Education Guest Writers

A Commencement Speech by Alec Jacobson

Recently, my super cool, crazy smart nephew was selected by his peers to deliver the commencement speech at his high school graduation which took place this past Sunday, June 25, 2011.

Our entire family was beyond overjoyed, and we joked that we would all need to wear Depends because, in real life, Alec is pee-in-your-pants funny! It is my understanding that during his last week of school, Alec wore some crazy stuff: weird retro sneakers; a hat with a pocket on it; a sleeveless, neon green pinny with the word “RUN” on it printed in hot pink. He was also spotted carrying a teenie-tiny, little Buzz Lightyear backpack, the kind of bag a little boy might tote to school on his first day of kindergarten. (It is also my understanding that everyone thought that his outfits and accessories were “off the chain.”)

I couldn’t wait to hear what Alec would say when he addressed the Class of 2011!

Here is what Alec said.

(NOTE: I edited Alec’s speech a bit for the sake of brevity. Please know Alec did all the niceties. He thanked the student officers, his teachers from kindergarten through twelfth grade, his parents, his siblings, and all the people who voted for him to speak. He also named specific individuals and rather than run around town getting written consent forms from everyone he mentioned, I simply omitted these specific references and kept things general.)

Alec post graduation, 2011

Good afternoon everyone.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Alec Jacobson.

When I found out that I was going to be speaking at graduation, it was actually quite anti-climactic.

I was sitting by myself in The Commons during homeroom, waiting for first period Gym to start, when I heard Mr. W. come on the announcements and say: “And congratulations to Alex Jacobson for being elected to speak at graduation.”

You can imagine that after I heard that I was pretty befuddled because:

a) I was trying to play the word “SPEAKER” on “Words with Friends”;

b) I never in a million years thought I would have enough friends to vote for me to speak; and

c) there was literally nobody in The Commons to whom I could turn and share my excitement.

So it was just me, my contained bliss, and a tad bit of rage due to W’s mispronunciation of my name.

But I got over it.

I alerted my mother of the news via text only to have her respond in all caps with: “OMG! OMG! Who are you?! Probably not my son.”

And then my sister texted me, “Congrats! You’re amazing.”

Never in my life would I have expected to be here.

Just a few weeks ago, I sat at the Senior Banquet when it hit me that we’re actually finished with high school. I remember looking around, and taking everything in, and I realized that we LOOK all grown up. Four years ago, all of us looked feeble, immature and — to be honest — awkward. I mean, I was just a short little red-head, a “ginger,” with very few friends. But now, we are adults.

We are old.

I may or may not still have red hair, but wow, we are a good-looking class.

More importantly, look at how far we have come.

For us, the future is bright.

The reality is that most of our high school years will be a blur. Sure, we’ll remember our good friends, our favorite teachers. We’ll remember our prom dates and those countless sectional titles that the boys’ and girls’ teams brought home. But the reality is that these events did not define us as a class. It is the people who have made this class truly one of a kind.

When looking at our class, many people define us by our intelligence. Sure, it is pretty incredible having students attending Harvard and Princeton and Yale. And nine going to Cornell. And while that is super impressive, the more defining aspect of our class is our diversity. We have people going to music school, business school, art school. Pre med majors, pre-law majors, and math majors. Future doctors, lawyers and CEOs right in this room seated before us. Because the truth is that this class is not only one of the most intelligent in our school’s history, but also one of the most unique.

For us, however, high school is just the beginning. It may seem like the end and, sure, it is the end of a remarkable four years. More importantly, this graduation marks a new beginning to our young lives. After all, I am giving a commencement speech, and the word “commence” means to begin.

I know it is sad, looking around right now and realizing that this may be the last time we are all together as a single, unified group. Tomorrow morning, I personally, will be going to camp for the entire summer, so to many of you, this is my goodbye. But I hate leaving things on a somber note, so I want you all to know that not only will I be back, but we’ll all be back: to make sure that our four years of high school aren’t just that blur. So I guess this isn’t truly goodbye, but an “until we meet again.”

In the meantime, go out and do something fun. Do something great with your summer and whatever lies ahead. For those of you who haven’t already seen it, watch the movie Into the Wild and tell me with a straight face that you don’t immediately want to immerse yourself in nature and discover your true self.

And like Mark Twain said: “Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” Don’t rely on others to teach you things. Discover them yourselves because now we are on our own and the future lies in nobody’s hands but ours. Right now, we may think  “these are the best days ever,” but they won’t be. We have so much more to do.

So go on out, Class of 2011, and live large.

Because as my friend penned in my yearbook: “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live large?

Alec’s friend touched on the elusive American Dream when he asked: “Doesn’t everybody deserve to live large?”

