It’s that time of year when caps are thrown up into the air with wild abandon and a new generation of young people are move on to a bright future in . . . high school?
Okay, in my day there was no such thing as a 8th Grade Graduation ceremony. I was shuffled along the middle school conveyor belt into freshman year with a blast helmet plopped on my head and a pat on the back. But I like this newish tradition of celebrating the move from middle school into the upper grades. It’s a turning point, a truly big deal in a age of very big deals indeed.
So I was thrilled to be asked by the Clinton School for Writers and Artists to be this year’s Keynote Speaker at their 8th Grade Graduation. I visited with the Clinton School’s Language Arts classes earlier this year and was very impressed by the caliber of these young men and women. Thoughtful, creative and bright. So I thought I’d post my words of wisdom here on the blog in case folks were curious about what I have to say to the youth of today. I’m posting the speech in its entirety, warts and all.
I did not, however, follow my friend and fellow middle grade author Aaron Starmer’s advice to rap the whole thing. Cheeky fellow, that Aaron)
So here it is my speech to the 8th Grade Class of 2011!
In my book super-powered kids wake up on their 13th birthday powerless. You don’t have to dig very deep to catch the metaphor at work, or get a glimpse into my feelings about growing up. About moving from the soft focus of childhood into the overexposed world of high school and young adulthood.
Subtle, I am not. So here I am getting giving the keynote speech to a class of bright, optimistic young people about to go through that ultimate ritual of growing up – graduating the 8th grade. Hmm. Maybe someone got their email chains crossed. Aren’t they afraid that I’ll say the wrong thing? That I’ll tell you all to run away now, to find the sign that points to adulthood and run screaming the opposite direction. Grab a spot on the tornado slide of the playground of your choice and stay there. Throw milk cartons and juice boxes at anyone over the age of 14 who comes too close.
Except that there’s a problem with that, well there are a lot of problems with that but one really scares me, and that’s this – if you all called it quits on growing up, you’d be leaving the world and all its problems to old guys like me. And we’ve seen where that’s gotten us. Oh sure, we’ve done a solid C+ on running the world, I mean it’s still there, right? Everything is more or less where we found it. But it’s nothing to brag about either. I mean those new Ipads are pretty cool, but other than that . . . Where are the jetpacks? Teleporters? Social justice and world peace. I for one am still waiting on whole laundry list of stuff that was promised me.
So I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you all have to grow up. I need my jetpack. Sure I’ll be seventy, but I’ll be a jet-packing seventy year old, flying around Florida in my Bermuda shorts and sandals with black socks. That will be awesome.
Truth is, I have no problem with the concept of growing up – in the abstract. Theoretically, it’s a pretty sweet deal. You get bigger, stronger. You get a line of credit other than your parents. My problem is that growing up is a lot like dancing, everyone can do it, but hardly anyone does it well.
It’s a tough job, growing up, and just when you think you have the hang of it, its over. You look in the mirror and you find your first grey hair and by then my friends, damage is already done.
Unless you – and I don’t mean the generalized, abstract “you” but I mean the personal, second-person pronoun “You”- Capital Y! Unless you do it differently. Because you can. It’s the wonderful truth behind all my sarcasm and playground jokes. You at this moment, are in a unique position and you probably don’t even know it.
Take a look around you and you can see the faces of guess what? The inventor of the teleporter over there. The peacemaker is sitting behind you – you know the kid who put on two mismatched socks this morning, he’s got the right stuff, bad fashion sense notwithstanding.
I say this not to be trite or common and I’m sure that some of you expect this. After all, what kind of keynote speaker would I be without some positive message, right? And some of you are beginning to roll your eyes, right? You’re thinking here comes the moral, the “BIG LESSON” But here’s the thing – I’m only saying to you what I wish someone had said to me way back when I graduated the 8th grade in 1572. I wish some wizened old magician would have come down out of his castle, hobbled into my village, told me to put down blacksmith tools for a second and think about HOW I WAS GOING TO GROW UP. What choices would I make? What kind of man did I want to become.
I wish he would have said the following: Be Bold, be innovative, be compassionate. The world outside your window is not the world you need live in. You can change the things you don’t like, keep the things that are working.
I wish that old man would’ve told me the truth, that he was holding the keys to the kingdom and someday, not very far away, I would be given them whether I was ready or not.
You see, I think I got it backwards in my books. You are not powerless, far from it, in fact. You are the chosen one. You are the hero of prophecy destined to change the world. Each and every one of you at this moment in time. You are filled with potential that I envy. I’m like the villain in my books, jealous of all that power (but a whole lot nicer and slightly better looking).
So think about that. To you, the POWERFUL, I say think about your power and what you will do with it, because that journey starts tomorrow. Today you get lemonade and your picture taken, which isn’t bad at all. But tomorrow you begin making the choices that will determine how you choose to grow up. They will determine who you will become.
Ask yourself now, because it’s not too early – How will you treat your classmates? Will you respect each other’s differences and lend a helping hand to those who need it? Will you push yourself to discover the limits of your almost limitless potential? Will you refuse to settle for the way things have always been? Will you lead or will you follow?
What kind of world do you want to build out there? I hope it’s a good one. I hope you all come up with grand plans, because we could use a few of those.
But most of all, and this is key – I hope you remember my jetpack. I’ll be waiting for it.
Thank you very much and congratulations to the 8th Grade Class of 2011!
* A big thanks to my favorite author and philosopher Dr. Seuss. Read The Lorax if you haven’t already. Or read it again.