Graduation Speeches

While we all celebrate the changing seasons differently, and have different aspects of them that speak to us individually, late spring for me has always been about graduation season –– graduation speeches in particular. I confess, I have an unusual interest, and enthusiasm for, graduation speeches. While I know they tend to be the butt of jokes with people commenting on their length, false sincerity, or the simple fact that, even the speakers themselves, often comment that they are quickly forgotten and formulaic.

Now, while I agree, many do fall into this stereotype, I have also found some to be absolutely amazing, and capable of withstanding the test of time. These are the speeches I love, and I, in fact, keep a running list of them. The challenge for speakers is the charge to be “inspirational”, and that is a high bar to achieve, but, oh, when they meet the moment, they can be unforgettable. Some are well known –– Steve Jobs’ speech to the Stanford University Graduating Class of 2005, during which he shares three stories from his life that led to his success. Others became internet sensations like David Foster Wallace’s 2013 speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College entitled “This is Water”, and Jim Ryan’s (the then Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education) speech to the graduating class of 2016 entitled “Wait, What?”, that went so viral as to get published and turned into a book. Dr. Ryan is now the President of the University of Virginia, and I have found myself anxiously awaiting his subsequent public speaking engagements. 

Admittedly, I didn’t attend any of these graduations in person which means I missed the full impact and experience of the words and delivery, but every once in awhile I do get to enjoy an inspirational graduation moment in person. In 2016, Tasneem Ebrahim, a Crown Prince Scholar from Bahrain, spoke at Hun’s graduation ceremony, and it was this one I came back to this year. Yes, these aren’t one hit wonders for me, I replay them like my favorite Rolling Stones albums. In my world, they are considered classics. This year, however, I found myself watching and listening to Tasneem’s speech again remembering how strongly I felt about it then, but realizing how impactful it would be today. Tasneem shared her experience as a Muslim student coming to the US, and the pressure she felt to stay true to herself while wearing her hijab, which she called her “religious identify flag on her head.” Tasneem spoke eloquently about how diversity is not “some fancy decoration in your house” that you can’t get too close to, but how it is your “toolbox,” there to make your life better and fuller. Again, these words have never been truer or more helpful in navigating our present. 

Tasneem, Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Jim Ryan and so many others have caused me to stop and think, and yes they have also inspired me. Their words met the moment for me, and I have kept them, and returned to them when I have been in need of inspiration. We can’t always wait until late May for our annual dose of inspiration, and so I keep these words and stories handy. I quietly score them as one would an Olympic event on the power of the message, the tone, delivery, authenticity, and substance. I rate them on how well the words and the presentation captured my attention, and in my mind, met the moment. As schools celebrate and recommit to the value of communication as an essential skill, the traditional graduation speech stands as an example of the power of communication. When the communication challenge is the greatest, when the charge is to inspire and to acknowledge a significant life moment, many of our graduation speakers rise to the occasion, and deliver words that will hold lasting value for those lucky enough to be there, or to stumble across them on the internet.

I love being inspired, and admire those who possess that skill. I can’t wait until graduation on the off chance that I will get that moment again.

Balancing the Books is a blog written by Associate Head of School Steve Bristol. In this blog, he'll share his insights into the independent school world and the admission process.

Mr. Bristol joined The Hun School community in 2010, after working as a consultant for Independent Schools for several years. Before that, he served as an English teacher, coach, dorm head, and administrator. A boarding school graduate himself, Mr. Bristol attended Westminster School in Simsbury, CT. He holds a B.A. from Hamilton College and a M.S.Ed in School Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.