I’ve never spoken at a Del Campo High School graduation. The last time I spoke at a graduation was June 1973 when I graduated from Placer High School in Auburn, California.
But I have always wanted to do it. In the spring I heard they were going to eliminate having a teacher speaker, so I let go of my dream of ending my career with this speech. What a way to go out I had thought. Then one day while I was standing in the front office principal Rich Nichols approached and asked if i would be willing to give the speech. What an honor. Let the preparation begin! i wanted to be great for the Class of 2017.
I started working on it in the early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep. I knew instantly it needed to be about he Great Gatsby, but I wasn’t sure how. I began listing quotes and life lessons that connected to them. I think my first outline had ten. Should I have tried for 17? I also wrote a long intro where I recounted my personal history with the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. Then Christine reminded me not to talk about myself and keep it short.
“Boats Against the Current”
or (some of) What I’ve learned from teaching The Great Gatsby over the past 30 years
Let me say my welcome to the commencement of the wonderful, incredible, marvelous Class of 2017. You never get all the respect you deserve.
Thanks and congratulations to the parents, grandparents, family, and friends who have gathered here today to celebrate not only your achievement over the past four years, but also for all of the promise that lies ahead for each of you.
Your first 13 years of schooling are over and on this day you are “graduating from high school.” (Sounds pretty great doesn’t it? You all have been working hard and waiting for this day for a long time)
Well, After 40 years of teaching, 37 years at Del Campo and after having been in school EVERY year since the fall of 1960 for 57 consecutive years. I finally get to GRADUATE too. – WITH ALL OF YOU! Thank you for this honor. It means more than I could ever say.
As I was preparing my speech, my wife Christine gave me just two bits of advice.
1) Don’t talk too much about yourself (already broke that one) and
2) Keep it short.
Because nothing is more annoying than a long graduation speech ten minutes before you are about to walk across this stage
Being robbed of a football victory against Antelope when the calls definitely didn’t go our way
Or losing the Sac-Joaquin Girl’s softball championship by just one run. Congratulations to our CIF Division III Second Place team. (Will the seniors please stand up?)
Or Having another fire drill… in the rain. (Aaaahhhhh. Aaaahhhhh. Ahhhhh.)
So here goes. I want to tell you about some of what I’ve learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – my favorite book.
I first read the novel in college. I’ve taught it well over 50 times in my career, and it’s the one book that I know you all have read.
You ALL read it, right? (whisper talk) You all have read it right? (at least you looked at the pages and read the Spark notes)
I loved the book then. I love it now. I learn new things from it every time I teach it.
So to celebrate your day I thought I would share some of its wisdom
and I knew I’d better wear the suit!
(Take off the robe and walk out to the center stage of the Memorial Auditorium!)
Many of you know the story.
Members of the Class of 1992 organized a Go Fund Me campaign and they and other colleagues, students and friends bought this ‘Pink rag of a suit” for me that Gatsby wears in the climactic Chapter 7. I look exactly like Leonardo Decaprio right?
Nick begins the novel with this statement:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
Like Nick, we all should Take advice from those who love us most and grow from their experience, wisdom, and insight.
Nick has a relationship with his father and he obviously values his opinion. He is willing to not only listen to his advice, he contemplates it, mulls it over, and thinks about it often.
Take the time to ask for advice from those who know you best and really listen. There is so much wisdom in those around you.
Here is your final assignment of high school. I just couldn’t resist. I challenge you to make some time in the next day or two to ask those who have gathered around you to celebrate your graduation:
“What advice would you give me?” “What have you learned in your life that could help my future be better?
Write down what they tell you and take time to reflect on it.
The advice Nick’s father gives him is this: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.” Do what Nick’s father suggests…
Don’t criticize; be a listener; be empathetic – understand people have not had the advantages and benefits in life you have had.
Take a moment and reflect on everything you have accomplished in these first 17 or 18 years of your lives.
Though it may not have always been easy, you have made it through high school. You have people in your life who love you and have supported you along the way.
Nearly 20% of those nationwide who start high school as freshmen never graduate.
Focus on all that you do have and have empathy for those who have not been as fortunate as you have been.
At the beginning of the novel Nick reveals to us what he learned through all his experiences in New York that summer. Sometimes you must stand up for what you believe. “Tolerance has a limit.” Nick says.
Not sure anyone is willing to say this, but at times tolerance is a bad thing. Sometimes we have to stand up and be counted for what is right. For what you believe.
Nick realizes he wants the world to have some morality. He wants the world to shape up and stand at attention. And he understands that he has to make a choice. He had to reject the immorality that was rampant around him and choose his friend Jay Gatsby.
You will face countless situations that lie ahead where you must choose whether to stay quiet and let it all happen around or reject what you think is wrong and stand up for what you believe is right.
If you are not happy with things you see around you, stand up and get busy making a difference. Get out there and do something to make your world a better place.
Be doers, not complainers.
Get involved with a cause that means something to you. Start a non-profit. VOTE! Send a powerful, positive message to the world. Lead that change you hope to see.
Another of the book’s themes focuses on dreams. Gatsby was great because he held fast to his dream of having Daisy, but he wasn’t able to move beyond her when it was clear she wasn’t worthy of his devotion.
There always has to be a dream out there in front of you. Keep dreaming.
In the final page of the book Nick goes down to the beach at Gatsby’s house and reflects on all he has learned over this summer in New York. He learns from Gatsby’s failed dream that achieving the dream was never really the point at all.
What is important is that you are always dreaming.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. “ (The dream) eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning——“
So keep dreaming Del Campo Class of 2017. Set your sites high. Always have a dream out there in front of you. Some dreams you will achieve. Congratulations. Set another goal and move forward.
Some of them you may never achieve. Learn from the experience and move forward again. Have one dream and then another and another and another.
Never say it’s over. Ask what’s next?
and the final bit of advice from Gatsby
Regardless of what happens in your life. Embrace what’s next. Don’t live in the past. The novel ends with this line as a warning.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Forces will always be drawing you back to live in the comfort of the familiar.
Fight that urge. High school may have been a great time for you or an extremely difficult one.
Whichever…no need to look back.
As I reflect on my career as a classroom teacher, I realize what an amazing ride it’s been working with all of you, but it’s time for me to dream again and find what’s next.
As the pioneer of you own life, always be looking beyond the now into the glory of your future.
It is the unknown. But it’s going to be greater than we ever imagined.
Go our there now and find your future.
Class of 2017. Beat on. The current may be strong, but beat on.
Thank you very much.
I love you all.