Yes, you are special

The text of my speech to the graduating class of 2015, delivered on June 6, 2015.

Superintendent Bodie, Principal Janger, school committee colleagues, members of the Arlington faculty and staff, family and friends of our distinguished graduating class, and members of the Arlington High Class of 2015, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you this afternoon.

I come to you as a member of the Class of 1970, Northport High School, Long Island, New York. Although my memory of my graduation day is sweet and sour vivid, I remember absolutely nothing about any graduation speeches.

I remember graduating on a late-June day with a vague suggestion of thunderstorms, so the ceremony moved indoors. Our class of 600-plus Tigers sat on the stage of the high school auditorium, packed onto flimsy folding chairs, with less legroom than coach passengers on a discount airline. In 98 degree heat, with 98 percent humidity, I was at least 500 seats back in the alphabetical ghetto. We were so far back, that if the scenery from the spring musical were to come crashing down from the ceiling, we would have been at least four rows behind the disaster.

I don’t know what they said, but those who spoke at my graduation had front row seats and plenty of legroom. If only I took the high school thing more seriously. If only I worked with the extraordinary intensity required to reach the top of a class of more than 600 students, I could have had a great seat and an audience. I had graduation speaker envy.

I didn’t get to speak at my graduation, but I get to speak at yours. If you, too, have graduation speaker envy, if you wish you were at this podium, all you need to do is get elected to the school committee, then get your colleagues to elect you to be their chair. I guarantee it is much easier than finishing first or second in your class.

If I am to find joy in subjecting you to my speaking, I thought it only fair that I put in the effort I lacked in high school, and deliver a speech that will give you the fond memories that were absent from my own graduation ceremony. So, I did what any modern researcher would do. I consulted the Internet.

I talked to Siri, and typed to Google, and my query for memorable speeches kept bringing me back to 2012, when a Wellesley English teacher named Dave went viral by saying:

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you are nothing special.

How awful. I am grateful for having forgettable speakers, rather than remembering a highly publicized and viral declaration of “You’re not special,” or even worse, the plagiarized and watered-down version of this speech delivered by a Florida principal. Even if it is true, which I doubt, who wants the Internet to be filled with reminders of this pronouncement on your graduating class? Who wants that memory?

I don’t remember my graduation speakers, but I do remember my third grade teacher, Florence E. Briggs. I remember being warned how strict she was, but her classroom was a magical place. She was a veteran teacher, and her classroom was overflowing with 35 years worth of stuff she collected in her teaching career. In the back corner of her classroom was a puppet stage, and we made papier-mâché puppets.

Miss Briggs thought it was essential for every third grader who passed through her classroom to know how to spell the word, “constitution,” and that word remained on the weekly spelling test until everyone in the class got it right.

I don’t remember my graduation speakers, but I cherish my memories of Miss Briggs.

I don’t remember my graduation speakers, but my fifth grade teacher, Richard Hottinger, was something of a rebel and an outcast. Our classroom was a man cave, somewhere beyond the basement. It was a five minute walk to the rest of the school, following a habitrail past the fallout shelter and the boiler room. We loved it. We had a kiln, and we made pottery. It was a joy to come to school every day.

While my second grade teacher thought children should spend their school days copying endless text into those black and white hard cover notebooks, Mr. Hottinger was opposed to any such drudgery. When confronted by multiple school district forms asking for his date of birth, he lost patience and started making up different dates. Of course, when the office provided us with his alleged birthday, the surprise party we planned was much more of a surprise than we anticipated.

I don’t remember my graduation speakers, but I cherish my memories of Mr. Hottinger.

Howard Faulkner, whose handwriting was worse than mine, had the audacity to give me a D in penmanship on four consecutive report cards. He was with us in Room C-116, Northport Junior High School, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As with everyone alive at the time, November 22, 1963 is sharply engraved in our memories.

I don’t remember my graduation speakers, but I have many great memories of my teachers. I answered a geometry question correctly, and James Morrissey tossed me a Euclidian lollipop. Mildred Ross introduced me to Holden Caulfield. Coach Robert Krapf, in tune with our group of disengaged seniors, took our class onto the field and taught us how to hit golf balls. My summer of Driver Ed with Coach John Donarummo is a joyous memory of sunshine and rock and roll. Katherine Lamprecht, my journalism teacher, taught me the skills I used to earn a living writing for my local newspaper. Winston Jay was my social studies teacher in 1967; he taught us the joys of the Boston Red Sox and never let us forget that Yaz was from Long Island. Michael Barbera, my social studies teacher in 1968, got elected as a delegate to the tumultuous Democratic National Convention.

Nobody in the history of chemistry taught it better than Gerry Kass. Susan Flego never met an animal she didn’t want to dissect, and within three weeks of being in her biology class I knew my mother’s dreams for my medical career could never become a reality.

I cherish these memories. They all became a part of who I am today. And, yes, they were all very special.

Just like you.

Dave from Wellesley argued, that if everyone gets a trophy, if everyone is special, then no one is.

That’s just wrong.

I am here to tell you, every one of you who receives our diploma today, you are special.

And so am I.

I know I am special every morning, because my cat wakes me up with urgency, affection, and hope; as she is heavily invested in my getting out of bed and opening a can of cat food. But she’s a cat, and being special in her eyes is cyclical. Special diminishes sharply once she is fed, and takes the shape of an exponential curve as dinnertime approaches. By the time it becomes 6 p.m., I am truly special again.

For special is not an absolute term, except in very rare cases; some folks like the President of the United States and David Ortiz are universally special. But for all the rest of us, special is a relative term, and we earn that honor with our daily lives.

Yes, one of the joys of teaching is that it propels you to the front of the line for special… actually it goes on beyond special to immortality. Those teachers I mentioned live beyond their years, they are with us here today, and their influence extends to all who know me.

You, too, have so many experiences, memories, stories of the teachers and classmates who fill your heart and soul. It’s OK to forget today’s speakers, but cherish and honor the memories from our schools and those we hired to fill you with our hopes and dreams.

And every day, aspire to be a special person in another life.

Marry your best friend.

Be a loving parent.

Adopt a shelter dog or cat.

Teach a child.

Commit a crazy, unsolicited, unnecessary, wonderful act of kindness. Often.

And enjoy this beautiful, wonderful, special day that will forever be one of the cherished milestones of your life.

Thank you, and congratulations on your graduation.

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