This year, I had the greatest honour I have ever had.
Our class of 2021 voted for me as their graduation speaker which, as one of my colleagues put it, is about as good as it gets for a teacher. Students were on campus for graduation and families attended from home via livestream.
These were my words to our students, and to students everywhere:
It is a true honour to speak to you today, and I thank you from all of my heart. The best way to describe my feelings upon hearing about this is the Yiddish word verklempt, which roughly means full of emotion and speechless. I felt this way because I was deeply touched and I had no idea what to say. Just because I think a lot of things doesn’t mean I know a lot things. But I have lived a lot and this has led me to some understandings. In the next few minutes, I will do my best to share them with you.
Over the past two years, I have watched this class grow in many ways, the most significant of which, the one that I think best defines this class, is how you have grown in your resilience. To be resilient means to bounce back, to respond to adversity, to rise up stronger and wiser than you were before. You did this, and continue to do this, in rather complicated circumstances while managing your studies, maintaining hobbies and activities, and making plans for the future. You rose to this challenge. And now, you are here. This is resilience.
The ability to be resilient, to see challenges as opportunities to grow, is something to carry with you always, regardless of what happens next week, next month, or five years from now. And as we all continue to learn, we cannot rely on well-laid plans, but plans are required if we hope to move forward. Resilience is the story of the class of 2021; what will be the story of your individual life?
A few years ago I discovered rock climbing, and it has become a significant part of my world. My favourite of the climbing gym’s motivational posters says: Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Only you have the power to live your life. All actions have consequences, and your decisions will set you on different roads that allow for different possibilities. I have learned that these decisions affirm who we are, and also lay the foundation for who we will become. And even though you might wish otherwise, you will never know where the other road might have taken you, and you will never know who you might have been had you taken it.
So this is a critical question: What kind of person do you want to be as you begin your next chapter? Educator John Holt wrote, “The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” Your character guides how you respond to your environment and those around you, and it is your character that exemplifies the values that are central to how you understand yourself and others. When we are confident and comfortable, surrounded by family and friends, we know who we are. Here, at Southeast Asian International School*, you know who you are. You know who is there for you, what is expected of you, and how to behave.
But things are about to change. Graduation marks the end of this chapter and the beginning of a new journey. You will have beautiful, remarkable, memorable moments. But there will also be times when you stumble. When you fail. When you are caught unawares, uncertain, or having made a terrible mistake. But you have proven yourself to be resilient, and this means that you will stand up and you will begin again. And if you are courageous enough, you will find yourself with choices.
Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Sometimes, the way forward is obvious and you clearly know what is the right thing to do. But sometimes, actually doing the right thing is very hard. This is when you need to ask yourself about the person you are becoming and what matters to you. You can decide how to act, who to be around, and how to build the community you want to live in. And you can change your mind when the road you are on is not right.
To send you on your journey, I would like to offer my deepest hope for you: That you find a path with a heart. This idea comes from The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, which is somewhere between anthropology and memoir. Don Juan explains that a path with a heart can go anywhere or nowhere – how it goes is what matters. As I understand it, when a path has a heart, it is right. It is the deep conviction that we experience without the need for words. This is the path that gives us joy, strength, and a sense of peace.
And finding this path takes work, perhaps trying multiple paths before reaching the right one. You will know that you are on your path when it speaks to who you are, how you understand the world and your place in it. Sometimes, you can keep going with what you have already begun. But sometimes, the scariest and most important thing to do is stop and start again. The choices that we make, and the character that reflects our values and guides our behaviour, allow us to walk a path with a heart. Doing this takes resilience, it takes courage, and it can take us to places we’ve never dared to imagine.
As poet Mary Ann Evans, better known by the pen name George Eliot, wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
Travel the path with a heart. The path is a journey. The journey is life.
Congratulations, Class of 2021. I can’t wait to see who you become.
*Name changed to protect the innocent, as a friend and former colleague would say