A Class Like No Other: A Graduation Night Speech to the Class of 2020

My speech to the Class of 2020 was exceptionally easy to write.  Much of it, if I’m honest, was plagiarized from my previous speeches to other graduation classes.  What was new came easily as well because of how great the Class of 2020 had handled the loss of the second half of their final year at EAB.  Writing about their grace and persistence in the face of frustration and uncertainty was both humbling and enjoyable.  It was fun putting words to celebrate such great young men and women and I was done with my speech in 15 minutes.

Giving the speech, however, was cumbersome and hard.  Because of the coronavirus we were forced to have graduation at a local drive and therefore the ceremony needed to be recorded well before the event and then be transformed into a movie to be shown on the big screen on the Seniors final night as EAB Students.  I therefore gave my speech to an empty auditorium 10 days before the ceremony.  As my colleague and fellow speaker, Andy Jones, noted in his words to the Seniors, “Things get weird now not only because this is the first time in two months I’ve put on a pair of pants, but also because right now I am in the auditorium on a Wednesday afternoon, giving a speech to a camera, pretending you’re out there 10 days from now at a drive in movie theater. To make things even more weird, when this speech is shown I will be sitting in my car watching the whole thing happen at the same time you are.”

The day I gave the speech I forgot to wear socks, which necessitated some unwelcome editing challenges.  I also didn’t know whether to look straight at the camera or to speak to an imaginary audience (I chose the latter and after watching my speech am not sure it was the right call).   Finally, and most importantly, I think all speakers feed off the energy and emotion of the audience and it was a challenge to speak to the Seniors with all the meaning I hoped to without them there.

The Commencement Ceremony for the Class of 2020 was a success.  The kids loved it, their families appreciated how hard we worked to make the event meaningful and memorable, and we were proud of what we together accomplished as the EAB Community.  What is most important, however, is that the amazing young men and women of the EAB Class of 2020 overcame all obstacles and unprecedented challenges to earn their right to be proud, confident EAB Alumni.  

You can watch my speech, given in the empty auditorium, above, via YouTube via this link or read it below.

David

Seniors,

For the past six years I have stood on this stage on graduation night and said essentially the same words to graduating Seniors.  They are words I hope are filled with meaning, hope, pride, and joy.  

This year is different, however, and you are a class like no other.  Don’t get me wrong, you are similar in many ways to the other groups who have graduated while I have been at EAB.  Just like those classes, you are great kids who love your school and your classmates. Just like the other graduates, you are filled with promise and hope.  Just like them you are excited to enter the next phase of your life and ready to take on the world.  Still, you are a class like no other.  

In his book 1776, David McCullough quotes Abigail Adams, who, when speaking about George Washington states, “Consternation is a good man’s shining time.” In his book, The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw tells us that the hardship and suffering caused by the Great Depression and World War II allowed the Americans who lived through those times to show their best when their best was needed and this made the great.  The point is that sometimes struggle and loss bring out the best in people and allow them to rise to the moment with courage and grace.   Bair, what does any of that have to do with us, you might ask. 

Please understand that I’m not saying that what you have gone through this semester somehow equates to fighting the Nazis or living through the crushing poverty of the Great Depression.  In the face of the tremendous suffering wrought by the coronavirus, you know how lucky you are and how good you have it. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that you have lost a lot in the past 10 weeks and have not gotten to be a part of many of the traditions and rites of passage that make the last weeks at EAB truly memorable.  You have suffered, and through that suffering you have defined yourselves in a way no other class from EAB ever has.  

I imagine there were times in the past months when you were scared, frustrated, and didn’t want to get out of bed.  But you got out of bed and got on with it. 

I imagine there were times when you didn’t want to do the work in front of you and couldn’t see the point of it all.  But you pulled yourself together and took care of your business. 

I imagine there were times when you wanted to shut the door and close out the world.  Instead, you took care of each other, loved each other, and helped each other to get through this ordeal together.  

You see that in this unprecedented time you have had the opportunity to demonstrate all of the virtues that we hope for in all EAB Students in a way that no other class has had the opportunity to do. And with that opportunity you have been responsible, resilient, courageous, and, most importantly, compassionate.  You have demonstrated, as no other class ever could, what makes The American School of Brasilia great.  As your principal, I thank you.  

As you know, I have three young kids and for that reason I have watched Frozen II many, many times.  I am a fan.  In the movie, the snowman, Olaf, makes the point that water has memory, and, ultimately, that memory saves Olaf in the end.  Like water, schools have memory and your contribution to the EAB Story in the year 2020, the year when you overcame the coronavirus and demonstrated with great clarity all that makes EAB great, will live in that memory and in the EAB Culture forever.  

But what about tonight?  Well, tonight you earn EAB’s greatest honor when you receive the High School Diploma from the American School of Brasília.  Our diploma symbolizes the successful completion of a comprehensive educational program that embodies what we believe as educators and what EAB stands for as an institution. Tonight we celebrate you for earning this honor. 

So enjoy today and enjoy this special time in your life.  But while you celebrate what has been accomplished, don’t be fooled into thinking you did it alone.  For as much as this ceremony is a celebration of today and the possibility of tomorrow, it is also a night to honor those who helped you along the way.  You are here tonight not only due to your talent and hard work, but also because you had people around you – teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, family and especially parents – who gave you support, guided you when you erred, celebrated when you won and loved you when you failed.  They were with you every step of the way and so as you look to the future please be sure to honor your past and those who helped you arrive at where you are today.  

In a few minutes, you will no longer be EAB students and completely out of my sphere of influence, so I am going to use my short time to make two final requests: first, PLEASE thank your teachers for the tremendous work they have done to help get you to today.  

Finally, thank the people who love you most in this world and forever will: your parents.  You will never understand how much your parents love you, and what a big moment this is for them, until you have children of your own.  So please, take a moment now to thank your parents.  

And now you head out into the world.  You are ready.  What’s more, I speak on behalf of the entire High School Faculty when I say that we are proud of you, proud of who you are, proud of what you have accomplished, and thankful that we got to share this important time in your lives with you.  

And as you now strike out to make your way in the world we hope for you happiness.  We hope for you love. We hope for you peace and joy.  We hope for you passion and purpose.  We hope you accomplish your heart’s desire.  We hope you find the courage within yourself to be kind and the strength to be persistent. Finally, we hope – we believe – you will continue to represent this school well and that throughout your lives you will leave each place you touch a bit better for your having been there.  

Congratulations, EAB Class of 2020!

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