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




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,




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.

If You Can’t Find a Turtle, Be the Turtle

Dr. Clark's Chronicles

I spent the ten best summers of my life at CYO Camp Christopher in Bath, Ohio. I was a counselor, a bus driver and the Day Camp Director. Today I was reminded of a story from my days as a camp director.

We had themes for each week of the summer, and we would program activities around each theme. For Western Week we would always have a “gold rush,” during which we would paint small rocks gold and hide them around the camp for campers to find.

During Music Week we would have the Day Camp Jug Band, where all of us counselors would bring some kind of instrument from home, whether we could play or not, and put on a concert for the campers.

I could give 1,000 more examples, but you get the point.

So, during Animal Week each year each group of campers was supposed to catch…

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Leaders Don’t Do Threats, They Do the Right Thing

Dr. Clark's Chronicles

It happens more often than you would think.

From time to time, parents or community members or sometimes even staff have something they want or need, and they will attempt to get it not through reasonable discussion, but through implicit or explicit threats.

Maybe these folks want something for their child: a changed grade or more playing time or transportation privileges or a detention cancelled. They may want something for themselves: a new assignment, a granted leave, a waived fee, access to unavailable facilities.

The threats may be covert. “I’ve always supported your levy” means they might not next time. An emailed complaint CCed to a board member or supervisor means if you don’t give me what I want you will be in trouble.

The threats may be overt. Sometimes they threaten litigation. Sometimes they threaten to never support a future levy if their wishes aren’t granted. Almost always they…

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Heroes Emerge

A Nordonia family suffered a tragedy on January 11 when their house exploded. The family of four died. News that it was not accidental shocked the community, and we in the schools were devastated by the death of Ruthie Mather, a Northfield Elementary School second grader. Ruthie was smart, and sweet, and kind, and a wonderful artist. She was adored by teachers and classmates, and she loved coming to school. We will miss her terribly.

In times of tragedy, though, heroes emerge. The safety forces in our community do incredible work in horrible conditions, and they should be praised for their professionalism and calmness in the face of chaos.

The entire Northfield staff did incredible work helping their students and each other through the initial stages of the grieving process. Many, many staff members from other buildings offered amazing support as well.

Losing a student is a school person’s worst nightmare. The kids we work with every day are like our own. We are their surrogate mothers and fathers, and we are in a profession that has unbelievable highs and heart-breaking lows. The community should know how truly dedicated and caring the Nordonia Schools staff is. They are generous and empathetic and caring. Your kids are in good hands.

We also saw an outpouring of compassion and generosity from our community. A sampling of unsolicited emails I received in the hours following the tragedy show the mercy of this community.

From Lynn Hermensky: “Absolutely devastating.  As you know I work for Hospice of the Western Reserve and we have a school crisis team – we absolutely can send someone out ASAP if you need additional resources.  Please let me know as this is the least I can do until you let us parents know what else is needed.”

From Rev. Jason Haymaker: “Hi Dr. Clark. I am the Lead Pastor at Western Reserve Grace Church here in Macedonia. Writing to offer our help to come alongside you and your staff during this time of loss for students and families in light of the tragedy in Northfield. I have a family ministries staff that cover the ages of birth through High School. Myself, and my team offer to be at your disposal. I have no agenda other than authentically seeking to offer our encouragement and help. Please feel free to call me personally if we can help in anyway. Praying for you Dr. Clark. Leading through times like this is tough…I get it.”

From Rev. Russ Ham, Senior Pastor at United Methodist Church of Macedonia : “I am grateful for your concern, Joe; of course you can call on me or Paul Sheneman if necessary for any help.  Situations like this make me thankful for many things, one of which is knowing the staff and faculty in our schools are caring, involved, compassionate and helpful.  You all go far beyond academics.  Lynn and I thank God for you regularly.”

From Dan Stanko, manager of Chick-fil-A: “Hi Joe. I heard about the tragedy in Northfield this morning – I want to help, please let me know what we can do. I know this is a hectic time but when you have the opportunity please call me at the restaurant or on my cell phone. In the meantime my leadership and I will be praying.” Chick-fil-A then provided lunch for all Northfield staff members for two days.

Each of us go through our lives with critics. Some of our critics are more vocal or visible than others, but as they say, there is always a guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt. While critics may need to look for the right time to throw stones, there is never a wrong time to be kind. And the truth is, the Nordonia community is full of kind, caring, compassionate people, people who go out of their way to help others in need.

Some people see the donut, and some people see the hole. I see the donut. (In fact, I see way too many donuts if you know what I mean). When I retire a long time from now, I’m going to remember all of the wonderful people I worked with and the community I served.

Nordonia is a fabulous place. You should be proud of your community and proud of your schools. Don’t let it take a tragedy to remember that.get-ahead-being-generous

Ride the Train and other Advice for New Teachers

NewTeach_Announce-300x172 Today we held New Teacher Orientation for our new staff members. It was a privilege to be with this group of excited professionals looking to build a fabulous career. My message to them was brief, but focused on the following points:

Why you? We had thousands of applications and conducted hundreds of interviews for the positions those folks were hired to fill. We didn’t hire them because we thought they fit the “Nordonia Way.” We hired them because we saw something in them that we wanted to become more like. They are talented and professional, and we hope to learn from them and benefit from their talents.

