Superintendent remarks at graduation

posted Jun 21, 2019, 1:02 PM by Dave Fournier

Greetings, BAHS Class of 2019, Parents, Friends, Family and RSU 71 Staff Members and Board of Directors,

The first time I was invited to give a graduation speech was in 1997 after having left Georges Valley High School, where I had taught English, to take over the principalship at the middle school that sat across the playing fields in Thomaston.  I was deeply honored to have been invited back by my former students to be their class speaker; but I took the honour rather too seriously and crafted a lecture reminiscent of the deep long lectures I’d loved at Harvard Divinity School, where I’d become certified to teach high school English through its program in Religion and Secondary Education.  The graduating class’s class motto was “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” a famous saying from Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and reputed author of the Tao Te Ching.  I gave the speech all my might on the night before graduation and it was way too long. Today I speak to you as the superintendent of schools for RSU 71 and as your former high school principal and promise that I learned an important lesson that I’ve taken into account on this important day,  23 years later. I’ll be a brief 5 minutes.

We will miss this supremely talented class, its singing, its acting, its playing, deep thinking, sense of humor, exceptional accomplishment in science and writing and the visual arts, its talent in the trades, its service to the school and community, its kindness and charmingly affectionate and respectful ways with one another and even with adults. We hope you will come back to see us and your alma mater often.

The central metaphors I wish to consider today are only three, the first mountain, the second mountain and the valley in between. They are borrowed from a new book by one of my favorite modern writers, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the NYT.  He describes the first mountain as being about individualism, a long process of self-discovery and self-promotion in which you rack up grades and credits, individual accomplishments and recommendations, resumes and medals, cords, stoles and , and many colorful feathers in your cap, as witnessed by the many graduates who today will barely be able to walk on stage from the weight of their accomplishments. Accolades and special accoutrements  or not every single  one of you has successfully made it to the top of the first mountain, a long and arduous climb to graduation after 13 or more years in public education, an accomplishment that  required a lot of very hard work. It has I hope led to the happiness I hope you all feel today, and know you all deserve, a warm inner bubbling feeling that comes from having successfully jumped through the many hoops that were set before you, to the satisfaction of your teachers, administrators, parents, school board and community. We have had high expectations of you.  You indeed met them and we are all here to recognize and congratulate these accomplishments.

The second mountain, according to Brooks,  is not so much about self-fulfillment, not so much about happiness in self-achievement and acquisition and more about the joy of forgetting yourself altogether. Attaining a deep calm joy derives from giving yourself altogether away through commitment to a cause or a person or a faith or institution or philosophy. OR to a career that will take all the talent and love and energy and time you can muster. On the second mountain you do not ask “What is in it for me?” or “How will this impact my GPA?” Rather, it is about how can I match my particular interests, talents, idiosyncrasies and proclivities to strengthen something that  needs strengthening in this world.

A couple of years ago at a graduation speech at Rockland’s MCST the keynote speaker was Peter Horch of Horch Roofing. Mr. Horch described finding his true calling when he had made time, at the very end of a very long hard day of work to pull his truck into the driveway of an elderly woman who lived alone and had a long-standing plumbing problem that badly needed fixing.  He pulled his tired self out of the truck and found that the sheer joy the old woman conveyed on her face and in her voice as she opened the door was a defining and transformational moment. Her joy energized him and awakened his own joy at having a skill set that was badly needed, not only by this woman, he realized in that moment, but by an entire community of people. He realized at that moment that he was indeed in possession of  a set of skills which he enjoyed using and that were badly needed. Since that moment he has built a very successful and remunerative business and is living a good life that is both profitable to him and of service to his community. “How can I make my family or community or world better because of the energy and interest I bring to solving problems and answering a call to duty and to service?” This is the question that gets answered on the second mountain.

The third metaphor is the valley, Brook’s description of the times when life hits you with terrible blows. It could be the death of a beloved friend or family member.  It could be a cancer diagnosis or health issue that precludes your doing the very thing you are best at. It could be the loss of a job or divorce or a bad break-up or addiction or indebtedness or emerging mental health crises that consumes you or one you love in a valley of darkness, sadness and depression. The valley is known by tragedy or failure of some kind.

Brooks argues that people usually have to go through some sort of a valley in order to make it to the second mountain.

I would argue instead that many of you already know all about life in the valley because many of you have been forcibly and repeatedly kicked right down the first mountain and into the valley, by circumstances beyond your control, such as the death of a friend or family member, or by poverty or the need to babysit instead of study, work instead of playing on a team or singing on a stage.

When I was climbing the first mountain during my own growing up years I often had to make what seemed like the tough choice to be purposely selfish on occasion, by hiding out at school or in the public library, where I couldn’t be hunted down, and also by working at a laundromat starting at age 14 so that I could get my homework done in relative peace, and have money to contribute to the family.  I had a wonderful and loving family with parents who strongly believed in service and in the social gospel of love, but it was through willingful selfishness that I carved out a place for personal achievement that ended up in the long run -- four degrees and several continents later -- being a source of great strength to a family I still love unequivocally . The big old leaky drafty home of my childhood was filled with children -- some adopted, some biological, some foster,  some wondering waifs, some international students -- who regularly found their way to our table, along with financially struggling college students from the nearby Framingham State who were thankful for a cheap place to stay -- and with adults the like of Raoul, AKA “Rocky” LaRocque, a talented artist whom my parents worked hard to get out of prison on parole. He later married a nun in Fall River Massachusett and we all went to the wedding. I share a couple of personal details as a way of illustrating that sometimes the very things that seem to trip you up, that seem to impede personal progress, end being the best of all training grounds for the growing of skills, skills such as constitutional endurance, depth of understanding and to mix metaphors, an ability to steer your ship successfully through turbulent waters. At the end of the day it hasn’t been the degrees I earned -- although I am grateful for them and found that they have helped me a great deal. You can take the skills that you may not wish to have had to develop prematurely and turn them into your strongest assets.

And so I conclude, within the five minutes promised, with three things:

  1. I congratulate you and wish you true happiness at this the pinnacle of your thirteen-year hike to the high school graduation, the summit of your first mountain.  

  2. I wish you -- during any valleys and second mountain hikes that lay ahead -- fortitude and the memory that you have been deeply loved by all of us present here today, who believe in you, who have given of ourselves for you, and who have loved you with whatever we have had to give, and in spite of our own limitations.  

  3. And 3, down the road a little way,  I wish you the joy of reaching a second mountain summit of self-forgetting, a time when all that you are and all that you know gushes forth with great joy in a distinctive life unique to you, a life of service, fulfillment and deep commitment.  

Thank you.

-Presented by Mary Alice McLean, Superintendent