been here. And especially my friend, Mrs. Nita Ambani. Thank you so much for looking after our children. Thank you very very much.
Ok, so good evening boys and girls. Exams are over, if I may say so, darn school is over, which seemed an impossibility just a few years back. That horrible math or physics, or whoever your least favorite teacher is, you will never have to see again. That PE coach who was all about to get you is done and dusted now. I know everybody is looking there! You want to party now, relax, hang out with the beautiful friends you’ve made in the last 13 years, 14 or some, less. The last thing you really want to do is sit here and listen to someone give you advice on life lessons and what the future holds for you. And to top it, my qualification to be doing this is zilch, nada, not at all, nothing. Really, apart from the fact that Nita and I are friends and thus, I have some benefits. My reason to be here is the same as that of your elder brother or your sister being allowed to do things that you’re not allowed to do at home. I’m like them, older! That’s all. So if you think that I have had a successful career, as I was getting very embarrassed when David was recounting because also it’s been so many years since I’ve got an award. Got to work harder! Also if you think I’ve had a successful career, a great past performance and my experiences of it; are no assurance that it will work in the future for you, or work for you at all. And anyway, none of what I say today, you will remember as soon as you’re out of here or maybe even earlier, because you’re still sleeping from the big party you guys had last night.
What I say may make sense to your mom or dad, who will remember It some years down the line, and they will also remember it for the inappropriate things that I’m going to say tonight. But you are here, and so am I, so I promise to keep this extremely crisp and sharp, about twenty minutes tops. But be rest assured, I understand if some of you walk out in the middle of my speech for bladder control reasons. Feel free to do that. Feel free, because that’s what essentially my talk is about; feeling free.
The freedom to be yourself, to listen to your inner voice, and never let anyone tell you who you are, who you ought to be, including me. These are the only years of your life in which will be allowed to make regret-free mistakes. As you do so, you will chance upon your dreams. And hopefully make a happy life out of their fulfillment. When you get to be 50, as some of your parents are, none of the mothers, they all look 35. They’re all looking extremely hot. Some of your parents are, and like I am. You will know that the bulk of your regrets are from not having done what you wished to do. So don’t hold it against your over diligent father who’s telling you to study extra, even post the exams, your annoying mother, who is still depressed that your handwriting is bad. You know she doesn’t understand if it was bad five years ago, chances are that your handwriting is not going to improve for the rest of your life, ever! Mam, get that clear, it’s not going to happen. But, let me assure you, squiggles and ants and mosquitos on paper won’t kill your career. Any doctor here will tell you, indecipherable hieroglyphics may actually be a career booster. Don’t be angry that your parents tell you that friend of yours is not good company, he is spoiling you. And please don’t hold it against them when they tell you he’s a movie star son and will become a hero what about you? Let me assure you, movie stars’ sons and daughters also have to work. Basically just don’t grudge the old man and the old bag, ever. All we parents try to do is to make you happy with your choices, by annoying you with ours, that are actually your choices anyway, but you just don’t know it yet. Your hormone levels are too high for you to understand this confusing logic. All you want to be is yourselves and you’re quite sure you know what that is. And I’m here tonight on your side only to confirm your convictions, as you set forth into the big bad world, from the loving shelter of Mrs. Nita Ambani and all these wonderful and beautiful and warm teachers and faculty who have nurtured you to embark on your own journey through life.
I was talking about parents, because I think tonight is about parents so I’m going to tell you something about my parents. My mother was top class, she was really cool, she loved me and cared unconditionally, was beautiful like all mothers and believed that I will be the most famous man in the world, and I could do no wrong. In Delhi they say, “Humaara bachha na, is the apple of my eye”. Some Punjabi ladies make it bigger, like, “the pineapple of my eye”. So I was the pineapple of my mother’s eye. My father was a gentle man, he was very educated, Masters in Law; extremely intelligent, knew seven languages, had traveled the world, knew his politics, fought for the freedom of our country, India, and excelled at sports like hockey, swimming and polo. He could cook and recite poems and knew the capital of every country in the world. My father was also very poor, he was unemployed and struggling to make ends meet for 15 years of my life, that I had the privilege of knowing him. From when I was 10 to when I was 15. Not being able to afford fancy gifts for me, he would wrap up something old that belonged to him, in newspapers and declare it as a birthday gift when my birthday came along. In the next eleven and a half minutes left, that I have, is the story of the five gifts my father gave me and how they helped me become what I am today.
When I was ten my father gave me an old chess set. Chess is a reflection of life, they say, and as cliched as it sounds, it’s probably true. The first thing it teaches you is that every move has a consequence, whether you perceive that it does or does not, nothing you do, not a single moment is empty of living. So think of things through, not always, but often enough. Often enough, so your life does not feel as black and white and as uniform as the squares on a chessboard.
