Some Thoughts For the Class of 2010

This year I was honored to have been asked by the Class of 2010 to deliver the final chapel sermon on the day of graduation.  I can’t say that this was the easiest talk I’ve had to prepare, but I am fairly pleased with the final result.  The best advice I received was to write a sermon that I would have wanted to hear at my graduation.

I want to begin by thanking the Class of 2010 for this honor.  After having to listen to me in the classroom as well as other settings for the past four years I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised that you’ve chosen to give me one more opportunity to speak with you.  I hope my brief remarks prove worthy of your trust even if they stray a bit from the standard graduation day talk.

As I struggled to find a way to begin I kept coming back to that final scene in the movie, “Cast Away.”  As many of you know the movie tells the story of Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks), who ends up stranded on a deserted island for 4 years after his FedEx plane crashes in the ocean.  The movie follows Noland as he learns to survive both physically and psychologically on the island as well as his eventual reintegration into modern society.  My favorite scene in the movie comes at the very end after Noland delivers one of the packages that washed up on shore and perhaps served as a continual reminder of a life and career that he hoped one day to return to.  In that final scene Noland stands at the crossroads not knowing which way to go, but with the complete freedom to choose.  The camera moves in and Noland, who stares back, confronts the viewer.  It’s Noland’s expression, which I think is worth considering for a moment.  It may be tempting simply to speculate about the choice that he will make or perhaps the choice that we hope he will make.  However, the more I consider it the more I am convinced that his little smirk is meant for us.  In other words, I believe that the audience is the focus of that particular moment and not Noland.

So, what might Noland be asking of us?  Perhaps he is challenging the viewer to step back and reflect on her own life.  What questions did we ask and what decisions did we make when standing at the crossroads?  There may be a certain amount of anxiety for those of us looking back on our lives when confronted by such a challenge, but for those of you who sit in these seats for the final time with a bright-eyed optimism for the future I sometimes wonder whether you have the tough questions at hand for just these moments.

As a college prep school we do an excellent job of getting you ready for college, but I don’t know if we, or any school for that matter, does a good job of preparing you to decide whether you should want to go to college.  Have you thought much about it?  Did you consider other possibilities or are you already operating on automatic pilot?  Like Chuck Noland you stand at a significant crossroads, but I suspect that most of you are speeding right through the intersection.  Has anyone told you that the truth of the matter is: You do not have to go to college?

It’s dangerous to design your life around getting into college, because the people you have to impress to get in are not a very discerning audience. At most colleges, it’s not the professors who decide whether you get in, but admissions officers.  They operate with a system of checks and marks that you have to pass and this tells us nothing about your potential, your vision, and your future.

Right now most of you feel your job in life has been to be a promising college applicant. But that means that you have spent much of your energy designing your life to satisfy a process that is not meant to evaluate you as an individual. I’ve watched as you worked to design the ideal application or “maximize your potential” as we say in hopes of getting into your school of choice.  I’ve watched as you have ignored classes you even love for those that you believe will get you one step closer to the prize.  Why that school as opposed to another school you can’t say, but you know you know you want it.  And I suspect that most of you experienced some degree of frustration with this process.  No wonder some of you have become cynical.  The intention of your parents and this school has been to provide you with a superior education and an opportunity for future success, but there is more than one way to utilize these assets.

More importantly, in doing so we might have unintentionally perpetuated the notion that somehow you have to have it all figured out by this point in your life and that where you end up for the next four years is going to have a major impact on who you become.  I can say with confidence that this is not the case.  In fact, in my 15 years of teaching it is clear to me that those students who have the least figured out by this point in their lives ended up in a much better place.  Perhaps it was that extra time and space that they gave themselves to explore and take chances that made all the difference rather than beginning this exciting new time in your lives under serious constraints and undue pressures.

So, what should you do?  It’s an important question to consider because like it or not you are now the author of your decisions and actions.  You must decide whether you are going to continue to play this game and speed through the intersection. Will you continue to play to the admissions officers that you will encounter throughout your life?  That may be the kind of freedom that you’ve been anticipating for some time, but I would suggest that if you look closely you will see that it comes attached with a great deal of responsibility.  It may be more accurate to say that this kind of freedom is nothing less than a burden that you alone must accept – a burden because you alone must figure out who you are and how you will live.  It is much easier to avoid this burden and live your life by satisfying the continual tide of admissions standards that will come your way.

