Friday, June 3, 2016

Graduation Speech, 2016

Nearly four years ago, I taught the class of 2016 for the first time as Freshmen.  I taught them again as Juniors last year.  Tonight, I had the incredible honor to speak to them at their graduation.  Here is the text of my speech:


Ladies and gentlemen of justice, good evening.

We find ourselves this evening in a setting so familiar to us, the scene of basketball games and beep tests, of Christmas concerts and commencement ceremonies. These events have been constants in your lives at CAJ, reliable mileposts that stay the same from year to year.

What has changed, with each passing year, is you: this year, you are sitting front and center. This year, you are the ones graduating.

Let’s back up four years to an earlier graduation night at CAJ. Whether you were in the audience that night, or somewhere else, you were likely feeling some common emotions: You had just finished 8th grade. You had climbed the middle school social ladder, and survived. Perhaps you were feeling on top of the world, like you had finally figured out this whole school thing--Look out CAJ high school, here comes the class of 2016!

I have a confession for you--I was feeling the same way that evening. I was the graduation speaker that night, too. I had just finished my 3rd full year of teaching, and like you, I felt like I was on top of the world. I felt like I had finally figured out this whole teaching thing--Look out CAJ high school, here comes Mr. Gibson!

God has a funny way of dismantling our pride, though it might not feel so funny in the moment that it happens.

For me, that moment was when God introduced me to the class of 2016.

I remember sitting in my classroom on the first day of school, waiting for my 4th period World History class to arrive, and out in the hall, I heard <DAWWWRP!!> <GRAAAWWP> <BLAAARP!>

...and I wondered what living thing could be making those sounds. My question was answered when a huge group of freshman boys piled through the door and filled the entire back half of the classroom.

To say the least, I was not at all prepared for the school-year that lay ahead of us. I think that if someone had told us then, that I would be speaking to you on your graduation night, we all would have laughed.

But here we are tonight, all the same. I’m standing up here speaking to you by your class’s choice, and by my choice. But more importantly, I think it is by God’s choice, and that our journey from your freshman year to this moment, here and now, holds for us two profound lessons. It is these lessons that I would like to share with you tonight. The first is this:

I. We are all living teacher’s drafts.
For the sake of those in the audience: most of the major essays that CAJ students write go through several drafts before the students submit a final product. The teacher’s draft receives feedback and comments from--you guessed it--the teacher. Now, as you know, the purpose of a teacher’s draft is not to get everything perfect the first time around--the purpose is to receive feedback, and then go back to revise, renew, and rework your writing. This process is incredibly important.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he gave this advice:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Paul was a man who knew a thing or two about renewal. In fact, he had been a bitter enemy to the church until he encountered Jesus for himself.

For Paul, God’s renewing work was not merely a hope, but a firm reality. We can take comfort in this. You see, like us, Paul, was a living teacher’s draft; an essay in need of revision… and God’s renewing work in Paul becomes that much more obvious when we look back at who he was, compared to who he became. Perhaps that’s where we need to start for ourselves, if we want to fully understand what it means to be living teacher’s drafts--perhaps we need to look back at who we were.

Have you ever gone back and re-read essays that you’d written in past years of school?

What did it feel like to re-read these old writings?

I know that for me, personally, the first thing I notice when I re-read things I’d written before is just how many mistakes I made and failed to catch. If you’ve re-read your old writings, you probably know what I’m talking about. But even if you haven’t, just think back to what kind of person you were at different points in your life:

What were you like in...

9th grade?

8th grade?

Even earlier?

You may have fond memories from each of those years, but more likely than not, you did or said things you wish you could take back, made fashion decisions you wish you could erase from your memory, or spent countless hours on hobbies you now find a waste of time.

Maybe this is why our gut reaction to old photos of ourselves tends to be embarrassment. When we come face to face with images from our past, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to change who we were.

Here is a snapshot from a class discussion you had in your freshman year. You were discussing what you felt to be the weaknesses of the class of 2016. These are direct quotes from the transcript of that discussion:

We have boys and girls divided.”


