Friday, June 8, 2012

Graduation Speech; June 8, 2012

Tonight was the night--the class of 2012 graduated, and I couldn't have felt more blessed to be a part of this big evening for them.  I've written about them a lot recently, and tonight was my opportunity to send them out, to have a final word with them.  To put it simply, they are the reason I'm still at CAJ, and perhaps even why I'm still teaching.  My first full year of teaching in 2009-2010 was rough, rarely enjoyable.  In 2010-2011, I was privileged to have the best 2nd year of teaching I could have asked for--it wouldn't have been so without these students, who always believed in me, who always saw potential in my ability to teach and who were willing to invest back in me as I invested in them.  Last year showed me what teaching can be, just how meaningful it can be, to be a teacher.  I'm ever-grateful for this gift, and grateful to God for allowing me to have had that wonderful 2nd year of teaching and building a bond with this group.  The challenges of this past year seemed petty in the face of the joy of last year, and the successes of this past year, I think, are due in no small part to the atmosphere that the class of 2012 helped me to create in my classroom, and the style they helped me to develop as a teacher.

Here is the full script of the graduation speech that I delivered tonight:

My dear students, my dear class of 2012:
The very first thing I did when I found out you’d chosen me to speak to you tonight was to go back and read through all of your online discussion posts from last year.  It took a few hours to get through all of them, but in the end I was left with a powerful sense of direction in what I’d talk to you about tonight.  You see, reading through the discussion posts highlighted to me how you’ve grown, as well as what continues to weigh on your minds and hearts.
In one thread, you discussed your class identity.  Phrases like “chill”, “peaceful” and “low-drama” came up repeatedly.  Generally, this was held up as a positive quality and indeed, I always appreciated how easy-going you were.  However, some approached this quality with caution.  One classmate said that occasionally the easy-going nature of the class veered into the extreme of lacking emotion, lacking class spirit.  I think we all remember the assembly last year where each class had to cheer when their name was called... but we won’t talk about that.  This came up in several live discussions, as well--I remember several people saying on the first day of class that you felt as though your class was forgettable except, of course, for times when you’d gotten in trouble. 
In another online discussion in which you tried to define success, the prevailing sentiment was that success comes from achieving personal goals and making some kind of difference.
From my standpoint as your teacher, I think your class is characterized by an interesting mix of going with the flow while at the same time genuinely wanting to be vital, to make a difference, to leave a legacy.  In fact, your desire to make your  mark and turn the world upside down took a very literal form in your Senior Prank.  Of course, not everyone appreciates having their world turned upside down, as you and I, as your accomplice, well found out. 
Legacy.  That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight.  My original plan was to make some inside jokes and then tell you to build a legacy as you leave this place.  Now, the inside jokes were pretty good.  Pretty much constant BEAST-liness.  A Simple Gift of intricate proportions...  BUUUT they might have caused a brouhaha, and they didn’t add much to the speech, so my new plan doesn’t involve inside jokes.
(Sip from Tully’s cup)
Except that one.  Thanks for the gift card, by the way!
...Building a legacy... that sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  As though our mark on the world could be crafted by hand in the same way that a carpenter puts up a house...  You see, the idea of leaving a legacy is deeply appealing to our nature as human beings.  But, how is legacy formed?  Do we actually make legacy from scratch?
That’s certainly what I was going to suggest in my first draft of this speech.  I would have been wrong. 
As some of you know, I traveled back to the states two weeks ago for my Grandma’s funeral.  I’d already started writing this speech at that point, so questions about legacy were drifting through my brain almost the whole time that I was home.  I think this caused me to see and interpret the events of those days through a different lens than I would have otherwise.  Relatives kept talking about my Grandma’s life of faith, service, and kindness, and how they saw those qualities living on in her children and grandchildren.  As I celebrated her life, listened to people talk about her, and talked with my own family, the truth became increasingly clear to me: legacy is not something that we build from scratch, but rather something that we live within--something that we are handed--it’s how we respond, how we handle that legacy that is up to us.