Sometimes in order to move forward you might need to take a few steps back and there’s no loss in doing something that hurts in the short run but proves worthwhile and time. Sometimes the Queen might seem sexier, they always do, but if she gets taken by an advisory straight after you save her, then you might be better off saving your castle or the bald Bishop, instead. So don’t always choose that which seems more desirable, if something tells you that it is going to get you into a whole lot of trouble. What I mean is also about tonight, drive home while your wits are about, instead of staying and getting stoned senseless after the party here. You can’t get anywhere in chess, if you don’t look out for the little ones around you, the small pawns. Life is like that too, if you forget the smallest of your people, or become foolish enough to imagine that the little grades you are given are of no value, you end up nowhere. When you look around, you learn to notice all the tiny little things that make your existence privileged and special. Just the fact that you are here, in this very moment, at this fantastic school in the company of such adoring parents, is the product of immense love, hard work and sacrifice on the part of many people present here. Taking your blessings for granted is the most ungracious stupidity, both in chess and in life.
Then, there’s what they call, don’t know how to pronounce it, but sounds very cool, the zugzwang (German for “compulsion to move”) the zugzwang is a really cool word, it sounds like a Chinese aphrodisiac, but it actually is German for, ok I will tone this down, “Oh! Fish I got to get out of here”. Anyway, for those of you who have never played the game, it’s when you get so stuck, that whichever move you make is a bad move. It will happen to each and everyone of you, at some point in your lives. For sure, a moment will come when it will look like there isn’t anything going right and nothing you can do to prevent disaster. Ask me, I just finished Dilwale and followed it up with fan! So, when you are in zugzwang, kids, don’t panic. Whenever there is trouble and you know there is no way out, or disaster, don’t panic. With a little embarrassment you will survive it. Trust me all you have to do is make a move. All you have to do is move on a bit. As the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland said, when Alice came to the fork in the road, “If you don’t know where you’re going it doesn’t matter which road you take”. I will add to it, as long as you take one road and don’t keep standing in the middle of the fork until a truck runs you over. Often in zugzwang, your enemy wins that particular move, but mostly you end up winning the game.
There were no computers when I was a kid, and nor were there i-phones for us to google pornography on, while our parents were busy checking the selfie, likes on Instagram. One of the most precious gifts my father gave me was an Italian typewriter. I learned how to use it from him, how to roll paper into the roller and press the lever. I don’t know if you guys have seen a typewriter. It’s…Google it. I’d hear the clicking sound of the letters as I pressed them with my fingers, forming words on blank pages fascinated me. To use a typewriter well, you needed diligence; one wrong letter and the whole exercise had to be started all over again. We used something called typeX to erase our mistakes in those days, not to sniff out during math classes. But too much typesX in math classes or in typewriting is unacceptable. So we had to learn how to move your fingers accurately to make words out of thoughts with efficiency and do it over and over again till we got it just right. As an adult I have come to understand that there is nothing of more value, than your capacity for diligence and your ability to work hard. If you can outwork adversaries and your employees, you can ensure your own success. And whatever it is you choose to do, whatever you’re doing, do it once then do it one more time, even more carefully. Practice will make everything seem easier. Be diligent, be thorough. Think of every job you do as the first one, so you have to get it right or you won’t be able to impress everyone. And at the same time do it as your last job as if you will not get a chance to do it again ever. Don’t just workout, outwork yourself. Only parents clapping! In fact you can outwork yourself, if you cannot work yourself, then pretty much nothing can prevent you from learning.
My father gave me a camera, and the most beautiful thing about it was that it did not work. I learned that things don’t always have to be functional, to fulfill a need, that sometimes when things are broken, the greatest creativity emanates from the fragments. I found myself looking at my world magically through the unusable lens. And the fact that there was never any actual photograph to see, taught me my most important lesson yet; that creativity is a process of the soul. It does not need an outcome or a product for the world to accept. It needs only the truth of its own expression. It comes from within. And makes of your world, whatever you wish it to make. So don’t be afraid of your own creativity. Honor it. It doesn’t always have to be seen or approved by those around you. It is an expression of your deepest selves and it belongs as much to you as it does to the universe. That nurtures and inspires it. All creativity is not for everyone to like or understand. All art is not up for sale. Some creativity has a bigger role to play. It is to keep you company when you’re alone, when you need a friend, when the world doesn’t seem to understand you. Your creativity, whatever that may be, you know, I know a friend of mine who makes a dolls out of barf bags from airplanes. Whatever your creativity is, your creative will be the only thing that will keep you inspired and satisfied. Honour it to the end, whatever it may be. Mine is poetry. I write rubbish poetry. it’s so bad that sometimes I cringe to read it myself. it’s crap, but I write it, it’s my secret place. It is mine to make me feel free and happy. So you find yours and if the world loves it good, if it doesn’t, even better, because now you will truly have a friend to keep your creativity intact.
