Be Alive, Be Kind, Be Thankful: My Commencement Address to the Class of 2016

2016

This year I decided for every tweet I was tagged in asking for a snow day, I would add one minute to my graduation speech. Get comfortable.

I’m kidding. I know all you want to hear is your name being called as you walk across the stage, so I’m not going to delay that very much longer. But I do want to take this opportunity to give you three small pieces of advice.

My first piece of advice is this: Be alive. Your life is the most precious gift you have ever been given. Live it. 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.

When you have the chance to do something out of the ordinary, say yes. Your own principal Mr. Wright jumped out of an airplane. Dr. Beery and Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Coleman run marathons A few weeks ago I saw Mr. Broman walking really fast with a pair of scissors.

My career in education started 25 years ago as an English teacher. I became an English teacher partly because of the movie Dead Poets Society, a movie you may not know, but your parents certainly do. In the movie, Robin Williams played an English teacher who used poetry to teach his students to “carpe diem”– “seize the day” — to make their lives extraordinary. That movie inspired me, and I wanted to make a difference in kids lives through the study of classic literature.

So every Monday through Friday I was an English teacher. And every Saturday I was a mobile disc jockey. I DJed parties for John Elway and Dan Marino when they were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I DJed a graduation party for LeBron James. And for over 20 years I DJed hundreds and hundreds of weddings, parties and school dances.

My students knew I was a DJ because I played at most of our school dances. I was at your prom a few weeks ago and saw how about 500 of you spent the night jumping up and down. Back in the day, though, school dances usually involved all the girls dancing in the middle of the dance floor while all the guys stood around the outside edges waiting for a slow dance.

While DJing was a hobby for me, I felt like teaching was my calling. I truly wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives. I wanted kids to be inspired by my lessons. I wanted them to stand up on their desks at the end of the year and say “O Captain, my Captain!”

So one graduation night, right here at EJ Thomas, after the ceremony one of my students, Jeff Lovell, approached me. I was Jeff’s English teacher for two years, one of his football coaches, and his Mock Trial adviser. Jeff and I spent lots and lots of time together over his four years of high school, and he became one of my favorite students.

Jeff said, “Mr. Clark, I want to thank you. You were the most influential teacher I ever had. You taught me the most important lesson in all of my high school years.”

I was speechless. To make a difference in a kid’s life is a teacher’s greatest hope, and to be recognized and thanked for it is a teacher’s greatest joy.

So I asked him, “Jeff, what was the lesson? What did I say that inspired you so much?”

Jeff said, “You taught me to fast dance. At all my high school dances I was the only guy out there with all those ladies! That was the best advice I ever got!”

I said “You mean your greatest lesson wasn’t something profound we studied in Chaucer or Shakespeare?”

And he said “Shakes-who now?”

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 don’t make these stories the best stories of your life.

Jeff’s advice is really good. Get on the floor and dance. 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, haven’t happened yet. You are in control of the stories you write the rest of your lives. Make them extraordinary.

My second piece of advice is this: Be kind.

Maya Angelou was an American treasure who died two years ago. Maya Angelou was a writer, a speaker, an actor, a poet, a civil rights activist…she was indeed a living legend who I was fortunate to hear speak a year before she died.

Maya Angelou said that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. She reminded us that we have the ability everyday to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.

What does that mean, to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud? Everybody here is fighting a battle that 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.

So when you have the opportunity to say something kind, say it. When you have the opportunity to lend a hand, lend it. When you have the opportunity to be a friend, be it. And when you mess up, admit it. Five of the most underused words in the world are: “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”

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 arrogant and mean? Will they describe you as kind and caring and compassionate? It’s your call.

You might remember Mr. Yeager, who was a math teacher at the middle school when you were students there. Mr. Yeager actually began his teaching career in the early 1980s at Annunciation School in Akron, where I was one of his first students.

He used to write notes home every week to three or four kids who did really well. His handwriting was very distinctive, all caps, neat and straight.

It was the same handwriting he used when he wrote this note to my parents in 1981 when I was in 6th grade:

DEAR MR. AND MRS CLARK,

I REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON JOE HAS BEEN KICKED OFF OF THE SAFETY PATROL FOR EXTORTION.

