I was invited by the students at Lake Placid High School, Lake Placid, NY to be their Commencement Speaker at their graduation ceremony, June 2013. I have edited out the names of students, faculty, administration and staff members to whom I referred in my speech, in order to preserve their privacy.
Graduation Speech for Lake Placid High School, Lake Placid, New York, delivered on June 21, 2013
Superintendent of the Lake Placid School District ..., President of the School Board ... and members of the School Board, Principal of the Lake Placid High School ..., distinguished Students and Guests on the Podium, Faculty and Support Staff, and especially you awesome students and your families and friends of the Lake Placid High School Graduating Class of 2013! Greetings!
Thank you,..., for your most kind words. And thank you, ..., ...., ..., and ... for recommending me and allowing me the honor and privilege to speak with you all today. And I do mean with you, rather than to you.
I am especially proud and happy to do so because I know so many of you, thanks to ... and ... wonderful class-room collaboration in which many of you read my novel, Shadows Walking. Working with you, with these two teachers and with ..., your librarian, as we explored racial hatred and its hideous consequences in the Nazi era, has been one of the most exhilarating teaching experiences of my life, fulfilling in so many ways.
Today is a day to rejoice! First and most importantly, congratulations to you, graduates of Lake Placid High School Class of 2013! I know how hard you have worked to make this day a reality, how close you are as a class – so many of you have told me—and how you are both eager and apprehensive as you begin the next chapter of your lives. I have seen first-hand, too, how proud you are of your teachers and this school and this community, how committed you are to their thriving and flourishing, just as your flower garden, ..., will, if given proper care. And we in turn are justifiably proud of all of you. I say, again, Congratulations!
Before I go any further, I have an assignment for you all: take the time as soon as you can to write your parents and anyone else who loves you about how much their love and support means to you. I found two such notes that I had written to my mother and to my father after I graduated from high school. My mother and father kept those messages as long as they lived. Showing gratitude is among our most praiseworthy capacities as human beings. I urge you to write another note, too, to the one or two—or ten or more, if you have been truly lucky—teachers and others who have helped you reach this milestone in your lives. Maybe it was a kindergarten teacher or was a crossing guard who took the time to make sure you were safe. Maybe it was a math teacher or English teacher or, I can hope, a social studies teacher who helped you when you needed help or said a kind word when you needed encouragement or praise. Maybe it was a family member or a neighbor or a religious leader. These messages will be treasured more than you can imagine. It’s important to realize that nothing we are or have can be taken for granted. Showing our gratitude is both ennobling and humbling, making it a double blessing.
It may amuse you to know that I cannot for the life of me remember what anyone said at my high school graduation. Of course, that was in 1958—ancient history to most of you. All I could think of was my desire to escape Los Angeles, where I had gone to public school. I wanted to join the Navy and see “the world,” as the sales pitch went. But I needed my mother’s signature to enlist. She refused. Okay, I thought, I’ll go to college. Any college, far away. The further away, the better. And so I did, in New Hampshire. I’ve felt at home in the Northeast ever since. But I was literally lost to my high school classmates. I may have abandoned them, but they had not abandoned me. When I was “found” by classmates who were organizing our thirty-fifth reunion, I found that my once dear and close friends were still dear and close. Perhaps even dearer and closer, since we had not been in touch since 1958 and had a lot of catching up to do.
Please keep the promise to yourself to cherish the friendships that you have now. I don’t believe that will be a hard promise to keep, knowing how close you are to each other. ... and so many others of you told me how important your closeness here in Lake Placid is to you. In this school’s classrooms and hallways, on the playing fields and courts and ice hockey rinks—Go Blue Bombers!—in your homes and haunts, in this wonderful, beautiful community and its wonderous, beautiful setting in the Adirondacks, you have your roots here. Your classmates are indeed an extended family, as many of you have emphasized. Your friends now will be among the closest, dearest and most worthy friends of your entire lives. Choose to keep them close, if not physically, then at least in your hearts and minds. Facebook and other social media will certainly help.
