The following were the closing remarks at Graduation 2015.
Thank you, Mike, for your thoughtful remarks. Your personal story is inspirational to all of us, and I know that our graduates appreciate the food for thought you have shared with them this afternoon.
Thank you, too, to our Board of Trustees, the faculty and staff, and the administration of the school for all you have contributed to the growth and education of our students, particularly this afternoon’s graduates.
And congratulations and thank you to the parents of the Class of 2015, who have committed themselves to providing each of their daughters and sons with extraordinary opportunities to learn and grow and become who they are. Thanks are due to them, as well, for choosing Sewickley Academy and for their extraordinary support of the school over the years.
And now for some final thoughts:
As you launch yourselves into the next phase of life’s journey, you will be in unfamiliar territory among unfamiliar people – and this is good. Unfamiliarity will challenge you to think even more deeply about who you are and who you want to be (not what you want to be or do but who you want to be). Your teachers and your parents hope that who you want to be is a moral, ethical contributor to whatever community you find yourself in, that you will have embraced the Academy’s core value of character which calls for upholding “the highest ideals of honor, integrity, responsibility, respect, empathy, and kindness and the actions that flow from them.”
Among these words, the one that I believe has the greatest potential power for good is “empathy,” the capacity to understand truly how another person feels. This capacity is essential to a fulfilling personal and professional life. I think it is also essential to our role as citizens, to understanding our fellow citizens and their circumstances, especially when those circumstances are different – sometimes radically different – from our own.
As we gather for a final time here under this beautiful tent in hot early June, we note that 2015, in addition to being your graduation year, is also the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Now why on this celebratory occasion would I bring up this milestone? It is because, as you go forth from Sewickley Academy, I think it is important to keep in mind that we still have much to learn as people and as a nation. Lincoln called on us to commit ourselves to a “new birth of freedom” and to the idea enshrined in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” 99 years later, Martin Luther King challenged us to deliver on the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s call to action. We know from the challenges in our country over the past several months that this work remains incomplete for some Americans. World events, too, remind us that blind hatred has not been eradicated; rather it has taken other forms, with ethnic, religious, and sectarian violence in evidence in many parts of the world.
Understanding the circumstances of others is, of course, only a first step. We need perhaps more importantly to understand our own circumstances. For many of us, we give too little thought to the circumstances of others and not enough thought to our own; others of us are compelled by our society to live in regular awareness of our circumstances. White people may think from time to time about what it means to be a person of color in our country, but we likely do not spend sufficient time reflecting on what it means to be white in America. If we are to advance as a nation and deliver on the promises our forefathers made to themselves and to us, each of us needs to understand that our circumstances – many of which we have little or no control over – make a significant impact on the way we live our lives.
For example, I did not choose to be white, male, straight, and able-bodied, but here I am, all those things. And if I am honest, I must acknowledge that these unearned facts about myself have almost certainly yielded unearned privileges. The world I have been privileged to inhabit is qualitatively different from that of a friend who might have a different gender or skin color. These are things I think about, but this is also an awareness that I did not have when I sat where you are sitting. This is an awareness and understanding I did not have when I sat four years later in different seats as I prepared to leave University. But this is an awareness that I have today – partly because of reading, the importance of which I spoke about on Friday night, but also because of my willingness to learn and grow, to do some difficult reflecting, not about others but about myself and my unique place in the world. I believe that, if each of us can do this, we can develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of our society and how opportunities are not necessarily equally available to all. If we can acknowledge this challenge to our ideals, then we will be taking our first step to greater self-awareness – and then greater empathy – and we will be prepared to make invaluable contributions to the progress of our nation.
Every adult in this space, those of us who have come to celebrate with you, our newest graduates, is a different person today than we were when we were sitting in your seats many years ago; and tomorrow you, too, will be a different person. I am confident your alma mater has prepared you well for the academic rigors ahead, but I hope we have also helped lay the foundations of a disposition to personal growth and learning that you will embrace, even with all its challenges and difficulties.
Graduates, each of you has contributed immeasurably to this school, and we are a better place because you have passed through these doors. Take with you the knowledge, skills, and self-awareness you have gained over these years, and keep building on these things to create a bright future for yourselves and for others.
And also take with you the best wishes of the trustees, the faculty, the administration, and the staff of the school as you make your way in the world. Congratulations Class of 2015!