I was given the great honor of being chosen as the commencement speaker for this year’s graduation ceremony at the school where I teach. While I was, of course, flattered and excited by the opportunity, I was also a bit daunted by the task initially. Graduation speeches are so often overly cliche, irrelevant to graduates’ actual lives, or simply forgettable. I really wanted to craft something that would transcend the pitfalls of the typical commencement speech, and say something worth saying. As teachers, I think all of us have a desire to pass on something memorable to our students. In the classroom, sometimes it works like a charm and sometimes it comes out as confusing gobbeldygook–it depends on the day! But at a graduation ceremony, it has to come out right, and I hoped that I’d be able to make it so.
Luckily, I was struck by inspiration when I saw a video showcasing a quote from Dr. Neil De Grasse Tyson, that hit a deep, resonating chord with me and sent me on my way to craft a speech that helped turn my love of stories and my love of science into one message for living, one that I was proud to share with the Class of 2012, their families, and many former and future students. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to speak at a graduation, and the moment felt perfect to me. Something about being surrounded by my seniors from this year, as well as recieving enthusiastic congrats from last year’s returning seniors and the students I’ll have in my senior classes next year really created a feeling of continuity, of community, and family. Schools are more than just gathering places–things happen in them that unify young people and those who mentor them.
The transcript of my June 3rd commencement speech is found below for (A) other educators who may be looking for an example commencement speech, (B) students who may want to look back and consider the words spoken on their graduation day, and (C) simple posterity. Thank you, Class of 2012, for this awesome chance to fill a special role in our school and local community!
Good afternoon! You know, as a teacher, I am very used to addressing young people, but today I get an introduction and applause? Man—I really don’t think I can go “back to before” now that this has happened. Thank you—that was lovely.
Pretty much the moment I became a teacher, I had people, for a whole variety of reasons, I’m sure, asking me why. You know: “Why did you become an English teacher? Why would you want to be that?” And while I’ve got many answers for that question, the most prominent one is this: I’m fascinated by the power of stories. When we read a book or view a film, we inhabit another life for a little while, and we see places, feel things, and think in ways that we might have never otherwise imagined. Stories have always played a role in forming our culture, and they still do—just look at the phenomenon surrounding The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings. Everyone is able to tap into the magic of story and gain something from it. Personally, many of my first revelations about life came from my incessant viewing of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS. I will never forget the tiny, green, and wise creature Yoda explaining to the young, overeager Luke Skywalker how he could harness power from the world around him. “My ally is The Force,” he tells Luke. “And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” He pinches Luke’s shoulder at that last part. As a kid, I was fascinated by this idea that people could be more. You know… more than just a body, but rather a “luminous being” filled with the life force of everything around us. Of course, that’s just a story. But that’s the thing—while stories aren’t true, they point us toward a deeper understanding of truth and reality.
If we look closely, we discover that the world is full of metaphor—full of symbols to read and interpret. Sometimes these symbols are woven into a poem that I might share with my third hour class; other times they appear out here in our lives for us to observe. Often, things from the natural world inspire common symbols that are universally understood. One of these symbols is the star. Stars, as we all know, often stand for the ideas of excellence, or fate. Destiny. You can read this meaning ten thousand different times, from a certain Shakespearean play, where Romeo tells Benvolio “my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars” to the 2011 hit song “Written in the Stars” by hip hop artist Tinie Tempah. Stars also appear everywhere at graduations, on cards and balloons, signifying all that the graduates are destined to achieve. Stars, and humanity’s endless fascination with them, hint at that fact that our universe, too, can be a story in itself.
There’s perhaps nobody better to illustrate this idea than celebrated American astrophysicist and science ambassador Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. In an interview for TIME magazine, Dr. deGrasse Tyson was asked the challenging question “What’s the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?” His answer was something that really resonated with me, and I’d like to share it with you, Class of 2012. He said that the most astounding fact is that “the same atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body […] carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life”—are the same atoms that comprise the stars. He continues, saying, “…I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.” Now if that isn’t astounding, I don’t know what is. The same elements that make you, graduates, are the elements of the whole beautiful starry sky. That means that you are a star, literally! You are a luminous being—so much more than a crude shell. You are a part of a legacy as old as eternity, and you have a precious blip of time in which to fulfill it. And this exact moment in your life, as you transition from being a high school student to being an adult in our society, is the perfect time to consider it.