After I was at College for two years, I dropped out. It was 1960, just fifteen years after the end of World War II. I had met a German professor of Jewish ancestry who had left his homeland when Hitler came to power. With his guidance, I began to see that, as a young American Jew, wrestling with my religious identity and with what I wanted to do with my life, I needed to know how such monstrosities could have happened. Germany justifiably could claim a civilization where so many brilliant scientists, mathematicians, physicists, composers, authors and philosophers and artists had once flourished. How could it become so shriveled and warped under the Nazis, a fatal nightmare for so many innocent souls? Not only for millions of Jews, from wherever they could be rounded up in the ghettoes and “transported’ like cattle to slave and death camps, as we know; for the mentally or physically handicapped Germans—the so-called “useless eaters” and those held to be “living lives not worth living” wherever they were institutionalized; for principled Catholics and Protestants who spoke out in their defense; for German communists and socialists and union leaders who opposed the regime; for German gays and lesbians, in their defiance of the regime; for Roma and Sinti (whom we call Gypsies); for pacifists, including virtually all German Jehovah’s Witnesses; for the Slavs and Poles and partisans across Europe who opposed their taskmasters! What disastrous consequences ensued for all who voted for Hitler when the elections were still free, or tried to keep their heads down and endure the regime once it was allowed to come to power! And what determination and enormous sacrifices were required to dislodge this monstrous Reich once it gripped its victims! Resolute, heroic cooperation by the brave Allied forces eventually liberated Europe from the Nazi boot. But the lives lost in the effort! What combination of monstrosities could bring all this about? And what combination of courage and hope could endure, despite the bloodshed of so many innocents, long enough to prevail over such evil? I needed to know, to try and understand how such evil could arise and engulf so many innocent lives.
My College’s president had told us as we sat together for the first time as a class, “Your business here is learning.” Two years later, I decided that I could learn more important things in Germany. When I told the Dean of Students that I wanted to go there, he asked me what I needed. “One hundred fifty dollars,” I said, “in order to live in New York City long enough to sign on board a freighter as a seaman and get to Germany.” To my astonishment, he pulled out his wallet and gave me the bills. As I thanked him, I wondered if he and the Colllege were trying to get rid of me. But I soon learned, he established a fund just for this purpose, to help those of us who wanted to leave College, in order to do something we knew we had to do.
So I went to Germany and found the courageous family that my professor knew would give me work and help me learn German. As I worked for them, I learned of their personal sacrifice and the risks they took—helping to save as many Jews as they could, the family is now commemorated in Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial to Righteous Gentiles. And because they couldn’t speak English and I got hungry, I learned German.
After four months, I enrolled in the nearest German university, meanwhile supporting myself by selling fruit in the market place, driving a truck, working as a short-order cook, translating a film into English, and eventually teaching American English at a school where young Germans interested in foreign languages could gain certification for translation work in industry and in the diplomatic corps. I met and talked with Nazis and those who opposed them, with those who suffered because of them, with anyone I could.
After eighteen months, I returned to my college in New Hampshire to complete my degree – and pay back my Dean. I now had a goal. I would study history, focusing on Germany, hoping to gain my doctoral degree and teach at the university level. I wanted to devote myself to understanding how Germans could turn their backs on their civilization’s proud legacy of achievements, choose to believe in Hitler’s lies, and descend with him into barbarism. If it could happen in Germany, I believed and still believe, it could happen here, in the United States. That, in a nutshell, explains my career. It explains my life-long hope that being mindful of who we are and who we might become may help us avoid a future that will resemble Germany’s under Hitler. Anchoring my intention are two principles: my sincere hope that we can do good when we learn about the consequences of evil; and my faith in our capacity for compassion, from the Latin words, passion, “suffering”, and the prefix, com, “with”. If we can “feel suffering with” others, we must learn how to cultivate this to the fullest degree, in order to overcome our tendency to be indifferent to their suffering.
