An Exceptional Baccalaureate Speech
Last weekend I attended the baccalaureate service for the 2012 graduating class of St. Andrew’s School in Savannah, Georgia–because my grandson, Jay Jenkins, was the class valedictorian. I couldn’t have guessed that the speaker would give the most stimulating and relevant baccalaureate speech I’ve ever heard. Fortunately, when I met him afterward he gave me permission to publish his speech in my blog, so you can benefit from his wise counsel. In fact, I recommend that you have your high school age students read his remarks.
Now here is the speech, presented by Adam M. Solender, Executive Director, Jewish Educational Alliance and the Savannah Jewish Federation.
Good Afternoon St Andrews class of 2012. It is a great honor to be able to share some thoughts with you as part of your Baccalaureate ceremony. You may be asking yourself, “Why is Aaron’s father speaking to us?” “Is he really smart?” The fact is, many or all of you are smarter than me. But even so, “I know more than you!” I’m going to try and share some of that knowledge today.
In the St Andrews community I’ve repeatedly been told that I look like the brother from “Raymond.” Others tell me that I look like a character from the Sopranos. A few of you know me as the big guy trolling the sidelines during football games taking photographs, while others may know me as a proud member of the “Cow Bell crew.” Most importantly I am the father of David who graduated as a member of the Class of 2009 and Aaron, who is graduating this weekend.
In my professional world I am the Executive Director of the Jewish Educational Alliance, Savannah’s Jewish community center and the Executive Director of the Savannah Jewish Federation, the fundraising organization that provides for Social services in our Jewish community, educational opportunities for children, and raising funds for Jews in need throughout the world and in Israel.
Today, I am especially honored to be a parent who has the opportunity to be one of the first people to formerly congratulate the Saint Andrews class of 2012.
I want to take a moment to recognize the faculty who sits beside you… Not in front of you, but beside you. It is more than just symbolism. As you move forward in life, this is the way it should continue. I’ve not had much opportunity over the past five years, but it’s never too late…”On behalf of all the parents, Thank you to each of the faculty members for educating our children. Thank you for your time, your passion, and your talents which you have so generously shared.”
I also honor and congratulate the parents, spouses, family members, and friends whose support and faith brought us here to celebrate this weekend. During a very challenging economy, all of your parents made some type of sacrifice to provide you a wonderful quality St. Andrews School experience. If you didn’t know it, your parents lost a lot of sleep over the past 18 or so years. We remember your first steps, first lost tooth, the day you jumped out of the car – turned around – waved – and disappeared into the building without ever looking back, your first soccer goal, first date, first time you drove away by yourself, and the first missed curfew. We worried and reveled in each of these events and thousands of more along the way.
Speaking to you today marks a significant milestone in my life. Thirty-eight years ago when I was the one sitting in the graduation audience, I couldn’t imagine fifty-five—it sounded so very old. All of us parents see ourselves as young….and then you come around the corner and we remember what young really is. I barely remember my graduation weekend and couldn’t even tell you who spoke at my graduation. I can only tell you that the speeches went on forever.
You can rest assured, that in a week of IB tests, final exams, Proms, Luncheons, suit and dress fittings, sports and academic award ceremonies, that I won’t speak one moment over forty minutes—-just kidding.
Today I get the opportunity to say some of the things your parents have said, might say, will say, or are just thinking of saying. It just so happens that after writing this, I counted up the ideas and they numbered eighteen. Eighteen is a very significant number in Judaism. Eighteen translates to Chai which means “life.” Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, L’Chaim when making a toast. It means: “To Life.” Here are 18 Chai ideas I want to share with you. May these ideas take you throughout your wonderful lives:
• I know this won’t be popular with the parents, but take advantage of their support as long as possible. While in college—travel as much as you can, take semesters abroad, experience programs and internships before you join the real world of loan repayments, mortgages, cars, insurance, and dare I say, children of your own.
• Master technology—but take your hand, and heads out of it. Despite what you think, meaningful conversations do not take place by Skype, texting, email, Twitter, or Facetime. Relationships and trust are established when you take the time to look someone in the eye, read their expression, and assess their reaction to you. A direct conversation is the most effective and essential building block in developing a relationship, whether it be in your personal life or in the work place. I know I am showing my age… I constantly tell my much younger coworkers: A text is not as good as an email…An email is not as good as a letter…a letter is no replacement for a phone call, and a none of the previous are as good as a firm handshake, a gentle kiss on the cheek, or a warm embrace.
• Learn to be open to other’s ideas. You may not agree or share the same views, but something can almost always be gained. Many of the things I’ve learned in life came by being quiet and listening. Whether it be at home, at work, or in our friendships, if we take the time to listen to and learn from each other, we can build powerful relationships and institutions.
• Follow your passion and be a risk taker–but at the same time — analyze the risk and make smart choices. Look at the big picture and see where you can plug in your passion. There is a place for all of us. Don’t be afraid to try to stretch a little. The worst that will happen is you’ll learn something doesn’t work…but maybe it will.
