President Chabotar’s Charge to the Class of 2003
At this point I am supposed to deliver the charge to the graduating Class of 2003, and so I shall. Let’s pretend just for a moment that all these others, including friends and family, are not here. It’s you and I having conversation.
It’s a little pretentious for anyone and even a president to give advice to graduates with such a wide range of experience and accomplishment. At one time I thought I knew all the answers. I stood on certain ground. In reality I probably didn’t even know the right questions. What can I possibly tell you?
I have an idea. After every class I taught at Bowdoin College, I would try to provide a few guideposts for the students. A few weeks ago, many of those same students traveled from as far away as Europe and California and as close as Washington D.C., to attend my inauguration. There was at least one student from every graduating class at Bowdoin from 1993 to 2003. When I was speculating what I would say at Guilford’s commencement, they suggested, in the strongest possible terms, that I at least base my remarks today on what I told them then. They call it “The Speech.” So here it goes:
My favorite movie is Dead Poet’s Society. You remember that Robin Williams flick where he plays a supremely dedicated and ultimately tragic teacher at a prep school. It gives us two themes for today: 1. Carpe diem. 2. Live your passion. Let me add a third: 3. Make a difference.
First, carpe diem (seize the day). Make every day count, personally and professionally. Do something toward your goals. Don’t be a victim. Remember the advice in the Nike ad? Just do it. Remember Yoda in Star Wars?: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Seize the day! Look for a job. Do a term paper. Appreciate your friends. Love your Mom and Dad, your family, friends, a child. Adopt the lyric that I heard once in a New York City dance club: What have you done today to make you feel proud?
Most people wait until later — there’s always time. Maybe not. The student shootings at Columbine High School a few years back — Talk about one of life’s wake up calls. Isaiah Shoals walked into school in the morning — never walked out because he was black. Rachel Scott never walked out because she believed in God. And all the folks in the World Trade Center or in the planes on 9/11 — a totally unexpected catastrophe that touched us all deeply and some personally. They had no tomorrows. Do it today.
Second, make a difference. We are so lucky to be here. The United States is far from perfect. But there are five billion people in the world who would trade places with us in an instant. Guilford College is not ideal but I am grateful to be here and I hope you feel that way too. So what do we do about it? President Kennedy told us 42 years ago: “For of those to whom much is given much is required.”
Making a difference can have consequences small and large and often unexpected. You never know where your influence stops. That’s my definition of teaching, by the way. It’s like dropping a pebble into a pond. The ripples spread out quickly and soon beyond your angle of vision. Making a difference is a retail process. You do it one person at a time. There’s a story about a young woman who walked down a beach tossing as many small starfish as she could back into the sea to save them. An old man passed by and scoffed, “Why are you doing that? There are a million starfish. You can’t save them all. How do you think you’ll make a difference?” The woman’s eyes flashed. She reached down, she picked up a starfish, and she threw it way out over waves and into the sea. Then she turned to the old man and exclaimed, “Well, I — made — a — difference to that one.”
If anyone at Guilford College helped you, pass it on. If someone got you a job, help someone else find one. If you received financial aid here, aid someone else when you can afford it. If you had a mentor here, mentor a student or someone else down the road. If a friend consoled you when you were sad or supported you when you were lost, do the same for others.
Third, live your passion. Life is too short to live by conventional wisdom or by other people’s expectations. The memorable Broadway show, La Cage Aux Folles, reminds us:
Life’s not worth a damn.
Unless you can shout out, I am what I am.
Many of my friends hate their jobs. That is a tragedy. Have the courage that Robert Frost wrote about:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Adopt the alarm clock test. What’s that? When you have a job and every day when the alarm clock rings, how do you feel about getting up? If you’re psyched about going to work, and being with colleagues and customers hopefully doing good and well, you’ve passed the test. If you’re miserable and depressed day after day, perhaps it’s time for a job change before it’s too late. And one day, you’ll get up and just know.
The alarm clock test was the advice of my best friend in high school: Bob Dobuski. Bob and the test are so memorable because of what we shared on Nov. 22, 1963, a day on which everyone over the age of 7 or so at the time remembers exactly what we were doing. Believe it or not I was once a senior in high school. Bob and I were in Washington, D.C., for a college interview. Around noon, we left the campus and went up to the U.S. Capitol to see the Senate in session. Bob was our student body president in high school and I could not get myself elected dogcatcher, so we both figured we had something to learn about politics.
