Graduation Speeches – from cliches to sage advice…….

Each June for the past 25 years I’ve been coming to the Lake George region of New York.  Lake George is 3 ½ hours north of New York City and part of the Adirondack Mountains. It’s a gorgeous area with many small towns close by.  In June I follow an annual ritual of catching up on how the local schools have done in the state baseball and softball tournaments (Fort Ann girls softball are always a powerhouse in the Class D tournament!!).  I always look forward to the weekly free newspaper – The Chronicle for local highlights and schedules of events.  The Chronicle also covers local graduations from the 8 or so local high schools. They do a great write up on the top students and provide highlights of graduation speeches at each school. High School graduation in small towns around the country are a big deal for communities. Residents of the towns turn out for graduations even if they don’t have kids in school.  They are important events!  As are the speakers and speeches!   This class of 2015 onstagemorning, I plowed through the highlights of local graduations and extracted a few highlights from adults and kids who spoke during local ceremonies.   This was kind of a fun activity.  There are always cliché comments and sometimes it wasn’t clear whether it was a kid or an adult who was giving the advice!  Below these highlights are two other elements to this posting.  First, I couldn’t resist highlighting some commencement comments from “famous people” at various universities.  These were fun to read and extracted from a New York Times article from May 22, 2015. Second, I’ve included the faculty commencement speech at our recent Lincoln Community School graduation where Heather Duffy Stone was the speaker.  Her speech is definitely worth reading!

Here are some words of wisdom extracted from my local newspaper (from the Adirondack Journal – July 4 edition)

“don’t forget the integral role of luck in the achievement of goals” – HS Salutatorian

“follow your dreams…….change the world one little personal interaction at a time” – Superintendent

“commencement is not an end, but a beginning….life itself will complete your education, make it a great life, the choice is yours” HS Principal

“appreciate the people who made you who you are”  HS Salutatorian

“Set your sights on great things, never give up and above all be the best you can be – whatever you choose to pursue in life, make it happen.”  Superintendent

“Hunger for excellence, never take anything or anyone for granted.  You never know what life will throw at you”  HS Principal

“Never take the easy way out, have faith in yourself, be positive with everyone, and never make decisions shooting from the hip”  HS Principal

“We are lucky to have people in our lives that have helped and watch us grow in to young adults, ready to move on into the next chapter of our stories”   HS Valedictorian

“Use your talents and energy and knowledge to make the world a better place”  Superintendent

“Find your passions, and pour your soul into achieving them – success comes to those who never quit.” HS Principal

“One thing you have that nobody else has, is you – your voice, mind, vision, story – andy teye speakingso write and draw and build and create and study hard but play harder and live only as you can”   HS Valedictorian

“Pursue a path of integrity and do your best in every situation, because everything you do will make a difference to someone.”  HS Principal

The following were extracted from the NYT article on May 22, 2015

…. I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every graduate here today.” John Waters Artist/Film Director

The world is full of siren songs luring unwary sailors onto rocks; false promises, fool’s gold; foxes, cats and coachmen luring young people to gluttonous, over-indulging Pleasure Island where, as you’ll know if you’ve seen the movie Pinocchio, the kids make jackasses of themselves.   Do not make jackasses of yourselves.”  Salmon Rushdie

….work hard and don’t be lazy. And put away your damn iPhone once in a while – Maya Rudolph

It is into this disorienting and sometimes disappointing world that you now plummet …. unprotected from the shelter of family and school. Ken Burns

Resist that temptation to rationalize what others view is the right choice for you — instead of what you feel in your gut is the right choice — that’s your North Star. Trust it. Follow it.    Vice President Joe Biden

You will always regret taking a half swing.  You will never regret taking a full swing. If you’re going to strike out, you go down swinging — not by watching the pitch go by. There is something worse about failing that way. Cody Keenan – speechwriter for Obama


