My Commencement Address to NHS Class of 2013

ImageI remember exactly what I was doing 18 years ago tonight. I was sitting on the couch watching Seinfeld, while my wife kept pacing around the room complaining of pain in her back. In fact, she kept me up all night long pacing around the room until morning when I finally said, “You know, I think you might be in labor.”

She said, “That’s impossible, I’m not due for two weeks.”

And I said, “please just call the doctor before I leave for work.’

She called, and, long story short, a few hours later my son Isaac was born. Tomorrow he turns 18, and on Sunday he will graduate and I’ll be where you are, listening to some other superintendent give a speech when all I really want to hear is my kid’s name be called.

That was 18 years ago. 18 years. Parents, you went through the same experience I did about 18 years ago. You brought a life into the world, you blinked, and here you are. I don’t know about you, but that time has flown.

Class of 2013, I’m sure the past 18 years hasn’t gone as fast for you as it has for your parents.

But I bet the past four years has.

Do you believe that you are sitting here already? Doesn’t it seem like yesterday that you first heard Mr. Broman yell, “Life’s a party! Don’t be tardy!”

So as I’m speaking to you today, parents, I feel as if I am sitting right there with you. And students, I feel as if I’m speaking to my own kids. So what I want to do tonight is give you the exact same advice I’ll be giving my own son as he graduates.

There are just two things I want you to keep in mind. Two things. It’s nothing profound. It’s nothing dying men whisper on their deathbeds. It’s nothing you’d climb a mountain to hear from a wise sage. But it’s what I want you to think about tonight.

First, your life is the most precious gift you have ever been given. Live it. Don’t treat your life like you did those countless toys you’ve gotten through the years, the ones you played with for a little while then crammed in a closet only to later give to Goodwill or sell at a garage sale.

Your life is a gift. Live it. Because before you know it you will be sitting at your own son or daughter’s graduation wondering where the time went.

Tonight you are sitting with some of your best friends in the world. You’ve shared some great times together and have some great stories. Games, concerts, Spirit Week, your first car…

I remember my best friend from high school: Jelly Bean. His real name was Jeff, but once he dedicated a song on the radio to his sweetums from his Jelly Bean and we never let him live that down. (I suppose my third piece of advice would be gentlemen, never let your friends know your girlfriend’s pet name for you).

I remember my first car: a red 1978 Ford Fairmont with white vinyl interior I bought from my sister. One night I was riding with Jelly Bean and smelled smoke. I turned on the overhead light to see smoke pouring out of the steering wheel column. I fanned it away and kept driving, only to find nothing electrical worked anymore.

I remember some great times. Once Jelly Bean was out of town and I had to drive his girlfriend Claudine home from a church group. It started to rain really hard. I turned to Claudine and said, “Claudine, you’re my best friend’s girlfriend. And here we are alone in my car. It’s dark and the rain is falling. Will you please do me one little favor? Lean out the window and try to make my wipers move. My car caught on fire last week and nothing works!”

I remember that story like it was yesterday. But it was 25 years ago! I haven’t seen Jelly Bean or Claudine in 20 years. And all I can do now is think back to those good old days wishing I had a time machine so I could live them over.

But I do have a time machine. We all do. It’s right here in our head. And we can use it to visit the past and feel sad for great times that we can never have again. But instead of reminiscing about the past, my advice is to live your life.

You never know when will be the last time you will see someone. You never know when will be the last time you will do something. You never know when will be the last time you will visit somewhere. Savor every day. Never take a minute for granted. Get off the couch and do something. You’ll never get the time back.

The Office had its series finale a few weeks ago. Are there any Office fans here? Andy Bernard said something brilliant on the final episode. He said, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.” Let me repeat: I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.

Class of 2013, these ARE the good old days. EVERY day is the good old days. Don’t waste them.

My second piece of advice is this: Do Good. It’s really that simple. Do good.

Understand, doing good and doing well are not the same thing. Mother Teresa does good. Donald Trump does well.

It’s ok to want to do well. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do well. It’s the American way.