My father was a funny guy. He had the capacity to turn any kind of serious situation in a way that it seemed less stress filled, with a bit of humor. Without a sense of humor the world will always be a dull and greedy place. No darkness of despair should ever be beyond a good and a hearty laugh. I’m going to tell you a few incidents, if you’re not bored! I have got about seven and a half minutes left. We used to live on the third floor of an apartment building, and as people on third floor tend to do, my friends and I used to throw things down from the balcony; you know, wrappers, tit bits, dog shit wrapped in newspapers, the usual stuff. One day the old gentleman on the ground floor, for there’s always an old senile gentleman on the ground floor. He had had enough of our daily droppings. He charged at us yelling at the top of his voice “bhaisahaab, bhaisahaab, upar se cheezen neeche aati hai, upar se ceezen neeche aati hai” and you know the whole colony emerged to witness the spectacle. My father was there. I was mortified. And he kept screaming, “Upar se cheezen neeche aati hai“. My father calmly looked calmly at him and said, “Chacha ji, upar se cheezen neeche aati hain, ye Newton ne boht saalon pehle bataya tha. Aap koie nayi baat batao. Andar baith ke, chai peeke baat krte hai”, and it instantly diffused the situation. The old man smiled, went into the apartment, worked out how dog shit needs to be disposed of properly, over a cup of tea in life was back to normal again.
And there was another incident I’m going to relate. I had been eyeing this attractive, dusky girl who lived in our building. As smooth as I have always been with ladies, for some reason, it occurred to me that if I blew up her letter box with a Diwali cracker called, atom bomb, she’d be very impressed with me. I’ve always been good with girls like that, ya. I know things about girls. In this insanely romantic belief of mine, her letterbox soon exploded before her eyes. And I still don’t know why the desired effect of her running into my arms in slow-motion was replaced with a screaming drama in which he flew up the stairs screaming, “amma inge vaa, amma inge vaa”. I took my chance and as all macho men should do, I fled the scene. Few hours later the doorbell rang. I looked through the magic eye and the mother of the love of my life was standing outside looking incensed. I found a place to hide. My father opened the door. The lady began to rattle off a complaint; your son this, your son that (speaks in Tamil), my Tamil is not good! And he listened patiently and then responded, “You know ma’am, as you were speaking, I was getting angry with my son. But then I suddenly realized how beautiful you are. And I can imagine if your daughter looks anything like you, how can my son be blamed for falling in love with her and behaving so stupidly?” The lady went silent as my father continued telling her how beautiful she was, and then she became a little quiet. Another cup of tea was had and she said to me sweetly, “Beta, just because my daughter is so beautiful you shouldn’t behave badly with her. You should come home, sit with us, and be friends”. So not only did my dad get me off the hook, for blowing up the girls letter box, he actually got me in-roads to a long satisfying relationship with the love of her life that lasted six days. Because then I realize that dating beautiful girls has its downside. Every boy in the colony made advances at her. So I was regularly beaten up in my attempts to offer her some boy friendly protection. But that’s another story. The point being, learn to laugh at yourselves, every chance you get. If you can manage not to take yourself too seriously, no matter how big a shot you become or how lowly, useless, trivial you feel, you will instantly disarm life’s power to beat you down. It makes you braver to face ugliness, because it changes your perspective. Humor is actually the deftness to see the world, the reality, for the transient farce it really is. It’s like a talisman for survival. Cultivate it and allow it to lighten every heavy moment. Wear it like a vulgar tattoo, if you don’t already have one. Don’t ever let it get washed away in the turbulently beautiful seas of life. It’s your ticket to staying young and childlike forever. And you will realize why it matters to stay childlike when you’re my age. And you’ll watch this speech on YouTube with your children. I’ll probably have kicked the bucket by then, having smoked enough cigarettes to light up a forest. But I certainly hope that you will have understood what I understand now. No, not that smoking kills, but that part is ok.
Well, what I am referring to is, what counts as the most beautiful and final gift that my father gave me. I only realized it was a gift on the day he died, when I was 15 years old. A gift your parents have given to you already. Yes, the singularly most exquisite gift, you and I have been given is the gift of life itself. There is nothing that marks a man or a woman out from the ordinary, more perfectly than grace. Grace is the consciousness, that life is bigger than we are and therefore gratitude for it must match its vastness. It is the understanding, that everyone we encounter, whether they are loving towards us, or offensively abrasive, is a human like we are. It is knowing that experiences shape human beings and no matter how good we are at something, or successful we may become, we are never better than the other person. If you can live your life with grace towards those around you, you’ll accomplish more than you could if you became the president of America. That came out wrong, knowing that Donald Trump is so close to becoming the president of America! I didn’t mean that I’ll rephrase that guys. If you can live your life with grace towards those around you, “ok actually what the hell”, because I came and told you a secret that I like rubbish poetry I am going to read out a poem and end this. This this is the most rubbish poem you will hear. But keep it in the heart because I’m the damned chief guest tonight. If you’re after part, EDM. I thought it would be very cool if I use the word EDM. Is EDM still cool? Class of 2016 is it cool? No? Okay.
