The Graduation speech I never gave

Dear Graduates,

I’ve given many graduation speeches during my career, and I have always been careful not to spoil the day by upsetting or offending any of the students, parents, Board members or teachers who make up my audience (well, nearly always!)  Inevitably, this has put a constraint on the possibility of saying anything worthwhile, although I’ve done my best not to be too bland.

No longer!  I can now tell you what I have wanted to for the last forty years!

Point 1: despite what your parents and teachers might have told you, most of you have not yet accomplished anything at all. All of the benefits in your life so far have flowed in one direction, from your parents and teachers and towards you, allowing you the luxury of following your prescribed courses with varying levels of interest and enthusiasm while enjoying the freedom of youth. This is not a criticism, it is simply the nature of school and of youth; you will not know what you have really learned until you go out into the world where the consequences of your behaviour will be felt by you and by others.

Point 2: don’t be fooled by your grades, whether they are good or bad.  Rarely in life will you be faced with test questions for which you have been taught the answers and given the opportunity to study for; your success in such tests will have little bearing on your future happiness.

Point 3: much of what you learned in class is less important than what you learned out of class.  The ability to solve equations or write an essay may be useful, but not as much as the ability to make a friend laugh, comfort someone in distress, resolve a confrontation, or stick to your principles. Unfortunately, none of these things fit easily into a formal curriculum, but I hope that you have learned them by observing them in the behaviour of your family and teachers.

Point 4: although school is supposed to prepare you for life, it actually only prepares you for more school.  We have now recognised that learning should not stop at graduation, and you have been urged to pursue ‘lifelong learning’; we have yet to reach the logical conclusion that real-life experience should not be left until after graduation, and there is a dire need to bring ‘lifelong experience’ to your student years.

Point 5:  whether you realise it or not, you have an innate love of learning. Some of you are lucky enough to have had this nurtured and encouraged, but in some it has been neglected, or even squashed out of existence by the rigidity of the curriculum. Humanity is naturally curious and people enjoy learning, unless they are forced to study things that do not interest them and have no relevance to their lives.

Over the last year, thanks to the power of Facebook, I have been making contact with many students whom I taught and/or coached in the past. As I enjoy vicarious glimpses into so many diverse lives, I am been struck by the impossibility of extrapolating from the teenager to the adult. These ex-students, regardless of their degree of ‘success’ at school, have careers, friends and families which are a reflection of their own talents, choices and decisions, and which add up to something so much richer and more complex than their teachers could have foreseen. They have discovered what you will discover: that unlike school, life has no final grade, no ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, and no ranking system that you have to accept. You will enjoy a mixture of happiness and despair, and some of each may be shaped by your school years. On behalf of your teachers I hope that we have not hindered your progress too much, and that you have managed to learn something while in our company.

I will close with an extract from a graduation address that I had the privilege of delivering from the podium of the General Assembly chamber of the United Nations when I was Principal of the UN International School in New York:

No graduation speech would be complete without at least one metaphor, and I found my metaphor on an extremely educational class field trip to the 6 Flags Theme Park. There is a device there called the ‘SkyHoist’, which involves three people being strapped together and hoisted 200 ft up into the air on the end of a 200 foot wire, where they then pull a release cord to be dropped and become a 200 ft pendulum swinging at horrible speeds. (Why they would want to do this remains a mystery to me, but that is not my point.) My metaphor is the image, frozen in memory, of three students: a young French-Canadian, a young man from the Gabon, and a young woman with a complicated ancestry involving England , Tanzania and the US, all hanging onto each other for dear life as they plummeted towards the ground, because each other was all they had to hang on to. Though they were terrified, they clearly loved every minute of it.

And so here is my message for the students: If you can see beyond your fears and your superficial differences, pull the release cord and hang on to each other – you will find that life is going to be a pretty exciting ride.