Tuesday, June 01, 2010


This year the graduating class chose me to be their faculty baccalaureate speaker. Below is a transcript of it. Despite some of the in-jokes between me and the kids, some of you may recognize a few of the stories incorporated into the speech, as they are all true and I'm sure I've shared them with some of you. Enjoy and thanks for reading:

When I used to live in Northampton, MA, I’d often take my three year-old daughter Hannah for walks downtown, to the library, to the pizzeria, to visit her little buddies for play dates. Anyway, one lovely summer day we had to cross the busy Main Street several times and I decided I’d teach Hannah about the traffic lights and crosswalks. I pointed out to her the signs at the edge of each major intersection that flashed a white silhouette of an adult and child walking while holding hands signaling that it is okay to cross and how that alternated with the image of an orange hand indicating that pedestrians have to wait. Hannah listened intently to my teaching and when I asked her if she had any questions, she shook her head no. So at the next crosswalk, I decided to quiz her. This was at the busiest intersection in town, in fact, where we were surrounded by a group of about twenty random strangers. Currently the orange hand was flashing so I asked her, loudly enough so that she could hear me over the traffic passing by, “When is it safe, Hannah?” And she replied boldly and assuredly, “Only when we see white people!” Fortunately, the light didn’t change for another few seconds so I was able to quickly explain to the strangers around us what that statement was actually supposed to mean.

Anyway, there is a point to this story, I promise. Dear EHS graduating class of 2010, you are among the first generation born into a world where computers, the internet and digital technology are given components of life: in education, entertainment, employment, economics, and lots of other words beginning with e. The reality is that many of us who are older just don’t have the same knowledge, skills, or experience in computers that many of you have. We see technology shaping the world in ways that we can’t always keep up with, fully comprehend, and perhaps even fear and loathe. And I know I’ve made my share of comments about Facebook and “glowing rectangle zombies” over the years but I actually envy you and admire your facility in this digital age. Part of my obsession with Facebook stems simply from my curiosity- if every one of you on this stage maintains a Facebook page- and I know you do- yes, I’ve seen Evan’s profile pic where he’s flashing his six-pack abs- then it’s my job to understand what that might mean. Facebook is a common denominator among a group of 40 individuals on this stage that contains opera singers, computer whizzes, a woman who can throw a softball over 60 miles an hour, anime otaku, university English professors, the nicest kindergarten teacher a kid could ever have, physicists, a pirate, I mean, pilot, but there’s probably a pirate up there too (Rachel?), a professional clown, and even a guy who plays drums and can actually make the idea of blue-colored pasta taste good, well, if I dismiss this common phenomenon as inconsequential, then I’m not reciprocating in kind. What I mean is: you have chosen me to speak at this baccalaureate ceremony, which I truly consider an honor, especially considering that of the 40 of you graduating this year, 26 of you have spent some time in my classroom as students. For these past five years, it’s been both my duty and my pleasure to learn about you and your world and strive to understand it, for the benefit of both of us.

Now, I don’t have to enumerate the benefits of digital technology and how your lives will likely intimately be connected with it. However, if there’s one last message I’d like to send you off with, it’s that in this world of technology, don’t forget to be yourselves, to be individuals, and that only you think like you.
Specifically, don’t forget to use those unconventional but fantastic brains of yours to keep learning differently, to keep being creative, outside-the-box, or as Ned Hallowell would put it, “magnificently-minded” thinkers. Computers and the internet are excellent sources for research, input and stimulation and they are also exceptional tools for output- no human can compute as fast or as accurately, no human has anywhere near the memory capacity- but what computers can’t do are the jobs in the middle. You know, the ones that I’ve found people who learn differently seem to excel at. Computers can’t be creative or innovative, they don’t have epiphanies, and they have no sense of ingenuity. To ensure success in this digital age, by whatever measure you want to define success, you have to remain adept at creativity and ingenuity. This is how you will continue to stand out from the crowd- in a good way-, it’s how you’ll get ahead, it’s how you’ll continue to succeed and enjoy the richness of life as a result.

Would you like an example of how relying purely on only input and output thinking, like computers do, can be dangerous? Ah, but computers aren’t the only brains that are not fully adept at those middle steps- this is also true of children. See? There was a point to that story about my daughter. Hannah simply took in the inputted information and spat it back out as output without having the capacity to connect other critical information in between.

However, even young children are still better at certain types of thinking than computers, especially when it comes to creativity and ingenuity. Allow me to illustrate with a story about my Uncle Ken when he was only seven years old, which would have been during the ‘50s. At that time, his father, my grandfather, owned a service station and was the head auto mechanic. One day a local eye doctor named Dr. Rabinowitz came to the garage looking for an estimate on a repair for his car, the model of which I couldn’t tell you, other than that it was a fairly expensive car for its day. He had been to several other repair shops around town and received quotes on what it would cost: $300, a lot of money in the ‘50s. When my grandfather quoted $200, the doctor became suspicious, worried that my grandfather would take the job then some fishy added charges would come up or he’d use low quality replacement parts. So he asks why. With brutal honesty, my grandfather tells him that the other places are trying to get more than the job is worth because they know he can afford it, based on the fact that he’s an eye doctor driving a nice car and, knowing these other mechanics, they’re probably also trying to gouge him because Rabinowitz is a Jewish name.

