NDA Commencement 2021
Good morning Dr. Pacifico, Dr. Flynn, Faculty, Staff, Administration, families, friends and of course - The NDA class of 2021.
The opportunity to speak to you today is one of the greatest honors I’ve received in my 24-year teaching career – I must also say that this is also one of the most terrifying moments of my teaching career. You might think that a teacher has no fears speaking in front of people. Actually, one of my greatest fears has always been speaking in front of people – so it made perfect sense for me to become a politician or a teacher. (This might make more sense in the next few minutes.)
The second greatest honor I’ve had for the past six years is teaching at this wonderful institution and spending my time teaching you all - for the past two of those years. You have made me think, laugh, and cry. Some days I wasn’t sure if I was laughing or crying!
It has been a pretty eventful last couple of years, hasn’t it? We’ve been through a crazy presidential election that many Americans still don’t accept; a pandemic that has destroyed lives and livelihoods; some of our NDA family seated here today lost a family member to the corona virus. We have dealt with school and business shutdowns, stay at home orders, covid testing, contact tracing, vaccine anxiety; all while attending school, taking tests, and dealing with normal family situations. It has been a time that none of us will ever forget. But we did it together.
Hank Stram, an American football coach who won three AFL championships, said: “As I matriculate my way down the field of life, I will never forget this moment and you wonderful people who helped make this day possible.”
So, once again thanks for this great honor and I am proud to be standing in front of the family, friends, and faculty of the NDA class of 2021.
When I found out that you chose me to give the 2021 commencement address, I thought about my High School and College commencement addresses-
– and I couldn’t remember a darn thing they said. I hope that I can improve on that and maybe you will remember at least one thing I say to you today. And Ishani – I hope I give you a few more laughs before you get your diploma!
As I thought about what I wanted to say this morning I remembered the senior retreat you had a couple of months ago when I stopped by for a visit. If you remember I titled my short talk: “Things I Wish My Teacher Told Me.” Today we can title this talk as “Things I wish my teacher told me 2.0”
As I pondered about things I wish my teacher told me – I kept coming back to one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Yoda. For those of you who don’t know Yoda - he was a Jedi Master a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Whether we realize or not – that fictional character created by George Lucas expressed many ideas that are universal and will help you as you navigate your own way through this trial, we call life. I ask that you take some of these ideas with you as you leave NDA to pursue your careers and dreams.
1. "Do or do not. There is no try."
Don’t ever quit, no matter how difficult the odds may appear, no matter how futile your efforts may seem to be. You can accomplish anything if you put 100% effort into it. Remember when we watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington together in APGOV? Did he quit? No. He took on the most powerful people in Washington and almost died in the process. But in the end, he was victorious. Did George Washington quit when his soldiers were starving and freezing at Valley Forge in the winter of 1776? No and he won the war! Did the Little Rock Nine give up when racists and bigots tried to prevent them from going to school? No. And we now live in a land where segregation is illegal.
Persevere, stay strong and you will succeed!
2. "You must unlearn what you have learned."
In order to be creative – you must not depend on what others have taught you. You must be inquisitive, and you must think independently. You must think anew. Fresh thinking for a new generation. Did Galileo accept the idea that the earth was the center of the Solar System? No. He questioned authority and challenged the ideas that were accepted at the time as fact. Don’t allow anyone to tell you something is “accepted fact”. The whole point of science is theory-investigation-testing-conclusion-theory. Theorize, investigate, test, repeat. Question everything!
When President Eisenhower warned America about the growing Military Industrial Complex, he also told us not to relinquish our inquisitiveness to an elite class of scientists or so-called public policy experts. He said profoundly: “we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Even President Eisenhower believed Americans should not necessarily accept the conclusions of experts – but ask questions and challenge the so-called elites! (Just remember to take it easy on your professors next year – they have control of your grades) And also… you might not want to question your parents all the time either, after all they had you, raised you and are probably paying most, if not all, of your bills. You can show respect for experts while at the same time questioning their conclusions.
3. "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
Fear is the most powerful human emotion. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying: “love conquers all,” but in reality, fear trumps love. We kill out of fear; we go to war out of fear; we compromise our beliefs because of fear of how others will see us; we cheat on an exam or a homework assignment because we are afraid of failure. We must not be afraid. We must not hide for cover when things get difficult. In the words of Franklin D Roosevelt: “the only think we have to fear – is fear itself.”
Even the great literary and philosophical giant Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life."
In order to live a full life, you must overcome those fears. (By the way – do you all remember seeing the fear in my eyes when a flying bug enters my classroom? I obviously have yet to learn about controlling my own fears!!)
One of the greatest First Ladies in American history, Eleanor Roosevelt said:
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
Think about that line for a moment: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
This is a very profound statement. Don’t allow fear to stop you from achieving your goals. Don’t allow your own personal fears to make you hesitate from doing something:
apply to an ivy league school,
apply for that high paying job,
ask someone out on a date,
move to a different state… quit your teaching job without having any new job lined up… (wait a minute I think we just did that!)
