Three Refrains for the Class of 2017: A Commencement Address

Good afternoon! Welcome to all gathered here in support of the St. George’s Independent School’s Class of 2017. This class has on a regular basis made me proud to be a part of this community.

These seniors have earned this day in this place surrounded by this group—surrounded by families, by faculty, by staff, and by friends. They are an accomplished group—it is beyond my ability to delineate every contribution here though suffice to say, the members of this class have impacted our school in positive and lasting ways. They have been scholars, artists, athletes, actors, friends, mistake-makers, victory-winners, supporters, leaders, Saturday-schoolers; they have been members of teams, makers of grades, givers of service, and they have sometimes stayed up most of the night and slept most of the day. They have been part of us, vital parts of the body of this school, their school. Perhaps representative of this, next week many of them will continue to represent St. George’s in state athletic competition in Track, Tennis, Baseball and Soccer. LET ME ASK ANY SENIOR COMPETING NEXT WEEK TO STAND AND BE RECOGNIZED. Clearly, we aren’t quite ready to let go of you yet!

 I too often live in my head—there are always things churning around up here between my ears. And indeed, such was the case as I started to work through what I might tell this class, this memorable class of 2017, before they cross this stage and move ahead to what comes next. I started and restarted and stopped and pondered. I was taking too long, and I was risking falling short of my duty, my last duty, to this group before they join the impressive alumni group of this school.

And then I had a three-campus experience Friday morning that resolved my dilemma. In the first three hours of the day, I shook hands with Memphis campus students and families heading into their awards ceremony, and later I witnessed as teachers on the Germantown campus recognized students for citizenship, and finally, I hurried over to Agape Chapel where I met up with you and read you a story and rehearsed this very ceremony. After all that, I realized that I don’t have something new to say, but I do have a couple of refrains to share—I need a last determined calling out to you, imploring you to stay focused on what is most important. Here is my list: number one, honor others; number two, celebrate other’s accomplishments; number three, remember the simple good.

The Memphis campus students are becoming excellent at shaking hands and making eye contact with me. I think I may have scared some of them earlier in the year when I mentioned in my teacher voice that I would like them to work on this skill, so on Friday as I was greeting them, a number held their eyes particularly wide open to make sure I would note their quality eye-contact, as they stopped long enough to say: “Good morning, Mr. Peters” or as a few say, “Good morning, Mr. Ross Peters.” They are learning that that it is important to greet others well in order to recognize and value, even in that fleeting moment of a hand-shake, the lives of others. This ritual of shaking hands is a way that we honor each other, a way that we name each other, and a way that we humanize each other. A warm greeting, long enough to make eye contact, short enough not to hold up the line, stands for all the ways we honor others.

I missed a good bit of the Germantown Award ceremony in route from the Memphis campus. Hurrying from my car I made it to the Chapel just in time to see the Citizenship Awards. I edged along the outside aisle to find a seat behind Ms. Colgate, who along with Carolyn Wilder Morton, Jane Finney and Pat McGraw is retiring at the end of this school year. LET ME ASK THAT EACH OF THEM STAND TO BE RECOGNIZED. So after taking my seat, I had a perfect view of each teacher greeting and celebrating with the students being recognized. There was a lovely intimacy in this exchange—the teacher handing a certificate to an excited child, the two of them turning together toward the camera to get their picture taken. Beyond the stage there was a joyously full chapel with kids and families, teachers, and staff not simply clapping for those recognized but living within a connection to each other—a kind of communion. It is a beautiful convergence for me that just moments ago we celebrated the accomplishments of four members of our community whose lives within St. George’s were defined by supporting and celebrating the accomplishments of others. So, to the Class of 2017 in whatever life you build, do that, please, do what they and many others have done for you…celebrate and support others.

After ghosting away immediately after the Germantown campus Awards Ceremony, I drove to the Agape Chapel and met you there. I did on the last weekday of your Senior year what I did on one of the very first days of Pre-K for another group when I arrived in 2015—I read you a children’s story. There is so much that is intricate and complex in our world—it is not going to get simpler. That said, it is often the simple things, the things we first heard from the lips of our parents or learned from gentle nudges from our first teachers or even heard in a story read to us as we drifted to sleep at bedtime that offer us the guidance to navigate the world. Those stories tell us to: listen, cooperate, share, forgive, be kind, and love.

We live within a culture defined to a large degree by the priority of “getting what’s mine”, as in “I am determined to get what’s mine.” The class of 2017 does not need to learn but rather they need to remember Dr. King’s counter-point to that potentially corrosive cultural characteristic. I discussed this topic in our MLK Chapel early this year. He said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” I said in January and echo today that, “this question should remain before us like a gentle and divine push on our backs directing us where to go.” Seniors, you felt this push shaking hands, you felt it as you developed your sense of community. It is in the end a push toward something really simple, but not at all easy. It is the challenge of our lives.

Godspeed Class of 2017! Thank you.