Tonight, I would like to suggest to you a truth and a challenge.  The truth is this:
We all live within a legacy.  Remember when I talked to you in Thailand, how I said that we’re all ambassadors?  Well, there are just some things in life that we cannot avoid, and this is another one of those things... we all live within a legacy... actually, a variety of legacies, left to us by our families, our teachers, our coaches, our pastors, our employers... we’re part of their story and at that point, it becomes our story, as well.  Most importantly, at CAJ, we live in a legacy of faith.  This is a legacy that stretches back much farther than the history of CAJ.  The author of Hebrews, perhaps Paul, writes to Jewish Christians about the grand story of faith in chapter 11: 
    “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.”  Then in verse 4, he actually starts to list examples in chronological order:
    “By faith, Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did.  By faith, he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings.  And by faith, he still speaks, even though he is dead.”
After talking about Enoch, Noah and Abraham, the author really gets on a roll:
    “By faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.
    By faith, Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each one of Joseph’s sons and worshipped as he leaned on the top of his staff.
    By faith, Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and gave instructions about his bones.”
He goes on to talk about Moses’ parents, Moses, the people of Israel, the prostitute Rahab, and then in verse 32:
“And what more shall I say?  I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets.”
The Hebrew recipients of this letter were part of that story and...Guess what?  WE’RE a part of this same story, millenia later!  By now, you all know the CAJ mission statement.  Finish the phrase for me, will you?  Equipping students to...impact the world for Christ.  Just out of curiosity, how many of you have used the phrase “impact the world for Christ” in an essay or presentation at some point?  Let’s see a show of hands.  I know, from having spent 17 years of my life as a student at a Christian school just how easily phrases like this become clich√©, how easily they become catchphrases that can snag bonus points if you use them in assignments.  BUT--I’d like to suggest to you tonight that this is so much more than a catchphrase, so much more than a familiar line in a school document.  This is the story of your teachers... this is the legacy in which we live: each of us firmly hope that we are writing our chapter of the story of impacting the world for Christ every day we come to school, in every class we teach and every conversation we have.  Now, we don’t always do such a great job, but either way, this is the story that we live in, and because you are our students, it’s your story too!  With every assignment, every test, every speech, every lab, every game, every concert and yes, even every OScAR you wrote, you have contributed your own lines to this grand story of faith.  Now, as you depart to new settings that will contain new people, new opportunities, new obstacles, and new stories, the question arises: what will you do with this story that you’ve grown up in?  What will you do with the legacy that you’ve been handed?
Which leads me to my challenge for you tonight:
Honor the legacy you’ve been handed by faithfully responding to your calling.
I’ve said this to you so many times before, and will say it again without hesitation: you are an incredibly talented class.  Maybe you didn’t have as many athletes as other classes.  Maybe you didn’t have as many musicians.  However, every single person within your class has a place, has something that they excel at. 
I’ll never forget when I assigned a student to do a presentation on Civil War weaponry last year in Humanities, and he made a detailed replica of a musket.  I asked him where he got such a good replica, and when he told me that he made it himself, I was speechless.
I’ll never forget the Bible presentation when a student played her saxophone.  As she played, a crowd gathered outside the room to stop and listen.  I talked to other teachers later who said they’d stopped instruction to simply listen and appreciate the beautiful music.
I’ll never forget the way a student carried several of his teammates’ backpacks on wilderness camp, and the way he scrambled down and back up steep hillsides to grab sleeping bags and backpacks that had fallen.  (To be fair, he did think that the backpack was one of his teammates falling down the mountain).
I’ll never forget another student’s dedication and love for babysitting--at just about any major school event, and so many other times, she could be counted on by the parents of young children to watch over and care for their kids.
I could keep going--I have an entire list, and if I had an hour to talk, I’d actually go through and mention each of you by name.  But, I know that you do not want to sit in those seats all night.  If you want to know what I said about you, just ask me.
