IST Class of 2019: Graduation Speech

IST’s class of 2019 nominated me to give their graduation speech. It was a special way to end my time at the school and speak to a group of students I care about very much. The speech was given on Saturday 25th May 2019 at the Elementary Campus in Upanga, Dar es Salaam. The speech is on YouTube here.

Parents, family, teachers and, of course, the class of 2019. I am excited and honoured to be speaking here today to help celebrate your graduation from IST. First of all, congratulations! You are high school graduates! You are officially better educated than high school dropouts Johnny Depp, Walt Disney and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Days like today are important because they allow us to reflect on our achievements and celebrate them with our friends and family. We spend so much of our life thinking or worrying about the next thing, we can sometimes forget to take a moment to acknowledge our accomplishments.

Individually, and as a group, these accomplishments are truly impressive. The IB Diploma is tough. You have to engage with challenging ideas across a wide range of subjects. Just managing your time and keeping your head above water is an achievement. On top of this, you have just completed three gruelling weeks of exams, not to mention the months and years of studying that preceded them. Exams in particular are weird and cruel rituals, and I am extremely happy I don’t have to do them ever again. WTs, IOCs, TOK, EEs, WAs, IOPs, and whatever it is that you do in maths and science, are gone forever, soon to be replaced by exciting new initialisms from your future university or employer.

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But your achievements go well beyond writing exams and completing assessments. You’ve learned to think critically about the world around you. You’ve competed in sporting events in preparation for which you have had to dedicate hundreds of hours to training so that you can improve as both athletes and leaders. You’ve created beautiful and thought-provoking works of art, and had the bravery to share them with others. You’ve stood alone on a stage and delivered powerful dramatic performances. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, you’ve built sets, made costumes, sold tickets, or designed sound and lighting. You’ve organised conferences involving hundreds of people, raised funds, booked speakers, organised catering and publicity on a scale that would intimidate people much older and more experienced than you. You’ve supported and enriched your local and global communities through an array of projects, working to protect wildlife, to support children with special educational needs, to make prostheses for women who have had breast cancer, and to campaign for human rights.

You’ve achieved a lot.

But, before I build you up too much, it’s worth remembering that by the time she was your age, education campaigner Malala Yousafzai had won the Nobel Peace Prize, gymnast Simone Biles had won ten world championship gold medals, and activist Greta Thunberg had inspired a global campaign to fight the world’s impending climate crisis – literally trying to save the world. So, with that in mind, I’d give you all a solid seven out of ten for your efforts so far. Don’t worry, it’s much worse for your teachers and parents; depressingly, as you grow older the list of spectacularly successful people who are younger than you gets longer and longer.

I am convinced that teaching is one of the best jobs in the world. It is a great privilege to work with young people and to have the chance to celebrate their successes. As a teacher you care about all of your students, but there are some groups that you feel particularly connected to. For me, you are one of these groups. During my first year at IST I taught half of you, and since then I have been on various trips with you, coached some of you, taught English Literature and been a homeroom teacher for 12B. I have always been struck by the warmth of IST’s community and you are no exception. As a year group you are kind, friendly and very funny. Sometimes on purpose, often unintentionally.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that we as teachers see only a part of your personality and your lives. It’s easy for us to see you solely in relation to the subject we teach. As an English teacher, I sometimes fall into the trap of seeing you as little essay machines and forget that you have other things going on, both academically and personally. And more than this, there are several of you here with whom I’ve never had a proper conversation. So while I can make generalisations about you as a group, I can’t really make any claims about you as the complex individuals that you are.

My point is, that so far I’ve spoken about these very impressive and very visible achievements. But it is also important to celebrate those less visible accomplishments. The things that your teachers, friends, or even parents might not know about.

For some of you, this might be a time when you have had to work up the courage to ask for help. It might be speaking up in front of other people in class and exposing yourself to criticism. It might be struggling with a relationship in or out of school. It might be leaving a previous school, the safety and support of a community you knew well, and having to start again here at IST. It might be managing the stress of exams. It might be having to work harder than everyone else around you just to get the same grade. It might be recovering from an illness or an injury and then fighting to keep up with your studies. It might be having to hold onto someone else’s secret, or to support a friend going through a difficult time. During your school career, some of you will have lost people close to you. Some of you will have suffered from anxiety and depression. After all, the mental health charity Mind tell us that in any given year, one in four of us will suffer from some form of mental health problem. For some of you on some days, just getting up and getting to school will have been an achievement worth celebrating.

These are the things that you don’t get grades for, for which there are no trophies or certificates or banners, but which might just be among some of your most significant accomplishments. There is no Nobel Prize for dealing with loss. No Pulitzer for supporting a friend in trouble. And no Oscar for getting out of bed when you just don’t feel like facing the world.

So having spoken about your achievements, visible and hidden, it is now time to give you some advice. I’ve been struggling with this since I was asked to give this speech. Firstly because I don’t know how you give one piece of advice to 56 different people. Secondly, because I know a lot about poems, but not a lot about anything else. My first thought was to go for one of the classics: follow your dreams! But when you unpick this a little it becomes problematic. What if you don’t have a dream? What if your dream changes? What if your dream hurts other people? What if you have kids, and all of a sudden your own dreams might not seem so important? No. This is not good advice.

In desperation, I turned to my colleagues, but they all said the same thing: keep it short. Ms Yates, however, did offer me some more specific advice, saying: stay in your lane. I thought long and hard and decided that my lane is literature. So I turned to one of my favourite writers, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote a poem offering advice to his son. The poem ends:

All your friends will leave you
All your friends will die
So lead a clean and wholesome life
And join them in the sky.

Great writer. Terrible poet.

So what about the fantastic texts you all studied in English Language and Literature? What advice do these timeless classics offer? The Great Gatsby of course, teaches us that if you buy enough nice shirts, people will love you. Purple Hibiscus teaches us that tea makes an excellent vehicle for poison. Wilfred Owen teaches us that all you need to be a great poet is a great war. Hamlet teaches us that most Disney films just rip-off Shakespeare. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sophocles teaches us that you should never murder your father and marry your mother.

While good advice, none of it seemed appropriate for a graduation speech. I was giving up hope on famous writers and the advice they could offer, until I went to a poet and short story writer that I studied when I was your age, and who is probably the reason I became an English teacher. Raymond Carver struggled with alcoholism throughout his life, and died relatively young, but he is one of the world’s best writers. In his stories he takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. He finds beauty in even the most mundane human experiences. In one of his poems, Carver writes: ‘Happiness. It comes on unexpectedly’. So this is the advice I will give to you. Happiness comes on unexpectedly, so when it does come, take the time to notice it. Notice the accomplishments that you’re proud of. Notice the things you enjoy doing. Notice the family around you who love and support you. Notice the friends and partners who are kind and make you happy. I don’t care whether or not you follow your dreams, but I do care deeply that you are happy. Happiness comes and goes, but when it’s there, notice it. Thank you.

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