We were in the Senate Gallery. Suddenly, a page came in, handed the presiding officer a note (in fact I think it was Sen. Edward Kennedy), and the blood instantly drained from his face. He left the floor immediately. The Senate went into executive session and all the visitors, including Bob and me, were tossed out. We did not know what had happened. The Capitol was a mad house. We started hearing rumors that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas. A person in an elevator said it was by flag-waving John Birch conservatives. Another person announced that both President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson had been killed so the very elderly speaker of the U.S. House, John McCormack, was president.
So here we are, two 17-year old kids. What do we do? If you’ve been to D.C., one side of the U.S. Capitol faces down the mall to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. The other side faces on government office buildings. That’s where we went and sat on the steps in a daze. Each building had flags flying in the breeze. About 2:30 or so, the flags began to be lowered, one at a time. We knew that the President was dead. Three months later, Bob was killed in an accident. He never had a chance to live his passion. I did. And I was determined to use the alarm clock test and everything else we shared to live my passion.
Later that summer, Robert Kennedy addressed the Democratic National Convention. In his speech, he quoted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet about the death of his brother John F. Kennedy, who lived his life with passion and panache as he would want to and made a difference.
When he shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
Teaching is my passion, not this president stuff. I was not paid to teach at Bowdoin. Some might say that the college got what it paid for. In fact, I will not be paid to teach here at Guilford next year. In fact, I’d pay both colleges for the privilege. A scene from a movie that says it all. It was The Magnificent Yankee, a life of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Holmes was a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1902 to 1932 and has been called the most illustrious figure in the history of American law. At the end of the movie, all 30 of his law clerks, one for each year he was on the court, are invited to Holmes’ retirement party. They line up in order of appointment from the youngest to the oldest. Holmes went down the line chatting with them, and remembered anecdotes or something about each former clerk, some of whom also had amazing careers in the law or other professions.
I’m no Holmes. Not half as smart or a fourth as wise. But for me the line also extends back 30 years to 1972 when I began teaching: Michigan State University: Larry, Pat, Ellen. UMass Boston: Deb, Walter, Michael. Harvard: Phil, Linda, Tom, Jon. Through Bowdoin: Tommy, Herley, Holt, Marc, Jeff, Nick, Joanie, Sarah. And now Guilford: Tanisha, Steve, James, Josh, Emily, Elizabeth and so many more. In my mind’s eye, all those faces are as real and alive and hopeful to me today as they were when we connected last year or 10 years or 20 years or 30 years ago.
So. first, make a difference. Second, seize the day. Third, live your passion.
A final word to the senior class. Your four or five or six or however many year pit stop at Guilford College is coming to an end. Four or how ever many of the best years of your life so far. Whether it was on the quad during Serendipity Weekend or playing soccer on the verdant fields near Friendly Avenue or studying in Hege Library on a quiet fall evening; Acting, writing, painting, sculpting, or playing in a sublimely creative journey just like Chekov, Angelou, O’Keefe, Rodin and Bach. Probing the mysteries of chemistry, physics, biology, and geology in classrooms, labs, and in earnest discussions with professors who cared. Debating the politics, philosophies, and psychologies of presidents and kings, CEO’s and workers, evangelists and prophets, tyrants and liberators, and people who mattered. Trying to balance children and homework, job demands, and some small echo of a personal life while running to a CCE class or just talking with colleagues at the close of a very long day. Whether it was by yourself in front of a computer in Bauman, with a friend in Ragan-Brown or the Moon Room, with your class in Duke or Frank, with an audience in Dana or Sternberger, or just walking this stunning campus near King Hall on a flowering spring day.
Don’t forget your college, and I don’t mean just annual giving! Every now and then if you’re on a busy street corner in New York City or Atlanta rushing to an investment bank or church or school. In a rural area in Southeast Asia or Latin America ministering, teaching or touring. Studying law at Harvard, business at Duke, or social work at Chicago. Or just hanging out with family and friends. Whatever. Every now and then let your thoughts turn to 2003 and a little college in North Carolina. Every now and then pause and remember. O.K., thanks for listening. And, in the words of Mr. Spock of Star Trek: “May you live long and prosper.”
May 10, 2003