“If you’re after party EDM, stoned sunrise has found you,
with dark ship, wrappings, and friends that will not confound you.
And you start on this journey with a brave heart about you,
If you live life at grace towards those around you.
You’ll get where you have to and it won’t astound you.
If it isn’t Ferraris and a white house that downed you,
You won’t need an entourage to always surround you.
It’s your truth, you will have, that will shelter and ground you,
And you remember this day, as the day that unbound you.
From the walls of this beautiful school, and the teachers,
Exams and all the rules that sometimes seem to hound you, and let me tell you,
All will be successful let me remound you.”
So boys and girls, go forth, be free, have fun, make wrong choices, make mistakes. You will still succeed because the gift of education you have from this wonderful institution called Dhirubhai Ambani International School. The love meter has given you, and the genes that your parents have provided you with, will always look after you. And when you succeed don’t forget to thank your least favorite teacher, because he or she actually cared for you the most. Love you all and be happy.
June 1969, Wellesley College, Massachusetts , USA
I am very glad that Miss Adams made it clear that what I am speaking for today is all of us—the 400 of us—and I find myself in a familiar position, that of reacting, something that our generation has been doing for quite a while now. We're not in the positions yet of leadership and power, but we do have that indispensable element of criticizing and constructive protest and I find myself reacting just briefly to some of the things that Senator Brooke said. This has to be quick because I do have a little speech to give.
Part of the problem with just empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn't do us anything. We've had lots of empathy; we've had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible. What does it mean to hear that 13.3 percent of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That's a percentage. We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends? The complexities are not lost in our analyses, but perhaps they're just put into what we consider a more human and eventually a more progressive perspective.
The question about possible and impossible was one that we brought with us to Wellesley four years ago. We arrived not yet knowing what was not possible. Consequently, we expected a lot. Our attitudes are easily understood having grown up, having come to consciousness in the first five years of this decade—years dominated by men with dreams, men in the civil rights movement, the Peace Corps, the space program—so we arrived at Wellesley and we found, as all of us have found, that there was a gap between expectation and realities. But it wasn't a discouraging gap and it didn't turn us into cynical, bitter old women at the age of 18. It just inspired us to do something about that gap. What we did is often difficult for some people to understand. They ask us quite often: "Why, if you're dissatisfied, do you stay in a place?" Well, if you didn't care a lot about it you wouldn't stay. It's almost as though my mother used to say, "You know I'll always love you but there are times when I certainly won't like you." Our love for this place, this particular place, Wellesley College, coupled with our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education.
Before the days of the media orchestrated demonstrations, we had our own gathering over in Founder's parking lot. We protested against the rigid academic distribution requirement. We worked for a pass-fail system. We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision making. And luckily we were at a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal arts education there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning. So we have made progress. We have achieved some of the things that we initially saw as lacking in that gap between expectation and reality. Our concerns were not, of course, solely academic as all of us know. We worried about inside Wellesley questions of admissions, the kind of people that were coming to Wellesley, the kind of people that should be coming to Wellesley, the process for getting them here. We questioned about what responsibility we should have both for our lives as individuals and for our lives as members of a collective group.
Coupled with our concerns for the Wellesley inside here in the community were our concerns for what happened beyond Hathaway House. We wanted to know what relationship Wellesley was going to have to the outer world. We were lucky in that Miss Adams, one of the first things she did was set up a cross-registration with MIT because everyone knows that education just can't have any parochial bounds anymore. One of the other things that we did was the Upward Bound program. There are so many other things that we could talk about; so many attempts to kind of - at least the way we saw it - pull ourselves into the world outside. And I think we've succeeded. There will be an Upward Bound program, just for one example, on the campus this summer.
Many of the issues that I've mentioned—those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility—have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect. Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multimedia age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we're feeling.
We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen them heralded across the newspapers. Senator Brooke has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words—integrity, trust, and respect—in regard to institutions and leaders, we're perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.
Every protest, every dissent, whether it's an individual academic paper or Founder's parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive—now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see—but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men's needs. There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas. And it's also a very unique American experience. It's such a great adventure. If the experiment in human living doesn't work in this country, in this age, it's not going to work anywhere.
But we also know that to be educated, the goal of it must be human liberation. A liberation enabling each of us to fulfill our capacity so as to be free to create within and around ourselves. To be educated to freedom must be evidenced in action, and here again is where we ask ourselves, as we have asked our parents and our teachers, questions about integrity, trust, and respect. Those three words mean different things to all of us. Some of the things they can mean, for instance: Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know. Integrity—a man like Paul Santmire. Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said "Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust." What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All we can do is keep trying again and again and again. There's that wonderful line in "East Coker" by Eliot about there's only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we've lost before.
