Headmaster’s Thoughts – June 2006

Headmaster’s Graduation Speech – May 24, 2006

Let me first also congratulate the class of 2006. A very bright and challenging class. They consume more chewing gum and have more opinions than any senior class I have taught. They are masters of distraction. Brilliant at it, one might say. I go into an Ethics class with a carefully prepared lesson plan, and, somehow or other, they turn the conversation around so that we are discussing a school-related matter or some pressing conundrum in pop culture. This is a class that demands honesty and won’t take evasion. They challenge and question. I am sure you are even more proud of them than we are. But this is not a quiet class! They will loudly confront the world.

I should also apologize to the class because I realize that, apart from your outstanding Valedictorian and Salutatorian and your masters of ceremonies, to all intents and purposes I am your graduation speaker. We discussed together whether we should have a speaker whom none of you knew, and you decided against it.

At least I know you.

But I want to tell you about someone who I feel as though I don’t know, who is me at your age or younger.

Recently, Jayme and I moved to the City from a home that we had occupied for over 25 years. What happens when you move is that you clean out the old house. And I found, while sorting through things, a small box of photos, old report cards, and other minor memorabilia from the time when I was a schoolboy. It was fun reading. I felt as though I was reading about a distant relative.

On browning fading old newsprint I found a quirky article that the young Ronnie had written for a local newspaper recounting his experiences as a road traffic census taker. It reads pretty well with a wry sense of humor and a real quality of irony. For a week, this schoolboy and his friends had an official job, paid for by the local council, counting cars on London’s Edgware Road, and he used the opportunity to learn about human nature. He wrote “Polling Station” on a chalk board in front of the hut the boys were counting cars from and had passers-by register on voting slips that included lollipop wrappers and used bus tickets.

Pushing the envelope a bit more, he wrote, in very large letters, “Ye Olde Kilburn Toll Gate: 2s 6d” and turned away a number of car drivers who were quite willing to give two shillings and sixpence (about a dollar) to a sixteen-year-old jean-wearing schoolboy. He wrote about the odd people who traveled the Edgware Road–the man cycling with a mattress on the back of his bicycle, the woman who walked a non-existent dog at the end of an empty leash–and he wrote with a style that I wish I still had. But I don’t; we are not the same person.

Back to the memory box. There are photographs of an even younger me in female clothes, playing Ophelia in Hamlet. Jayme threatens to blow up this photograph and hang it in the school. No one would recognize me. In those days, at an all-male school, the younger students played the female roles in school plays without any question as to sexual orientation. More innocent times perhaps, but if your voice had not broken and you wanted to be in the school play, you had a girl’s part. I looked suitably mad in Ophelia’s mad scene.

Another part of the box included my report cards. Report cards are good to keep because you see the development. I started off at Kilburn Grammar School at age 11 literally bottom of the class in Religious Knowledge with a D, but, I don’t know how (probably one test), I came top the next term with an A, along with the teacher’s wry comment: “Improvement noted.” I had forgotten that the Math teacher wrote, in the spring of 1958, that I “had no need to worry.” I must have struck him as a nervous wreck because the same teacher writes in the very next report card that I had “less tendency to worry” and was “gaining confidence.”

I will spare you further details about the package of memorabilia I found. The great thing is that there is nothing negative in it. You don’t keep bad mementos. There are no clippings of the many mistakes I made. I have nice group pictures of teams and friends, postcards from girlfriends and class pictures, but no remembrances of the really awkward and dumb things I did. No sad letters of rejection, no record of mortifying moments with girlfriends or the occasions when my teachers rightly called me a pompous ass, or photographs of disasters. Thank heavens they didn’t have clever cameras in phones then, to capture embarrassing catastrophes.

And, of course, the most frequent and important photos and letters in the box are about my family. Lots of pictures of my parents and sisters, but also pictures with cousins whom I haven’t seen for too long and family friends who probably are with us no more.

Which all leads me to that horrible moment when the boring graduation speaker starts giving advice.

