What follows is the commencement address given last Sunday to the class of 2013 at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School.
If you didn’t know already, you’ve probably gathered from what has been said so far today, this is one special group. So when they asked me back in January to be the one to give this speech, after a year in which some of them accused me of abandoning them to work with the middle school, I was overcome with gratitude. I was grateful that I would have the opportunity to say out loud, to the people who care about them the most, how fantastic this group of individuals really and truly is. This group is especially special to me because they are the first group of Charter School kids that I worked with extensively. And, even though I am the teacher, they taught me some of the most important things I’ve ever learned. They taught me the importance of respecting students — their ideas, their personalities and work styles. They showed me that just because they might be having a bad day one day, the next day may be a great one, so just be patient.
They illustrated that they really do have infinite potential and that they aren’t afraid to use it, once they themselves understand that it’s there. Because of them I learned where the image of a light bulb over the head comes from. I watched it get turned on over and over as these kids moved from the first years that they were when I met them, to the graduating ultimates they are today.
Those who know me (and especially my students) know that I am a lover of words. My favorite authors are the ones who use them in beautiful ways, my favorite songs are the ones with the best lyrics.
I love the way they sound, the way they’re spelled and I love what they mean.
Because of this, I asked some of the teachers and administrators who have known these kids longer than I have, some of them from all the way back to kindergarten, to give me one or two words to describe the folks who sit here before you.
Here’s some of what I got.
Trey — You are dedicated to persuading alternative modes of transportation, even though you really love muscle cars. You are caring, stoic, you own more Al’s T-shirts than even Al. You are comfortable, courageous, you are a community member and ALL the girls love you.
Erin Brown — You are loving, caring and amazing with little ones. You take criticism really well. You love your family, and your friends, and your phone. You are bubbly, fun and a graceful dancer.
Ian — You are passionate and driven. There is no question about where you are headed — you had your first directing debut in kindergarten. You make it cool to be smart. You may or may not have things hidden in your basement and we may never know the truth. You are accepting, you are a good guy and you are really, REALLY funny.
Eli — You are ambitious, you give great hugs and you are a shameless self-promoter. You are an expert UPS tracker, you are hyper-organized and you wear great shoes. You are a loving big brother and a loyal friend. We will be seeing your name for many years to come.
Spencer — You are an old spirit, a great artist and you really love your dog. You are the king of sort of and you put up with me calling you “Slim.” You have a winning smile and your quiet determination will take you far.
Zach Dupon — You are a good friend and you are quite charming. We look forward to the day when you pull up your pants. You are vocal and passionate, you are spicy and even a little saucy. You are a livewire and you are loyal to your family.
Kaelin — You are motivated, hard working and dependable. You are head of the peel-out club. You love the Charter School, dogs and you are bossy. You are creative and you are very responsible. You are a good sister and anyone would be lucky to call you a friend.
Ruth — It took the whole village to raise you! You are generous, you are always yourself and you are REALLY good at tetrus. You are the best fundraiser — it’s widely believed that you actually could sell sand at the beach, You can be a little sneaky, you have very interesting taste in reading material and you have the very best laugh.
Teo — You are a snowboarder. You are a dumptique connoisseur and a serious Bruins fan. You are active. You are an escape artist and one hell of a high-fiver. You love nature, your hat collection and you’ve got a smile that will be missed by many.
Zach Smalley — We have no idea what you’re listening to all day in those headphones, but surely you’ve got a great theme song or two. You are a poet. You love good food and your family. You are a musician, a calming presence and even though you may not know it, you’ve made the biggest turnaround.
Erin Sullivan — You are sweet, you are endearing, you are kind. You are the scarf man. You are a libertarian and you spent one whole year in the nurse’s office sleeping. You are a songwriter, you are a visionary. You have a fantastic sense of humor. You are the definition of coming into your own.
Oscar — You are the go-to guy, you are always ready to lend a hand. You are comfortable in your own skin. You are a bit of a lurker, you are dedicated and hard-working. You are a poet and you march to the beat of your own drum.
For this group as a whole, the word that comes to mind is Tenacious. It means “Tending to stick firmly to any decision, plan or opinion without changing or doubting it.” And while all of you have certainly changed your course many times, your plan, of sitting here on this stage today has never changed. You have never doubted it, you have stuck to it. Firmly. And today is your reward.
But I have one more important word for all you and that is: Reality
Reality means “An existence or universe, either connected with or independent from other kinds.”
I’m sure you’ve heard over and again how the Charter School, how Martha’s Vineyard, isn’t “reality.” And in fact, without living in another “reality” it’s hard to imagine how different our reality is from the rest of America. After today, you are all heading out into different realities and as you arrive and settle down into these big cities or small colleges or full-time jobs, you may look around you and say, “Whoa. Where am I?”
The world you come from does not contain billboards or subway stations or drive-thru Starbucks. There’s no delivery Chinese at 2 a.m., no IMAX theater, no Home Depot. However, that doesn’t make what we have here less real and in my opinion, there’s a whole lot more that your reality has to offer theirs than the other way around.
You are graduating today from a school, the very first school in the state of Massachusetts, as a matter of fact, that is powered by the sun. Our computers, our lights, our flushing toilets, all powered with energy that does not create pollution. You eat food every day that was grown by farmers who many of you know by name, food that many of you have helped to grow yourselves. You know firsthand about the necessity of sustainability, the dire importance of social justice. And all of this understanding has happened in an environment that promotes some of the best words ever: Cooperation, Democracy, Responsibility, Freedom, Trust and Respect.
If this world plans to survive, this is the direction it will have to go. But you, you are already there.
So it will be your job, your duty, as you enter these new realities, to make sure to bring some of your old reality with you. To spread the word about what you’ve done, what you’ve learned, where you come from. To inspire those around you and let them know that not only is the type of life you come from possible, it is, in fact, a reality.
And with that, I end my speech, climb off my soap box and thank you from the very bottom of my heart for the opportunity you’ve given me to teach you, to learn from you and to be among those who welcome you, you who are compassionate, driven, loyal, smart, funny, ambitious, responsible, charming, generous, kind, graceful, stoic and calming... into the exciting reality that is the rest of your lives.