Let me first thank Mr. Griffin for the opportunity to speak tonight and congratulate the class of 2014 for your hard work. It is a particularly meaningful moment for me as the graduating nines represent the first class I have worked with for all four years of their time in the Upper School. Some of you have had the terrible misfortune of having me for history three of those four years. Thank you all for your patience with my many “Interesting. Why do you think that?” questions.
Now, standing here, there is always the temptation to start pontificating and offering bits of advice for the future. And yet, I am loath to offer this year’s graduates advice. Advice is too often something dispensed by an older person who THINKS he or she knows it all, to a younger person who is CERTAIN he or she knows it all. As a result, advice is generally ignored. But one thing I feel pretty confident about is that I do not know it all, or most of it all, or an even a sliver of it all.
It is actually a wonderful thing, not knowing it all. First off, it means every day I will learn something new. Part of the reason I love working with Shore students, staff, and faculty is that THEY teach me - whether it be how to waterboard, I mean, build a board game about water, how to interpret the New Deal, or how to fill out a purchase order (though I am not sure I am that excited about having picked up that particular piece of Shorian knowledge).
Just as important, knowing that I do not know it all eliminates the fear of not knowing. In other words, I can ask questions of anyone without ever worrying about how stupid they’ll think I am for not already knowing the answer. It is quite liberating. I am particularly fond of questioning taxi drivers whenever I am in a new city: How long are their shifts? How much do they earn per shift? How many people live in the city? What is the average rent? How do you become a taxi driver in this city? What are your most popular pick-up and drop-off points? Where do you go for a great typical meal? By the time I reach my hotel, I have learned more about the city than if I had spent the entire morning reading Trip Advisor.
But crucially, not knowing it all means I can pay closer attention to other people. The needs, ideas, and experiences of those around me take on greater importance because my focus is no longer on me, but on them. I don’t need to think so much about me, because I don’t know anything. Instead, let me try seeing what is happening with these other people and what I can learn from their experiences.
Anyway, that was a long explanation of what this talk is not, it is not advice. What seemed more interesting was to throw out one idea for the graduates to ponder as they move forward in their lives. Again, since I don’t know it all, these are not dictates of how you should think, but rather a topic that has come up over the course of the year, in all the grades that I teach - sixth, eighth, and ninth. It is an idea that intrigued you and me and seems to deserve further consideration.
In the spring of my freshman year in high school, I was waiting in the gym to catch a ride to a baseball game. Long before the time of cell phones, I had forgotten a book to read and so my teammates and I were sitting on the bleachers just waiting, being bored. Then we saw hidden behind one of the pull out stands was a basketball. Now, the logical thing would have been to start playing basketball given that we were in a gym. But no. We had baseball bats with us (for any of you who remember Mr. Hamlin’s talk from a few years ago, this is generally the starting point for a journey down the stupid tube). What better way to pass the time than playing baseball with a basketball? So Richie Radford grabbed the ball and walked to the top of the key to pitch. I grabbed a bat. While my thought was that we were just screwing around, having fun, Richie clearly felt this was his moment to do his best possible pre-steroid Roger Clemens impersonation. He reared back and fired the basketball at me. I swung half-heartedly. Of course, the bat ricocheted off the huge Spalding sphere and smacked right into my forehead. Blood covered my face in seconds.
Theo Epstein ran to the nurse’s office to call my mother. When she heard what had happened, according to Theo, she laughed, called me a moron, and told me she would be there in an hour or so. When she finally did arrive, she called me a moron to my face, not certain that Theo had accurately delivered the message, and then started berating me for the fact that we now had to spend the next 4 to 5 hours at Children’s Hospital waiting to get stitches.
After recovering from a severe case of embarrassment, one of my first reactions to the BASEketball misadventure was: “Wow, that was lucky.” Had the bat hit me a few inches in any other direction, I would have had a broken nose, a split eye socket, or something far worse than seven simple stitches. And sitting in the waiting room, I saw kids with real problems – severe illnesses, broken limbs, battered and bruised and sad. They had not been so lucky.
The topic of luck has come up quite a bit this year. And looking back, the shear amount of luck I have had in my life to allow me to stand here tonight is dumbfounding.
First, I was born. I didn’t have to be. It didn’t have to be me. Could have been some other cute sperm cell. And I was born with no major genetic diseases, to a middle class family with the wherewithal to find decent jobs and provide a loving home life and get me to school on time with a packed lunch. I didn’t deserve that idyllic situation. It just happened.