And then respect. There's that mutuality of respect between people where you don't see people as percentage points. Where you don't manipulate people. Where you're not interested in social engineering for people. The struggle for an integrated life existing in an atmosphere of communal trust and respect is one with desperately important political and social consequences. And the word consequences of course catapults us into the future. One of the most tragic things that happened yesterday, a beautiful day, was that I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn't want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn't want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she's afraid. Fear is always with us but we just don't have time for it. Not now.
There are two people that I would like to thank before concluding. That's Ellie Acheson, who is the spearhead for this, and also Nancy Scheibner who wrote this poem which is the last thing that I would like to read:
My entrance into the world of so-called "social problems"
Must be with quiet laughter, or not at all.
The hollow men of anger and bitterness
The bountiful ladies of righteous degradation
All must be left to a bygone age.
And the purpose of history is to provide a receptacle
For all those myths and oddments
Which oddly we have acquired
And from which we would become unburdened
To create a newer world
To translate the future into the past.
We have no need of false revolutions
In a world where categories tend to tyrannize our minds
And hang our wills up on narrow pegs.
It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives.
And once those limits are understood
To understand that limitations no longer exist.
Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free
Not to save the world in a glorious crusade
Not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain
But to practice with all the skill of our being
The art of making possible.
1 June 2012, Wellesley High School, Massachusetts, USA
David McCullough is an English teacher at the school. This address went viral and had over 2 million views on Youtube.
Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.
So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)
But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.
No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! [Editor’s upgrade: Or The Swellesley Report!] And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building.
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.
“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.
As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.
The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness –- quite an active verb, “pursuit” -- which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)
None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
Because everyone is.
Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.
You can purchase this speech and other writings by David McCullough here.
17 October, 2000, Moonee Valley Racecourse, Melbourne, Australia
Ladies and gentleman, graduating students, PEGs staff, and last but not least, Moonee Valley punters who have stumbled into the function by accident and have no idea what’s going on
On my last day at school, I became the second person in the history of Camberwell Grammar to be sent home for an inappropriate costume. The first instance occurred in 1988 when a guy arrived wearing Rambo style fatigues, a semi automatic and live ammunition. He didn’t actually fire any rounds, and I’m not sure anyone could find a specific school rule dealing with semi-automatics, but the police were nevertheless called, and he was sent on his way.
When I was giving my marching orders two years later, it was for the lesser offense of smelling of rotten fish. My mother, who has a nasty habit of over-enthusing in the task of dressing up any of her children, decided that the costume for me was the polar bear suit. So while half the year was out enjoying a big night on the town, Mum and I sat at home together, drawing claws on my ug boots, sowing my sister’s old 'lambie' to the front of Dad’s white pyjamas, and attaching a dead thirteen pound cod to the end of a homemade fishing rod.
In the cool of the morning, my cod was an enormous hit, accompanying me in all the flour throwing and water fights. But as the day warmed up, both me and the fish started to smell worse and worse, until I was told at lunchtime that I should make a trip home to de-fish.
The dressing up era at my old school has now ended, the headmaster obviously deciding that if the day was generating problems as diverse as live ammunition and dead fish, it was time to reassess. Actually, the official reason that was given when they banned dressing up was said to be that too many Camberwell Grammar boys were dressing up as women, a fact that no doubt confirms a lot of suspicions you all might harbour about my old school.
Today, it’s been your turn to dress up for a last day at school, and I’m sure there will be some aspect of it that stays with you always. Just as everyone should have a memory of their first day of school (mine is that my red-haired prep teacher who was called Mrs Wolf introduced herself via a game of ‘What’s the Time Mrs Wolf’) well we should similarly have a memory of the day it all comes to an end. As for everything that has been learned in the days in between, it’s helpful to have some retention there too. Particularly when it comes to the small matter of the exams that are now just nine days and fourteen hours away.
I’m tempted to just start counting the minutes and seconds down as well to see if those of you who are a bit edgy make a panicked bolt for the library. The fact is that of all the countdowns you’ve no doubt been conducting over the last weeks and months, the exam one is the most important of all. When you go home tonight, you’ll be in the nightmare they call swot-vac, and I’m sure you all can’t wait to grab your alarm clocks, set them to 6.58, and bang out that first practice exam before breakfast tomorrow.
The trick with swot-vac is to have a realistic study timetable that you stick to, no matter what other temptations beckon. Actually one of the first temptations you’ll discover is to spend so much time on the timetable that you waste half of swot-vac drawing it up. Colour coding each subject. Drawing and re-drawing the lines to make sure that they’re straight. My timetable was a work of art, but it was also very important in keeping me to my targets of 10-hour study days.
As a freelance writer, I also face the procrastination demons on a daily basis. A basic guide is that if you find yourself watching any two of Totally Wild, Fresh Prince of Bel Air or Mrs Mangle era Neighbours, you’ve got yourself a problem. You don’t want to be sitting there in an Australian history exam, laboring over the names of our wartime prime ministers but knowing the Fresh Prince’s pick up lines word for word.
