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Advice to incoming high-school freshmen: be bold and be kind

About a week ago, Namaste Charter School invited me to be the guest speaker at their commencement ceremony.  This is the speech I prepared:

Thank you to Namaste Charter School for the opportunity to take part in this celebration. It’s an honor to be here to celebrate your milestone. Today, you receive a diploma from a school that has always believed you carry an individual, bright light, your own spirit, inside. After today, you will carry that light inside of you and go on to other places where you can use that light to help yourself and help others during your teenage years.

You’re teenagers going on to high school now. Maybe you feel excited . . . or nervous . . . or hopeful . . . or frightened . . . or confused . . . But I hope you leave today feeling optimistic. I hope you leave today with your diploma in hand feeling hopeful and joyful about the opportunities that await you.

I have two children who attend Namaste. My son is going into 7th grade; my daughter is going into 4th.

I drive them to school every morning. And right before they get out of the car, I tell them the same thing every morning: be bold and be kind.

So that’s what I’d like to tell you this afternoon as you move forward in life: be bold and be kind.

I have to remind myself to be that way too sometimes. Because being bold isn’t easy.

Being bold means that we believe in ourselves, in our ideas, in our ability to choose, and, in our ability to recognize when we’ve made a mistake.

Being bold means we will speak up when others won’t. And it means we will be ourselves even when other people criticize us.

The staff at Namaste told me that you worked on social justice projects this year. Always work for social justice. Always use your intellect to explore ideas and produce ideas that will make your homes, our communities, and our city better places.

Learn and talk about the things that interest you—even if other people say it’s boring or dumb or a waste of time.

I’m a high-school English teacher. I teach at Hancock College Prep by 55th and Pulaski.

A few weeks ago, a student who was graduating told me that he didn’t want to go to college, even though he got accepted with a full scholarship to a community college, because he felt dumb.

And I encouraged him and told him how good his writing is when he works hard on it. But then I challenged him a little. I asked him, “Do you read?”

I’m not talking about reading Facebook posts or memes. I’m talking about reading books, poems, articles in magazines. Do you read?

And he said, “No.”

And it reminded me of a conversation I had with some good friends over dinner a few months ago.

We’re all in our 40s. We were all the first or one of the first to go to college in our families. We talked about what helped us find a path to and through college.

You know what it was? We read. We liked to read. We made ourselves read.

So I told my student: “if you want to be smart, feel smart, live smart—then read. And if you don’t, then don’t sit around talkin’s about how ‘I feel dumb.’ If you don’t want to feel dumb, then read. If you don’t read, then don’t complain about feeling dumb.”

Because when we get to see words on a page and images in our minds, we begin to see that there is more to the world. In those difficult moments, we can read about other people going through similar challenges as us. We can realize we are not alone. And we can believe in ourselves again. We can be bold.

So please find something you find interesting and read. Read so you can be bold.

And be kind.

Namaste tells me that your graduating class is very accepting of each other. May you always be accepting of others who think differently, who talk differently, who look different, who are different.

The fact that you are accepting of each other is a compliment to the work of the caring and competent staff at Namaste. And it’s a compliment to the homes you come from.

But most importantly it’s a compliment to you. Because YOU are the ones who decide to be accepting. In high school, in your teen years, you are going to have to face many situations where YOU have to decide what to do. So I hope you will be kind. Say “Hi” to the kid who looks lonely and scared at school. Invite someone who is eating lunch by him or herself to sit with you.

Tell someone that you found their ideas interesting even if you think differently. And if someone is mean and makes fun of someone else, the easiest and most powerful way to be kind is simply not to laugh.

And if you or someone needs help, ask an adult your trust for help.

As I was preparing for this speech, I asked some of my high-school students what I advice they wanted to pass along. Here’s what some of them said.

One student said to join at least one after-school activity. Get involved. That is how you make friends and memories in high school.

You don’t always have to follow the crowd. Friends aren’t everything. There’s a high chance that your elementary school friends won’t be your friends after freshman year.

Surround yourself with friends who will support you and who you can support.

Whatever you decide to do will carry on with you until your graduate whether it’s good or bad.

Do your work on time. Because if you don’t do it the first time, you won’t do it the second time.

You know you’re doing something wrong if you have to lie to your parents.

Don’t pretend to be who you aren’t. Be yourself and you will find meaningful friends. Not everyone you meet will leave a good impression on you and not everyone will accept you for you.

People think that in high school we’re supposed to know who we are and what we want to be. On the contrary, you are constantly finding yourself every day.

Parents, this one goes out to you. Help your children find themselves. The biggest mistake I see parents making with high-school students is that they step back and leave everything up to the teenager. Then they get furious when the teenager cuts school or fails a whole bunch of classes.

The other mistake is that parents do not give teenagers responsibilities at home. So the teenagers grow up thinking they don’t have to be responsible. Give them responsibilities at home.

They still need you. The best thing we can do for teenagers is tell them what they do well. Compliment them. Tell them their hair looks nice. Tell them they did a good job washing the dishes. Tell them you are proud of them—and tell them why. And don’t expect anything in return. Just tell them what they do well.

That’s how we build our teenagers’ confidence.

And—please—do not give them everything. Thirteen year-old boys who get everything they want turn into unambitious, selfish eighteen year-old men. Thirteen year-old girls who are given everything grow up to arrogant, self-centered eighteen year-old women.

Parents have the best intentions. We want to give our children what we didn’t have. But we succeeded because we did not have everything growing up. When we give our kids everything, they appreciate nothing.

So graduates, today, I trust you will appreciate the diploma. Because the diploma from Namaste Charter School with your name on it shows that you have kept your inner light shining strong and bright. And as you go on to high school, remember that light inside of you. Because it will tell you if you are doing the right thing. And if things get difficult and you feel that light starting to dim, find an adult you trust and tell them what you feel.

I wish you success and opportunities. And may you always find the courage to be bold and be kind.

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