As Elie Wiesel wrote in Night, his overwhelmingly poignant testimony to his own and his father’s suffering as prisoners of the Nazis at Auschwitz, which many of you read, “… action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” I have hope and faith in cultivating compassion. Without compassion, we are indifferent; we might as well be a stone. With compassion, we are alive, hopeful, energized by our commitment to and with each other. And compassion requires a passion for the truth. As a teacher, I want to believe that I have not acted in vain. And seeing you, knowing you, hearing your questions and your answers to mine, proves at least to me that I have not.
I asked you on the last day I visited with you here to help me focus on what want—and what you don’t want—to hear me say today at graduation. ... wrote on her 3 x 5 card, “What don’t I want to hear: a bunch of lies telling me that I’ll be successful!” Well, ..., I won’t lie to you. Nor will I lie to any of you.
The true st thing that I have ever learned and that you may well already know, too, is this: Nothing lasts. Nothing on earth that we humans have done, do, or will ever do can last. Ideas may last—freedom, equality, justice, the search for truth—at least I hope they will last. But their material manifestations and reflections change. So it is for beauty, and maybe even for what we, with our imperfect understanding, take to be true , until something true r comes along. There may well be eternal, unchanging values, but all change with our changing understanding of the universe and ourselves within it. But don’t despair. I find hope in this. Yes, the good doesn’t last. But the bad doesn’t either. Humbling, and inspiring at the same time.
It’s as though everything has a cycle, a season to be born and to die. History may not repeat itself in the particulars—as Democritus, an ancient Greek philosopher told us long ago: “You cannot put your foot in the same river twice.” To be alive means to exist in time, and time, like a river, is always changing. The problem is then, how to make the good last as long as possible and the bad as short as possible. To do that, you and I and all the rest of us, must do something. As Elie Wiesel said, we must act. And what we do must be based on our compassion with and for each other and, this is important, even with and for those we don’t know—for we all are alike in our hopes and dreams, our desires and, yes, even our fears. Knowing that I am like all others means, to me at least, having joy when others have joy, sharing grief when others grieve, and living with and for others, just as I hope they will have joy, share my grief, and live with and for me, too.
In answer to my question “what do I want to hear?” ... wrote on her 3 x 5 card, “the reality of what awaits me the next few years…” Many others of you, too, wrote to ask this, as though I am a prophet. I appreciate the confidence you may have in me, but as an historian, I am more used to looking backwards, over my shoulder, than forward, toward the future. Still, I don’t want to duck this assignment.
First, I urge you to be mindful of what you think constitutes “success.” You may be materially successful: have an influential, prestigious career, with a paycheck to match; homes here and there; cars; become a glamorous celebrity or at least associate with those who are. That may be define “success” for some, but for me it’s a shallow, hollow, and even painful existence, fraught with worry at every step. Being only materially successful is not the kind of happiness that your families and your teachers and I would wish for you. Becoming a loving person. Becoming a creative, thoughtful person. Becoming a caring, helpful, engaged and responsible person. Striving to do good where you can. I urge you to have a different, more spiritual yardstick for your future lives. Be mindful who you want to become. In my first year at College, Reverend William Sloane Coffin, long before he became famous for opposing the Viet Nam War, warned us to guard against striving for material gain: “It’s a rat race out there,” he said, “and even if you win it, you are still a rat.” I agree. There are too many greedy rats in the world already.
And second, life is not fair. It has never been fair. Think of the children and teachers at Newtown, Connecticut. Think of the attacks on 9/11. Think of the countless innocents whose lives have, through no fault of their own, been taken through the violence we see or read about in our history books and newspapers or see in the nightly news. At the very least, living is difficult. And it’s never been any different, for any generation, although I will grant you that the challenges to “living happily ever after” are more difficult now. We will still have the usual man-made crises—war, famine, disease—you don’t have to be a prophet to see that. As we continue to populate—and now, some would say, over-populate—and pollute our beautiful, blue marble of a planet, beyond all levels previously recorded, we will increasingly face the dilemma of providing enough water, food, shelter, and the chance to flourish in all the ways human beings are capable of flourishing. Grim, but you asked me to be honest, ....