My advice to you over the next few years is to put it all on the line.  Take a step back and acknowledge the amount of luck that has shaped your life thus far.  Don’t simply accept the world the way it is given to you.  Be fearless in asking the tough questions about yourself and the world around you. Question everything because there is no road map.  There are no admissions officers other than the ones you empower.  As much as we would like to believe or even need to believe that there are things we ought to do we always have a choice.  If you are sitting here with your life planned out in one straight line you are depriving yourself of a turn toward greater opportunity.  A meaningful life does not come from satisfying a checklist that you had no hand in making.

The questions necessary for purposeful self-discovery can hardly be found in a college curriculum guide; they come through profound insecurity, doubt, and loss as much as the newly gained clarity and sincere joy that comes after a difficult journey.  Institutions of higher education are only designed as an advertisement, but not the journey itself.  You can finish college without learning much of anything.  That’s not meant as a criticism, but more as a reality check.  It’s simply the way the system is set up.  A few years ago one of my students stopped by my office for a chat.  She was an excellent student and had an academic record that had already placed her into the top universities.  But here she was opening our conversation with profound doubt about whether college was the obvious next step.  With that little doubt and subsequent decision to go this student claimed ownership of her decision and turned the advertisement into the journey itself.  It was not her academic record that ensured her success, it was the wisdom of knowing that not one class or even a degree will determine which direction to take.

My wish for you as you set forth on this next phase of your life is much anxiety, disappointment, and even failure so you may be forced to actually stop at the crossroads and look into all four directions.  That may seem like a strange wish list, but it is more appropriate than the overly used and dangerous clichés of wishing high school graduates happiness and success.  Your life should mean more to you than that. One of my college professors encouraged us think of ourselves as pieces of coal that need a great deal of pressure to transform into diamonds.

Rather than searching for happiness and success, find and embrace those things that have intrinsic value.  Resist the temptations associated with mediocrity such as monetary reward and status.  They lead nowhere.  Embrace the inevitable anxiety of those moments that present you with hard choices and have the courage to maintain your integrity.  Work hard to ensure that your life choices of career, community, and soul mate reflect the deepest truths about yourself.  Make plenty of mistakes along the way and embrace and celebrate your failures.  We spend way too much time as a society and at much to early an age in steering you away from failure and mistakes rather than acknowledging the crucial role they play in shaping your character.  You would think that it’s the mediocre life that includes a great deal of failure, but if you look closely you will see the extent to which that individual strives to avoid it

I wish these things for you not as ends in themselves, but in the hope that they lead you to a life that is meaningful.  Don’t look for that meaning too hard.  You will be surprised by the direction by which it arrives as well as its shape.  I still find it hard to believe that the classroom, the very room that I spent much of my time trying to avoid in high school is the very place that gives my life so much meaning.  My high school teachers would be horrified to learn how I ended up.  In your case I will settle with being pleasantly surprised.

I’ve never had the opportunity to address a graduating class before so let me close with a few personal words.  Other than the life I’ve built with my wife (along with Jeb and Felix – I can’t forget “the boys”) my greatest joy is coming to work each day.  In fact, I don’t really consider this to be a career, in the modern-industrial sense, at all.  I get to spend a large chunk of my day teaching and discussing a subject that I care deeply about.  Best of all I get to pursue this subject with all of you.  Not a day goes by that I fail to learn something about a particular subject from one of you and on most days I am humbled by my own lack of understanding in the face of a fresh perspective.  As much as I value these exchanges, however, it’s the conversations outside of class that mean the most to me.   I hope that you were able to see how much I’ve enjoyed learning from you and that I believe in each and every one of you.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

11 comments… add one

  • Carey Pohanka May 28, 2010

    What a wonderful chapel send off. I wish I could be there to see it in person. I have so many fond memories of chapel in my years at STAB (Mr. Harmon playing every hymn too slowly and Dr. Cornell freaking out about it, shaking hands with all of the faculty at the Christmas chapel, Dr. Conway telling us that Christmas has nothing to do with Jesus) but my favorite ones were when the teachers did the sermon. It was so nice to see them as a different person than just a teacher. You have lived up to the honor that the class bestowed upon you and I am sure that this one will be remembered by all those lucky enough to hear it today.

