Model High Baccalaureate Address

The following address was given during Model Laboratory High School’s Baccalaureate service, held at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Richmond, KY on 5/20/2012.

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Thank you Abby for that splendid introduction.  I’m grateful to pastor such a wonderful young woman, and I’m honored to celebrate this occasion with you all.   Congratulations are in order—you are on the brink of a great achievement. In but a few short days you will be wearing the garments of a new identity.  Unlike that time you wore bell-bottoms to the skinny jeans party—remember that?  That was awkward…—you will each don a graduation robe and share in a special moment.

Soon, very soon, that special moment when your name is called will make you over into someone new—a high school graduate.  Are you ready?

You are probably more than ready to be through with class assignments, papers, and projects; you are probably ready to be finished with the drudgery of busy work and attending school 5 days a week, 7 hours a day; yes, summer is here with all its freedom, vacations, and pool parties.  But are you read to be a new you?  Are you ready to be a high school graduate?

The truth is that such a new you is as scary as it is wonderful.  This new you will no longer have a high school home to attend.  This new you may wonder which of your high school friends and relationships will endure the coming months and years.  This new you may wonder whether you are prepared for the schooling or work that stands before you.  This new you may wonder whether you can cut it in a competitive world.

Now most baccalaureate addresses would, at this point, move to describe all the promise and possibility that awaits you.  You might expect me to say that you can each reach for the stars and bask in the heavenly light of success.  After all, you’ve made it this far, right?  I suspect you each have great potential and that exciting possibilities wait for your minds, hands, and hearts.  In fact, I saw a tweet that claimed Model’s 49 graduating students are responsible for $1.25 million in scholarships. You are poised for success.

But let’s be honest.  We live in a world where failure happens every day.  We live in a world where challenges and difficulties persistently punctuate life, even for the most accomplished.

Undoubtedly you have heard the woes of college students sinking in student loan debt.  As if that wasn’t a frightening enough prospect, likely you know that jobs are not as abundant as we would hope.  We hear stories of Ivy League educated investment bankers canned on Wall Street and loyal assembly-line workers who see their plants shut down on Main Street.

Beyond jobs, our political culture is increasingly torn between idealogues who make no room for compromise or common ground—often times leaving the poor and sick to suffer.  Socially, we are becoming more fragmented and isolated; we only ever associate with people like ourselves.  Church is often a case in point—it’s still the most segregated day of the week.

And the gloom appears thicker and thicker by the day.  Scientists of many stripes warn that our patterns of environmental harm and over-consumption will jeopardize the sustainable future of our planet.

Yes, the world is ripe with problems.

Soon you will be part of this world in a new way—as a high school graduate—are you ready?

Many would say what you need is a good attitude and a cheery mind.  A little optimism and positive thinking will cure the gloomy air, right?  If you stay positive then success will surely be yours…

I’m not a big fan of “optimism” or “positive thinking.”  Optimism is what the political theorist William Connolly considers a spectator sport—the kind of thing people do from the sidelines or the stands, not from the field of life.

And I would suggest that “positive thinking” is an even more shallow form of optimism.  It’s an artificially cheery mindset no matter what the circumstance—often ignoring reality and failing to truly change things.  As if furrowing our brow or thinking happy thoughts would just make our plight brighter or the world a better place.

I suspect we need less optimism and more honesty.  We need less positive thinking and more critical thinking.  Critical thinking is the art of engaging life in all its complex reality.  And the life of a high school graduate is complex in its challenges, difficulties, and promises.  Which is precisely what makes your new identity so important—what will it take to make a difference and live successfully in a world where failure, heartache, disappointment, and momentous challenges accompany life?

I would propose to you this afternoon that you are each poised for success, ready for the world ahead, not because you can think more positively or because you can decide to be optimistic; no, you are poised for success and ready for the world ahead because you can continue to unleash your love.  Love meets the world as it is; honestly, attentively, courageously.

And I believe that your graduation is a demonstration of love—it represents successful study and learning.  And studying and learning are nothing less than acts of love.  No, not the fuzzy, warm feeling we often associate with that word; I’m talking about love as the deep desire for goodness, truth, justice, and beauty.  You have loved learning and education enough to come to this point in your life—to graduate. Now maybe it didn’t always feel like that.  Maybe you didn’t enjoy all your classes, teachers or projects; or even all your classmates.  But studying, learning, however tedious and dull it can be at times, that is the subtle art of training yourself to love knowledge and pursue truth.

The world we live in will not be transformed and made better by a few more cheery optimists or starry-eyed positive thinkers.  To truly meet the challenges and difficulties that are ahead for us as a people—as a community, as a nation, and as a world—we need people who know that challenges exist, problems persist, and that failure is a possibility. We need people who love truth, and in loving truth seek goodness, justice, and beauty; that is, we need young people who love truth enough to boldly risk failure, to depart from the status quo, to make big changes, to explore adventurous ideas that will transform the world.

Ellie Wiesel, an author and Jewish survivor of the holocaust, writes that hate is not the opposite of love—it is apathy.  He witnessed the hatred of the Nazi regime in its genocide of the Jewish people.  But he also witnessed the apathy of the German people—ordinary, kind-hearted folk—who said nothing, who did nothing while the Jewish people were rounded up and sent off to concentration camps.

What threatens the world we live in are people—including young people—who do not care, who take no part in the challenges and difficulties that affect us all.  We need people, especially young people, who care about our problems, who love what is good and true, and who commit themselves to unleashing their knowledge and creativity to make the world a better place.

You can do that because you can love. I believe you can do that because, as a high school graduate, you have demonstrated that your heart is ready to grow.

Go, my friends, and enter the world with your new identity. The world needs you.  The world needs your bold love.  Are you ready?

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