To all of our special guests, faculty, administration, parents, friends, and family members – we thank you for your pride and presence as we celebrate this, our 24th commencement exercises for the class of 2017.
First, my sincere gratitude to Ambassador Jones for your words and your presence in our graduation ceremony today. This is reflective of the role the U.S. Embassy plays as our key partner here in Poland. The American School of Warsaw highly values its powerful sense of community and your participation in our midst confirms once again the commitment we all make as a global village to the children we nurture and educate.
Mr. Sheehan, you opened our event eloquently, confirming our handshake yesterday that noted a job well done in preparing this class for their final moments. You are proud of them and, in return, they honor your leadership, guidance, and friendship.
Katherine and Penelope, thank you for representing your classmates so eloquently. You both captured the experience brilliantly, each in your own special way, and, in the process, served your friends exceptionally well.
Mr. James, my thanks for your message, one that is consistent with your mentoring in the classroom every day. You have engaged our minds and hearts in this moment and I’m quite certain that the students on this stage will take strong memories with them of your inspiration and dedication.
We know as an international community that many here on this stage have had other schooling experiences before joining us in Warsaw. Also, some have stayed with us for a time, left for a bit, and then returned. It is part of being an international school that we embrace change and transition. But, as has been my tradition in many schools over the years, I’d like to recognize some special warriors, nurtured from the beginning of their school experience entirely to graduation at ASW. As I call your names, please stand and remain standing so that we can recognize all of you as a group:
5 Students have been here since Pre-Kindergarten:
6 have been here since Kindergarten:
Josephine Teresa Villamin
Please recognize these 11 students as our Warriors of longest standing.
I offer today some final words to bring punctuation to our gathering and in preparation for that final special moment when hands will clasp and folders are presented. Everything that we have done builds to this moment — and the smiles and hugs that will follow. I dare not delay much further that important crossing.
I speak to you today about something called “grit”.
When I look across this stage, I see it in eyes filled with determination. While they might have you thinking that they are a bit bruised by exams and shattered by the emotional trauma of decisions, they are seated before you hungry. Hungry for the next adventure. Hungry for the next challenge. Hungry for all that life can bring to them.
And that is “grit.” Grit is a relatively new term on the educational spectrum. While it has always been there in the colloquial, the definition today goes like this:
Courage and resolve; strength of character
Angela Duckworth, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania, offered that there is a difference for those who have grit. She has spent more than a decade researching grit, what it is, how it is learned, and how to measure it.
Grit is something special. She writes and offers advice to those seeking grit:
“I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”
But, I have a thought about how we get grit. It requires telling a short story.
When I was a 6th grade teacher I had a student named Lori. She was a troubled teenager with a step-mother and a broken relationship with her father. She often snuck out of her home and without describing too much of this, she got into difficult situations and generally led a dangerous life. I did what I could as a teacher for her in the classroom, providing a safe harbor and a listening ear. I could see tremendous potential and always yearned for some stability in her life, but felt powerless to change her circumstances.
Fast forward 15 years. I happened to be visiting back home and bumped into Lori at a grocery store in the local community. I recognized her immediately and we smiled and exchanged greetings. Nervously, she asked if we could sit down at the nearby Starbucks and have a coffee. Over that coffee, she shared a story with me of many difficult times, following the pattern of her adolescence. Many broken relationships, many difficult years struggling through community college and then college. There were a couple of gap years taking care of her father through illness. But, the happy ending were the most recent years. She had finally married someone who nurtured her and they were raising two children together. She had become a teacher, which caused my heart to jump.
But, not just any teacher, she was working as a special needs teacher in my old school district, helping homebound children with serious medical conditions.
But, the story is not done. I was so happy for her and beamed with pride at her accomplishment. But, she paused. She pulled her wallet from her purse reached into a pocket for a folded piece of paper and as she unfolded it, I recognized it. She handed it to me and it was the tattered comment page from her report card, given to her in 1987. To the best of my recollection, I remember writing:
Lori – Never forget that you are something special. Whatever challenges, whatever you seek to accomplish, know always that you are capable and worthy of all that life can bring. Believe in yourself and always know that I believe in you.
She told me in that moment over coffee that she had carried that paper through many difficult situations. In her mind that piece of paper made all the difference.
Class of 2017, because of this experience, I can say in all honesty that Grit is all about granularity. It is the single moments of life, the grains of sand, that form the strength of our character. It is the small moments, the tiny kindnesses, the pivotal experiences, the individual connections that we make as human beings that bind us and strengthen us. Grains of sand when mixed with the water and stone of our spirit and strength form the cement that is character. You have to look back to look forward. You have to bind your experiences together and find your path in the grittiest way possible – surmounting any challenge by being true to your calling – to your passion.
From what I observed at yesterday’s awards assembly, your teachers know you as engaged learners, empowered by your passion, caring of each other, and motivated to accomplish goals that reach far beyond our walls. Faculty, counselors, and administrators seated before you are beaming with pride. As this is our profession, a moment like this carries deep satisfaction and meaning for us. We do not consider it the filling of a vessel, but more like the launching of a ship. Because of their nurturing spirit, you are now prepared for your voyage and the challenges that lurk beyond the horizon.
You’re ready. You have reached the time when others will take over guiding you until you are ready to guide others yourself. Your take your grit with you. Whether at university or in the career that follows, your world just got a whole lot bigger.
Last year was a special graduation for me owing to my son crossing a stage very similar to this one. I now plan to include my message then as a closing thought for all future graduations.
This last part is for all the parents in the audience and I know it will resonate in your hearts as it did in mine.
To the children in the Class of 2017, when we say we love you, as we often do, it is not because it is a habit, or part of routine. Today it is because in this moment, and in all others leading to it, the following is true:
- you inspire us
- you complete us, and
- you give our lives meaning
While we will feel lost without you, we’re proud of your launching, warmed by the anticipation of all that we know you are yet to become.
We love you so much!!
Go forth all of you, Class of 2017 — embrace your parents and then life!!