Headmaster’s Thoughts – June 2013

[Headmaster Ronald Stewart delivered the following graduation speech on May 22, 2013. The guest speakers at the Commencement Exercises were Academy Award winners Mr. Joel Coen and Ms. Frances McDormand.]

I, too, would like to congratulate the class of 2013. This is a happy occasion, and all of us wish you every success in the future. I have personally enjoyed teaching you and getting your opinions on what you would do with runaway trolley cars and exploding cave explorers or spelunkers. You see the trolley going down the hill out of control, and you could either sit on your hands and do nothing and allow five people on the track to die, or you could pert it into a siding and only kill one. As with life after graduation, sometimes it is very difficult to know which course to choose.

I am very conscious that, after you get your diplomas, I am to be followed by two Oscar winners, so I definitely want to be brief. It is on occasions like this that one has to control the emotion to tear up one’s prepared notes and throw them in the air (I really like that idea) and say some nonsense about “let me get away from my prepared speech and tell you the real stuff.”(Tears up notes.) If our Valedictorian has any intention of actually doing this, let me urge you against it, Sam. (Produces new speech from pocket.) You can say the “real stuff” just as well in a written speech without the melodramatic flourish.

I went to a school where they taught us elocution. One piece of advice the teachers gave us there was to imagine the audience naked if we were nervous about making a speech. I am often a contrarian—you may have noticed this in our Ethics classes—so I always was nervous that I would stand up for my speech and the audience would be dressed and I would be the only one naked. So that advice didn’t work. I remember one teacher said that you should never eat peanut butter before a speech; that makes sense. And you were supposed to practice your speech in front of your closest friend, which in my case meant a mirror.

Even after those pointers on elocution, I found that I liked to give speeches (hard to believe, I know), and so I went into the speech-making business as a living. That meant being a criminal trial lawyer because, in my day, there were two safe routes: a lawyer, if you were mediocre in science; and a doctor, if you were strong in science. You could rely on a decent income and you made your parents pretty happy.

I actually enjoyed being a lawyer until one day, and Jayme was very instrumental here, I realized I just did not want to defend any more murderers. In fact, my success at defending one particular murderer became a burden. Everyone else who knew me seemed happy for me that I had done well in the case, and I felt just plain awful. So I went back to the basics. What I loved to do was give speeches, presentations, and teach, if you will. And that led me here, 44 years in education, running a school, and doing what I love, without having to defend quite so many criminals. And working with your class and interacting with graduating classes such as yours has made it an extremely enjoyable 44 years. So my first suggestion to you from all this is to find out what you really love to do and to stick to that love, even though it may mean changing course every now and again.

My second suggestion is to appreciate and relish your family.

These wonderful and very American institutions called graduations are primarily celebrations for your family. You have had graduations, and hopefully you will have several more when you get undergraduate and graduate degrees. The constant is your family. They were there, they are here, and they will be there. Today, they are not here by Skype or by text or by tweet. They are here physically. This is a family day!

Your relationship with your family will inevitably change now that you are about to have freedoms that you have never had before. So I urge you to appreciate them, to treasure the bonds, and to work to always improve that relationship because as you move independently through life, your parents will always be worrying about you, will always be looking forward to seeing you, and will always try to be there for you in the best ways they know how. And if you want to be really happy, the best suggestion I can give is to stay connected with them and enjoy that unique relationship between parent and child.

Well, although I mentioned I like making speeches, I like to make brief ones when my wife is looking at me impatiently.

And yet, the spelunking example is still one of my favorites: A fat man is stuck in the cave tunnel blocking your exit as the waters rise, but you have a stick of dynamite. What do you do?

No, I have to control myself… though it is sometimes hard for me to stop doing the things I love to do. I hope you follow the right path and make the right (sometimes difficult) choices to find the things you love to do, too. I sincerely wish you every success. Thank you for listening; you were never this quiet in my class.

With the help of my wife and Ms. Rooney, let us give you your diplomas, just as we rehearsed.

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

“Headmaster’s Thoughts” for previous months are archived in the section More News. You may access additional months by clicking Headmaster’s Thoughts Archives on the same page.