In year twelve and at uni, another great procrastination device for me was taking showers. Sometimes I’d have 5-6 showers a day and when I wasn’t taking showers I’d be brushing my teeth. After all, can’t be too clean. Wouldn’t want my practice exam paper to think that I’ve got body odour or bad breath.
It is worth a bit of pain now though. Just think, a few weeks of hard work, and then you get to do bugger all for months. And every time a parent tells you to go out and do something, you can just say, ‘But Muuuum, Daaaaad, for months I didn’t go out. I didn’t watch the Fresh Prince -- can’t I have a rest noooow?’
Those of you with soft parents can probably get away with this for several months. Those of you with tough parents, you’ve probably still got a couple of weeks, and then you can start crashing at the houses of your friends who have soft parents. The trick is to get the hard work part out of the way now, so you’ve got a few bargaining chips up your sleeve when heaven descends, sometime in November.
There is a temptation to look at the upcoming exams and regard them as either life making or life breaking in their outcome. Of course they’re important. If you get a TER high enough to gain entry to the course you want, it’s a terrific advantage. But for those who are worriedthey’ll become instant and permanent failures on results day in December, it’s just not the case.
The fact is that you can’t be a failure at eighteen, because there’s just so much time and opportunity left to find something at which you can be a success. Ten years after leaving Camberwell, I look around my group of friends from school and see one who dropped out in year eleven who is now doing well in golf course management on the Gold Coast. Another wanted to be a lawyer, but now runs a successful billboard business in India. Another tried for years to be accepted into vet science, only to last year find a position in Cameroon as the head of a wildlife park.
As for myself, at school, I had only two goals in life. One was to represent Australia in basically any sport that would have me, and the other was to play league football for Hawthorn in the AFL. It quickly emerged that football was probably my best chance, and I became fanatically obsessed with it. At the age of fifteen, when some classmates were embarking upon romantic relationships, I was still sleeping with a Sherrin. When they were out on their dates, I’d stay home listening to the radio, writing down the kicks, marks and handballs for every player in the Hawthorn side.
Actually the last time I was at PEGS was in 1990 -- one of the memorable days of my football career, when I captained the Camberwell First XVIII to a five point win over your team. I’m pretty sure we haven’t beaten you since that day and we may never beat you again, so what I thought I’d do from here is give you a twenty minute, kick by kick summary of the game as it unfolded. I might even insert the odd detail that didn’t actually happen, like that moment late in the last quarter when I took a big hanger on Dustin Fletcher’s head. Or was it Scott West’s, I can’t remember. Although I did have 26 marks that day. I'm worried you think I'm joking. Stop laughing please. Damn that boastful hyperbole from earlier on! I need my credibility back! If you take nothing else away from this -- 26 marks.
Eventually, I made it through to the under 19s, then I captained the under 19s, and then finally in 1992, I was drafted onto the Hawthorn senior list.
The first inkling I had as to the fact that I was pursuing the wrong career came after the players’ skit night. I’d played five pretty uninspiring reserves games to that time, and when fan mail was being handed out, it rarely made it to ‘hack corner’ which is what the good players called the lockers numbered higher than 40 (John Platten was our union rep). But the week after the skit night, to the amazement of the entire club, I received some fan mail. I’ve still got it, and I’ll read it to you now.
Dear Tony Wilson
I’ve never seen you play or heard of you, but I thought that Colliwobbles song you sung with Austin McCrabb on Saturday was excellent. Not your singing so much, but the words - which reminded how much I hate Collingwood. Keep up the good work.
P.S. Can you send me a signed copy
It was my fifth ever autograph, the first four coming one night when I was talking in the car park next to Dermott Brereton, and he made some kids get my autograph as well. As for the song, I wrote it in 1990 during Year 12 swot-vac and it’s a lament for the fact that Collingwood finally won a Grand Final. Given tonight is the tenth anniversary of its existence, and it’s proof of the wonderful achievements you can pull off when you’re avoiding doing old maths exams, I thought I’d sing a verse to you guys. Actually the real reason I’m singing it is that one day, you guys might be running entertainment venues, and if you’re ever looking for a guy who can’t sing, and can’t play guitar … well here it goes:
A long long time ago I can still remember;
How the Magpies used to make me smile
And Dad and I would sing and dance
As the Pies stuffed up each finals chance
And lost each shot at glory with such style
But 1990 made me shiver, with every victory they delivered
Bad news on the doorstep, the woodsman had much more pep
I can’t remember if I cried, when I heard that they had made the five
But something kicked me deep inside, the day the Wobbles died.
... It goes for another 11 and a half minutes ...
Can you believe that when Madonna covered ‘American Pie’ this year, she went with Don McLean’s version and not mine?