But if you want to do well, you start by doing good, by living a life of service to others. You have a responsibility, I believe, to pay forward the blessings that you were given.

Don’t take for granted the advantages you have.

  • You can read, so you are luckier than over one billion people who cannot read at all.
  • If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, then you are luckier than the million who will not survive this week.
  • If you have never experienced war, imprisonment, torture, or starvation, then you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.
  • If you can attend any meeting you want—political, religious, social–then you are luckier than 3 billion people in the world.
  • If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, then you are richer than 75 percent of this world.
  • If you have money in the bank and in your wallet, if you have spare change in a dish someplace, then you are among the top eight percent of the world’s wealthy.

We all have struggles, but in the big picture we are all blessed beyond belief and have tons of advantages simply because of where we were born.

Pay that forward. You don’t have to be Mother Theresa. But choose something you care about, something bigger than yourself, and give. Make the world a better place.

Ultimately, the measure of your success is not going to be measured in how much you have, but how much you gave.

Class of 2013, enjoy this evening. But remember that this is not the end, it’s the beginning. As you venture out in the world, remember to live your lives and do good things.



Every Child Has a Solo. Help Him Find It.

I just got home from the final choir concert of my son Isaac’s high school career. It was incredible. He has been performing since fifth grade, and this was the best show of his I have ever seen. And as much as there is to say about the importance of the arts and how music must stay in every school, I want to talk instead about the freshmen choir. Image

The freshmen choir performed first tonight. They did a medley of songs from The Lion King, which was awesome.

About twelve kids had solos throughout the performance, and you could easily tell who the soloists were going to be even before they began. You could tell because they were the kids who looked like they had eaten bad fish. They had that “please don’t let me die on stage” look. Sheer terror.

But as each student finished the solo, the audience applauded, and a huge smile engulfed each of their faces. It was like Christmas and a birthday and a snow day wrapped into one. It was pure joy. It was pride for a job well done. It was the exhilaration of knowing they had the courage to face their fears and come out safe on the other side.

It was fascinating. The transformation was immediate and clear and it was so cool to watch. And more fascinating was watching the face of the choir teacher beaming with pride as each student belted out his or her part.

Every child has a solo. Tonight, the solos were literal, singing alone on stage in front of a crowd.

But whether they are in the choir or not, every child has a solo. For some it is on the football field. For some it’s on the track. For some it is in the art room. For some it is in math class. For some it is at church. It’s grooming horses. It’s painting. It’s playing guitar. It’s cooking. It’s visiting the elderly. It’s making friends. It’s leading a group. It’s writing a poem. It’s programming a computer. It’s something—ANYTHING—where a kid finds a passion that makes him feel successful and at home.

Every child has a solo, a talent, a gift. Every child has something they were put on earth to do. But so many kids spend their days not knowing what their solo is.

It’s every adult’s responsibility to help them find it.

It’s our job to encourage kids to take risks. To expose them to opportunities and experiences. To pick them up when they are down. To give them the hug or word or kick in the butt at the right time.

Every child has a solo. Imagine the choir the world will have when each child finds his part.

Free the Birds (Bloody Knuckles or Not)

ImageI’m not a birdwatcher. I don’t have binoculars. And I have never taken part in a Big Year. But, I like birds. I have two double shepherd’s hooks in my backyard, and I like to relax on my deck watching the birds eat at the feeders that hang on the hooks.

Not too long ago I noticed a sparrow had gotten himself stuck at my feeder. His foot was pinned at the point where the two hooks come together. He was hanging there helplessly, and I decided to free him.   

As I reached for him, the sparrow starting flapping his wings and pecking at my hand. I grabbed him and let him go, and then looked to see my hand covered in scratches. Image

Unbelievable! Here I was trying to free this helpless little bird, and the only thanks I got were some bloody knuckles.

But that’s life, right?

How many times do you try to free a bird only to find yourself with bloody knuckles? It happens all the time with our kids: eat your vegetables; time for bed; brush your teeth; put the video games away; do your homework. All things that are good for the kids, yet we’re often thanked with rolled eyes, outright obstinance, or the passive-aggressive “whatever.”

