Commencement speech given for a special young man in June 2013

Note:  This is a graduation speech that I was asked to give in June 2013 for a one-man graduating class.   I have realized that it’s actually harder to write for other people than it is to write for myself, but it’s infinitely more gratifying.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, parents, students, Louise, Dani, and guests.  It is truly an honor for me to have been invited to join you today in celebration of the Study Center Foundation’s 2013 commencement exercise.

Late spring is that time when stress or fatigue reaches its peak; having grown steadily over time until finally it breaks, revealing beneath it the bubbling elation of the coming summer.  It is a time when weddings, first communions, and of course, graduations take center stage as years of hard work and preparation bear their glorious fruits of success.  It is a time of finished chapters that, upon turning the page, divulge a brand new twist of the plot.  A time when, as we turn away from a gently (or perhaps not so gently) closed door, we find ourselves faced with an open window or two.

Graduation from high school is one of the first times, if not the first time, in our lives when we find ourselves playing an impressive game of emotional tug of war – on the one side is fear, on the other, hope.  It is without a doubt a time for rejoice.  It is also time for reflection, giving us the opportunity to sift through life’s tests and triumphs in an effort to purposefully embrace what has worked and decisively shed what hasn’t.  Graduation is a time when we look back in order to move forward.

When Louise phoned me to ask me to speak with you today, I had actually just been searching the internet for some motivational videos to show my students at the American School of Madrid.  I am the high school Dean of Students, and I also teach a class in Introduction to Sociology to students in grades 10 through 12.  As most parents and teachers know, June is a difficult time to inspire teenagers.  And although I had actually figured that one out all by myself after 17 years in education, one of my students recently thought it important to remind me.  When I asked about his exceptionally low score on a quiz he just took, his response, with a shrug of the shoulders, was simply, “…it’s almost June, Miss”.

So when Louise called, I had just watched the entire graduation speech given by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, at Harvard University in 2008.  My head was still spinning with Ms. Rowling’s message of hope and courage when Louise called.   If I hesitated at all in answering Louise it was only out of that momentary self-doubt that comes from questioning whether I might actually have something meaningful to say that would resonate with a teenager on his graduation day.  While I’m still not sure I have the answer, I’m going to give it a try.

I have spent most of my life in Madrid, and most of my professional life at the American School of Madrid.  My parents moved to Spain from Dallas, Texas, when I was 9.  They determined to raise their family with the best that an international career had to offer, and before Dallas, my family had lived in Sao Paolo (where I was born), Barcelona, and San Juan de Puerto Rico.  Despite my being accustomed to living outside of the US, my five years in Texas came at a critical time, and I arrived in Madrid with a well-developed southern drawl and a bad attitude.  My two older brothers and I joined forces in our resentment of our parents’ decision to pull us away from the United States and we each found our own, age-appropriate ways to rebel.

Just three and a half years apart, my brother Mike and I decided our collective mutiny would be to reject everything Spanish, especially the language.  Initially, we were only going to live in Spain for two years so we were pretty determined to hold out. We did fairly well, despite our dad’s insistence that we go play with the other kids in our apartment complex.  One day, my dad put a small wooden paddle in one of my hands and a little plastic ball in the other and pushed me out the door saying “remember:  quieres jugar al pin pon?”  That was all the Spanish I knew after a year and a half.  But it got me a few friends, and I learned to play a mean game of ping pong.  And it was somehow just enough Spanish to make my parents realize that I could potentially learn more.

My dad decided to extend his contract one year and a year became a lifetime.  Today, I am finishing my 17th year of employment at the American School of Madrid where I have been the Dean of Students, Upper School Guidance Counselor, Head of Development and Alumni Coordinator.  My father was on the Board of Trustees at the school for many years, and my brothers and I are all graduates of the school.  To top it off, my three children, ages 9, 11 and 13, have all attended the school since they were 3.  The American School of Madrid is in many ways my home.

That said, the Study Center, and most especially, Louise, have a special place in my heart.  Over the years, the school has weaved its way through and around my life, imprinting itself on my existence.  As far back as 1985, when my brother attended the school as he worked his way through a difficult time, I have known the Study Center to be a source of hope and inspiration.  About ten years ago, when I was pursuing my Master’s Degree in Counseling, Louise was kind enough to spend time with me helping me understand the Study Center’s philosophy, accomplishments, and needs.  Little did I know at that time that my life would take a few turns through divorce and loss, that seven years later I would be remarried, and that my 16 year old autistic stepson would himself attend the Study Center for a year and a half.  The story has the interesting twist, though.  When my husband and I went to visit Louise and talk with her about how the Study Center could meet our son’s needs, she took us on a tour of the grounds.  We saw the classrooms upstairs, the library, the kitchen, and the art room in the basement.  We met a few of the teachers and a handful of students, and so far, we liked what we saw.

And then Louise took us into a classroom that had a piano in it.  There was young man sitting at the piano who must have been about 14 at the time.   When introduced to us, he stood and shook both of our hands.  He sat back down, and continued to play, and though neither of us knew the piece he was playing, my husband and I were struck by both his talent and his willingness to share that moment with us.  That young man was Dani.  It was then that we decided the Study Center was where we wanted our son to be.

Unintentionally and unknowingly, Dani, you inspired us that day.  You showed us commitment, courage and hope and we have thought of you often over the years.  That I have been asked to speak at your graduation is in a way poetic.  So, I beg your family’s forgiveness as I indulge in a two-part message to you alone.

