Writing Sample - Commencement Speech

"Of Those to Whom Much is Given, Much is Required"

This is a day for thanks, and congratulations, and hope, and farewell.

First, the thanks.

I'm glad to have this rare opportunity to recognize publicly our dedicated staff. All of the adults here can recall those teachers in our own past who touched our lives forever—the ones who sparked our intellect or curiosity, who would accept no less than our best effort, who made us believe in ourselves, who encouraged us as individuals.

That encouragement may be the greatest gift one human being can give to another, and I see the teachers here offering that gift again and again, day after day, far above and beyond the requirements of their job. Teachers and staff, please stand and face our audience. Parents and friends, please join me in saying thank you to teachers and staff.

To the parents and families of the graduates, you deserve a hand also. You are the ones who dragged your children out of bed in the morning, made them turn off the TV and do their homework, monitored their progress in class, helped them with science projects, got together costumes for music performances, drove them to the library, attended their athletic events, and came to back-to-school nights after long days at work. It's not easy. Congratulations to you too.

And last, the students themselves. Any teacher or principal will tell you that each graduating class develops its own identity, its own personality, a kind of collective character. I think everyone who experienced the first week of school this year on our not-quite-completed, brand-new campus would agree with me that the graduates in this class are among the most responsible and resilient group of young people who ever made it through a difficult transition.

For a week last August, we functioned without bells, without clocks, without an intercom. More than 500 students moved from class to class throughout the day, with virtually no tardies—which is an accomplishment we rarely achieve even with bells and clocks—and more important, no whining. The staff deserves credit as well, for setting an example of calmness and competence in the face of—I don't want to use the word 'chaos'—let's just say a very unsettled atmosphere.

And now, we have a campus for the 21st century. And I have to say to the graduates that if you keep that ability—to accept whatever life throws at you with grace and good humor—you will have a very good basis for a successful future. Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock, said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." The capacity to roll with the punches, to accept change, to adapt to circumstances beyond your control—these are critical attributes for facing the rapidly changing world around you in the next century.

Another milestone this year was the presence, for the first time, of sixth graders on our campus. We owe a debt of thanks to Sixth-Grade Dean L— S—, who skillfully steered our youngest students through the move toward becoming a true middle school.

There were some reservations about bringing more than 150 sixth graders into a junior high school environment. The stereotype, after all, is that eighth graders will eat younger students alive. But I wish everyone here could have seen the 120 eighth grade students who volunteered for summer training sessions to become what we call WEB Leaders—for "Welcome EveryBody"—in order to make the younger students' integration into junior high school a comfortable and successful one.

Student WEB leaders, under the mentorship of L— F— and M— C— became our school representatives and our welcoming committee to the incoming sixth graders. In effect, they served as their big brothers and sisters. They proved that the stereotype is false; and I am very proud of them for that. I think the sixth grade parents probably join me in gratitude to the WEB leaders for their generosity toward their newest young classmates.

As a group, this graduating class has thrived under a rigorous academic program. Their achievements continue to reflect this school's stature as an academic leader in our state. We added a geometry class to our math courses this year, and under the excellent instruction of Ms. M— S—, the students in the class did well with a challenging new curriculum.

Ten French exchange students spent two weeks at K— this year. You welcomed them, included them, exchanged cultural information with them, and connected them with campus life to the extent that next year some of our K— students will return the exchange and spend time on a campus in France.

We are justifiably proud of the academic standards and extracurricular program at K—. It is exciting for me personally to be at a school where students truly believe that education is their top priority; and I hope you, our graduates, value the importance of education as long as you live—because education is the single thing that nobody can ever take away from you. What you have committed to your mind is yours forever.

At the same time it's important to realize that the real purpose of education is not to get the grades to get into college to get a good job.

Most of you next year will be entering a high school where the competition is as tough as anywhere in the country. It is understandable that students feel impelled to jump feet-first into that competition, to worry excessively about grades, to fight for every point on every exam —- not motivated by the value of learning, but just to get the 'A' or do what they think will look good on a transcript, or to gain a few more points on the SAT.

But if we look at high school and college as nothing but a ticket to what is immediately negotiable in the marketplace, it subverts the whole intention of true education. The reality is that most of you will change careers four or five times in a lifetime. The true purpose of education is not to teach you how to make a living, but to teach you how to make a life—to awaken your curiosity, your intellect, your passion, your dedication, your idealism, your vision, your commitment to justice—so that you bring those qualities to whatever job you are working in.

Some of you don't know what it is to have anything but an 'A' on a report card. Some of you have tried as hard as you could, and not succeeded as well as you had hoped. Some of you have not pushed yourselves very hard but still managed to do well. Some of you have struggled in every class.

For those who have excelled, enjoy your success, keep up the good work, and count yourselves fortunate that academic study is one of your strengths.

For those of you who had a bumpy road this year or last year, I say to you and your parents that for most of us, life is a very long journey, and there are many chances to begin again along the way. The path of a career, like the path of a life, is wonderfully unpredictable. One of the great things about this country is that you can start and stop and shift gears, change direction, take a detour now and then—and still end up in a place that brings you success and happiness.

But wherever you are on that spectrum, I promise you that the lives ahead of you are filled with possibility….

…I promise you that nobody succeeds at everything all the time, and few failures are permanent….

…I promise you that you will never regret lending a hand to people less fortunate than yourself….

…and I promise you that the luckiest people in the world are the ones who make a living doing work that they love for its own sake.

Former President John F. Kennedy, for whom this school was named, was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Hanging on the wall of the home where he grew up was this reminder: "Of those to whom much is given, much is required."

You are the last class of students to graduate in the 20th century, in a world that has become staggeringly fast and complex and demanding. There is more information in a single edition of the New York Times than a man or woman in the 16th century had to process in an entire lifetime.

You will finish high school at the beginning of the 21st century, and in your lifetimes you will see even more dramatic changes in technology and communication and medicine and transportation—innovations that would probably seem like science fiction if we could get a glimpse of them.

You are this country's best hope for the coming century, and that is a solemn obligation. Much will be required of you.

I believe in my heart that if each of you fulfills the best promise that is in you, and after the dust of the 21st century has passed over our cities, your legacy to future generations will not be in finance or business or medicine or technology—but in your contribution to the human spirit.

With that hope, I join your families in offering you our warmest congratulations, and wishing you a heartfelt farewell.