Thursday, June 16, 2016

Commencement 2016

For the last two years, my seniors have ended their year by delivering ten-minute commencement speeches. They are the most remarkable part of my year. Here is the speech I gave to them.

I was looking at a poster in my son’s room last night, and thinking of how many superheroes wear capes.  Tomorrow when you walk around that track, taking your final steps as high school students, you will also be wearing capes.  

Okay they are robes, but they are a lot like capes and I like the symbolism.  You are headed out into an imperfect world and you must fight injustice.  Billionaire or not, you must act like Bruce Wayne.  Like The Batman, you don’t possess any real superpowers, just your own determination, intellect, and maybe some cool gadgets.  My goodness you all carry the equivalent of the batphone in your pockets.  As you soak up all the pomp and circumstance of that event, don’t forget about the capes you are wearing.  

My time with you as students is now down to a matter of minutes.  I hope you feel more confident as writers, and more capable as readers.  I hope you look at the world just a bit differently than you did when you showed up in September.  I hope you feel excited for the next chapter in your lives.  Before you go, I want to take one final stab at teaching you a couple of things, offering to you all I can at this late stage in the game: a few stories from my own experience that I hope might be instructive in some positive way.  

A couple of years ago on a warm Friday afternoon in May, I was called down to the office and fired from my job as Department Coordinator.  I had never been fired from a job before.  I had no warning this was going to happen, and the process knocked me down hard.  When I asked for a reason I was told simply, “We think we can do better.”  I wanted more of an explanation, but realized quickly I was not going to get one.  The meeting was over, and so was my time in that position.  

Losing that position meant a thirteen-thousand-dollar pay cut amid homeownership and raising two young boys.  It meant looking my wife in the eye, and telling her I had been fired, asking her to pick up a few more tutoring jobs.  It meant seeing my colleagues each day with the embarrassment of a very public failure.  I was angry and humiliated.  I had to go into the office that I had for seven years and pack my things.  I had to carry those things out to my car in boxes, taking that walk of shame right down D-Hall.  I flipped daily between anger and indignation, humiliation and sadness.  
A few years removed from that experience I now recognize that day as the greatest moment in my career.  It was a remarkably fortunate and defining moment.  That one event reinforced that regardless of the difference in salary, I belong in a classroom not an administrative office.  The pay cut sent me scrambling for a side hustle to make up some of the loss, so I started writing more and pitching my ideas for publication.  I think the early success I have had in selling pieces I have written is because I knew I needed to.  Rather than writing being a hobby that I did whenever I had the time, I needed it to also be viable source of income.  So I wrote all the time.  I write every day now, and sitting in some quiet corner tapping away at the keyboard creates some of the most enjoyable moments of my day.  

My fears about money had caused me to turn away from writing because the stipend of department coordinator offered much greater security.  It brought with it guaranteed, pensionable money and no risk.  It also made me feel like a fraud.  I applied for that job only for money, knowing with total certainty that a step toward an administrative role was not for me.   

I stopped being myself at work.  During the time I had that position, I alienated the majority of friends I had among my co-workers.  I filled my prep periods trying to match toner cartridges to printers, and collecting paperwork rather than thinking about my classes, grading papers, and sharing ideas with my colleagues.  I became the messenger for things I did not agree with.  I felt in my core that I had to act differently in order to be successful.  As someone with strong opinions and a pretty big mouth, I found I had to actively silence myself.

Now I am making money off of the very same statements I sought to suppress.  I am making money by publishing writing the way I always knew I wanted to, rather than making money in a way I always knew I didn’t want to.   

My point is this.  When your gut tells you something is not a good fit, listen.  When you know inside what you want to be doing, but people are telling you to play it safe, don’t listen.  It is that simple.

I want you all to know how much hope I see in you.  The speeches you have given over the past week are proof that we can change this world to one in which we see, and empathize with each other’s failings.  This week has proven what I already knew to be true: that people can show others who they really are without fear of ridicule.  People are capable of listening to someone else’s struggles, even when they are difficult to hear, and respond not by turning away but by reaching out.  I want you all to see the beauty in what you have accomplished.  I want you all to see the similarities with those sitting in this room rather than the differences.  I want you to see that it is okay to struggle, okay to fail, okay to suffer, okay to doubt.  I want you to see that these are things that are universal and normal no matter how many times you are taught they are weak, or aberrant, or deficient.  