Commencement speeches must be difficult to conceive.  How many times can speakers say “pursue your dreams” or “the future lies in front of you and it’s yours to create” or other similar words of inspiration, encouragement, and open ended optimism.  Each year, at Lincoln Community School, students select a faculty member to speak to them at graduation. This year, they selected the College Counselor (Heather Duffy Stone – HDS) to speak.   I was impressed by her speech,

Heather Duffy Stone at the podium

Heather Duffy Stone at the podium

and I know others were as well.  I have posted it below and I think it’s worth reading.  I’ve thought a lot about the random moments we have as educators and adults with students and how a random experience may hold create unique significance.  I think she has done an excellent job of providing a dose of reality while delivering an important message.  Have a read… (I’ve highlighted parts of it that captured my limited attention!)

Hi. I am SO honored to be standing here. I’m a little nervous too. But the honour of being invited to speak to you today, is mostly calming. I think of these last few weeks, packed into my office with all of you—whether it was the cake or the cheeseburgers or hiding your bags or listening to you teach each other… I’m not lying when I say these last few weeks remind me why I do this job—even when the AC didn’t work, even when I couldn’t hear myself think. I have thought a lot about this speech, and the things I wish I could say to EACH of you in these few minutes here on stage– but there just isn’t the time to do it all. So I’m giving you each a card to say the one thing I wanted to say to each of YOU specifically in person, as a token of my gratitude for letting me learn from and with you these two years.

Honestly, I feel SO LUCKY to have been with you at this time in your life, when everything is in front of you and everything can happen. You might be feeling numb right now, or terrified or thrilled or ambivalent. But you are at the beginning and you are living it all for the first time and there is nothing more exhilarating than that. Some of you are about to embark on adventures, farewell trips together to islands and music festivals—these weeks will be embedded in your memory. The day after I graduated from high school my friends and I piled into a Toyota 4-Runner and drove around New England camping riverside, going to Grateful Dead shows, and selling hummus sandwiches in concert traffic jams to supplement our fast-disappearing graduation cash. That may not sound like your ideal vacation, its definitely not mine anymore! But it was ours then and the memory of those days is perfect. We were together. Those of us, like me, who choose to work in high schools do so because we want to the never lose sight of the energy and possibility you have at this moment. It is so true, whatever comes next, you are the architect.

But don’t get me wrong. I want to tell you the truth about something. It’s a truth I feel like no one ever told me. The message I want to give you is not YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOU WANT. You can’t necessarily. And that’s OKAY. That is what no one ever told me. I worried at first about saying so- but it’s the truth. You can be an actress. But you may not win an Oscar. You can find the perfect first job. But it may not make you a millionaire. You can apply to Harvard for Business School. But you may not get in. It does not mean that you have not worked hard enough. It means the world will throw you curve balls. It means that nothing will look exactly like you imagine it will look.

Last month was my 20th high school reunion. I wasn’t at my reunion of course. I was here. But I poured over pictures and videos of the event. Who was there? Who had done what they said they were going to do? Well, Parker isn’t President, but she is Chief of Staff for U.S. Congress and Meghan isn’t a lawyer, though she went to law school. She runs a Sales department. She married her sister’s high school boyfriend- that was something she never said she’d do. Darcy isn’t an actress, she’s a nurse and she just bought a house in the town where she grew up, the one she said she’d never go back to. I’m not a writer- not like I thought I’d be. I wrote a book but it didn’t exactly rock the literary world. But I’m a lot of other things too. My life looks absolutely nothing like I thought it would. There are a lot of things I wanted and worked hard for that I don’t have. But the life I do have has been painted by celebrations and failures. It’s been real. It’s been unexpected.

Some of you know I have this tattoo on my back. And parents, I promise I waited a long time to get this tattoo. I was OLD when I got it. I knew I wanted some kind of text, and I thought long and hard about the text that I’d ink into my skin that would be there forever. Something I wouldn’t regret… the tattoo on my back says “how inevitable it is, we step into an ordinary moment and never come out again”. These moments are in front of us. And they will explode up out of nowhere. We won’t see them coming. And they will change everything. We’ve all had these moments—ask us about them—ask Mr. Smith about the canoe trip, ask Mr. A about his fight against corporate sponsorship, ask Ms. Welchman about being the family translator- these small moments that changed the course of our everything.