It’s a great question.

An affluent district that has been relatively untouched by the recession, I saw students fortunate to have such amazingly strong foundations. They have been able to concentrate on academic excellence. They have been able to focus on homework rather than having to work to help their parents make ends meet. They have lived in homes –  nice ones with green lawns. They have had pets to cuddle and closets filled with the right clothes. Many have taken expensive vacations abroad. They have not gone to bed hungry. They have gone to bed in their own beds.  As I looked around, I was strangely struck by how wealthy the school district in which I reside truly is. Not only in terms of fiscal resources, but in the fact that students are, for the most part, emotionally well supported.

Precious few have to tiptoe nervously in a world of instability.

And that is a blessing I am not sure they even realized.

When the Class President spoke, she quipped to parents in the audience that they needn’t fret about losing touch with their children because everyone is simply a text or Skype away.

This implied the ownership of laptops and/or cellphones.

No one batted an eyelash.

Of course these students have laptops and cell phones and unlimited calling plans.

It is implied that these students are going to live large.

For these students, the future is bright.

But I think about other students graduating from other districts, too — where the American Dream appears to have dried up. Where students are starting out in a slump. And as Dr. Seuss noted in Oh, the Places You’ll Go, “Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” I imagine Alec’s optimistic message was perhaps, a little different from other commencement speeches held around the country where the concept of graduation as a new beginning is something being met with less optimism and more uncertainty.

My nephew wrote a great speech which he delivered beautifully — and with a fair bit of self-deprecating humor.

His peers voted him “Most Likely To Become President.”

We know Alec is ready to fly.

My only wish would be for everyone to have that same opportunity to live large.

What wise words would you offer the graduating class of 2011? And do you think everyone deserves to live large?

36 thoughts on “A Commencement Speech by Alec Jacobson

  1. I had the same thoughts as I read the speech. He’s absolutely right to urge his fellows to make the most of their opportunities and to have fun along the way. But they should somewhere at the back of their minds guard against complacency and a sense of special entitlement.

    Or am I wrong? That confident sense of entitlement can be satisfying self-fulfilling.

    Wise words? Dunno about that. I’d say to try to leave the world a better place than it was when they found it. It’ll make them feel better about themselves too and give a more lasting sense of well-being than umpteen new cars, etc, etc. (Though I hear they’re not bad either.)

  2. Life is not fair. But everyone has the opportunity to go to go to school, to read a book, not do drugs or get wasted, not to shoot, or knife other people, not to steal and to be a decent human being. It isn’t just about who has an iPhone. We all have the opportunity to live decent lives and in the real sense of the phrase; to live large.

    1. Steven:

      If that is your definition of “living large,” then I feel better – because that really is attainable. Ultimately, individuals make their own choices about how to respond to the hand they have been dealt in their lives. People can react with rage or hopelessness, guilt or embarrassment, or with a supreme generosity of spirit.

      But I am not sure I agree with you that “everyone has the opportunity to go to school.” I assume you mean K-12? Okay, sure. Legally, students are entitled to an education, but as you well know, all schools are not created equal.

      1. For starters, read the WSJ today (letters) . The U.S., unlike Europe or Asia has gotten to the point where everyone is viewed as qualified (educated enough, smart enough) to go to college. That has seriously eroded product and expectations and of course standards.

        Schools ARE created equal and then go downhill the day they open because of huge cultural issues and the absence of intact families and widespread disrespect for learning. When parents (if you can find them) and students start taking responsibility you will see changes for the better. Just sayin’

      2. I’m not sure I agree with you that all schools are created equal. I have seen some pretty dismal schools in Louisiana and Mississippi. Even right here in Western New York, there are some schools with pretty deplorable conditions.

        It is hard to learn when students have to worry about getting stabbed in the hallways. It is also hard to learn when classrooms have poor lighting and teachers have no chalk to write on their blackboards.

        It’s not always about parenting.

  3. Great job with hope, self assuredness and confidence. However, I can’t imagine what I would say in a school in the broken rust belt of unemployment or in our drug plagued cities where the “opportunity” is becoming part of a gang. If you do find a job it’s usually no health care, no benefits, no pension, minimum wage – take it or leave it. Best of luck to you Alex. May only the best things in life come your way.

    1. This is not his reality. He has never known these things. I did not see any of these things myself until I was much older and out on my own. In truth, it must be a scary time to be graduating. Even the best and the brightest don’t know where they might land.

      These kids hear the news. They hear what’s going on with the economy: the deficit, the low employment – but they can filter it out. They have to. Otherwise, how could they move forward to face each day?

