DFHS 2016 Commencement Address: Find Your Bench

To the Board of Education, Superintendent Brady, Mr. Berry, Administration, Faculty members, Parents, Family members, Friends, Students, and Graduates: Good evening once again, and welcome to the Dobbs Ferry High School Commencement of 2016.

Before we begin, there are a few other groups who deserve thanks that I didn’t mention in my initial welcome. First, I would like to thank the administration and faculty of Dobbs Ferry High School. The commitment and dedication of our staff is second to none, and we all take great pride in the accomplishments of each graduate who is sitting here today.

Each year, we also welcome new staff members to our school and say goodbye to others who will move on to new challenges and experiences. This year, we will say farewell to two wonderful educators, Ms. Susan Friedman and Ms. Barbara Kirsch, who will retire after many years of dedicated service to our district. Both are passionate educators in our special education department, and they have both touched the lives of so many of our students during their time at Dobbs Ferry High School. Please join me in recognizing and thanking Susan Friedman and Barbara Kirsch for all of their contributions. We wish them very best for a happy and healthy retirement.

And last, but certainly not least, a special thank you goes to the parents and families of our graduating class. Their success is your success. Their achievements are your achievements. For it has been through your guidance, your love and support, and your cheerleading that your children have met and exceeded the requirements to graduate from Dobbs Ferry High School. So this day, and this milestone, is as much about you as it is the students who are sitting before us. So congratulations to all of you…and at this time, it is only appropriate that our graduates rise, face your parents, and give them a big round of applause. They are certainly deserving of it!

Today we are saying congratulations and goodbye to the second graduating class that I had the privilege of watching grow, mature, and succeed for all four years at Dobbs Ferry School. This also marks the 115th commencement of Dobbs Ferry High School. Our school building, built in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression, has now had 82 years of graduates. Over the past 82 years, students walked the hallways of our high school during some of the most pivotal times in our nation’s history. From wars like World War II that united us, to wars like the Vietnam War that divided us…from the rise of American icons such as Elvis Presley, Mickey Mantle, and Michael Jackson, to the tragic assassinations of great leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King…from putting the first man on the moon in 1969 to the tragic crash of the space shuttle Challenger 17 years later…from Y2K to the first African American President in our nation’s history….during all of this, the students of Dobbs Ferry High School walked the same hallways as you. And each group of students had hopes, dreams, and plans for a better tomorrow just as you do right now. Each graduating class of Dobbs Ferry High School also cemented a legacy in our school’s history, some of which can be seen through the murals that still adorn the walls of our high school. So what will the legacy be for the Class of 2016…?

Without question, this is a senior class that has already accomplished a tremendous amount. In addition to having 23 students who will receive a full IB Diploma, with each graduate taking an average of 3 IB classes, our graduates have already found great success in so many areas, including science research, theater, film, the visual arts, athletics, community service, Destination Imagination, Model UN, and much more. In terms of legacy, the Class of 2016 is certainly well on its way to leaving one that can be the very best in our school’s storied history. But graduates…what’s most important for you to realize is that your legacy, both individually and that of this entire class, will be defined by what you do from here. It will be defined by how you choose to apply your Dobbs Ferry High School education to greater accomplishments beyond the walls of our high school. At this point, you are just starting out. You are at the beginning. The future is boundless and wide open. Like hundreds of thousands of others, you have graduated from high school in 2016, and that’s awesome. So what’s next? How will you distinguish yourself from here? As kids, we were always asked the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Come September, you will be asked these same types of questions once again, but the biggest difference is that you will now be the one asking them of yourself. It seems like yesterday that I was a first year student at Boston University who was grappling my own questions. I was missing home, missing familiar faces, and college was definitely much harder than I had expected. Keep in mind that this is before cell phones, a phone call home was a long distance call, and even email was a new and seemingly ridiculous concept. So what did I do? I did what most do when they have a lot on their mind…I went for a walk–Boston is a great city for that– and I found a bench along the Charles River that over the years quickly became a bench that I always went back to. And during my time as a student at BU, whenever I needed space to think or had questions that troubled me, I found that bench. It was there that I thought about my future, my career goals, the family that I one day wanted to have, and it was on that bench on that fall day that I asked myself the most important question of all: “Where am I going and how will I get there?”

This past spring break, with an iPhone in my pocket, family in tow, in the job I had dreamed of, and just weeks away from my doctoral graduation, I found myself once again back on that old bench by the Charles River. Sitting there, watching a new group of young students walking up and down the esplanade, I realized that while I’ve achieved much of what I set out to, I’m still asking myself questions, finding the space to rest and reflect on them, and still doing the hard work necessary to forge a path to personal achievement. And now here you are…at the very starting line of your lives. As you leave the comfort of home and venture off, what I hope is that you will be able to find your own bench, or chair, rock or even a patch of grass, any space just for you to rest and reflect. And when you are reflecting I urge you to remember the following:

First, when you ask yourself “Where am I going?”…take the time to set both short and long term goals. Whether you write these goals down or hold them quietly in your heart, whether they stay steady, or evolve and change over time, set goals. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins reminds us that “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.” And when setting goals, dream big…the bigger the better…and then set smaller, attainable, incremental goals to help you get to where you want to be. Always remember that success, however you choose to define it, does not come by accident, and it will never be something that you just stumble upon. It requires planning, reflection, thoughtfulness, discipline, focus, and of course hard work.

Second, be prepared to put in the work. Some of you will go on to be doctors, teachers, police officers, contractors, and probably a list of other jobs that don’t even exist at this point. But whatever the job and however different they may be among you, the one thing that is certain is that you will never fully reach that goal and maximize your true potential if you do not put in the work. And for all of you, that starts right now.

Third, be prepared to fail. In order to achieve greatness, again however you define it, you will need to take some risks, be thick-skinned, and understand that failure is an opportunity and is not a roadblock to success. NBA legend Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Everybody fails…but in the end it’s the very best that take the hits, get up, and come back for more. As Rocky said, “that how winning is done.”

And finally, no matter how hard the work, how lofty the goal, how impossible the journey feels, find your bench. Take the time necessary to rest, reflect, and live a life –a good long healthy and happy life–that encourages pride in yourself, your community, and your family. In the words of the great Ferris Bueller, “Life goes by pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you might miss it.” Today is exactly one of those moments to stop, look around, be proud and celebrate. I know I speak for all of us here at the high school when I say that the class of 2016 has been a truly remarkable class. Your future is bright, your path is unpaved, and your potential is limitless. Congratulations graduates on the truly exceptional work you have done yesterday, and the great achievement we celebrate today. We can’t wait to see what you will do with your tomorrow.

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