At about that time, my Uncle Ken gets dropped off the school bus to spend the afternoon hanging around the garage and he winds up observing my grandfather in the process of fixing the eye doctor’s car. Now, part of the reason this is such an expensive procedure is because sections of the engine have to be removed to get at the broken parts and then be put back into place. Another thing to understand here- my Uncle Ken has always been, like me, on the skinny side, and this was especially true when we were young boys. Look at how skinny my wrists are now at age 38, imagine what they were like when I was seven. Anyway, my Uncle Ken suggests to my grandfather that rather than taking apart the engine, he figures he could wedge his skinny arms in and around various parts of the engine to unscrew things here and there and fit new parts in. My grandfather leads him through the process, and it turns out to be a success. As a result, he ends up charging the doctor only 50 bucks.
Now when I first heard this story, I thought the same thing a lot of you are thinking. He could’ve made as much as $300 but settled for $50? Wasn’t he in a way cheating himself out of fair compensation? Well, my grandfather was always a better mechanic than he was a businessman. But here’s the thing: the doctor appreciated his honesty and fairness and the two became good buddies, a friendship that lasted until my grandfather’s death in 2004. And even though he didn’t have to, Dr. Rabinowitz never charged any of us in my family for eye exams and also provided all our glasses and contact lenses for us at cost without marking them up well into the 1990s when he retired. Either way, while I admire my grandfather in this story, the thing that impresses me most was my Uncle Ken’s seven year old ingenuity when it came to fixing the car. Again, this is the kind of thinking computers are simply incapable of and this incident inadvertently wound up saving our family thousands of dollars in eye care costs over decades.

OK, so now you’re thinking, “We get it.” Success in the 21st century will be due to a marriage between technology and the power of human creativity and ingenuity. But what can it do for me now? Like, this weekend? Remember, I’ve had 26 of you as students, I know how your minds work, ya meatballs. (Sorry, that’s an in-joke. My own 11th grade algebra teacher, Mrs. Mildred- yes, her name really did contain both the words “ill” and “dread” in it- used to call us, her students, “meatballs,” an ostensibly affectionate and yet still kind of disturbing name. So I sometimes like to use that term myself. Like: “Take out your homework, ya meatballs.” Except for you, Lydia and Sage. You’re my little tofu-balls.) Anyway, as I was saying, I know how your minds work. What can all this creativity stuff do for me now?

Well, let me finish with a story from my own senior year of high school. During the winter when phys ed class forced us indoors for several months, we were given four activities to choose from that we would have to report to and consistently take part in. The first option was swimming. Ummm, no, thanks. If insecurity about my pale, skinny body weren’t enough, my shaky swimming skills kept me away from the pool, excuse me, the “natatorium,” at all costs. Second option was using the weight room. I’d rather you shaved all the skin off the back of my legs with a cheese grater than be confined for a single minute to a musty, dank, sweat-stained urban public school weight room accompanied by my school’s own versions of Jersey Shore’s Ronnie and Mike “The Situation.” (GTL, baby, GTL). Meanwhile, many of my buddies seemed to be eagerly signing up for basketball and I figured that might be fun. But before I grabbed the clipboard to add my name to the list, an ingenious thought occurred to me. If hardly anyone had signed up for the pool, except for a few swim team die-hards, Ronnie and Mike were the only two in the weight room and this side of the gym was quickly swelling with a horde of teenage boys sprinting up and down the lanes of the basketball court, where exactly were all the girls in my gym class headed? Yes, friends, for two glorious months, I spent every gym class (two per week) with my kindred nerdy buddy Adam Hartfield, the two of us kings of the volleyball court (not that we ever even bothered to keep score in the games), surrounded by about thirty girls jumping up and down all around us for 45 solid minutes at a stretch. Ah my young friends, with human ingenuity on your side, if you remember to use it, you’ll see that success, in whatever way you want to define it, can be yours.

OK, being an English teacher, I’d like to sign off by reading a short poem I wrote a few years ago. I think it’s apt, considering that it’s titled “The Eagle Hill Student” and in the poem, you are represented by the metaphor of an iPod, bringing together this creativity of students who learn differently and technology theme. Other images in the poem include the “rich kid” being the previous school system that didn’t meet your needs for whatever reasons before coming to EHS but you’ll see…

I found a beat-up iPod the other day
It was cracked and scratched and didn’t seem to play
Maybe some rich kid had just tossed it away

I grew up with records, cassettes, CDs and my guitar
Plus an appreciation for the crackly AM station in my Dad’s car
But this device was the most intriguing music source thus far

Installing a set of fresh batteries revealed a tiny, tinny hum
Next, I smoothed out all the scratches I could with my thumb
Then scanned through the play-list with which it had come

The contemporary pop and hip-hop tracks I expected
Interspersed with a few classic rock tunes selected
So to my own hard drive I soon had it connected

From Tchaikovsky to Fugazi, every genre I spanned ‘em
Into the expanding playlist all my own songs I crammed ‘em
And I kinda liked how it always seemed to be stuck on random

I proudly show off this iPod now everywhere I go
Stocked up on batteries in case it starts running low
And we finally figured out how to make its little screen glow

It has been my absolute pleasure to have known and worked with you these last five years. Congratulations, class of 2010. Thank you for listening, ya meatballs.

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