  4. “Don’t rely on others to teach you things. DIscover them yourselves.” Wow! Thank you, Renee for introducing me to your wise beyond his years, nephew. You are both inspiring!!

    1. He really is a gentle, true spirit. And I feel I didn’t do him justice here. His message was one of positivity and optimism and humor, which was tainted by my larger worldview. Probably because I was writing after 1 a.m.

      I hope that when Alec gets to college, he will meet many more diverse students. Not just really smart kids from suburbia, but people from all over the world who have grown up in different circumstances from which he can truly learn what the word “diversity” means.

  5. Wow, Renee, your amazingly eloquent, dear nephew has me all teary-eyed! I love this quote best of all:

    “Right now, we may think now “These are the best days ever,” but they won’t be. We have so much more to do.”

    I’m sure Alec will go on to do great things! 🙂

    Like you, I think of the graduates in less fortunate situations. I think the saddest situation of all is the lack of parental support that many of the children in low income districts have. Having parents who show concern for your education, who worry about your outside influences, who teach you how to be organized, and who give you structure can make all of the difference.

    Wonderful post!

    1. Alec is so fortunate to have all of the things you mentioned. He also has a brother who has been a tremendous role model and a sister with whom he shares a tight bond. Alec’s mother instilled in each of her children the importance of family and has encouraged each of her children to find the right circle of friends. And my brother-in-law has reinforced the value of a solid work ethic

      I am not trying to imply that things have come easily for my nephew; he has studied hard to earn his accolades. But he is starting out with an edge having been surrounded by parents, siblings and extended family, supportive friends, a strong school with teachers who recognized and valued his gifts.

      Like a horse tearing out of his gate, running against the other horses, he definitely has an advantage.

  6. You just have to ask the tough questions, don’t you?

    Knowing the area in which I live, and where I would most likely be giving a commencement speech it would be vastly different from Alec’s. Living in a much less affluent area will do that. I had friends who had never left the town in which we were going to school except on field trips or maybe to the fair the next town over (neither had their parents). I count myself among the fortunate who had opportunities to travel, see the sites, and experience reality. It was always a hoot to bring a friend who had never left town into a real city (even if it was only Worcester, MA). To see their eyes opened to the possibility of actually getting out of town.

    I was one of the few in my high school who’s parents were able to take me to New York City, Boston, upstate New York, etc. I always made sure to look around me and REALLY see what was going on. My parents never sugar coated things for us. We went to NYC and spent time walking around in some fairly questionable neighborhoods, not just Central Park, the Met, etc.

    I think that’s what I would tell the class of 2011: Don’t be content to stay put. Get up and out. Be different from your parents. You don’t have to fall into the same rut that they have been stuck in. You don’t have to graduate high school, start working in a factory, and pop out a couple of kids. YOU CAN GO TO COLLEGE. YOU CAN RISE ABOVE. YOU ARE AN IMPORTANT PERSON, NOW GO MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF.

    I’m not sure if everyone deserves to live large. I tried that for a while. It got me no where except in debt and unhappy. I suppose if you are living large within your means, then, yes, everyone deserves to live large. However, it is (partly) because of many who lived too large for their budget/income that we are in this mess. I consider myself fortunate that I am able to live WAY below large and still be happy. Sure I’ve got 3+ years until I’m debt free, but that’s the way I want to live. If that means not living large, then so be it.

  7. Thanks for that post. It was inspiring on many levels. Alec is one confident and funny young man. We need a lot more young people like him to grow into people who will be America in the not so distant future.

    The youthful enthusiasm was refreshing. So many of us have been jaded with, well, reality. I hope he and his generation can retain hope and a really good sense of humor.

    Living large? What does that mean? If it means living beyond your means, then I’m not sure that’s the best advice. But if it means taking in as much of what life has to offer, noticing it all, and being grateful for it, then, YES! Everyone should take Alec’s advice today and start living large!

    1. Lorna:

      He is confident and funny. His delivery was fantastic. He really is a gem. I don’t have permission to say what his plans are, but I feel I can say that he is going to a very good school and was offered scholarships at many other outstanding schools.

      He is hopeful, and he has every reason to be.

      I do think Alec was talking about the kind of living that you were talking about; he just didn’t say it explicitly. He is a grateful person. Hell, he is spending his summer taking care of other people’s children. That speaks volumes, right?

    1. Marianne:

      Did your class do some kind of time capsule thing where you predicted what would happen? That would be a cool exercise! It would have been impossible for me to have imagined even a cell phone, let alone Facebook or Twitter, how connected the world would become.

