Members of Balboa Academy's Class of 2014 who were in my writing class.
On this occasion, they were mentoring third-grade writers.
(This Saturday, May 28, will mark the
graduation of Balboa Academy’s Class of 2016. The Class of 2014 invited me to be their graduation speaker, one of the greatest honors of my life. This speech went on to
form part of the wonderful collection of writings titled The Yes Book.)
floundered for several weeks, searching for something meaningful to share with
you on this special day. But the harder I tried, the more elusive my quest
became. Although I seldom suffer from writer’s block, I was now adrift in a sea
of useless ideas, crossing out page after page of false starts.
thought about my difficulties, I traced them back to when you were
ninth-graders and, for reasons that still remain a mystery to me, the Class of
2014 earned a special place in my heart. Because of this, when you invited me
to be your commencement speaker, the honor soon became a millstone around my
neck, and the weight of delivering a message of consequence grew heavier each
I was on
the verge of panicking when, unexpectedly, inspiration struck. The muse greeted
me the instant my wife and I stepped into the home of a fellow teacher. There,
stenciled on the living room wall in large, attractive letters was the phrase:
You are living
I let out a
long sigh of relief because I knew that, at last, the drought had ended. There,
calling out to me, was the idea I wish to share with you today.
living your story.
As I have
often told you, we have the power to make our stories wondrous—full of love,
light, hope, and beauty. This is one of the main reasons you’ve been going to
school all these years, and certainly one of the reasons you’re going off to
college—the more educated you become, the more control you’ll have over your
narratives. There is nothing in life more empowering, I assure you, than the
ability to chart the course of our stories.
reminisce about you as ninth-graders, I think about how malleable you were back
then. Eager to please your new teachers, you were easy to bend, mold, and
shape. Your eyes glowed with excitement every day. Your hearts brimmed with
high expectations of everyone and everything: your schoolmates, your teachers,
and the world. Yes, beyond a doubt, as ninth-graders you were naïve and easy to
last four years, however, a small measure of cynicism has trickled into your
lives. By that I mean that you now mistrust the values your elders have been
trying to teach you. But we need not be concerned over this. It is only
natural. It happens to everyone on the road to adulthood. I say that we don’t
need to be concerned because I have witnessed that you and your Balboa Academy
schoolmates have an optimistic outlook. I’ve seen your selflessness in the
houses you’ve built for others, the people you’ve clothed and fed in times of
need, the countless smiles you’ve placed on the faces of the less fortunate,
and the work you’ve done to slow down the clock of ecological doom. Wherever
you go from here, then, please endeavor to keep cynicism at bay, and please,
continue your efforts to make the world a better place.
Spanish teacher, instead of making you jump through grammar hoops, by way of
poems and stories I tried to fill your hearts with the beauty of language. I
also wanted to make these great achievements of the human imagination an
essential part of your lives. I wanted you to understand that a poem, a story,
or a novel can serve as a beacon during those times when we’ve lost our sense
of direction, because, I now warn you, your life, like everyone else’s, will
contain painful events. As César Vallejo wrote in Los heraldos negros: “Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no
sé!’” (“There are in life such hard blows . . . I don't know!”) Sentiments
such as the one the Peruvian poet expressed with sparking clarity can put
things into perspective and help us get our lives back on track when our
stories have been momentarily derailed. Great tales, when closely examined,
reveal our potential, our strengths, and even our claims to sainthood.
then, that it is important to study the stories of others as you live your own.
You have often heard me speak with reverence of the Aristotelian concept of imitatio. In this construct, the Greek
philosopher advises artists who aspire to greatness to imitate the best models.
That’s the starting point. The outstanding painters, sculptors, architects,
musicians, and writers of the Renaissance took Aristotle’s message to heart,
raising the level of human expression to the loftiest heights in Western
Aristotle suggested for artists over two millennia ago works well for writing
our own life stories. To succeed, all you need is the commitment and the
discipline to follow these five steps: pick a worthy model, study your model
intently, learn the vocabulary necessary to understand and discuss your model,
and then write your story following the example. Ah, but then comes the hard
part: you need to keep revising until your story surpasses the quality of the
follow Aristotle’s teachings conscientiously, imitating excellent models as you
live your own story, you can achieve anything.
demonstrate that I practice what I preach, before committing these thoughts to
paper I consulted a few outstanding models of commencement speeches. For me to
presume to offer better advice that what these contain would be absurd. And
since I wholeheartedly agree with the wisdom they impart, I will take the
liberty to capsulize them for you.
John F. Kennedy pleaded with the Harvard Class of 1963 to believe in and to
work for world peace. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings,” he
stated on that occasion.
recently, the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, speaking at Duke University, told
the Class of 2008 to reject the emphasis that modern society places on
accumulating wealth. In doing so, she said, we commit to using less resources
and the healing of the planet will begin.
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Russell Baker advised the 1995 Class of
Connecticut College to take the time to listen to the life that surrounds us,
as well as to what’s in our hearts.
addressing Syracuse University’s Class of 2013, the writer George Saunders
stressed the importance of being kind. In his speech, he asked, “Who, in your
life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”
closer to the crux of today’s message, Steven Jobs urged Stanford’s Class of
2005 to have the courage to follow their hearts and their intuition. “Stay
foolish, and stay hungry,” he counseled.
delighted to discover that the idea that we live our stories was at the heart
of several of my models.
O’Brien told Harvard’s Class of 2000 not to fear making mistakes. He said,
“Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember, whatever
happens, the story is never over.”
Bradley Whitford, who played the role of the president’s adviser in the
television series The West Wing, urged the Class of 2006 of The University of
Wisconsin to take action. Only in taking action, he noted, can we become the
heroes of our own stories.
conclude with the model that most closely resembles the spirit of what I’ve
tried to share with you today. Speaking at Knox College to the Class of 2006,
Stephen Colbert told the graduates to avoid cynicism. He highlighted the need
to trust others, as well as the need to believe in ourselves and in our
communities. "Cynicism,” he said, “is a self-imposed blindness, a
rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or be disappointed
in us. Cynics always say no ... for as long as you have the strength to, say
And so, in
parting, I ask Balboa Academy’s Class of 2014 to always say yes to finding and
imitating exceptional models, to say yes to working for world peace, to say yes
to living in simplicity, to say yes to taking the time to listen, to say yes to
committing acts of kindness, to say yes to staying foolish and hungry, to
understand that it’s okay to occasionally make a mess of things, to say yes to
taking action, and, more importantly, to go forth and make your life a story
that inspires others.