Well, here we are! It has come down to this moment. Graduates, in less than 10 minutes your mortar boards will be flying into the night sky and your time as a Pembroke Hill student will be over. And, my, what a time it has been!
This evening is one of such mixed emotions. The past few years we have spent with you has created a special bond –with your teachers, with your classmates and their parents, within your own family. Tonight we are excited for you and optimistic about your futures. At the same time, Class of 2013, it has been easy to become attached to you. It will be hard to let you go.
From the second grade Souper Bowl and the States Fair in fourth, to Pembroke Hill versus St. Paul’s battles on the basketball court in the incredible MPSL league; from the sixth grade campout to Showcase to advisory challenges in the middle school; from fall afternoons on the hockey, football and soccer fields to the camaraderie of Youth in Government trips; from instrumental music nights and play rehearsals, all the way up to the wrapping of a May Pole on a beautiful spring afternoon and a special evening together at the Commencement Dinner on Thursday - it has been an extraordinary journey. Like all journeys, it must come to an end. Like most journeys – the time traveling together is, in many ways, more special than the eagerly anticipated destination.
At this time I am reminded of a favorite quote of one of our school’s and this city’s leading lights, Adele Hall. The quote is not Adele’s, but rather from Dr. Seuss, who advised: “Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.” Like Mrs. Hall, we will try to follow the good doctor’s advice. We will smile because it happened.
Tonight the Class of 2013 marks a major achievement. Each of them has received a Pembroke Hill diploma, something that does not come easily. Like everything with real value in this world, sitting on this stage tonight has required an enormous level of effort, perseverance and heart. If you are close to one of these graduates, especially if you have lived with one, you know exactly what I mean by this. The honor of sitting up here represents, literally, thousands of hours of hard work – in topics as diverse as painting, foreign language, physics and American history. The trip through such a challenging and all encompassing curriculum has asked a lot of these young people and a lot of their families. It has not been easy. It has created more than a little anxiety along the way. The diploma each of them holds was not given. It was earned. There is not a feeling in life better than to hold something dear, which has been earned by one’s own diligent labor. Graduates, savor this feeling. You have done something special. Tonight you join a very proud and select group of people - from Leawood to London, from New York to Los Angeles, from the Great Plains to the Great Wall - those who call themselves alumni of The Pembroke Hill School.
You move out into the world at an extraordinary time. America in 2013 is confronted by a bewildering array of challenges, yet at the same time the world you enter provides an exhilarating number of possibilities. Fortunately, you come upon these possibilities equipped with what is required to seize them and turn them into your own extraordinary reality. In your time on this campus you have learned to think critically and rationally. You have learned to write beautifully and to feel comfortable in front of the crowd. You have learned hard skills like how to differentiate an equation, read a sheet of music or conduct research for a term paper. You have learned soft skills like how to collaborate and connect with students who are like you, and those who might be quite different from you. You have learned that the surest way to reach one’s potential is through hard work. You have learned the surest way to enjoy the prize is to share that work with others.
I think the most important thing you may have learned is to see yourself as a participant in life, rather than merely a spectator. The most important fact of the college world you are about to enter, or the work world that lies just beyond it, is that opportunity not only goes to those with the skills that enable them to seize it, it also goes to those with the ability to see opportunity in the first place and who have the courage to reach for it.
I have always admired the following well-known poem written by President Teddy Roosevelt.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man (or woman!) who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his (or her) place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Our country seems to have become a place filled with critics. Many people seem to think that commenting is contributing, and spectating is an action verb. You know better, and that is one of the many reasons that America needs you. It needs you because you know victory – and you know defeat. You have learned during your time with us that your destiny is to be a participant, not a spectator in life. You leave us with it ingrained in you that you are called to shape the world you inhabit. You have lived in the arena. You have become comfortable there. In fact I don’t think most of you could stand it for long if you were relegated to the sidelines. Don’t lose that sense of yourself. Graduates, you are ready to move forward onto a bigger stage. On that stage you will find victory. I also assure you that you will find a few defeats. For, as Roosevelt wrote, that is what happens when a courageous person steps into the arena.
That is what a life, well lived, is all about.