The first message is this:  Be flexible and prepared.  Life is not linear.  When I was still a little girl, living in Texas, my dream was to own a ranch and marry a cowboy.  We would have horses and drive a pickup truck.  Once in Spain, it didn’t take long for me to shed the “howdy”s from my speech, although my children are quick to point out the occasional “ya’ll” that still escapes from my mouth.  As the dreams of young children do, mine underwent a kind of metamorphosis and around the age of 10, I became convinced that I wanted to be a doctor.

It wasn’t until my first year of college that I realized that chemistry and I would never be good friends, and although I tried to hang on to the dream even into my graduate studies, I found myself having to redirect.  As I tried to figure things out, my education and work experience began to look like a piece of modern art, with smatterings of one goal here and splotches of another there.

Somewhere along the line, I found myself back at my alma mater – the American School of Madrid – working as an intern, and over time, my wide range of interests and experiences began to naturally narrow themselves into a logical path.  Along the way, I got married, had children, went back to university, got divorced, remarried, became a stepmom, studied some more, and well… I’ve come realize that the road that lies ahead is as exciting as it is unpredictable and that the best tactic is to be flexible and prepared.

I am not one of those who believe that higher education is the only key to opportunity and success.  You can have all the education in the world, but if you aren’t flexible, you may never get a job.  No, I truly believe that the secret lies in knowing how to work with the challenges rather than against them.

If you fall into a fast moving stream that seems to be carrying you away from your destination, you have a choice:  You can try to swim upstream; Or, you can move with the current, and slowly make your way to the edge. That’s being flexible.  Maybe you’ll have to walk a ways to get where you planned to go.  Or maybe, you’ll find that where you got out of the water is actually more appealing.  Either way, you need to know how to swim – that’s being prepared.

John Lennon tells us that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  Know that things don’t always happen the way you want them to and that’s okay.  With flexibility and preparedness, you’ll make it work for you, and therein lies your success.

My second message is: Take nothing for granted.  Throughout your life you will find yourself faced with a series of people, places, events, and challenges that may seem arbitrary.  At times, the choices you make may seem illogical.

One day long ago, my brother Mike, tired and angry at life, arrived home from school with a puppy in his arms.  He and a buddy were walking home from the Study Center when they passed by an elderly woman with a litter of pups.  She offered them to both boys, and while his friend didn’t accept, my brother, who had started to walk away, paused and turned back.  He took the smallest one out of the basket and picked him up to take a closer look.  He whispered, “que pasa, tio?” and the puppy licked his nose.  Tio, as he affectionately became known, lived with us for ten years, and even after Mike went off to college and got married, Tio was always Mike’s dog.  For our family, Tio became a symbol of tenacity and grit.  And for obvious reasons, Tio always reminded us of Mike’s time at the Study Center.

There is a game we sometimes play at home, you may have heard of it.  It’s called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”  You might have seen one of the TV advertisements in the UK.  Well, according to wikipedia (I actually looked this up), it’s a game that was fashioned after the concept that we are all connected to one another through six degrees of separation.  The idea is that within six independent thoughts, you can connect any two people or ideas (or, in this case, any idea to the actor Kevin Bacon).  For example, take the word “cloud”.  Clouds make rain.  Rain is water. Water mixes with dirt to make mud. Pigs love mud.  Bacon comes from pigs.  Kevin Bacon.  And you can do this with just about any word!

The point is that somehow, wherever I am in life, whatever I’m doing – it can always be traced back to the Study Center.  The Study Center is my Kevin Bacon. Six degrees of separation.  And as we’ve seen, Dani, you have now become a part of that spectacular web of connections. As much as possible, I encourage you to recognize that even the most seemingly random one offs can become integral pieces in the puzzle of your life.  Without knowing why things come your way, I urge you to have faith in the possibilities, to embrace the unknown, to take nothing for granted.

In closing, Dani, your life will bring you a fantastic jumble of opportunities, experiences and outcomes.  Sometimes you will plan it perfectly, and it will play out like a beautifully composed symphony.  But there will also be times when, despite the perfection of your planning, page 3 will somehow get lost right in the middle of the concert, and you’ll have to improvise.  When that happens, make sure you appreciate every glorious note.

I am delighted to have been with you today, and I wish you the very best.  Congratulations.

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Even as a child, I would study the unexpected turns in my life and try to find the lessons in them. I am nothing if not reflective. As an American citizen raised in Sao Paulo, Dallas and Madrid, I am a classic adult TCK*. Perspective is key, and I look at everything through multiple lenses. It used to make my son crazy when as a boy he would press me for a firm stance on something and I would often answer “well, that depends…” I am a thinker and learner, writer and story teller, counselor and coach. After almost of quarter of a century in k12 education, I am now on sabbatical, taking some time to breathe, reflect, dream, explore life’s many gifts, and write. When I was around 8 years old, I starting writing down my dreams and these turned into stories. I have been blogging since 2010, have published several articles about the need for change in how and what young people learn, and I am currently working on a couple of manuscripts. One is a collection of motivational essays for women leaders in international education which I am co-authoring with my friend and colleague, Debbie Lane. The other is more of a memoir, a personal story about love, sacrifice, and hope. Hope and gratitude are common themes in my writing, my work, and in my life in general. Everyone has a story to tell. Thank you for taking some time to explore mine. I hope you’ll come back. *A TCK is a third-culture kid, someone who has spent a significant number of their formative years outside of their passport country. It is an experience that typically has a profound impact on the development of self and identity.

3 thoughts on “Commencement speech given for a special young man in June 2013

  1. Excellent advice, even for a forty-something year old! I love the way you write! Can’t imagine you with a southern drawl! Please keep writing. 🙂 Much love.


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