Above: the 2016-2017 St. George’s Independent School Prefects

Above: new graduates celebrating in front of the SGIS Agape Chapel

What To Pack For Your Next Story: A Commencement Address

St. George's Independent School Class of 2016
St. George’s Independent School Class of 2016

[The Class of 2016 graduated on Sunday, May 22nd from St. George’s Independent School. It was a lovely graduation. The Valedictorian and Saludatorian speeches were particularly well done. I gave the address below right after the opening hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”] 

Good afternoon—what a beautiful day for this gathering!

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It has always really been about stories. We’ve been telling them to you and telling them about you since before you were born. Your families dreamed of you before you arrived and many of them I bet told anyone who would listen all about…the day you first rolled over on your own, the day you took your first step, went to kindergarten, took a bus for the first time, moved up to sixth grade, went to dances, played in games, made the grade.

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As wonderful as those stories can be, there is an even better story ahead for each of you. You’ll tell this particular story through your actions, through your relationships, through your respect for others. When you leave here and go to what’s next—colleges and universities across the country and when you move beyond even that deeper into your adulthood: jobs, relationships, marriages, and children of your own—when you leave here, the life you lead will be a story drawn from where you’ve been and drawn forward to the world you wish to create.

“when you leave here, the life you lead will be a story drawn from where you’ve been and drawn forward to the world you wish to create.”

The other night when I spoke briefly to you during Baccalaureate practice, I said that you were in a moment in your lives when you were caught between—not really fully where you’ve been and not yet where you are going next. Such moments are challenging—it is not easy to move from your St. George’s story to what is next, to go from one stage of life to another, to move from what is completely familiar to what will be new at virtually every turn. Indeed, this is part of the reason we commemorate such transitions with gatherings like baccalaureate and graduation ceremonies, so we can surround you in this in-between place with a strength greater than the sum of our parts. That said, such ceremonies, rites of passage, also mark a moment in time when those who love you, who know you best, announce unambiguously that we believe you are ready to begin your next story, that we recognize a deep reservoir of intelligence, strength, faith, and resilience in you. The message we send you today is that you are ready. You have the things you need—they are already a part of you.

That said, I have three things I would like to ask you to keep close by, to pack in and amongst your clothes, books, and computers. Three things to keep within easy reach.

First, pack kindness. Lead with it. All the work you have done, all of the sweat and frustration you have endured, as well as all of the success we recognize today only has value in as much as it allows you to live a life of connection and contribution to your family, your neighborhood, your community and city, your nation and your world. Recognizing the primacy of relationship allows us to see the primacy of kindness. I focus on it here because I know…

  • Kindness is not easy; it is certainly not quaint or trite; kindness requires courage, it makes us vulnerable, and it requires selfless contribution. It requires thinking of others before we think of ourselves.
  • Kindness sets a high bar; it is rigorous. It is not simply a hobby. It is not OK to be kind only when it is convenient and to shut kindness out when it is not practical.
  • Kindness is not seductive but its alternatives are, and they are ubiquitous.
  • To do unto others as you would have them do unto you requires selflessness, self-awareness, and yes…kindness.

I say all this about kindness knowing how often we each have fallen short of its mark, and knowing as well that we each will fall short again. And again. When you do fall short, apologize, and move forward resolved to do better next time.

Second, pack your best self—you’re going to need it, the people you love deserve it, as do the communities in which you will live, serve, and lead.  We are living in a moment in history when we have more dynamic and significantly more powerful means of connection than at any other time. If we think it, we can communicate it—globally. If we want to know more, we can find it—immediately. Strangely in this environment we can feel surrounded by people who disconnect, who alienate, or who dismiss others. Please don’t be swayed, deterred or diminished by those voices, and please don’t allow yourself to become one of them. Our education, certainly the education we seek to provide at St. George’s, should lead us to be among the people in the world who overcome these challenges, among the people who find ways to create relationships and partnerships that transcend the distances that separate us. I believe this effort is at the heart of our school. My most earnest hope is that you leave here with a desire to participate in making a better world. To do this work, to make this part of your story requires casting off pettiness, meanness, self-righteousness, and instead prioritizing humility, selflessness, and contribution. It requires your best self.

Finally, after packing kindness and your best self, pack the ability to count to ten. You might think after all the math classes you have taken I might suggest a more advanced mathematical skill, but counting to ten might be the most important math you do. Yes, life happens fast, but most often you have time to think before you make decisions. There are moments in our lives that require us to be reactive—for instance, you don’t have time to count to ten before you make every decision as driver. But more often than we recognize there is time to think about what you are going to do, to think about who you should be in a given situation. Please, please count to ten before you act—before you say what can’t be unsaid, before you forget what is most important, before you miss an opportunity to make a situation better.

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Interestingly, this entire graduation ceremony is a sort of counting to ten before you move your tassels and turn your rings, before you put on dark glasses and head into summer. This counting to ten allows us time to be thankful for you and the lives you have led here; it allows us to celebrate you and wish you well before we are each immersed once again in our daily lives and routines. In this particular ceremonial counting to ten under this lovely tent, on this beautiful day, at this remarkable school, I am excited about who you will become, the lives you will make, and the stories your lives will tell. So…

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10. Godspeed Class of 2016. Thank you.

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With Paige Madison, Member of the Class of 2016
With Paige Madison, Member of the Class of 2016

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