Camp Is for the Campers Camp is for the campers, and school is for the students (see my related blog HERE). While teaching will provide a wonderful career, put a roof over their heads and food on the table…school is for the students. They are who we serve.

The Greatest Miracle in the World Og Mandino wrote, “The surest way to doom yourself to mediocrity is perform only the work for which you are paid.” (See the quote HERE). None of our new teachers were sitting at orientation this morning hoping they will have a long, mediocre career. They want to have a great career. The way to ensure that is to give more than is expected.

Easiest Job in the World Being a mediocre teacher can be the easiest job in the world. By treating kids well and not making waves, the mediocre can coast through a long career. But being a great teacher is the hardest job in the world. Great teachers differentiate instruction, put in long hours, worry about their students, facilitate awesome learning activities, give meaningful assessments and let the results of the assessments drive their instruction, and so much more. You can have a long career of mediocrity and never be noticed. But the great ones take risks, make mistakes, and keep trying.

35 Years Great teachers teach 35 years, not one year 35 times. Great teachers understand that kids change, technology changes, the research on quality instruction changes. Dusting off lesson plans year after year is a way to doom yourself to mediocrity. It is fine to continue practices that work. After all, you don’t throw out the steak if the fly lands on the baked potato. But great teachers reflect and adjust constantly. If you aren’t reflecting, you better be a vampire.

Your Retirement Party Everyone will eventually have a retirement party, and everyone at the retirement party will be happy. Will they be happy FOR you retiring or BECAUSE you are retiring? Being a great teacher also means being a great colleague. Be professional and ethical and work collaboratively with your colleagues.

The Second Fisherman I have kept THIS poem in my wallet since 1988. Teaching is a mission. School is literally a life or death proposition for some students. While some students may have a great chance of success because of their family circumstances, there are others whose only chance literally rests on the quality of their education. The only opportunity they will ever have to find a job with health care and a pension comes from the quality of education they receive. We can’t give up on any student, ever.

Ride the Train Many kids are on the train alone. We need to do everything we can to protect these kids, to make them feel safe and valued, to ensure they are able to focus on learning. See my blog about my terrifying train experience HERE.

Kids won’t follow rules in May……because you told them the classroom rules in August. They follow rules in May if you build relationships in August.

Hero or Villain? All of your students will one day tell stories about you. Maybe they will tell stories at their class reunion, or tell stories to their kids or spouse. And you will be a character in every one of your student’s story. Will you be a hero or a villain? That is entirely up to you. Treat kids well. Make sure they describe you with adjectives that make you proud.

Wanted: Great Teachers AND Great Employees

As we are in the midst of hiring season, I have been interviewing many, many candidates hoping to land a teaching job with us. The ideal candidate–in addition to having the ability to walk on water–teaches dynamic lessons, differentiates instruction, communicates with students’ families, uses formative assessment to guide instruction, develops great relationships with students, knows how to integrate technology into the classroom and exhibits Extensive Professional Commitment.

Most teaching candidates know this, of course, and they come to interviews prepared to answer questions related to these topics. Some candidates seem more sincere than others, some more nervous, some have different experiences, some seem to have a deeper understanding of these ideas than others. But overall, it is rare to find a candidate who doesn’t understand what it takes to be a good teacher. (Putting it into practice is another matter entirely).

But being a good teacher doesn’t necessarily mean a person is going to have a successful 35-year career.

Consider this: assuming a teacher works for 35 years, and factoring salary and benefits, each new hire is potentially a $3-4 million investment for a school board. Realizing this, districts look to hire folks that are not only going to be dynamic in the classroom, but also good colleagues.

In other words, it is not enough to be a great teacher. One also must be a good employee.

What does that mean? It means that teachers who come to interview need to realize that hiring decisions are often made by much more than what is said in the interview. Decisions are made based on:

  • How well did the candidate treat the secretary who scheduled the interview?
  • How responsive was the candidate to returning phone calls or emails to schedule the interview?
  • How well did the candidate treat the receptionist who welcomed him to the interview?
  • How prompt was the candidate to the interview?
  • How professional did the candidate appear?
  • How much did the candidate research about the place he may be working for the next 35 years?
  • How likely does it appear the candidate will be able to work well with others, to be part of a team, to be a positive ambassador for the district to others in the community?
The perfect employee

The perfect employee

Great teachers know they should teach 35 years, not one year 35 times.

And after that 35-year career, each teacher will have a retirement party. At that retirement party, all the guests will be happy. If you have been a good employee, the guests will be happy FOR you retiring. If you haven’t been a good employee, they will be happy BECAUSE you are retiring.

Rest assured, when looking to hire teachers, I will always look to hire those that have the skills to be great performers in the classroom. But to get a job with us, a person needs to show that they will not only be a great teacher, but a great employee.

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!”



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!