“Everyone’s immature.”

“We lack respect toward teachers and other students.”

Perhaps you remember specific occasions where you saw these struggles in your class first-hand. Perhaps you remember frustrated teachers and principals. Perhaps you remember feeling like you couldn’t trust your classmates, or like your classmates couldn’t trust you.

You weren’t the only ones struggling with fear & doubt, though.

I started that school-year so full of myself. I’d had a couple good years of teaching, and I thought I could just coast on my successes. For reasons I cannot comprehend now, I was expecting teaching to suddenly be easy and effortless. When the personalities in your class started to clash with mine, when I ran into actual challenges in the classroom, my response was to retreat. I invested less and less into my teaching, and invested more in other parts of my life. I met my wife in the fall of that year, and after that for the rest of the school-year, my heart was miles away from my classroom, and from CAJ. Falling in love is wonderful, but so totally disruptive.

When my wife and I got engaged in the Spring of that year, I finally took a serious look at whether or not I was really called to teach. It was a defining moment in my life. Did you know that some studies suggest as many as 40% of teachers will leave the profession within their first five years? That’s the point that I was at. I had two options in front of me: The first was to quit--to say “teaching isn’t the job for me, after all” and then to find something else that would fit better. The second option--and frankly, the more terrifying one--was to admit that teaching was my calling and that I just hadn’t been doing a very good job of it. It was essentially a choice between victimhood and agency. The first option would have been to shift the responsibility from myself onto my circumstances. The second option meant taking responsibility for my struggles and then doing something about it.

So, in the week after I got engaged, I took the GRE--that’s the graduate school entrance exam--I gathered my references, and I applied for an online Master’s program. It was a busy week. But I was certain that God had called me to teach. What’s more, I knew I would have you all in class again when you got to your Junior year, and I desperately wanted to be ready to teach you then. I knew what I had to do.

Tonight, we look back on where we were four years ago, and it is crystal clear just how far we’ve all come between then and now. I shared a snapshot from your freshman year earlier, but I’d like to share a few more snapshots that I had the privilege to witness over the past few years:

I watched as you shared heartfelt stories of struggle with one another at the start of your Junior year. In that moment, there was trust.

I watched as you formed committees to plan an international festival to fight Ebola. In that moment, there was no division between the genders.

I watched as you rallied together to support classmates on a number of occasions, from Dig Teal, to Thrift Shop, to Senior Comps projects. In those moments, there was respect.

I watched as you grew from a class grappling to find its place at CAJ to a class well-loved by the teachers and admired by the underclassmen. Do you know what your kohai say about you? “The class of 2016 always sets the bar so high.”

God has been at work in your class these past four years, making constant revisions, and it shows.

I turned 30 a few months ago, and it occurred to me that God has been revising me, too, from where I was four years ago.

I am a married man now--it’ll be three years in December.

I finished my Master’s thesis this Spring, so I guess I get to say that I graduated in 2016, too!

I was able to teach you again last year, your Junior year. It was a privilege to spend the year together engaging the important question of how we can live as people of justice. It was a good year, and one I’ll remember distinctly decades from now.

But we’re not done growing, and that is vital to understand. You and I both know that none of us has attained perfection. In fact, do you want to know my biggest takeaway from three years of graduate work? We’re never done learning. This leads me to the second lesson I’d like to share with you, and that is,

II. God continues to revise us, so that we can bless the world. 

Tonight is not the destination. This is not the final draft submission space on, or Moodle, or Google Classroom. You are still living teacher’s drafts, and God is not done revising you yet.

Now, some of you might be wondering to yourselves, “ugh--why do we have to go through this process, anyway?”

After all, revision can be painful. You probably know how difficult it is to cut content from an essay that was over the word limit--it’s almost like being asked to perform an amputation on yourself. Yes, revision is often painful.

And if a process is going to be difficult, even painful, there had better be a purpose behind it, right? Maybe you’ve sometimes questioned that purpose as you have revised your own essays: “What’s the point of this, anyway? Can’t I just re-submit the essay as it is and take the grade I got for the teacher’s draft?”

