Commencement: a beginning at the end. I recently gave this speech to the class of 2015. I wanted to reach all of the students and all of the adults in the room. I used stories to do so.
BACCELAUREATE SPEECH TO THE CLASS OF 2105 — with love from Ms. Flaxman
I want to begin by saying how honored I am to be today’s speaker.
When I was thinking about what to say today, I naturally thought about the individuals in the class of 2015 who have been my students, some of whom had the good or bad fortune to have had me for two or even three years in a row. You know who you are.
I thought about what made our time together so great, and I realized, as much as it was each of us and all of us together, it was the stories we read that made us such good friends. Stories were our subject, and the time we spent talking about them together brought us into a fuller understanding of their meaning and each other.
But then I thought some more, about those of you I never taught and stories we never read together – and realized that although I have not read a book with every member of this class, I have nevertheless been reading this class for four years. And believe me, reading any text for four straight years will yield deep understandings. Give it a try some time.
So today I wanted to share what I have learned from reading you – the class of 2015. To help me in that process, I asked you to tell me a little bit about your favorite books because I believe that one of the best ways to read and understand other people is to know what they like to read. And your responses to my survey affirmed what I thought might be true: the books you love most say a lot about who you are and what you value.
Now, listen closely. You’ll like it! It’s a story about you.
The first chapter is about your early childhoods and Lower School. It’s titled, “Tell me a Story”
Remember the days when you begged your parents to read to you? When bedtime was synonymous with story time, and a good day had stories threaded throughout, not just at the end, before the light was turned off?
You had a lot of favorite books when you were little. One of your favorite books was Goodnight Moon. This is a very simple story about a bunny going to bed, a quiet old lady whispering hush, and an omniscient narrator saying goodnight to everything — the moon, a bowl of mush, the red balloon. This lucky little bunny is so loved and so safe.
Another of your early favorites was The Kissing Hand. Chester, a raccoon, has to venture out into the world at night in order to go to school. But he really doesn’t want to leave his mom. So they come up with a way for him to feel like she is with him even when he’s not at home. She can kiss his palm before he leaves, and later, at school, he can put the palm of his hand to his face and feel her kiss on his cheek. The Kissing Hand is a sweet story with strong lessons: there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Some bonds can never be broken.
You loved The Giving Tree, about a child who is nurtured throughout his life by a tree that gives and gives and gives, no matter what the boy does. And of course you loved Where the Wild Things Are, about a naughty boy named Max who gets put in time out and goes to a really strange place where wild beasts dance and rumpus and get jealous and cry when the boy returns home, where his dinner, still warm, is waiting for him.
The stories you loved when you were little are stories about family, safety, home, and clearly delineated boundaries. While hearing them over and over, your values were laid down like brickwork before you even knew it – your appreciation for your family, your desire to venture out into the world, your need to know that you can always come home.
Chapter 2 of your story is titled, “You will NOT believe this story!” It’s about your early adolescence.
The next chapter in your story is full of wizardry, magic, and heroes. That’s funny, if you think about it, because you loved these books exactly when you felt the least magical or heroic. That’s right: MIDDLE SCHOOL. The years of wild mood swings that only your parents can really remember, if they dare. You have a vague sense now of how awful it was then, but you really don’t remember how completely insane you could be. But the people in this room remember well how a perfectly good day could be utterly ruined by a sideways glance from a friend or a hair out of place on your head.
In middle school, you loved The Lightning Thief and the story of Percy Jackson, a boy with superpowers inherited from his father, the God Poseidon. At a time in your lives when you often felt powerless over your own reflection in the mirror, the story of brave Percy and his friends taking on the real and supernatural worlds captivated you and gave you hope that you, too, might do extraordinary things, despite feeling so very ordinary.
But as much as you loved Percy Jackson, he couldn’t hold a candle to your first and forever love, Harry. Harry Potter, born to not one but two wizards who died while trying to save him, never quits, always has fun, and has more than nine lives.
Harry is the master of the humblebrag. He’s the best at everything, but it never goes to his head. And he’s got the good sense to know exactly who his real friends are – he never ditches Ron or Hermione for the new kid with the cool sneakers. School is his haven, his place of safety, the antidote to the loveless home he lives in with the Dursleys who hate and fear him. Dumbledore, Hagrid, and Professor McGonagall are his surrogate parents, proving that if we know what we need and seek it out in the world, we can always find a place where we belong.