The point is, each of you is blessed with things that you are good at, things that you are passionate about.  Certainly, your teachers know it, and if we’ve done our job of affirming these things and encouraging you, you know it too.  Recognizing these gifts is the first step in finding your calling, which is the key to continuing the legacy that you’ve been handed.
To paraphrase Frederick Buechner, "Where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet, we hear our calling."  I love this quote, and have ever since I first heard it in my Intro to Education class years back.  Allow me to break this quote down: on the one hand, we have our deep gladness--those things that come naturally to us, that we’re good at, that bring us joy.  On the other hand, we have the world’s deep hunger--those things that are broken, those things that are messed up in the world today and cause us grief, bewilderment, or perhaps rage.  There is a point where our gladness works to end that hunger.  Each of us has a place like that--a point where doing what we love and healing a broken world will be one and the same. 
Each of you spent the last year researching an issue in the world and attempting to raise awareness through your presentations and carry out solutions through your projects.  Maybe some of you were sick of your topic by the end, and your presentations on Tuesday will have been the last time you did anything with that issue.  Maybe for some of you, it was the first step on what will become your career. 
In any case, you’ve started to look at the world as agents of healing.  You’re keenly aware of what the world’s deep hunger looks like--what’s wrong, what needs fixing.  I watched as you wrestled with this deep hunger and began to address it during your Junior year.  Of course, the obvious example would be how you got together to bake and sell cookies, brownies, cupcakes and other wonderful things to raise money and awareness for Invisible Children.  However, the most lasting impression in my mind comes from the way you sought to help, encourage and love one another in the days following the earthquake.  I remember just asking once in class how everyone was doing, and most everyone said that they were stressed out, tired, unmotivated... but the conversation didn’t end there... you told jokes, you enfolded each other, you told each other ‘let’s ganbarou.’  In my estimation, you’ve got a very good start on writing a part in this big story of faith.
Finding your calling is now just a matter of putting these elements--your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger--together.  For the many of you who I know are mathematically inclined, think of them as lines on a graph--where do your gifts and the world’s needs intersect?  There might be a variety of possibilities, so don’t feel like you need to solve for just one specific point.
This will be your task over the next few years, and it may involve some trial and error.  Certainly it will involve the application of so many things you learned while you were here. 
You’ve grown up in a beautiful and long-standing legacy of faith.  As you depart, this legacy is handed to you, to live out as you wish.  An old preacher once said, “Everything you do today, or I do, affects not only what is going to happen but what has already happened, years and centuries ago. Maybe you can’t change what has passed, but you can change all the meaning of what has passed. You can even take all the meaning away.”
You see, legacy is a vulnerable thing.  If you continue to live out the story of your teachers, coaches, principals and others in this community, the story becomes that much richer, not only for each of you, but for those of us who taught you.  However, if you abandon the story, forgetting and rejecting what you learned from your teachers and others, it tears a vital chapter from our story, and leaves loose ends that may never be tied. 
I call upon you to carry your part in the story forward by listening for your calling, and faithfully responding to it as you work to impact the world.  How will you handle the legacy you’ve been handed?  Will you shed it for something more fashionable?  Will you use it for appearances?  Or, will you strive to make it your own story and carry it forward so that you can pass it on to others?
After I’d written much of this talk, I went back and looked at the grad speech I’d given as a Senior in 2004, at my own graduation, and found that I’d touched on the idea of legacy then, too.  I’d like to share with you the same verse that I used then--this is the key to faithfully responding to calling, the cornerstone of carrying forward a legacy of faith, from Colossians 3:17:
“And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
It’s a simple, yet profound call, and for all of us who’ve taught you, coached you and worked with you all these years, it is the call that defines our life and our story.  I pray that you carry this with you as you leave to go turn your world upside-down.
Thank you.

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