I am at a loss in the wake of another mass shooting this week in Orlando.  I keep looking at my two little boys and wondering what kind of world they are growing up in.  I have honestly gotten to the point where I question taking my kids to Disney, a place that has come to represent all that is innocent and magical and good in childhood.  I mean, such crowds.  Such symbolic resonance as a target for terror - innocent American kids playing in a magical world built upon commercialism and capitalism.  I want to take them to the Statue of Liberty, but now she is not just a perfect symbol for us, she is a perfect symbol for them.  I find myself, despite my own objections, using that pronoun more and more.  I balk at taking my kids to the ball game, to the concert, to anywhere that might appeal to some animal lurking in the darkness with a legally purchased gun.  

You are the reason I refuse to back down.  You are the reason I have the courage to take my boys to Disney, and Citizens’ Bank Park, and New York City.  You, the graduating class of 2016 are the reason.  You have spoken with unimaginable grace of the loss of your fathers; you stand back up and keep moving despite that injustice.  You have looked out at a room full of people whose judgement you feared and removed the mask you have worn all these years.  You have overcome crippling social anxiety to share with us something you have learned.  You have spoken about rising above addictions, both your own and those of your loved ones.  You have spoken about loyalty of friendships that have redefined family, and resiliency to bounce back from the unspeakable.  You have admitted your minds have tried to trick you, you bodies have failed you, you friends have betrayed you, and yet here you are fueled by your ideals, and your optimism.  You remain undeterred.  I look at you and have faith that we can fix this. I have faith that you will help reverse this trend of senseless violence.

You are remarkable people in whom I place a great deal of faith.  I look forward to watching you anchor the nightly news, where despite a long history of focusing only on discord and disagreement you end each telecast with one story that represents hope.  I look forward to hearing about the life you saved as a doctor, the cure you developed as a biochemist.  I look forward to reading the book you write, listing to the song you compose, or voting for you with the conviction that you will guide us toward a better world.  I look forward to watching highlights of your race, or your game, awash in the inspiration such endeavors can provide.

More than that, I look forward to all the small moments I will never hear about.  The moment you sit at a dinner party and tell the guy who just made a racist joke that he is not funny.  The moment when you stop and talk with the woman begging for change on the corner.  The moment pull yourself from sleep, swing by the store for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, and show up at your friend’s door in the middle of the night to help her through one of life’s inevitable tragedies.  The moment you look yourself in the mirror and love what you see.  The moment you stand up for what you believe.  

So, do not take tomorrow lightly.  Understand the role of all the people who have gotten you here.  More importantly, understand that despite all the people telling you this is your day, it is not.  The day does not belong to you.  It belongs to us.  It belongs to all the people sitting in the stands who are so much more similar to you than you may have previously thought.  It belongs to your parents who need to believe the world they are leaving behind is a good one, and it belongs to my sons who need to believe the world ahead is just as good.  

Put on those robes, and commit to your role.  You are superheroes.  You are charged with making the world a better place.  I believe you can.  I look forward to hearing your stories.

I wish you all happiness and confidence.  I wish you all lives where you can look in the mirror each day, grin, and head out to fight the bad guys.


Friday, June 10, 2016


To entice my first son to move from his crib to his new “big-boy” bed, we told him we would paint it any color he wanted.  He did not hesitate for a single second: PINK!

He said this with a huge grin, and the unbridled enthusiasm of a little kid being given the freedom to make a decision all his own.  Pink was his favorite color, and I had made a habit of challenging anyone who raised an eyebrow.  “What do you think this is,” I would ask with varying levels of indignation, “the 1950s?  It is a color.  He likes the way it looks.”  It was shocking the number of people who felt they needed to weigh in on this.  Friends and family members alike, people I believed to be intelligent and open-minded, rolled their eyes and made jokes.  Pink is a girl’s color.  Pink is a gay color.  Archaic, ignorant, outdated nonsense.  