Harry will always be in your hearts, and a part of you will always wish you had his powers – although at this stage of your life, you would perhaps be more satisfied with his friendship. But toward the end of middle school, you started to love books with more subtle magic and less obvious heroism.
In The Giver, you entered a world of too much safety, a world without color. In To Kill a Mockingbird, you entered a world where ideas about color were extreme. You were old enough to know about American history and the legacy of Jim Crow. You saw the events in Macomb through young Scout’s eyes. You saw the ugliness and injustice, and saw the way a quiet hero, Atticus Finch, stood up for what was and always is the right thing to do.
You saw that without the aid of a wand or a potion, individuals can and do bring about magic in the real world, and this was perhaps your most favorite story, and probably still is.
The third chapter is about your time with us in high school. It’s titled, “Listen to my story”
To Kill a Mockingbird was the book that brought you into a more adult perspective on the world and yourselves. In some ways, it was the path carrying you from middle to upper school, where you would be asked over and over again, by me and others, to tell your own story and tell it well. Beginning in ninth grade, you sharpened the pencils you’d later use to write your college essays. You began to compile the pages of your portfolios. You tried out different voices to see which one sounded the most like you.
At around this time, your favorite book was John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. You loved it because even though the story is sad, it was real to you, and you bravely confronted some of the challenges that Hazel and Augustus faced in having cancer.
The same thing happened for you when you read The Glass Castle, about a dysfunctional family moving in and out of homelessness. You sympathized with Rex, the alcoholic father with the magnetic personality, and his wife, the mentally unstable painter who hoarded food from her own children. You felt for each of the kids, stuck in this family but also lucky to have it, and you felt for yourselves, stuck in your lives and just as lucky.
No book dovetailed so nicely with your high school years, however, than The Great Gatsby. The parties, the secrets, the arrogance, the lies. Myrtle Wilson with the broken nose. James Gatz in the rowboat making his way to Dan Cody’s yacht, rowing his way to a different and more interesting life. Daisy’s voice full of money. Bad drivers and foul dust, and boats against the current borne ceaselessly into the past. It was all so beautiful and fun and sad, just like the 1920s themselves and Fitzgerald’s own life with Zelda and the other celebrities of the lost generation.
This most recent chapter in your story was full of dreams, resilience, and an ever- sharpening sense of identity. It was the chapter in which you yourselves were resilient, spoke with clarity about who you were, wrote and talked about your dreams, and saw many of them come true.
Over the course of your lives in and out of school, you have moved from children at home to adults at home in the world. And in less than a week, you will graduate from here, and the next chapter will begin. No one knows what events, people, or places will fill those pages. It’s exciting. And it’s a little scary.
In response to one of my survey questions, one of you mentioned the book The Opposite of Loneliness, which I hadn’t read, so I got a copy and read it. I’m glad I did.
The book contains essays and stories written by a young woman of tremendous promise named Marina Keegan. Her professor put the book together after Marina died tragically in a car accident on a stretch of highway on Cape Cod when she was 23 years old, on her way to visit her parents. I have driven up and down the very same road countless times on my way to my parents’ house.
The book gets its title from a commencement speech that Marina gave at Yale, in which she talked about her fears of leaving a place she knew well. Of leaving the people she loved so much. She said:
“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow after Commencement and leave this place. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. More than finding the right job or city or spouse, I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now.”
I love this idea of “the opposite of loneliness” because it summarizes exactly what we have all been part of during your time here. We’ve been reading books and we’ve been writing stories. You and I and your other teachers and mentors have been talking, watching, reading, writing together, and although we’ve each probably felt lonely at one point or another, we have never been alone. We have created a beautiful web.
As you go forward to write your next chapters, take a page from the books you have loved and that have shaped you.
Be kind. Be quiet. Be loud. Tell people you love them. Be creative. Be brave. Be loyal. Think big. Say yes. Say no. Remember that it’s the little things that always make a huge difference. Admit when you don’t know. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable.
Live every day – not as if it were your last, but as if it were the single day upon which you would be judged by your reader.
And don’t let this be the end of the story. Keep in touch with each other and with us. And get out there and do amazing things that you can tell great stories about.