Saturday, June 10, 2006

An address to graduates

I presented the commencement address to members of the 102nd graduating class Friday night at the football stadium. The weather, which had included gusty winds and a rain shower earlier in the day, held nicely for the evening -- a calm and warm night with a nearly full moon.

I had so much on my mind during the week ahead of this speech that I had hardly had time to be nervous or jittery. That is, until about five minutes prior to going to the stage. As I listened to the speaker ahead of me, I tried to relax, took deep breaths and tried to warm up so I would not stumble over words.

I took the stage with enthusiasm and began my speech, the full text of which appears below. And as I looked out to the sea of purple robes, I had no nervousness. I think it was my familiarity with the students as well as with the words I was about to deliver that made me feel comfortable. And as I began, I just built momentum and got on a roll.

At one point early in the speech, I spoke of people coming to America for a chance at a better life. I heard a cheer emerge from my left -- an area where I knew a lot of Latinos were standing. That lone cheer spurred me on to deliver the rest of my speech with even greater enthusiasm and zeal. Members of the audience applauded twice during the speech at points where I paused, and there was a standing ovation at the conclusion. It was a tremendously energetic moment, and I was honored and thrilled to be at the center of it.

After the speech, many of my faculty colleagues congratulated me, and after the ceremony, people I don't even know complimented me on the content and delivery. I am pleased to be able to offer some substance in the ceremony in addition to some humor and inspiration. All in all, it was one of my greatest moments to date.
Members of the Administration, Faculty and Staff; Honored Guests, Family, Friends and Seniors:
On behalf of the faculty of Wenatchee High School let me begin by thanking you for this opportunity. Thanks to those of you who kept me on my toes, who laughed at my jokes. Thanks to those of you who could make even a lousy day brighter with your presence. Thanks for the pirate skits and poems and push-up contests and physics machines I don’t even understand. Thanks to those of you who always thought of me first — when you made your list of prank phone calls. Oh yes, I know who you are. On behalf of my colleagues, thank you all for being interesting.

In developing my message, some of you suggested to me in plain terms: Be funny. Uh huh. Writing a speech is hard enough without trying to be funny. And then what if I think it is funny and no one else does? I hate the pressure to be funny; it’s hard. I can’t script funny. I realized that most often, laughter in my classroom results from something I accidentally did or said — usually unplanned, like tripping over someone’s backpack or throwing a wad of paper to the trash and missing for the 23rd time in a row. Everyone knows I can’t hit the right target to save my life.

Then I worried that your parents and families in the stands might not get the jokes or references if I tried to be funny. It is only through a careful analysis of your communication methods that I am hip to your lingo. I’m no noob at this — “fo’ shizzle.” Know what I’m sayin’, dawg? Maybe I should just ask my friend Tom from MySpace. J/K! LOL!

Despite my sweating palms and churning stomach, tonight I am the lucky one. Tonight, I have the biggest classroom around to teach the Class of 2006. Tonight, we gather for a celebration. It is a night that marks the culmination of years of schooling, and it acknowledges what you have accomplished. So, we gather here at dusk as stars emerge to decorate the sky, seated on a field of emerald, surrounded by sage-scented air in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Tonight, you follow in the footsteps of thousands of young people much like yourselves. Tonight, you fulfill a promise. Tonight you graduate. And later on tonight, you party until you drop from exhaustion.

Look around — thousands of people have converged here to celebrate you and to honor you. They are the people who have helped you along your journey of education and growing up. At times, they have pushed you or pulled you, supported you or carried you, maybe even cursed you. Tonight they — we — cheer you one last time, for we all know it has not always been easy.

And surely there are others who are not here. For whatever reason, some could not be with you tonight in person — a grandparent, a parent, a neighbor, a sibling, a friend. Those people are with you in spirit, and they shared a desire for your success.

Think now of the people who have sacrificed so you could sit here on an evening in late spring to mark your commencement. For generations, people have come to America with a promise in mind: a promise of freedom and a chance at a better life. Parents have worked hard to provide for their children — and I don’t mean an iPod or X-Box or Abercrombie-Eagle. They all want for you what someday you likely will want for your own children — happiness, safety and a chance to prosper. They want simply for a piece of the American Dream. Nearly everyone here has a family line that originated somewhere else. Whether your family has been here for a few years or a few centuries, remember this: Don’t you ever look down your nose at someone who wants to be part of that American Dream and is willing to work hard to get it. That is the promise of America.

Now it is your turn to take the torch — the torch we used four years ago to ignite in you a flame. That flame burns bright still. It burns for learning, for discovery, for excellence, for success. You must take that flame, take that torch and blaze a trail for your future.

But as you lift that torch, you have responsibilities. Starting tomorrow, you are no longer just a consumer; you must be a producer. We’ll expect you to contribute to society, to culture, to the greater good. We welcome you as partners in working to extend the promise of America to everyone by practicing freedom and seeking new heights. We’ll expect you to promote the values we have taught you through your schooling, values of fairness and equality, of tolerance and respect, of righteousness and justice. And while we may not always have given you every opportunity to practice your own freedom, we’ll rely on you to be the guardians of the rights of others. We’ll rely on you for the security of ourselves and our futures. We’ll rely on you ensure that the promise of America is not an empty one. We’ll rely on all of you — young men and young women, Hispanic and Anglo, Christian and atheist, emo and popped collar, sophisticated and simple, straight and gay, wealthy and poor — to help fulfill that promise. That is the beauty of America.

We have given you equipment for living, and now you must use your skills, talents and values to shine the light with that torch and lead the way to that promise. President Bill Clinton in his 1993 inaugural said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” And while you may not share his politics, you have to agree with that statement. You have come of age in complicated times, times in which what is right and what is wrong are not always clear.

You have come of age in a time when you are bombarded with media messages, where it is easy to copy from Spark Notes and pass it as your own work, but it is not easy to filter the truth from the lies. But the dilemmas you now face are bigger than downloading music or typing test answers in your cell phone. You have come of age in a time when people in whom we have placed trust have betrayed that trust and must be held to account. So we expect you to speak up, to engage, to advocate, to question, to speak truth to power. Do not become terrified of telling the truth for fear of losing everything. The America you want will be the America you create.

That creation won’t come easily or quickly. America was founded on an ideal and a promise. You can work to achieve that ideal and to fulfill that promise, knowing that every tomorrow is brighter than all the yesterdays. Seeing those tomorrows will require you to invest effort, patience and sacrifice. But the promise is worth it. It’s worth it because someday you will see the return on your investment, the product of your sacrifice. A few years hence, people will gather at dusk in late spring, seated on an emerald field, with stars twinkling above and a gentle breeze carrying the scent of sage and the energy of thousands — all in celebration of a promise fulfilled.

My final words are ones I have spoken many times before. I want them to be the final advice to you as my students. Always remember: Make responsible choices. Bye bye!

UPDATE: The Wenatchee World's coverage of the two city high school graduations from Friday night included this about my speech:
Senior class adviser Logan Aimone earned a standing ovation from the senior class after rousing them to use their energy and intellects to better the country.

Aimone called for unity among Anglo and Hispanic and spiked his speech with a quote from former President Bill Clinton.

"There's nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America," Aimone quoted the president. "You may not agree with his politics, but you can't disagree with those words."
-- Wenatchee, Wash.