Your course has already changed in ways you didn’t imagine. I know it was not always easy for you this year. Some days you felt left behind. You had amazing mentors and teachers and coaches who have moved on—and I know it has been hard at times to celebrate this milestone without them—to make big decisions without them. You had pictured Mr. Craggs would be here dress-coding you even in your graduation robe and yet proudly handing you your diploma, or that Mr. Milton would be tough-loving you through exams and then even shedding a tear or two tonight despite that tough façade. But they are here with you—in the lessons they taught you, in the humour that echoes in your stories, in the memories you paint clearly, in the people you have become. You have new teachers too who have shaped you in unexpected ways who are here with you tonight in person. And you have friends and family members, here in the audience or here in their memory and influence, who have helped you become who you are. You of all people know that closeness does not have to mean geography or proximity, it means the impact someone leaves on you.

You all first began to make your impact on me in ToK classes last spring, when I was mostly new to you, when the reality of college was far from your minds, when you were busy testing my limits– would I let you leave class? Would I really make you hand something in? How strict was I about the term essay? As the reality of your futures loomed, we got to know each other better. I learned how you worked. I learned you were generous, you were scared, you didn’t want to leave your brother behind, you couldn’t wait to live under your own roof, you dreamed of building amusement parks and changing the world, of falling in love, of getting your heart broken just so you could feel. You became whole and real and alive and you surprised me at every turn. As we have moved through the past two years your dreams have been realized and they have been broken. Your dreams have come alive and they have yet to take shape. You’ll go to the University of Pennsylvania and the London School of Economics– just like you’ve always imagined. You’ll go to Kalamazoo and Furman – schools you had never heard of at this time last year. You’ll take a gap year, you’ll live through your first winter in Ontario, some of you aren’t yet sure where you’ll be but as big as your imagination, as thorough as your research, you have no idea of what is to come. And here is what I ask of you. DIVE in with your eyes closed because even if you think you have an idea, even if you have a vision, I promise it will look nothing like that. You’ve seen more of the world than most people your age but even so, you can’t imagine what the future will look like. Don’t try. Because it will blow your mind. You will be disappointed, you will get your heart broken, you will meet people you never could have imagined to life, you will do things you always said you never would, you will do things you dreamed about, and they won’t look at all how you thought they would. You will pay bills and buy groceries and build families and it will seem simple and amazing. You will win awards and publish articles and meet with Presidents and it will feel natural and exhilarating. You will wake up, and you will look down at your hands and you will say– are these MY hands? where did all the years go? Remember that day, when I graduated from high school, I had no idea what was ahead of me… You leave here with the strength you’ve given each other, the sense of home, the way you take care of each other. I love to watch that. You protect each other and you celebrate each other—you fight and you compete and you gossip too, you have your moments but at the root of it all you take care of each other. The rarity that you have in that is extraordinary. And you won’t have it everywhere. You won’t have it next year, not right away. There will be hats in airstrangers and strange cities but you will have the foundation you have given each other. You have an idea of what is out there, you have a vision of what’s to come but… don’t try to control it. Let it underwhelm you and let it blow your mind. LET IT look nothing like you ever imagined. Your possibilities, they ARE infinite.

Thanks to Heather Duffy Stone for this inspirational commencement speech!

(PS.  Heather also has a couple of books that she authored available on Amazon!!)

2 thoughts on “Graduation Speeches – from cliches to sage advice…….

  1. Geoff, thanks for sharing your reflections. I read through the bolded portion of Heather’s speech and it rings so very true to me. I couldn’t have imagined that Bill and I would raise our family in an internationa school and live abroad for so many years. Sending love.

  2. Having been an event planner, I understand the challenges of producing an event that everyone enjoys and participates. The most memorable party I produced was themed around grade school.

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