Grad Speech: The Toolbox

I was asked to deliver the graduation speech at my school this year. The following is the text from which I frequently diverted.

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2014, congratulations!

During your speeches and afterward, you may thank the teachers who taught you this year. But as graduates of ISL, you are the product of our school community, a community that includes bus drivers and cafeteria staff, preschool and PYP, administration and athletics. Please, a round of applause to thank the many people whose combined efforts brought you here today.

And graduates, let’s not get carried away with ourselves! Do you know who the true heroes are, today? Not you! They are the parents and family who raised you. A round of applause for your families, please.

You may be wondering about something. I’m dressed as a builder because, just like you, I have a toolbox. This is the toolbox of skills you’ve acquired here at ISL. Let me share them with you.

We are all a little bit screwy in the head. We each have our faults. But you, class of 2014, have learned how to use your screwiness to hold yourselves together. To be friends. Friendship is like a screwdriver. It uses our screwy nature to hold us together. Look around you: these are people with whom you have nothing in common, and yet you are friends. In the coming decades, you’ll make friends who study at the same university, who work at the same job, or who live in the same building. But the friends you have now: these are the people who love you when they have no reason to. A screwdriver. Friendship.

Graduates, when I think about the great things you’ve done during your time at ISL, what comes to mind aren’t math projects or essays. Instead, I remember the great events you organized, like the Run for the Kids, the fundraiser for retired athletes, the art competition, and all those student council activities. And of course, the prom last night. These are things you created because you wanted to help others. You are caring people. These things you did were empathy in action. Just like you have empathy in your toolbox, I have empathy in mine. This is a circuit tester. Just like the circuit tester allows you to see if there is electricity in a wire, empathy allows you to see the humanity inside other people. Never forget that other people are people too.

This is a hammer. It can be used to nail things together. Similarly, our ability to communicate holds us together — as family, as friends, and as a community. But look at the claw on the other end. The hammer can also be used to tear things apart. In the same way, language allows us to spread hatred, jealousy, bigotry, and fear. Just like a hammer, your ability to communicate is a tool. I urge you: use your words to make the world a friendlier, happier place.

The thing I will remember most about you guys is your willingness to try new things. Think of Tim and Andrea, starting school here at the beginning of grade 11, or Boris, in grade 12. Those were huge risks! Every exam you wrote, every university application you submitted, and every project you began was a risk. I remember sitting at an Ethiopian restaurant in Geneva with Lim, Paul, Mark, and Boris and thinking: on the day before our visit to CERN do we really want to eat this strange food… with our hands? Graduates, I hope you continue to take risks — but do it wisely. Be smart, and don’t hurt yourself. These are my safety glasses.

And my last tool. This…. is very heavy. According to research by the UK Health Forum, obesity rates in Europe are rising quickly. By 2030, eighty percent of Polish, Spanish, and Czech men will be considered overweight, with similar trends for women. Here in Latvia, those rates are 87% for men and 72% for women. Being overweight is dangerous. Your risk of coronary heart disease, type two diabetes, and some kinds of cancer is 60% higher. Of course, obesity is not a simple issue, and there are serious health problems associated with being underweight, too. But the key is to stay fit. Eat well and exercise! Those activities you did for CAS? Keep doing them! I urge you, find a balance in your life that includes time for exercise, as well as passive recreation and work.

Graduates, you have a powerful toolbox of skills: friendship, empathy, communication, risk-taking, and physical activity. Practice using these skills every day. Make us proud, graduates, and congratulations.

The last bit of advice was greeted with titters from the audience, perhaps because I’m marathon-trim these days. I don’t regret it, though — obesity is a gathering storm for Europe and the rest of the world.

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