• Learn History-your personal/family history as well as that of the world. Learn the stories of your family-they are a part of you. History gives you reference points for the future. How can you be expected to appreciate what you have if you don’t know where it comes from?
• Understand that there is no free lunch in life. Everything in life bears a cost—Everything has a price. To get one thing that we like, we usually have to give up another thing we like. The question you must ask yourself: Is the cost worth the price?
• It’s not too late to take up a hobby. Watching TV while using Facebook and texting on your phone may be a skill that you all have, but it is not a hobby. A hobby is something that gives you personal joy from the experience–learn to play an instrument, grow plants, build models, work out in the gym…all things that build your mind or body–and give you respite from some of the routine and stresses of the day.
• Take up a fun sport that can follow you throughout your life. I’m not telling you to give up football, basketball, or soccer, but when you hit sixty a tennis court or golf course is much gentler on the knees–just ask your parents and grandparents.
• Don’t settle for your second choice when you haven’t even tried your first. Harvard President, Drew Faust calls this the “Parking Theory of Life:” Don’t park ten blocks away from your destination because you think you’ll never find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.
• Continue to develop worthy traits. As Polonius said in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” It is liberating to learn your strengths and weaknesses because it gives you the opportunity to improve.
• Everywhere, the world is in need of repair. Don’t complain, don’t bemoan it, Fix it. Dr Martin Luther King stated, “Everyone can be great, because everybody can serve.” In Judaism this concept is called “Tikkun Olam”- healing or repairing the world. During your years at Saint Andrews you have had the opportunity and requirement to perform community service. I know that at times this was a drag, but in so many cases, you made a difference in someone’s life.….don’t stop. You are all so fortunate to be who you are and have what you have. Pay attention to how good it feels to do good. As my grandmother used to say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
• Don’t stop saying “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am.” They are appropriate statements of respect (and I’m here to tell you that Northerners really like it).
• When you make a mistake or are wrong–admit it. Learn to say “I’m sorry,” and be sincere. You’ll be amazed how meaningful it is to others.
• While there are some eternal absolute do’s and don’ts, the world is not black and white. We live in a world of many shades of gray. When we are children, we see things as “stop or go, yes or no, all absolute black and whites– but you are no longer children. Our ability to think in shades comes with maturity and life experiences. You now have that ability to think independently.
• Challenge the known and embrace the unknown – do it with an open mind and proper respect–your coworkers, teachers, and bosses will respect your interest and insight-as long as it is done sincerely.
• Learn a foreign language-not just “Como ustas usted” or “Bonjour, Madamn.”
A foreign language challenges your mind, opens you up to other cultures, and provides you with another marketable skill. Once you leave language classes, practice speaking any time you can. You never know how it will benefit you along the way-professionally or socially.
• Continue to learn. Learning is a process — not an event or a class. Be open to all learning outside of the classroom–it is at least as important as your classroom experiences. I know that the backbone of the IB program is to become a lifelong learner. You’ll see that it actually gets easier to learn as you get older–we see the relevance of what we are learning. Learn something new every day. Do something that challenges you. Flex the most important muscle in your body—your brain.
• Enjoy your family and friends before they are gone. Every parent here will tell you this. It’s usually after someone is gone that we realize what we had and think about the words we could have said. No amount of money can bring someone back…no power gives you another opportunity.
And now a parable – There is a well known Jewish legend of a tricky fellow who was intent on embarrassing King Solomon. He came before the King and his court with both hands behind his back. He announces that in his hands is a small bird, and he asks the King: “Is the bird is alive or is it dead?” If the king says “dead,” he will show him the living bird, but if the king says “alive,” he will break the bird’s neck, then showing everyone the dead bird. “So, what will it be, he says to the king….dead or alive?” The ever-wise king simply responded: “It’s all in your hands.”
And so it is, St Andrews Class of 2012 – The future is all in your hands.
Personally, Sarah and my greatest joys in life are our two boys–both graduates of St Andrews. We’ve come to appreciate and will miss the little St. Andrews things: the hurried dinners before football games, Beth standing at the curb with her megaphone calling students for pick up, taking pictures before prom, even the totally unfair demerits that were liberally given out to my boys for eating in the hallways, untucked shirts, and unshaven cheeks. I’ve even grown to accept how slow the drop off lane is in the morning…although I won’t miss it.
I know I promised you eighteen ideas, but here is one extra. I know you won’t believe me now, but it is the truth.
By and large, the older you get the more you are going to realize that your parents were almost always right. It happens incrementally over a period of years and decades…and poof, one day you are just like your parents with your own children talking to you as you did to your parents.
Finally, I want to share a blessing from Judaism. One interpretation connects the verses to three attributes of God: Mercy, Courage, and Glory. I share it with you, the St. Andrews class of 2012
Yevarechecha adonai veyishmerecha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya’er adonai panav elecha veyichunecha.
May God’s face give light to you and show you favor.
Yisa adonai panav elecha veyasem lecha shalom.
May God’s face be lifted toward you and give you a lifetime of peace.
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