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2010

      Carey,

      Thanks so much for the kind words. I couldn’t be more pleased with the response. A number of former students have emailed to say thank you and that means so much to me. STAB is a great place to work. I am definitely a lucky guy.

  • Nat Turners Son May 28, 2010

    Kevin that was quite insiteful and was one of the better speeches I have read that was used at Graduation.

    Good Job.

    • Kevin Levin May 28, 2010

      Thanks for the kind words.

  • Scott May 28, 2010

    Congrats on the invite.

  • Craig May 29, 2010

    Cast Away was one of the first movies I saw in the theatre when I arrived in Manila after spending the previous seven years in Fiji and Tonga. I remember seeing accounts in the local news in Fiji of Tom Hanks and his trips there for the scenes that were shot on location while I was there. I graduated from university more than twenty years ago and next year will be the fortieth reunion for my high school graduating class. I moved from Kansas to the west coast when I was seven years old. We lived in a little town on the Strait of Juan de Fuca half a dozen blocks from a wharf where I used to go to watch oil tankers disappear over the horizon into the setting sun. I knew then that I wanted to know where those ships were going and what was out there. When I was in college I drove a taxi to make enough money to stay in school. My fares would ask me what I was studying and when I told them English their standard reply was “oh, you’re going to be a teacher.” I did teach in several Pacific island countries, but at local salary, so my efforts never threatened to become a career. I’ve been married for twenty-three years now and when my wife retires in a few years we’ll own a house on the mainland and a condo in Hawaii. I haven’t ruled out becoming a teacher yet. It could still happen. Meanwhile, I’ve had ample time to get to know my great great grandfather who died in the Civil War. I knew nothing about him until his data started turning up on the internet. I’m constantly astounded at the extent to which his fate shaped the arc of my life.

    • Kevin Levin May 30, 2010

      Craig,

      Thanks for sharing this. My younger brother worked for 15 years as an executive chef. Although he was at the top of his game he was completely burned out and decided to give it all up. He moved back in with my parents and worked to finish his undergraduate degree along with his certification to teach culinary and history on the high school level. He even managed to fall in love and is getting married next month. My brother is one of the inspirations behind my graduation talk.

  • Laurel May 31, 2010

    Thanks for posting this here, it is a wonderful speech that condenses the threads of a few ideas I remember you proposing. I think I know a few recent high school (and college) grads that would benefit from reading this, so I will pass it along. I also wanted to say I’m a fan of your blog and I read it frequently, though I don’t comment. Even if the main topic is not “my area” it is fascinating and entertaining. Thanks again, from a former student.

    • Kevin Levin May 31, 2010

      Hi Laurel,

      Great to hear from you and trust all is well in Vegas. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of former students who have written me after reading this sermon. I’m glad to hear that it struck a nerve. Let me know next time you are in town. I would love to grab a cup of coffee and catch up.

  • Dave Jordan Jun 1, 2010

    Excellent speech, Kevin. However, I am dying of curiosity about one thing. Did you receive any negative feedback from the parents or school administration? However, since this is a college -prep school, I’m assuming that most of the parents have made the conscious decision to spend a large amount of money to send their children there instead of sending them to the local public schools to be educated with the rest of us peasants. The idea presumably is that after attending this school their children will be able to go to exclusive colleges instead of state schools. I assume that the school’s administration uses this concept in their marketing of the school. It would seem that your speech might be seen as heresy by the administration and by the parents of Buffy and Biff. Perhaps I am guilty of stereotyping here. I attended public schools and state universities, so I’m not very familiar with private schools in general or your school in particular. Sorry if my tone comes across as somewhat snotty. If it does, chalk it up to a warped sense of humor.

    Best regards,
    Dave

    • Kevin Levin Jun 1, 2010

      Dave,

      Thanks for the comment. You are applying a few stereotypes to my particular school, which explains your difficulties. Let me point out that I attended public schools between k-12 and this particular position is my only experience in the private school sector. A fairly large percentage of families in our community utilize some type of financial aid and while our students all go on to college they range from community college to the Ivy League.

      So, to answer your question I am proud to say that there has been unanimous support for the subject of my sermon. In addition to the graduating class, I’ve had a number of families email expressing their thanks as well as former students who have read the speech online. A number of emails were very personal and touch on the difficulties that families face in preparing their children for college. I am lucky to work at a school where faculty feel comfortable expressing themselves. I was invited by the students to speak and I took full advantage of it. Hope that helps.

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