But seriously, if we can get FDR, Eleanor, Emerson, and Yoda to agree on the negative effects of fear – there must be something to it!
4. "The greatest teacher, failure is."
As most of you know I have two favorite sayings – one of them you’ve heard me say at the end of each class for the past two years: “Peace and Love” – the other saying I don’t use as much, but it is just as important: “fail with dignity.” Failure is not the end - it is only the beginning. Failure doesn’t show that you can’t do it – it only means that you need to take another shot at it.
Two-time Olympic gold medal winner Abby Wambach said: “Failure is not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be powered by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.”
Author J.K. Rowling made it pretty clear in 2008 when she said: “It is impossible not to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.”
Learn from your mistakes; making a mistake is not the end it is only the beginning. I have made many mistakes in my life; some were small and could be easily corrected; some mistakes were major and took years to rectify. But I never gave up and I never gave in. And I expect you to do the same!
5. "Pass on what you have learned."
I know this sounds like a contradiction of Yoda’s second point “Unlearn what you have learned,” but it really isn’t. We must learn from those that have come before us – and then question this wisdom constantly. I never wanted you to believe everything I taught you (and I know many of you didn’t) – I only wanted you to learn what I have learned – and then go out into the world to either confirm or deny the truth of what I taught you. Columbus unlearned the world was flat and changed the future of human civilization forever; Teddy Roosevelt unlearned what was expected of the President of the US and our nation has not been the same since; Martin Luther King Jr. asked us to unlearn the racism and prejudice that was passed from generation to generation as a fact of life in America and we now praise MLK as one of the Greatest Americans of the 20th Century. I ask you to take with you everything you have learned while at the same time - not believing a word of it!
Some of you may remember the first week of junior year when I told you all: “Don’t believe a word I say!” I said this because I wanted you to find out for yourself. Read, listen, observe, learn, and come to your own conclusions.
By learning from the past, while also embracing the idea that all human knowledge can be inaccurate (and conclusions can change over time) – You can change the world:
-You may be the one who cures cancer or Alzheimer’s;
-You may be the one who discovers the ability to travel through time;
-You may be the one who develops new transportation technologies and put a permanent end to traffic jams and pollution from trains, planes, and automobiles;
- You may discover a new energy source that can power human development for the next millennia
-You may be the one who changes the world for the better one little piece at a time.
Which brings me to my final point this morning: The constant of change.
Change is the only constant in the universe. The Earth has been going through changes since its creation, civilizations have been changing since the first village created in the fertile crescent of current day Iraq, even the human species is always changing from one generation to another.
My father used to tell me that the only sure things in life are Death and Taxes. I’m sure that almost every dad tells his kids the same thing. If my father were still alive today, I would say to him: “Dad, I’d like to amend your statement: “the only sure thing in life is Death, Taxes and Change.” (I’m sure he would then respond to me and say “yea - the change we have is the change left over after we pay our taxes!”) God love you Dad!
But here is the point - we are all going through changes as we sit here today.
-Our nation is preparing to have a permanent human base on the Moon, and we are planning for the human exploration of Mars,
-communications technology is making the world even smaller than it was 10 years ago! I actually taught history and government to students in China with video technology this year!
- health care technology is improving where it is now normal for many of us to live close to 100 years of age,
- race relations are changing in the United States since death of George Floyd and we have no idea what these changes will lead to,
- our political rhetoric and political polarization has gotten so vitriolic in the past 5 years that our elected officials seem incapable of compromise,
- cancel culture is threatening the 1st Amendment, Socratic teaching, and our ability to express opinions without fear of reprisal or persecution,
-large technology companies like Google and Facebook are collecting and storing our personal data and using that data to propagandize to us while at the same time censoring what content they deem appropriate for us to see and read,
Change is happening all around us, and the above examples are only some of the issues that we as a nation are currently dealing with.
You are also going through some personal changes. Many of you will be moving away from your families, even going to school out of state, changing the relationship you have with your family. You will be meeting new people and making new friends putting a strain on old friends and old relationships. You will be learning new skills and ideas that may make you question your career goals, education plans or even your own personal belief system,
You will be challenged in ways that you can’t even imagine.
You will encounter professors stuck in their ways and refusing to think outside the box; You will have other professors that will accept new ways of looking at old ideas. Embrace both and learn from them.
You will encounter wonderful people with a heart of gold and the spirit of St Julie – you will also meet ignorant people full of hatred and bigotry. Embrace the good people with all of your heart and pray for the bigot – for we are all God’s children– even those who are lost and need to be found.
Change is inevitable. Be ready for it.
Embrace the changes or fight the changes - but make a choice – take a position.
Don’t stand on the sidelines of life’s controversies; take a side and argue,
You have one life to live; live it.
You are an individual; express it.
You are alive; yell it to the mountain tops!
And finally, I would like to leave you with this: everything we do in this one life we have- comes down to those six famous words that opened one of the most important documents in American History that established the first social compact in America:
In the Name of God: AMEN!
Thank you, Good Luck and God Bless!