My Commencement Address to the NHS Class of 2015

dT7BbdXT9 I know that all you want to hear tonight is your name being called. I don’t plan on speaking long. But….on the OTHER hand, I do remember all of those cold snowy nights, and all those friendly tweets I got from you at 4 in the morning begging me for a snow day. You know the tweets.

“You hate children!”

“You’re the worst superintendent ever!”

“You caused six teachers to get into accidents!”

#ICantGetOutOfMyDriveway

#ImMovingToTwinsburg

So you all better get comfortable. I’m looking at you Brian Lutz.

The truth is if you told me when I was your age that I would be giving graduation speeches as a school superintendent, I never would have believed you. I wanted to be a writer when I was your age, not a school person, and as an English major at Kent State, I took many classes and spent a lot of time writing stories, hoping to make a career of it.

In fact, I almost had a story published once, and I often wonder if my life would have turned out different if I did have a story published. Maybe I would have continued pursuing a writing career instead of becoming a teacher, then a principal, and eventually a superintendent.

In one of my classes at Kent State, I wrote an awesome story about food living in a refrigerator. The vegetables and the dairy products had an ongoing feud, but they were united in their quest to free themselves from the refrigerator where they were held captive. The story ends in a glorious moment where the dairy products and vegetables worked together to overthrow the man who owned the refrigerator, and as they made their triumphant escape, the vegetables shouted in unison, “Let there be peas on earth!”

I sent that story to a small publisher that produced a literary magazine, and the editor wrote me back that she wanted to publish it. She asked me to make a few small changes and send it back for her review. I made the changes and sent it back, then waited to hear from her. And waited. And waited.

Several months later I received THIS letter in the mail.

It said, “Dear Joe Clark. I cannot apologize enough about the lateness of returning your story, which was being held at our editor’s home in Pennsylvania. We are just as shocked as you must be. You see our editor passed away July 4th from injuries sustained when she was HIT BY A TRAIN.” The letter said that the new editor would not be publishing my story, but wished me the best of luck in the future.

And so 22 years later, instead of me being some big shot writer, I went into the field of education, and you get to hear me tell stories about how things almost turned out.

Nordonia High School class of 2015, think about all of the great stories you will have from your senior year. The football team’s run to the state championship. The band’s trip to Indianapolis. Mock trial setting new records for the school. The bowling team. Science Olympiad. Choir. Cross country. Softball. Swimming. Spirit week. Homecoming and prom. Cam Bell lip syncing to “Tight Pants.” There is no way I could include all the great things happened this year, including six snow days and the kind and gracious tweets sent my way at 4 in the morning!

You all have great stories about your times at NHS. You will remember them forever. You will laugh about them at class reunions and tell your kids about the fun you had.

But here is my advice to you tonight. Don’t make these stories the best stories of your life. To paraphrase Natasha Bedingfield, you have a blank page in front of you right now. Where you go and what you do is entirely up to you. The best stories of your life, the stories that your children’s children will tell about you, are still unwritten.

You are in control of the stories you write the rest of your lives. Make them extraordinary. No great story ever starts with “I was sitting on the couch watching TV.” Take the skills you learned here at NHS, take the work ethic, take the pride, take the grit and determination, and create a story of your life that is incredible.

And remember to write your own story, don’t have it written for you. You are in control of where you go the rest of your life. People may try to make decisions for you. People may throw up roadblocks. People may tell you that you aren’t smart enough or strong enough or fast enough or talented enough. Ignore them. You ARE enough. The world is full of cynical people who thrive on watching other people fail. Don’t let them deter you. And don’t let them write your story for you.

My sister Kelly is the best example of this that I can think of, of somebody who wrote her own story.

I am the youngest of eleven kids, seven boys and four girls. Kelly was the youngest girl, five years older than me. When Kelly was in 9th grade, her gym teacher noticed a lump on her neck, and reported it to my parents. It was cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, and Kelly missed her entire freshman year.

Kelly beat Hodgkin’s disease, though, went on to earn her bachelors and masters degrees, and became a fabulous 6th grade teacher.

Then at age 30 she was involved in a car crash. She had stopped at a four way stop and started to pull through the intersection when another car ran the stop sign and hit her. She was fine, but she noticed that she didn’t see the other car coming. She had no peripheral vision. She went to the eye doctor, who ran some tests, noticed some swelling behind her eyes, and sent her immediately to the hospital, where later that evening Kelly had a softball sized tumor removed from her brain.

She won that battle, got married and had three kids, and lived her life to the fullest. She was a great mom, supporting her kids’ many activities, and was the life of every party. She loved to travel and never missed a Jimmy Buffet concert when he was in town.

At a routine checkup a few years later, the doctor noticed some spots on her internal organs. Cancer was now overtaking her body, and in the summer of 2006 she learned she had less than a year to live. By this time Kelly was 40 years old. Lexi was in third grade, Garrett in second grade, and Leanna in preschool.

Realizing that she would never get to share her life stories with her kids, Kelly spent some of the last few months of her life traveling around videotaping all of the stories she would never get to tell her kids. She went to her old high school, her first job, her first date, her grade school…recording all the stories she knew she would never get to tell her kids in person. Kelly died at 41 years old, but cancer didn’t write her story. Kelly wrote it. She never stopped fighting, and she never stopped living.

Nordonia high school class of 2015, you are blessed beyond belief.

  • You can read, so you are luckier than over one billion people in the world who cannot.
  • If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are luckier than the million people 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.

Take advantage of all the gifts you have and write yourself a great story!

Two more things before I wrap up. First, remember that as you write your own story, everybody else will be writing their own stories. And you will be a character in the stories of everybody you meet. How they describe you will be up to you. Will they describe you as kind, caring and compassionate? Will they describe you as arrogant and mean….it’s your call. Treat people kind. The golden rule says that you should treat people as you would like to be treated. But remember the platinum rule: treat everybody as THEY would like to be treated.

Finally, remember that everybody has a story you know nothing about. You are sitting here tonight with classmates who have been abused or neglected, classmates who have faced horrible illnesses, classmates who have experienced deaths of loved ones. Everybody here is fighting a battle that you know nothing about.

So Nordonia High School class of 2015, treat everybody well. Be kind. Be compassionate. Go out into the world and write stories that will make the world a better place.

We are so proud of you. Congratulations and good luck!

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