Now, by nature, stars develop, shift, and slowly scatter throughout the universe. Some of you will become scientists, some storytellers. Some will till the earth and help it grow. Some will negotiate the fast-paced obstacle course of economic markets. Some of you will invent new forms of cuisine. You might pledge yourself to art or medicine, education or religion, or service to your country. Or maybe you just want to earn an honest wage and live a simple life. We each pursue our own directions—like the universe, we are always expanding, shifting, changing and moving, as forces like this ceremony here today, act upon us. Today, you are an emerging star. You can feel yourself on the precipice of the unknown.
While this big moment is thrilling, it can also bring with it some very big uncertainties: things like, “How do I make use of this time I’ve been given, this space in front of me? How do I know what to do? How do I matter?” When we face these huge questions, even we stars are in danger of feeling small, insignificant, or lost. For many of you, this is your first solo journey, your first time being the decider of your own fate without anyone else directing your path. Before you cross this stage, I want to offer you a starchart, a bit of guidance to help you find your place in this incredible universe. This comes in the form of two things to remember.
The first thing to remember is that you are not only a star, but a star with a backpack full of useful things. A good question to ask yourself in any moment of decision is “Well, what have I got?” After twelve years of education, of algebra and literature and biology and history, you have a basic knowledge of the world around you. And after years’ worth of touchdown passes, opening nights, robot building, writing to meet deadlines, speaking as a part of your student organization, practicing the perfect serve, free throw, goal, or pace, or mastering songs with your instrument, voice, or dancing body, you’ve begun to taste what it’s like to create an effect that impacts others. And after surviving adolescence, you have started to explore those experiences that make up this thing called being human—the passions, the broken hearts, the wild joy, the dizzying freedom of choice, the pride of achievement, the pain of disappointment, and the restoration of hope and healing. You’ve been through these things, and you will recognize them when life sends them your way again.
So you’ve got quite a bit in your backpack, really… knowledge, skills, achievements, and the priceless insight that will one day, when you’re WAY older than me, turn into wisdom. That was the whole point of your childhood and your education—to make sure that you set off into life with a bit of a starter kit in your metaphorical backpack. Some things were handed to you, others you picked up yourself along the way. That’s the first comfort as you face this oncoming challenge of living up to your own universal legacy. You’ll always carry your past with you, and if you use it as a tool, you’ll be prepared for anything.
The second thing: If you still feel small as you face this expanse of universe before you, consider the idea, that you, young stars, are not alone in the cosmos. You’ll remember that Dr. deGrasse Tyson—the guy that reminded us of that astounding fact that people and stars are essentially made up of the same ingredients, said that he feels big instead of insignificant when he thinks about the sky. In that same interview, he goes on to tell us why. He says, “There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You wanna feel connected. You wanna feel relevant. You wanna feel like you’re a participant in the activities and the goings-on around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.” Think about that and how amazing that is—that each of us has an intrinsic connection to the universe, and therefore to life, to all creation, and to one another. Sometimes we get so caught up in ourselves that we forget that fact.
When you go home today, and you begin the string of graduation celebrations with family and friends, the conversations will be in that language of individual achievement. Relatives will bombard you with many questions that all essentially mean “What are YOU going to do with YOUR life?” as if you are a comet rather than a star, with only one possible trajectory. You know, one shot… and it’s all on you. That can be a lot of pressure! And while you might smile at Uncle Bill when he claps you on the back and says you’re headed for great things, you might find yourself lying awake at night wondering, “What will I really do with my life? Am I making the right choice? Am I heading in the right direction?” If and when that happens, remember that if we are all made of stardust, that old phrase “Reach for the stars” doesn’t actually mean to strain toward a single goal, but rather to reach out to each other. The possibilities of life are indeed infinite, but it’s a certainty that, just as the night sky is breathtaking because of the sheer number of stars overhead, our lives gain meaning because of the connections we make together. You can feel it here, in the overwhelming love that the all the people out here have for all the people up here. It’s part of our nature to be connected, and those connections give us power. So if you can find a way to serve others, to hold their hands along your way, you’ll no doubt find your individual path in the process.
So I’ll leave you with the astounding fact that there is a star in every last one of you, and I wish you blessings and luck as you find your places in the universe. Welcome to adulthood.