Even better, for the opportunities life would afford me, I was born a white man. No getting stopped and frisked for me. No store attendants following me around the make sure I buy something. And thank you America, for paying me, on average, twenty percent more than the other half the country’s population for doing the exact same job. As my wife will no doubt confirm, I am not twenty percent better than she is at anything.
And I also happened to be born in 1973. Now being born in the midst of the disco era might not seem like luck to you – though it was a fantastic year for music (Killing Me Softly With His Song, Love Train, Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and the number one song on September 23 was, of course, how it could be anything else to celebrate my birth – Let’s Get It On by Marvin Gaye). However, more to the point, the birth rate in the 1970s was 14 births per 1,000 women ages 15-44, the lowest in the country’s modern history. Also, globalization hadn’t really taken off, meaning it was much harder for people to move around the world to work, study, and live.
What do those two factors mean? David Leonhardt of the New York Times summed it up this way: “For American teenagers, it really is harder to get into Harvard — or Yale, Stanford, Brown, Boston College or many other elite colleges — than it was when today’s 40-year-olds or 50-year-olds were applying. The number of spots filled by American students at Harvard, after adjusting for the size of the teenage population nationwide, has dropped 27 percent since 1994.” So yes, thank you mom and dad for...well, you know – getting it on.
My family also happened to have season tickets to the Boston Celtics right when Larry Bird was hitting his prime. I was there for Game 7 of the 1984 series against the Lakers. I saw Magic’s baby-skyhook, I hugged the large sweaty man seated next to us when Bird stole the ball, and watched in awe as Bird and Dominique decided to play one-on-one in the fourth quarter of the deciding playoff game on May 22, 1988.
And most important, I happened to walk down the right street on the right day, September 9, 1996, at the right time of day and look through the window of La Dolce Vita cafe. There I saw the most beautiful woman in the world serving espressos. And for some amazing bit of luck, she would later agree to marry me.
Now the nines are familiar with the idea of luck from philosopher John Rawls. And just like not knowing it all, luck is a humbling idea. Neither Rawls nor I would argue that life is only luck. There is significance to the effort we put into achieving our dreams. We must plan and practice and search for ways to improve.
But it is interesting how viewing at least a portion of our lives as the product of luck, pure chance, can alter one’s perspective.
If my working at Shore is at least in part due to the lottery of fate that had me born in the early 1970s when very few other babies were born and globalization had not started bringing more international students to study in the U.S., and thus made going to an elite college that much easier increasing the attractiveness of my resume...my take on millennials today struggling to find work, or high school seniors stressing about entering college, might shift from one of “well, the kids these days just don’t work hard enough” to “wow, that is unfortunate. I wonder if there is something I can do to help.”
Alain de Botton, a renowned author, noted in a recent TED Talk that the term for “the poor” in the English language used to be “the unfortunate” -that is, those whom the goddess Fortuna did not favor. The term poor, in some sense, connects who a person is to their current economic status. Is he or she a poor person just because they have less money? You are poor, seems to contain a moral element, as in you are poor because you ARE poor. Referring to someone as unfortunate, however, suggests that he or she might be a perfectly wonderful, hard-working person, but for one reason or another, things just haven’t worked out. de Botton finished his talk by suggesting that, “we have made in the United States a meritocratic society where success is deserved, but failure is also deserved.” But how exactly can I deserve my success or failure, fully, if so much of it depended on luck?
This isn’t to say one term, poor or unfortunate, is necessarily better or worse than the other. They do, however, appear to convey at least two different ways of thinking about the world.
I am lucky to be standing here. That doesn’t mean I don’t also deserve to be standing here, but perhaps much less so that society tends to assume. The concept of luck reminds me that many other people also deserve to be standing here and just weren’t presented with the same lucky breaks I was. And it focuses the mind a bit more on gratitude, on the fate of others, on the unlucky and their needs, and takes the spotlight away from ourselves and our supposed achievements.
We are gathered here tonight to celebrate your achievements over the past four years. And that is right and proper. But let us perhaps also honor those who are not here tonight. Those hundreds and thousands who worked hard, studied long, learned much, but did not have the same good fortune you have had.
As you move forward in life, luck and the lack thereof, might be a useful concept to keep present in your mind.
So from the bottom of my heart, I want to say that it has been an honor and a privilege to work with you and learn from you over the past three or four years. Thank you for your creativity and laughter, for your curiosity and hard work. You have made my life, and the lives of everyone around you, richer and more rewarding. Should you need anything in the future, know that the faculty and staff at Shore are always here to help. We care deeply for you and look forward to seeing how you make this world a better place for all of us. Thank you.