But although I’d made history at the skit night by being the first footballer who didn’t dress up as a woman, things weren’t going quite so well on the field. In fact a few weeks later, reserves coach Des Meagher pulled me up in front of my teammates, pointed a finger into my chest and gave me the following piece of encouragement,
‘Willo, you can’t kick, you can’t handball, you can’t run … you can mark but you’re not even doing that at the moment.’
So it wasn’t that surprising when I was sacked, me vowing to Allan Joyce as I walked out the door that I would make him regret the decision for the rest of his life.
Fortunately, I had university to fall back on, a time of my life that was absolutely brilliant. My parents had always told me really boring, long-winded anecdotes about uni being 'the best days of your life’ -- but until I got there, I didn’t really listen. Unlike school, it was relaxed -- no uniforms or disciplinarian teachers or kids in the tuckshop line who make a living out of asking everyone for 20 cents. At uni, I had just nudged into what should be known as my post-sleeping-with-a-Sherrin era, and I had my first real girlfriends. I even got to go to Montreal in Canada for six months as an exchange student. In fact, so good were my five years as a student that I’m currently preparing a set of long-winded, boring anecdotes of my own to ram down the throats of any children I might have in the future.
It is however, possible to love being a uni student, but hate just about everything you’re studying. Unfortunately, that’s how it was with my course, which was law. If I had any guts, I would have quit to do a course that I actually liked. I didn’t though, and when I graduated in 1996, I blindly followed the other graduates into working at a law firm.
My time as a lawyer was just miserable. I joined Minter Ellison in 1996, and from my first day on the job, discovered that the glamorous life they painted in LA Law and A Few Good Men did not match the reality of leafing through 310 boxes of documents in a warehouse in Sunshine. Don’t be fooled by the way young lawyers are portrayed on television and in the movies. If they made a film about young lawyers at my firm they would have called it A Few Good Shit-kickers.
But despite my inexperience some big jobs did start coming my way. Like the day that a partner in my department arrived at my corral carrying a belt and a pair of gumboots. Yes, I was to be Santa Claus at the firm picnic, and you can imagine the pride I felt when he came back the following Monday and said I was ‘the best goddamn Father Christmas in the history of the firm.’
Then there was the articled clerks’ revue, performed for the firm at the mid-year ball. I was co-writer and director of the production, and even made my debut with a video camera, filming a piece we titled Twelve Angry Articled Clerks. This was a work of enormous emotional depth culminating in us all painting our faces blue, making a Braveheart style charge on photocopier, and smashing it with a sledgehammer. In another scene we stormed a rival law firm in chicken suits. In another, we pranced around the firm’s library naked, save for a strategically placed ‘Hot Stocks’ edition of the BRW.
By the middle of my second year at Minters, I was struggling with the fact that I’d never really found a goal to replace the league footy one. I toyed with the idea of doing some writing or amateur film-making, but didn’t really get off my backside. In fact I turned into one of those very annoying ‘guuna’ people. I was gunna write a screenplay, gunna write a book, gunna travel, gunna go to the bar, gunna leave to provide opportunities for younger, fresher Santas coming up through the ranks. I talked to people about my plans, until those people banned me from talking to them, at which point I found new people. Eventually, my father took me out for breakfast one morning at the Nudl Bar, and quietly suggested that if I was to consider myself a good writer, at some stage I should consider actually writing something. In fact we made a deal that morning -- he said he would help me with financing a travel writing trip, if I gave him a 25,000 word sample within 4 weeks of what he could expect. I took annual leave the next week, and started on my 25,000 words. They weren’t brilliant, but finally I was going for something that I actually enjoyed.
And then came the RMIT information evening that changed my life. In October 1997, a friend who knew about the travel book idea told me that the executive producer of RATW was holding a seminar. For those who don’t know the show, it was a program on ABC that sent 8 people to 10 countries around the world over 100 days, with each person travelling alone and having to produce a four minute documentary for broadcast on the ABC. John Safran had made the show famous the year before by taking his clothes off and running through Jerusalem to the tune of Up There Cazaly. I loved the show and loved the seminar, and when he said, ‘Imagine you’re one of the thirteen selected finalists in Sydney’, I decided that I owed it to myself to apply. After all I’d paid $22 bucks to attend the lecture, and I wanted to get my money’s worth.
The greatest miracle of my life is that my application actually came off. The application video I sent in was about an Italian soccer coach called Paolo who coached the Essendon under sevens just down the road here with the zeal of a man who has his sights set on the World Cup. He gave them diets, he gave them tactics sessions, he abused them for not going to bed early enough. And all this was done through a translator, because Paulo himself couldn’t speak a word of English. Not only that but that translator was a mother of one of the boys, so Paulo would say something like ‘you’re all hopeless, it’s pointless coaching you’ and the translator would soften it to something like, ‘keep going, you’re doing really well.’ Basically, the topic was so good that I couldn’t really muck up the film, and after two months of interviews, and a 4 week documentary course at AFTRS in Sydney, I was selected for the show.