We do it too. My doctor always tells me to avoid sweets, and I know that avoiding sweets is in my best interest. But if there’s a chocolate chip cookie within a hundred yards of me I can sense it and seek it out. My doctor is telling me what I should do for my own good, and I yet I totally disregard his advice. He’s trying to free me from the shepherd’s hook, and I am fighting him along the way.

School leaders—all leaders, really–periodically free birds only to have their knuckles bloodied. Often the toughest job a leader has is deliver bad news to people who don’t want to hear it. Often that news is in the best interest of the receiver, and often it is returned with anger, threats, letters to editors, and slanderous behind the back comments.

School leaders see this often: when we are referring a student for an IEP against the parents’ will; when we are making personnel decisions; when we decide to retain a student; when we alter bus routes or redistrict school buildings or recommend controversial policy changes. All tough decisions, all carefully considered, and all what we believe are in the best interest of the student or parent or staff member or district.

And yet we know that with every decision, somebody will be unhappy. And we know, too, that not making a decision IS making a decision.

So what’s the answer? If bloody knuckles are coming no matter what, we may as well just do what is right. Ultimately a leader’s conscience needs to be his guide. Even though we may be criticized or attacked, we need to do that which is virtuous and good and fair and honest.

The Paradoxical Commandments by Dr. Kent Keith (find them here) remind us:

  • The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

We must take seriously the responsibility that comes with leadership.  Even though we know that bloody knuckles may follow, we must continue to free the birds. We must do so with integrity and empathy, and we must do so even knowing that what’s right is not always easy.

To Our Teachers on National Teacher Day

ImageOn this National Teacher Appreciation Day, let me express my deepest gratitude for the work you do every day for kids. While the teaching profession has recently been fodder for criticism in the media and among legislators, I know better.

I know that the work you do is vitally important.

I know you give of your own money to buy supplies for your classroom. I know you buy  food and clothing for your students in need, more often than most people realize.

I know that you work with some students who don’t come to school with the advantages or motivation we wish they would have. I know that does not matter to you, that you persevere because you get joy from seeing your kids succeed.

I know you spend countless hours planning lessons and grading papers. I know this drives your spouse crazy, but there’s no way you’re going to go into a day unprepared.

I know that our kids get a world class education and leave us ready for college and careers because of the foundation laid by all our teachers, K-12.

I know that you teach our kids to be caring, responsible, empathetic and generous people, and that the character they develop because of your example is rivaled only by their intellectual achievement.

I know that you make a difference every day.

Thanks for all that you do, and enjoy your day!

Dress Like a Hot Dog? Pie in the Face? Kiss a Pig? That’s School Administration

Today I ran a quarter mile dressed up like a hot dog.

To the general public, that statement might seem incredibly bizarre. If you are a school administrator, you don’t even give it a second thought.Image

When you become a school leader, you know that you will have to deal with curriculum & instruction, teacher evaluations, student discipline, and phone calls from concerned parents & community members. What you might not expect is that you also have to do some crazy things for the sake of the kids.

Rushwood–one of our elementary schools–was holding a Race for Education to raise money to build an outdoor learning lab. I was dressed as a hot dog, PTA dad Ken Strong was dressed like a chicken, and Title I Tutor Melanie Dillon (@m_dillon8) was dressed as a box of Wheaties. We ran a lap with Principal Jacqueline O’Connor (@RushwoodPrin) to show the 1st and 2nd graders where they were supposed to go.

The fundraiser made about $24,000, and the outdoor learning lab will be an awesome addition to the school grounds.

In my career I have been in a dunk tank, had a pie smashed in my face, dressed in a Shrek costume, refereed a powder-puff football game, played Santa Claus, and—today–run a quarter mile dressed as a hot dog. I know of other school administrators who have kissed pigs, ridden donkeys, skydived, slept on roofs, been taped to walls, and so much more.

They don’t teach you about those things in grad classes. But the truth is it’s a whole lot of fun, and acting goofy with kids is one of the best parts of the job.