Still, the world is wide and at your feet. If youth is wasted on the young, retirement is wasted on the old. I would love to be able to travel again—as you did ... and ..., to Africa to plant gardens, or as you did with your family, ..., visiting Israel, or as you did, ... and ..., in China. Wherever you go, be there in every sense of the word, “be.” You will learn a great deal about others and about yourself. And there is no joy quite like coming home and seeing how much you have to be grateful for.
I don’t blame any of you for being fearful, as so many of you said you were when you handed in your 3 x 5 cards. My generation and our leaders in business, industry and politics have not done a very good job of protecting you from the sense of feeling insecure and at risk. I know you are anxious about your city, your state, your nation, your planet. You barely know who you are and what you will do with your lives, and we are asking you to make choices that will cost you time and considerable effort, to say nothing of money, in order to achieve the futures you promise yourselves.
The prominent Yale psychologist, Erik Erikson, discussed the several stages through which a normal American youth develops his or her personality. He wrote that at about your age, as young adults eighteen or so, you develop your unique identity, and he called that an “identity crisis.” I don’t like the sound of that. I’d rather say, you have a challenge, an identity challenge or opportunity to discover yourself.
So, here’s my second assignment: Soon, when celebrating today’s accomplishment is done and you have time to reflect, before you do whatever you do with the rest of your lives, I want you to take some time to “remember the future you promise yourselves.” (I borrow the phrase from a beloved colleague, ..., whom some of you in the Model OAS may know.) And if you don’t yet know what future that will be, stay open to opportunities to find it. And when you do find it, pursue it with all your heart and soul.
Make a commitment to yourself to be present at every moment in your life. Make a commitment to yourself to invest yourself to the fullest extent possible in learning and then doing what you believe you must do.
And be patient, for nothing worth doing is not worth doing well, even if you don’t succeed the first, or the fifth time. Be willing to learn from your mistakes, and be willing to do something that proves you have learned from them.
Take inspiration from those who have helped you most. You know in your heart that you ought to be grateful. No one does anything all by himself or herself. And be forgiving of others as well as yourself. No one can live very long before he or she will make a mistake. Indeed many mistakes. You will make mistakes. We all do. You need to forgive those you can forgive. And let the others go. For other’s sake. And for your own.
Be willing to show your love. I know that many of you have fond memories and great remorse that a beloved class-mate is not among you today. Thank you, ..., for helping me learn about your loss. In showing your compassion, and your grief, you are indeed closer as a class and you ennoble your friend and all of you as well.
Above all, be mindful. This is what I wanted to be told when I was your age, ... . And I know you will, ..., and you, .... And you, .... And you, .... (Lucky Middlebury!) And you, .... And you, ..., thinking already of your sister, .... And you, .... And you, .... And you, .... And you, .... And you, ..., with your energy and determination. And you, ..., with your thoughtfulness and willingness to help others. And you, .... And you, especially, .... I regret more than I can say not being able to name you all. But all of you, become ever more mindful. Practice being mindful. Become more fully aware of your own innate worth as a human being and of the innate worthiness, without exception, of all human beings. We come in various shapes, sizes, hues, strengths and weaknesses, ages and abilities, genders and creeds but we all have fundamental, inalienable rights: to flourish to the best of our ability; to become whatever we choose to become, so long as we allow others those same rights; to love each other and to allow others to love us in turn. Being mindful means finding balance in your lives, helping others find this balance, this harmony, and cultivating it as you would the most precious thing in the universe. As the brilliant poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “The Summer Day,” think often and deeply about “your one wild and precious life.”
Beware most of allowing yourself or anyone else to use any human being as a means to an end. All that stands between us and brutality, is indifference to the sufferings of others.
Finally, do not take anyone or anything for granted. Remember, nothing lasts. Celebrate each day for the gift it is. And so, we celebrate with you today, Graduating Class of 2013 at Lake Placid High School … you are AWESOME!