So, there my son was bouncing with excitement at the new color of his bed.  “Any color other than pink,” I said immediately.  I did not debate this answer.  My better self - a man who strives to battle stereotypes as a classroom teacher, who does laundry and irons my own clothes, who took tap dancing lessons as a kid - was nowhere to be found.  

The same thing happened when we took him to his first baseball game.  The Phillies were enjoying the best years of my lifetime, and that first trip to the park was a father’s dream.  Already sporting his foam finger on one hand and carrying the sticky remains of his helmet sundae in the other, we marched into the store to buy him his first Phillies hat.  There were blue ones and red ones, gray ones with the Philadelphia skyline, and black ones with the Philly Phanatic.  Again, he did not hesitate.  PINK!

There in that store, I told him he could not get a pink hat.  I looked my two-year-old son in the eye and told him that those hats were only for the girls.  I lied, and told him that the person working at the cash register would not allow him to buy it.  I told him it was against the rules.  

I didn’t like what I was doing.  I aspire to be better than that.  But a boy in a pink hat gets teased, and I wanted to protect him.  I did not want other kids to have an easy target to belittle him or make him feel bad about his choices.  In my attempt to protect, however, I became the one doing just that.  Despite my intentions, I was the one telling him that what he naturally liked was wrong.  As a way to mitigate my feelings, I bought him a pink baseball to go with his red hat.     

It is amazing the weight of the baggage we carry from childhood, and the ability our own children have to stir it up from the past.  I was not good at sports when I was young, but could knock out a solid triple time step in tap shoes.  I spent my summers at theatre camp.  I got labeled a “faggot” right around junior high.  I remember sitting in a class as a kid poked my butt with a ruler.  “You like that faggot?”
That little kid version of myself keeps popping up; he is not going to allow that to happen to my son.  If that means embracing stereotypes, he tells me, then so be it.  

Last week, my son’s school offered a night for kids to try out instruments for next year’s band class.  Immediately, my son knew which instrument he wanted to play: the flute.  If instruments were colors, drums would be black, the brass section would be a combination of blues and reds, the flute would be pink.  

As soon as he said it, my childhood self jumped right back to the surface.  A boy with a pink bed is going to be made fun of by someone.  A boy with a pink baseball hat is too.  “So is a boy who plays the flute,” said my childhood self.    

This time, however, I was determined not to show my thoughts.  Still, I struggled with the urge to encourage something else, something more stereotypically masculine.  Play the drums, I found myself thinking.  Play something from the brass section.  Out loud I told him the flute was great.  I told him it was a beautiful instrument.  “Good luck with the flute,” I said as my wife took him off to tryouts.  

When he came home and told me that he wanted to play the trombone, I was thrilled.  He had tried the flute, and hated it.  I was relieved that he would be playing something that would make him a little less of a target for the type of kids who went after me when I was little and insecure.  More importantly, I was relieved that he decided against the flute simply because it was so difficult to play.  I had not sent him the message that his interest in it made him less of a boy.  I had not reinforced that his interests could ever make him less of a man.  These days, he is leaning toward the flute again and I hope he tries it.

I hope the little boy in me that keeps popping up as my two young sons navigate this world, shows them what he did not know - that what interests you can’t be wrong.  I hope that from here on out my sons will see my ability to arrange flowers in a vase, my love of Taylor Swift and Beyonce, the way I shower them with hugs, as no different than my love of playing ice hockey, and drinking good beer.  Those are not things women like, or things men like.  They are things Dad likes.  

Yesterday, while I was coloring with my youngest son, he told me kids at school were teasing him.  When I asked him why, he said it was because he likes the color pink.  “Well, that is silly,” I said, reaching for the pink crayon.  “It is red mixed with white.  I like red.  I like white.  I can’t like them mixed together because I am a boy?  That makes no sense.”  He laughed.  We colored.

“Cool pink monster,” he said. Damn right.