When I was attending my Year 12 dinner at the Malvern town hall in 1990, I could never have known that I’d be travelling to 10 countries in 100 days and making stories that would be shown on national television. A story on children in prison with their father in Bolivia, a cowboy poet in Idaho, the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune in Italy, the soccer World Cup in Paris, a laughing club in India. Perhaps my favorite story was about a wheat farmer in Lebanon called Faeez, who couldn’t shoot pigs that were eating his crop because he was only 800 metres from the Israeli border, and the border guards would blow his head off if he went out in the fields with a gun. Indeed, as bombs thundered in the hills around us, Faeez told me to hide my camera tripod under my jumper, 'because Hazballah use tripods to launch rockets'. That was one of the truly exhilarating nights of my life. A sunset, a full moon, a tripod under my jumper, and a five kilometre walk down to the village, thinking all the while that I’d finally found the perfect career.
Not only that, but Race Around the World allowed me to achieve a childhood dream that I thought had passed me by. As I said before, I always fantasized about representing my country in international sport, and then, during my fourth story in Italy, it finally happened. I had the opportunity to lift this beautiful bronzed arm wrestling trophy above my head at the 1998 European Arm Wrestling championships. The tournament took place in Brescia, and as I understand it, I remain the only Australian to have ever competed. This is not good news for people trying to enhance Australia’s international reputation as an arm-wrestling power. My scorecard at the end of the tournament was four bouts in the 95 kilogram division for four, complete, motherless jelly-armed shellackings. One of my opponents from the Ukraine told me that I was the weakest opponent he had encountered in five years on the world tour. Still I had a professional arm-warming sock, and for a few brilliant seconds before each bout, I experienced the mad stare and scream that was so central to the Sylvester Stallone arm wrestling film, ‘Over the Top’. Not only that, despite my beatings the organisers handed out participation trophies to competitors from each of the countries represented at the championships. And so today, I am now the proud owner of one of these.
If I could give a single piece of advice on pursuing happiness, it would be to make sure you actually do pursue it. The unhappiest times I’ve had over the last ten years have been when I’ve let things drift, and not taken any positive steps. My success in getting to make stories around the world only came because I put four months into doing the best application I could at the end of 1997. Other friends of mine said they were going to do one, but in the end, the amount of work involved in finding and editing a story meant none of them did. I later found out that 18,000 people downloaded application forms for Race but didn’t send in applications. Again, the only reason I got to write articles at the Olympics was that I went into the Age offices and asked the Olympics editor if I could. Apply, apply, apply. You might think you don’t stand a chance, I certainly thought that with Race, but you definitely don’t stand a chance if you don’t apply.
That was my advice on happiness, so here’s my advice on misery. Endure swot-vac and work as hard as you can. Hard work does bring its rewards. As fun as my Race Around the World trip sounds, it was unbelievably stressful. In each place you had to find a story (which would take 2-3 days, film a story another 3 or so) and then write down all your shots and every word of every interview, so you could do an edit script, which was then sent back to Australia with the tapes. I reckon on average I worked about 14 hours a day, travelling alone and spending about as much on international phone calls as Paul Reith and his housemates. But throughout the hard times, there was always the knowledge that there was an end point, and I didn’t want to look back when I finished and think I didn’t do my best.
Despite what your parents or grandparents might say along the lines of ‘if you don’t know it now, you’ll never know it’, there are thousands of degrees hanging on walls around Australia that have been earned entirely in the month of October. The three magic words to remember now are these – ‘short term memory’. It’s amazing what you can stuff into the human brain for a few weeks, even if most of it will inevitably seep onto the beaches of Byron Bay or the Gold Coast in the months to come.
But while scientific formulae and English quotes and Keynesian economics all fight for their places in your short term memories, I’m sure there will be elements of this place, Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School that will be deeply embedded in your long term memories. Maybe you’ll remember a certain teacher. Maybe a sporting occasion (26 marks I tell ya). Or maybe some lines you had to write out at a Friday detention, and I say that because fourteen years after I stood up to leave an English class early in year nine, I can still remember having to write out fifty times.
‘The period does not end when the ophacleide hoots. It ends when the master in charge, or mistress, says as of how, it has.’
I don’t even think that ‘as of how, it has’ makes sense, but I’ve remember it all the same.
Most of your long term memories will no doubt relate to the people who are celebrating with you here tonight. And amid the celebration of finishing, there’s also the sadness that in almost every case, you will not see as much of each other from now on. Of course you can always catch up at that English exam that’s on in, what is it, now, nine days, thirteen hours and fifty minutes, but you might have other things on your mind then. So enjoy the night, enjoy each other’s company, which will be a lot easier to do if I sit down and shut up.
Thank you for having me; best of luck for the next few weeks, and for the rest of your lives.
Tony Wilson's most recent book is Emo the Emu (Scholastic, 2015), a rhyming ballad about a grumpy bird cheering himself up by visiting every state of Australia. Good tourist book. You can buy it here.