The answer to this question lies in our very mission as a school--the mission of your teachers, your principals, your coaches, your librarians, everyone who has worked with you over the past 12 years--to equip you to serve Japan and the world for Christ.

THIS is why we undergo a process of constant revision. Service is an important task, and one which demands our absolute commitment. To look for life-hacks or shortcuts in the way that we serve misses the point of service entirely; instead, we must constantly seek out opportunities to improve in our ability to serve and bless those around us. It’s a timeless calling, and one which is so tightly interwoven with being men and women of justice in the world today. The prophet Isaiah called the Israelite people to “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Service to those who are hurting, to those who are in need, to those on the fringes of society--this is a critical component of what it means for us to pursue justice in this broken world.

I’ve seen glimmers and glimpses of this over the past couple of years in your class, but it cannot stop with a class charity event, a Senior Comps project, or even laying the foundations for a special education facility in Thailand. These are accomplishments to be proud of, to be sure, but they are ultimately raw pieces in an unfinished draft, in what will hopefully be a lifetime of service.

Unlike four years ago, I have no illusions about what tonight means for me, either. I know now that I’m still being revised, myself. I know now that complacency is the enemy of good teaching and that I must constantly, and earnestly confront my weaknesses as a teacher, and seek to learn and grow. I know now that my curriculum will never be perfect--there will always be something to change, something to add, or something to get rid of for the next school-year. 

I’m learning to embrace the journey of learning, this process of constant revision, and I hope you will too. Commencement, after all, is not an ending but a beginning! Think of it this way: if we are living teacher’s drafts and God is revising us, He’s maybe just now finished revising your introduction and thesis; He hasn’t even gotten into the body paragraphs yet! Where will you be four years from now? Eight years? Twelve years? What revisions will have taken place between now, and then?

Now--over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from some of your parents, some other teachers, and even some of you directly, that apparently, you expect me to sing one last song to you. And maybe you were starting to worry that I wouldn’t sing anything. I thought about singing “Let it Go” tonight, but it didn’t really have anything to do with what I talked about… so I re-wrote the words to make it more applicable. Consider this is my final message for you as your English teacher.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, I hope that you’ll continue to write, and continue to revise your writing to make it better with each draft. As you revise, I hope you’ll be led to think about how God is revising you. Thanks for being such wonderful students. It’s been a privilege to teach you, to learn alongside you, and to go through the same journey of revision as you. Never stop learning, and never stop serving--I’m looking forward to reading the next draft.

Closing Song: Just Revise (Frozen Parody)

The lanterns shine bright in the plaza tonight,

And the end is within reach.

It’s CAJ graduation,

And I need to close this speech.

The wind is howling through the cabbage patch outside,

Hope I’ve made my point, heaven knows I’ve tried.

Don’t set it down, don’t let it be,

Right now your thesis is just a ‘3’,

Reword, renew, don’t compromise,

Aim for the skies!

Just revise, just revise,

Don’t settle for just all right.

Just revise, just revise,

Until your words take flight.

I don’t care

If it takes all day,

Bring the feedback on:

The next draft will be better anyway!

It’s funny how some distance

Makes our past drafts look sub-par,

And the marks upon each rubric

Seem like steps to who we are!

It’s time to see what we can do,

To get a ‘4’ and then break through

Use active voice, keep verbs alive, reach for the ‘5’!

Just revise, just revise

You are one with the Pages doc

Just revise, just revise,

Then submit by ten o’clock!

Here you’ll sit,

And here you’ll stay

Bring the feedback on...

Your power flurries through the keyboard to the page,

Your soul is verbalized in letters that will soon engage,

And one thought hits you like an exclamation mark!

You’re never going back,

On a new draft, you’ll embark!

Just revise, just revise,

Let your words give voice to the voiceless!

Just revise, just revise,

It’s anything but pointless.

Here we are,

On graduation day,

Bring the feedback on,

The next draft will be better anyway!

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