It is high school graduation season, and as the head of a school, it is my responsibility and privilege to say a few words to students and parents to mark the occasion.
More than any other event, high school graduation marks the end of childhood in our society, and the beginning of making your own way in the world. So what would you say to young people who have finished 13 years in custodial education under the watchful eye of parents and teachers, as they step into their own lives for the first time?
Here is what I shared with our students and parents at our graduation at Morven Park last Sunday:
“Seniors, welcome to your adult life. More than anything, I think that is what graduation from high school signifies to the larger world.
I’ve been thinking about what I could say that might be useful to you today, given that I have been saying things to you since September (and before). I hope to offer you something new to think about this afternoon.
There are two ways you can spend your adult life. You can try to be what other people want you to be (or what you think they want you to be), or you can choose the principles by which you will live and model those principles for others. As your experiences grow, you may decide to revise or replace your principles.
How others treat you will be a reflection of how you treat them. This may seem obvious, and is similar to The Golden Rule, but the idea is more powerful than it seems. Since people base their response to you on how you choose to conduct yourself, you have more power to influence others than you can imagine. You earn this influence over time.
Possibly even more importantly, you also have a choice of what you reflect back to others in response to how they treat you. If you are conscious and measured about how you respond, you will have and you will be able to display a sense of calm and balance. With this power over yourself, you will be the sort of person others want to emulate.
In brief, if you can model certain principles of conduct, and you can regulate your own responses, over time you will change the people around you. And in doing so, you will have a direct and positive effect on your world.
Inevitably, you will come across some who do not respond to kindness with kindness, or to reason with reason. If you have made an honest effort, treating them as reasonable people who are like you, and they still fail to respond in kind, you have the freedom to leave them behind. I urge you to do so early and often.
Comparing yourself to other people will usually make you unhappy, because you can always find people who appear to have more than you. There are two ways, however, in which comparison can improve your awareness and your happiness.
First, before deciding whether your current situation is good or bad, ask yourself “Compared to what?” If you take a broad or a historical perspective, you will see that you have compelling reasons to be grateful every day. Even simple things like clean water, quality food, medical care, and a safe neighborhood are beyond the reach of most people on this planet. The opportunities you have for education and self-determination are beyond the reach of most people in this country.
Second, social comparisons that lead you to raise your own expectations for yourself and to work to become better at what you do can bring good into your life. The key is to want to become better for yourself, not simply to be better than someone else.
While college marks the beginning of your independent life, it also means a significant change for your parents. They have spent every day of the last 18 years concerned with your well-being. As I noted above, how you conduct yourself will shape how they experience this transition.
Seniors and underclassmen, I have been very impressed by your thoughtfulness, conversations, and work this year. Your final presentations, in particular, were impressive and educational, even for a highly educated audience. In many ways, you are far beyond where your teachers and parents were at this point in their lives. Having worked with you over the past year, I am optimistic about what you will contribute.
Your experience everyday—your life—is a reflection of how you choose to engage with the people around you. This puts the power for positive change squarely in your hands.”
This article was published in Loudoun Now on June 17, 2016.