First, I recommend you keep a memory box. Keep the graduation photos and the prom photos and the yearbook and the essays you are proud of, the report cards and the letters people wrote to you. Because many years later, as in my case, you can rather self-indulgently try and connect with who you were, perhaps in a way of understanding who you now are.

Secondly, and relatedly, I recommend that you take more time to appreciate the love and support of the people who will star in your memory box and who will fill it with the most meaningful and satisfying photos and letters. That, of course, is your family.

Having done this job for 37 years and worked with young people who grew up like me and looked back, I believe that we tend at school age to discount the value of family. As a teenager, I don’t think I appreciated my family enough or knew how important to me they were. But the longer I do this, the more I watch what happens, the more I realize how underplayed the concept of family is.

It seems almost fashionable nowadays to dismiss the importance of family. We even use words to describe families that we should only use about cars. We use that horrendous word “dysfunctional.” A car may be dysfunctional, but families are families; they may be happy or not so happy, but one should not use words to describe them as though they were pieces of machinery.

This graduation, therefore, should be an appreciation of past and future, but mostly it should be an appreciation of family, your family. They, not us at the school, got you here, and while we may be saying goodbye in this ritualistic ceremony, they never do. No matter how many awards you win or don’t win, how many schools you go to, and how many jobs you succeed in or fail at, your family stays your family.

Unfortunately, the American family seems lately under siege. There are all these distractions to prevent us communicating in real English to our immediate family–television, video games, cell phones, e-mail, My Space, etc. These are instruments of disengagement. Every year technology gives you more ways to avoid talking to your parents and even more ways of avoiding the cherished moments that hopefully will get to your memory box.

As you know, the great rapper Ice T came to York this year and taught Rap School. He is a remarkably compassionate and insightful man. In one of the preliminary sessions he taught the 6th grade for a few hours. He asked one little 6th grader how she was doing and what was happening in her life, and she told him how she liked and enjoyed the company of her cool parents. His reaction was immediate. It was clever and nostalgic. “Cool parents who you get on well with? That’s good,” he said, “but odd!”

He was right. It is odd to proclaim respect for your parents. But he was also right that it is good. Every day, teachers see parents stand behind their children with an irrational love that cannot be explained logically. I really respect such love and, trust me, it grows less odd as we grow older. As time passes, we appreciate our parents more; we really do get smarter.

My advice is to be like the 6th grader who has not yet learned how odd she sounds, to continue to cherish your family in spite of the availability of chat groups on the web, or hands-free Bluetooth communications with your best friends, or the parties that get you home too late to see your parents.

Before you know it–and this part of your life goes pretty quickly–you will be courting, marrying, and having lives and maybe kids of your own. Then like me, I hope you start a box of each child’s achievements, you irrationally smother them with love, and you rightfully bridle at any suggest that their problems should be compared to the functioning of a car engine. I hope in turn you experience the wonderful irrationality of love for your own child, and at that moment, that very moment, you will also realize how much you owe to your own parents.

So let us turn to what we do at graduation: my wife and our principal, Mr. Durnford, help me give you your diploma and we take a picture of each one of you getting your diploma. It will be a large glossy so you get it for your memory box. Ms. Watz and Ms. Schwartz are the school photographers who help ensure this photo is preservable. After graduation, we move to the school gym next door in your graduation gowns, and there will be many more opportunities for your families to take pictures. We hope they will join us in some refreshment and that you will not run off with your friends but stay and talk to the people who got you here and will take you hereafter. Then we–the school, that is–part company. Some of your friends part. Never again will the class be together. But don’t despair; remember the Math teacher who told me “not to worry too much, because it tends to work out,” and the Religious Knowledge teacher who explained that overall life does have “improvement noted” stamped on it. Mistakes happen, but we are remembered for our successes. Things get better, and we are remembered for our triumphs. Every day will get more exciting, and your parents are here to help you make that happen. Today is a success, a great day for you, and I hope you remember some part of it.

Thank you for listening to me. Now let’s see if we can get each row their diplomas as we did in rehearsal.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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