The motto of our school is Freedom With Responsibility. It is a phrase you have heard hundreds of times during your days at Pembroke Hill. It is more than a phrase, however, it is the identification of a way of being in the world that we hope each of you now carries forward into your lives.
You have already enjoyed exercising tremendous freedom this spring as you decided where to go to school. Some of you chose large schools, while some chose small ones. Some of you chose big cities, while others chose small towns. You have chosen to study from Vermont to Los Angeles, from Miami to Minnesota, even in cities as far apart as Columbia and Lawrence! Next fall some of you will choose to study biology on the way to medical careers, political science and history on the way to legal or academic careers, accounting, finance and marketing on the way to a life in business. You will study music, modern languages, and international relations.
Freedom to choose is a sweet thing, indeed, but what about freedom with responsibility? It is the compass inside you that helps you to make the right decisions in a world of incredible freedoms of choice. As you step onto a college campus next fall, with no parents to check in on you and monitor what you do and who you do it with, you will rely on this compass. When you attend classes where the teacher does not know your name and may not even know, or care, if you show up for class, you will rely on this compass. When you decide what you are going to do with a long weekend, among other students you have just met, you will rely on this compass. But “Freedom With Responsibility” is far more than a way to moderate one’s own behavior for one’s own benefit.
So, what is freedom with responsibility - three words that mean so much. Two of them – freedom and responsibility – are among the most powerful in the English language. Each is able to stand on its own with significant meaning. It is, however, when they are joined by the simple preposition “with” that they take on a meaning worthy of shaping a life; a meaning worthy of being this great school’s motto.
Freedom is the founding ideal of our country. Jefferson’s phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” immediately separated the essence of American society from that found in Europe. From the very beginning liberty, or freedom, has been at the heart of the American ideal. Political freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to vote define how we function as a democracy. Personal freedoms such as the freedom to choose what you do for a living, whom to marry or where and how to live define how we function as a culture. As a people, and as individuals, we are free to choose. And, by a thousand small choices and a few major ones, you will define who you are.
But the founders of this school knew that freedom, by itself is not a noble idea. More was needed. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt understood this notion when she wrote: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his or her own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”
Nineteenth century English philosopher Charles Kingsley, who was a frequent correspondent of Charles Darwin, said it even better when he wrote,
“There are two freedoms; the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where a man is free to do what he ought.”
I will say it one more time – Kingsley wrote: “There are two freedoms; the false, where a man is free to do what he likes; the true, where a man is free to do what he ought.”
To my mind, this best captures the essence of “Freedom With Responsibility”. That is, freedom to do what one ought to do.
So, class of 2013, what is that you ought to do? What is it that you have the responsibility to do?
The first responsibility is to yourself. Be true to who you are and what you believe. Live in harmony with your best self. Work hard and apply your talents and advantages in life fully to make sure you are creating the skills you will need to live your best life.
The second responsibility is to others, especially to those in your immediate circle. This starts with the family you choose to create, but it also extends to professors, colleagues, employers and the like. These are the people who depend upon you for something. If you are to live a life that you will find worthy, you will continue the habit you developed here of living up to commitments when you make them. If you are to live a life that your internal compass tells you is worthy, you will continue to engage others with respect and kindness. You will take responsibility for doing right by them and for caring about them. Be known as someone who is kind, who is loyal, who can be counted on.
The larger responsibility to others is to your community. This is a tougher one. In today’s world, communities are fragile and in flux. It is very, very easy to pull inside oneself and avoid caring about the larger world. I urge you to resist this desire. I ask you to seek to help define and to create the greater good. I hope that we have created that desire within each of you because I know that your future communities need you.
So that is my view of “Freedom With Responsibility”. You have tremendous freedom of choice. Your position in life has given this to you. The skills you have developed, and will develop, have given this to you. The incredible country you are fortunate to call home has given this to you. What will fulfill your potential and what you are called to do as a graduate of this school is to practice that freedom with responsibility. Responsibility to yourself. Responsibility to others. Responsibility to your community.
I look forward to seeing how far you carry this torch.
Class of 2013,
As you leave us, I ask you to:
And, know that on this little patch of ground in Kansas City, there are people who care about you, people who are pulling for you, and people who always stand ready to help, if you should ever need it.
Pembroke Hill Class of 2013, we are proud to call you our own.
Congratulations and Best Wishes.