On May 23, 2017 I delivered this commencement speech to the graduating class of Basis Chandler, a charter school populated by impressively high achieving students. It is a speech specifically geared to that graduating class, but I hope there may be a few provocative thoughts for all.
Graduates, parents, relatives, faculty, friends of the school and friends of the graduates.
Bless me Class of 2017, I am angry. I am angry at what we have become in this country.
I am angry that unfeeling airlines are tossing families off airplanes because they can’t figure out how to move their own staff around the country.
I am angry that loud, irrational pundits, on the right and the left are spouting outrageous vitriol with no regard for facts or sensitivity.
And, I am angry when callous congressmen say things like, ”Nobody dies because they don’t have health care.”
I am angry because it seems compassion is dying. Heather Figallo, the Customer Experience and Innovation chief of Southwest Airlines recently said in a private conference, “the clinical definition of compassion is I feel another’s suffering and I have the ability to alleviate it.”
This country used to care about the least of our brethren, now, not so much. So many people seem to care about nothing beyond themselves. Everything is focused on me, me, me. Self-interest dominates our thinking.
And even worse, so many people seem to be drawing into themselves. Several times in the last several weeks I have heard people say, “The world’s problems are too big, I can’t affect them so I don’t care.”
That is absolute rubbish. It may well be true that you can’t figure out what to do about North Korea, or health care or race relations, but each one of us can make a difference in this world if we look out and not in.
We can commit random acts of kindness. We can put together bags of food for the homeless. We can clean up the park. We can do countless things to make our world better and each kind act we do changes attitudes about those big issues.
As I prepared for tonight’s speech my anger started to subside and my normal positive peachy-keen attitude started to reappear because of this very graduating class.
You see, about three months ago I sat down with six of the graduates who are in the hall tonight. It was a delightful and educational conversation. It became apparent that this class is incredibly bright, completely driven and precociously attuned to critical thinking. But you all knew that.
Something bigger caught me by surprise. I asked the students what they would talk about if they were giving the graduation speech. To a person, those graduating seniors said they would discuss the remarkable four years they have spent with their classmates. They talked of their camaraderie, their empathy for each other and the genuine bonding they have experienced despite the built-in diversity of this school.
I admit my first reaction to that universally held belief of the students was a bit of disdain. I am not a nostalgic fellow. I think wishing for yesterday is a futile and even phony search akin to dreaming of rainbow stew.
However, as I reflected, I started to think about the students’ desire to celebrate their close-knit class in the context of history. I love history that teaches. My favorite author is a man named Steven Johnson who studies history to understand what is worth replicating in innovation and creativity. His brilliance illuminates new paths forward.
When these students told me of their bond with other students, their cherished memories of coming together to learn and achieve and their recognition that each person has value, they were telling me that the most important thing they have learned at Chandler Basis was the power of community.
That lesson can save our fragmented society and guarantee individual and professional success.
Community is what we are lacking in America today and yet Community is what those students were valuing so deeply.
The students who talked to me spoke of how the gauntlet of high school at an academically challenging place was so much easier because students were close. Students worried about one another. Students easily moved from one group to another because the differences were small.
It was obvious to me the students felt incredibly supported by faculty and parents. It was just as obvious these particular students trusted other students because everybody is smart and everybody has basic confidence in their own abilities.
I believe, based on the students I talked to, that the Basis Chandler class of 2017 has learned the fundamentals of real community.
In real community, the group interest triumphs over individual interest.
In real community, the shared struggle creates an unbreakable bond outsiders cannot break.
In real community members find joy and victory only when everyone succeeds.
In real community the individual does well, but not at the expense of others, all boats can rise when my boat rises.
It is truly remarkable that a graduating class has discovered such a strong sense of community. It is a treasure beyond words.
Abraham Lincoln closed his inaugural address with these words which should speak volumes to us today: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
My charge to you is simple and clear. Leave tonight and pursue that same sense of community in the world you are going to encounter.
Don’t make it all about you. Make it about us.
Use the community building skills you have learned in the class of 2017 to build small, powerful communities wherever you go. Communities that will show compassion for those who struggle. Communities that truly make a difference because of the common bonds the community embraces.
Treasure your four years here at Basis Chandler Basis but never, never forget the power of community you learned here.
Let the better angels of your nature flourish.