PAUL YEAGER

You see, at Annunciation our playground was in the church parking lot, which was across the street from the school. So we strong, mature sixth grade safety patrol members were supposed to help the little first and second graders cross the street safely to get to recess.

We were NOT supposed to tell the kids that we would report them to the principal for jaywalking if they didn’t bring us some candy the next day.

Looking back on it now, I can see how some people may have considered that inappropriate. I thought I was just being funny, but I learned my lesson and paid my dues.

Twenty-seven years later I was hired as the Assistant Superintendent of the Nordonia Schools. On a Thursday morning in early September, I received a note in my mailbox. The handwriting made me immediately flashback 27 years. It was very distinctive, all caps, neat and straight. The note said,

MR. CLARK,

I RUN THE FOOTBALL POOL FOR THE DISTRICT. LET ME KNOW IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO GET IN ON IT.

PAUL YEAGER.

I sent Mr. Yeager an email telling him that I needed to meet with him in private the next afternoon to discuss a very serious matter.

I keep everything. So I went home, dug through my stuff, and found the note that Mr. Yeager had written 27 years earlier kicking me off the safety patrol. And I found my yearbook from my sixth grade year at Annunciation. And the next afternoon I went to see Mr. Yeager in his classroom.

We sat down and I took out the note asking me to join the football pool. I said, “Did you send me this note asking to participate in a gambling ring at school?”

He turned pale and started stammering. “Well…it’s just…a little…for fun…” I cut him off.

“No, you don’t understand,” I said. “This note looks a lot like this note you wrote me 27 years ago when you kicked me off the safety patrol.”

And he breathed a sigh of relief, and we laughed a little, and then we browsed through the yearbook reminiscing about some of my old classmates. And when we came to the faculty page I saw that I had drawn a black eye and a horrible scar on his picture.

So the lesson of this story is, be kind to everyone, because you never know who’s going to end up being your boss.

And my final piece of advice it this: Be thankful. The fact that you are sitting here in this beautiful auditorium, graduating from a fabulous, free public school, surrounded by family and friends who love you, and that you will go home to a warm house with a refrigerator full of food is evidence of the blessings you have that 90 percent of the rest of the world doesn’t.

Once upon a time a mother and her young son were walking along the ocean shore. Suddenly, a tidal wave swept over them and carried the boy out to sea.

The mother was horrified. She fell to her knees pleading with God. “Please return my son,” she prayed. “Please, please, please, please return my son. I beg you!”

A moment later another tidal wave crashed upon the shore, depositing the young boy at his mother’s feet. He was perfectly fine. There wasn’t a scratch on him.

The mother took a minute and inspected her son, then looked back towards heaven and shouted, “Ummmmm…he HAD a hat!”

Too often people worry so much about the things they don’t have that they forget to be grateful for the things they do.

We do it as students, as teachers, as superintendents, as parents, and as spouses. The problem is, when we spend time wishing different ways our lives could be better, the pretty-darn-good lives we have pass us by.

Gratitude is a choice. It means making a conscious effort to be thankful for the many blessings in our lives.

Health. Family. Friends. Homes. Jobs. Food. Clothing. Etc. Etc. Etc.

We all fall in the trap of ingratitude from time to time. I am as guilty of this as anyone.

Instead of being thankful my son mowed the lawn, I criticize him for missing a spot. Instead of being grateful for having the opportunity to attend free public schools, we complain about too much homework. Or not enough snow days. Instead of being happy for having a job, we grumble about having to work during the Cavs game.

We need to look for the good in everything. We need to be grateful for what we have. We need to stop whining. We need to be thankful the wave returned our child and remember that the lost hat just isn’t that important.

That’s it, guys, three things I hope you remember. Be alive. Be kind. Be grateful. Do those three things, and you are on your way to a fabulous life.

I always have mixed feelings at this time of year; I feel nostalgic for years gone by; I feel joy for the families and friends here celebrating this great night; I feel relief that another year is coming to a close. But when I look over this graduating class, what I feel most is hope. Nordonia High School Class of 2016, you give me great hope that our future is bright indeed. Congratulations and best wishes.

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Dr. Clark's Chronicles

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