  8. Don’t allow your past to define you – define yourself each and every day, and act accordingly – in the way you WANT to be seen. Do not accept what OTHERS think you deserve to have – work for what YOU think is best for you. Although that may sound contradictory, living these ideas will allow you to be happy with yourself, by yourself, and FOR yourself.

    And I think Alec is a wise young man!

  9. I love that song by Rusted Root and I LOVE the smile of pride on Alec’s face.

    I gave the speech at my graduation ceremony twenty-five (cough) years ago.

    We really did think we were saying goodbye – there were no cell phones, no Facebook, no Twitter.

    No one I knew owned his or her own computer.

    And yet.

    I have now reconnected with so many people from my past and stay connected with students from my present.

    I think I would say to graduates this:
    You have NO idea what the future will really hold for you. All you can do is be open to it, work hard, and choose what makes you happy.

    And choices? Do not necessarily have to be permanent.

    Oftentimes, the road less traveled is lonely; so why not go back and pick a different path?

    As long as you aren’t hurting anyone else. Or breaking a righteous law.
    (because some laws are made to be changed/broken, after all.)

    And then there’s always my favorite from Hamlet’s Polonius: This above all to thine own self be true; and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man.

    Cliche, maybe. But still. Good stuff.

    Anyway, that might’ve been longer than my own speech (In which I quoted Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” from the Outsiders…sigh).

    And I loved the post, Renee.

    I do think you did him justice.

    Congratulations, Alec.

    1. Thanks Julie. We really are so proud of him. I can hardly imagine what my SIL and BIL are feeling because I am just bursting with pride for my sweet Alley-Cat. (And I’m just the auntie!)

      And by the way, my next post is very much about what you just were talking about.

      This post kind of turned into two.

      You know how that happens sometimes.

  10. Congrats to your nephew. I really enjoyed reading his speech and the comments on this blog.

    Question: In this age of social networking, do you think high school reunions will become antiquated like CDs and 35mm film?

    1. Hey Steve:
      I’ve been thinking about that, the whole reunion thing, and I was wondering the same thing. I mean – what is the point of getting together if you can see everything about everyone just by logging onto Facebook? I mean, with a click you can see who got fat and who went bald, who made good and who fell apart. Because part of the appeal of reunions is the surprise of learning these things, right? I would imagine the appeal for formal reunions might dwindle somewhat. I hope we meet up again at our 30th! You know I still prefer a good face-to-face conversation over cyber chat any day! I can’t imagine what new social media will be in place by then. 😉

  11. Great speech by your nephew. You can see why your family is so proud of him.

    As for your question, I do believe everyone should have the opportunity to realize their full potential and ‘live large’ within their means.

    Unfortunately, with the inequalities that exist between different school systems in terms of the quality of education offered and economic disparities in this country, I don’t believe all children start out on a level playing field.
    And even more unfortunately, in many cases, where you start out often determines where you end up.

    With that being the reality, my advice to any student would be: don’t let your past define who you are and what you make of your life. You have choices – even when think you don’t, you DO. Take control of your life and make it what YOU want it to be.

    1. Saucy B:

      I agree with you 100%. There is tremendous disparity between school systems – and, as you said, not everyone starts out on the same level playing field.

      And I love your advice.

      It’s good for people to remember that at any age we always have choices. Even when it feels like we are trapped, there is always a way to be a productive, helpful member of society.

  12. Wonderful! What a great guy your nephew ALEC is. 🙂 Will you turn over your blog to him sometime, so he can explain his wardrobe choices?

    1. I don’t think anyone can explain Alec’s wardrobe choices.

      His mother is an awesome shopper. Perhaps she might shed some light. 😉

      I have my theories.

      Honestly, I think Alec’s clothes were a reflection of his new-found confidence which developed over the last year. After 13 years of hard work and being offered numerous academic scholarships, I think he felt like he could do practically anything. A good kid, not prone to bragging, once he fianlly decided which college he would be attending, he relaxed. And then he kind of put his joy into his clothes — each day pushing the “crazy-clothing envelope” a little further. Honestly, by the end of the year, he could do no wrong. In going his own way, I think he learned that people would follow him anywhere.

  13. Such a thought provoking piece. I didn’t take time to read all the comments so I risk repeating something already said. I would tell kids to make the most of the blessings they have been given. Give and love. It’s not all about you. It’s about others. Peace, happiness, and contentment doesn’t come from acquiring things (awards, titles, money). Living Large to me means that you’ve touched the lives of others and truly made a positive difference in the world.

    1. Thanks, Annie!

      I think that’s what he meant, too. But I’m pretty sure that he recognizes that if he works hard at something, receives extra training and has skills that others desire and need, there is no harm in being well-compensated for his efforts.

      Especially as long as he loves what he does. 😉

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