A week ago, Suffield High School Principal Donna Hayward in Suffield, Connecticut delivered a commencement address that was inspired by The Twelve Gifts of Birth. I’m sharing it here because I believe Ms. Hayward’s message of hope and courage is for all of us. Thank you, Donna, for permission to post your speech along with your photo. I hope to meet you someday, new friend! And thank you, dear reader. As always, I would love to hear your comments.
Class of 2014, you are just minutes from receiving your high school diploma. Your parents are wondering how you got here so fast, as it seems such a short time ago that you were born. Just a few years ago, you took your first steps, spoke your first words, got on the school bus kindergarten bound, learned to ride a bike. This is a natural time for your parents to reflect on the last 18 or so years and for us, your teachers, to reflect on whatever role we have played in your upbringing. As it turns out, teaching and parenting are closely related.
When my daughter was born, we received the usual tidal wave of gifts – blankets, cute little outfits, and baby gear of all kinds. One gift, in particular, though stood out as it arrived without a note or tag from the sender to indicate who had given it. One day, it simply arrived in my mailbox – its message clear – but to this day I don’t know who sent it. It was a book entitled, The Twelve Gifts of Birth, by Charlene Costanzo and it details the gifts or qualities bestowed upon each of you upon your birth as a human. “Royal dignity was yours from the day you were born,” the book begins – and on that day and on a day such as this all parents and teachers hope their children know these gifts. My role today is to remind you that you do all have them and to implore you to use them consciously and with purpose from this day forward.
The first gift is Hope and each of you were born with it. “Through each passage and season, may you trust the goodness of life,” the author wrote. Along with the gift of Hope come the gifts of Love and Compassion that Ryan just spoke of. This class is a bit unusual in that you have experienced loss more than is typical of your age. You have also demonstrated Hope, Love and Compassion more than is typical of your age. I noted this most recently when you and the Best Buddies group gathered around your classmate, Nico, with love and compassion to celebrate with him as he received a once in a lifetime kind of wish, releasing balloons with him afterward representing your own hopes and wishes for him. As the senior leaders of the school, many of you served as panelists and group facilitators in the Names Assembly earlier this year, risking your own vulnerability to support the hope that our school be as compassionate and supportive as possible – Nick, Sam, Lea, Katie and Christina. There are many other examples – Ryan’s run for cancer, Alex’s community service work in Costa Rica, and Nick Karengekis being named the first ever recipient of a student Global Engagement Award for his work to end human trafficking. As for your losses, I know that some of you have loved ones who are here in spirit today, rather than seated in the audience. I want to remind you of the messages and lessons of Love and Hope they gave you or would have given you on this day: To lead a balanced life and love unconditionally. To go where you want to go to be happy – in your choice of college, and later choice of career – and let the details fall in place later. That success is defined as happiness, not wealth. They would offer a joke or encouragement – and the Scotsman would remind his daughter of the family motto, “I byde it,” which means – appropriately – I endure. You all told me how proud they are of you on this day, for graduating, for continuing with Girl Scouts, for where you’re going to college — and at least one would beam, “That’s my girl.” It was the Hope, Love and Compassion of your class and your community that saw you through – and Hope and Love that surrounds you especially today.
The next three gifts are Imagination – “May it nourish your visions and dreams”; Beauty – “may your deeds reflect its depth”; and Talent – “May you discover your own special abilities and contribute them toward a better world”. One of the best parts of these last four years has been watching this class discover and express their imagination, beauty and talent. Talent that we got to enjoy this morning from Christina, Kyle and Ronnie. Talent like Michaela Tracey’s as she directed Unified Theater and helped to lead others on an inclusive stage – along with Tim, Dominique, Jakub, Carly, Tom, Michelle, Matt, Liam, Conor. I marvel at Abby’s gold key award she won for her writing in a state-wide contest. I admire our artists, Brigette, Katie and many others and Jackie, Juliana and Amy our dancers. Among this group of graduates I count 17 who have earned their state FFA degrees. And of course your athletic prowess as a class has led to nearly too many accolades to count – but, you know I’m going to count them anyway: a girls soccer state championship, a boys cross country state championship; four All-New England athletes, two All-Americans and – of course – – a threepeat for our soccer boys!
Now we come to the gifts of Wisdom, Courage and Strength – and it is here that I would like to spend some time. I applaud the undeniable evidence of these gifts among this class. Examples of Wisdom include Ryan’s raw intellect, Yonina’s studiousness and Kyle’s ability to sweep the Ivy League! As for Strength, I think of Carleigh as she overcame struggle and never complained and Ben’s integrity, one of the best yardsticks to measure strength. For Courage, there’s Davi who came to the U.S. just last year to attend school in a completely new and unfamiliar place – and Nick Santinello and Ryan Jones who will serve in the military after today – thank you, and be safe. And, of course, who can forget the courage of Liam Starr and his winning Mr. Suffield performance as he reminded us all to go bold or go home!
In order to use your gifts of Wisdom, Courage and Strength wisely, you first need to get clear on what it is you stand for, what motivates you to action. Years ago, Mrs. Lombard led the faculty in an activity she always does with her students in Life Ed II. It was the tinfoil sculpture activity –remember that one? — wherein each person is given three squares of tinfoil and asked to craft an item or symbol in just a minute or two that represents something important to you or something you’re passionate about. Your class offered up a fine collection of aluminum sculptures, including one classmate’s globe – representing travel and caring for the world’s environment, another who crafted a baby in a blanket, indicating her intention to work as a pediatric nurse, and a third whose tinfoil dice served to remind us that a portion of life falls to luck and chance.
When Mrs. Lombard led the faculty in this activity, without a second thought I knew my symbol – and I made the scales of justice, representing the cause that motivates me to action more than anything else. It leads me to speak, to work, and sometimes to fight what I find to be unethical, unjust, or just plain wrong. It is my hope that this talented class will use their gifts to stand and fight against injustice wherever you find it in this world. Every year is marked by a small handful of news stories that stand out among the others – your senior year saw the death of Nelson Mandela who, although controversial at times, is rightly credited with his rising up against a system of injustice prevalent in his country of South Africa. We mourned the passing of our local representative, Elaine O’Brien who by all accounts was driven to address systems and circumstances she saw as unfair. And most recently, we heard of the outrageous injustice of the kidnapped girls in Nigeria. The quest for justice is a common thread that connects all of these news stories.
This year, I also learned the story of a young boy named Iqbal Masih and his story illustrates how each of us can fight injustice in our own way in our own world. Iqbal was a young Pakistani boy, who was sold into bondage by his parents at the age of four in order to pay off a debt of what amounted to about $16. He worked for years, chained to a weaving loom, fashioning the tiny knots in Pakistani rugs with his small fingers. Although he worked alongside dozens of other children with the same fate, somehow Iqbal felt inside himself a flame of injustice and rebelled against it at the age of ten by running away from his master. When he did, he happened upon an activist in the village square, making a speech about how child slavery had been outlawed – a surprise to Iqbal – and the young boy told a police officer standing nearby that he, in fact, was a child slave. He led the officer back to his master, anticipating justice. Instead, the officer was bribed by the slave owner and left Iqbal behind – the boy facing a cruel punishment instead of the justice he sought. But Iqbal had courage and strength and soon ran away again, this time finding the man who had given the speech in the village square. He brought the activist back to his master, and this man couldn’t be bought or silenced so all the children in Iqbal’s factory were freed. Iqbal joined the Bonded Labour Liberation Front and became famous because he continued his crusade, actually sneaking into other child-slave-shops, gaining the trust of the children and then triggering a raid on the outfit by the liberation group, freeing over 3,000 children in all. Eventually, he visited other countries, including the U.S., to tell his story and advocate for justice in ending childhood slavery. Ultimately, however, Iqbal was murdered when he returned to Pakistan to visit his family. He was only 12 years old.
News of his death and his story inspired others, including a group of 12 year olds in Canada who formed ‘Free the Children’, an organization that continues today empowering youth to become socially engaged. If 10-year old Iqbal with absolutely no resources could fight against injustice, what’s to stop you? If a group of 12-year olds in Canada can start an organization that within a decade had constructed 500 schools, what can you do at 18, or at 25 or 44?
Apathy and fear are the enemies of justice. In addition, many seem oblivious to injustices in the world or even smaller ones in their own community. Others know, but unless it affects them personally are not moved to act or even to speak. Martin Niemoller, a prominent pastor who opposed the Nazi regime and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, spoke to the dangers of apathy and fear – and how they lead to travesties of justice from those imposed by Hitler to those in your own community. He said, and I quote “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.” End quote.
In nearly every graduation address I have given the advice to live so that you can be honest with your children about your life. If you one day become parents, your job will be to teach your own children how to live in this world through your own actions and the way you navigate the world and its challenges. Your gifts of Wisdom, Courage and Strength will help you to do this. I compel you to use these gifts to help others who perhaps haven’t had the advantages of a good education that you have had, who maybe don’t have the support network you enjoy to make you stronger – or for whatever reason just aren’t as brave as you. Speak, act, fight – and if all else fails walk away from injustice, lest you be considered part of it.
Finally, the last three gifts are Joy, Faith and Reverence. And this part is all about gratitude. Be grateful for the gifts you’ve been given and then share them with others who might not have the same gifts or may have forgotten where to find them. Begin with your parents and those who have cared for you up to this day. This winter, my snowbird parents made an unprecedented trip north to Connecticut in February to remind me of the wealth of support I have in my family. During that visit I took the time to pull my Dad aside and genuinely, earnestly thank him for raising me with a rock solid self-concept. It has been a gift that has served me well through challenges and turmoil and I have used it to help others when I remind them of their good work, their own inner strength and how not to let evil dragons win. What are you grateful for – and to whom do you owe thanks? Tell them — and then share the gifts they gave you.
Hope, Love, Compassion, Imagination, Beauty, Talent, Wisdom, Courage and Strength, Joy, Faith and Reverence – your twelve gifts. In the end, the author’s advice echoes my own: “Use your gifts well and you will discover others, among them a gift that is uniquely you. See these noble gifts in other people. Share the truth and be ready for the miracle to unfold”
To my faculty, it has been an honor and a privilege to serve alongside you in this, our noblest profession. To the Class of 2014 — it has been my honor and privilege to be your principal. Thank you for all that you have taught me. Godspeed.