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Dean James Ryan's Commencement Address

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family and friends.  Congratulations to you all.  I’d like to begin by thanking all of the families and friends in the audience today.  I’ve been so moved to hear your stories over the past few days and to learn about the distances and obstacles you overcame to be here.  Like the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, school friends, work friends, and best friends in the audience, I share in your pride at the accomplishments of our graduating students, your euphoria at being a part of this celebration, and your joy at the prospects that lie ahead.  At the same time, I share in the gratitude that I know our graduating students feel toward all of you.  Like I said yesterday, no one makes it to graduation alone.  For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to those who helped them on this journey.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout this year to help all of us, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you all.  They are the heart and soul of this place, as committed to our mission of improving education as anyone, and they deserve a huge round of applause.

Last but not least, I would also like to thank the faculty, who have served not simply as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends, and I would like give special thanks and bid good luck to four faculty who are retiring this year:  Richard Elmore, Susan Moore Johnson, Dick Murnane, and John Willet.  Each of them dedicated their wisdom, wit, and passion to this place, and they leave it better than they found it because of their presence.

We are here to award our graduating students diplomas, which we will do shortly, starting with Nonie Lesaux, who is our irreplaceable and irrepressible director of our doctor of education program.  But first, by tradition, I am to give a speech.  I have to confess that I have approached this task of offering remarks at graduation with some trepidation.  The last time I gave a graduation speech, I was a senior in high school, and it would be charitable to say it didn’t go so well.  I had trouble from the beginning, as I decided to talk about the subject of time, which is not exactly a novel topic at graduations.  Mostly, as far as I can recall, the speech itself was a series of famous and not so famous quotations about time, which I had taken from Bartletts’ book of quotations and strung together.  Sir Walter Raleigh on time.  Churchill on time.  Helen Keller on time.  Vince Lombardi on time.  Famous greek playwrite on time.  Oddly, I can still remember some of the quotes, like:  “Time is a river, and swift is its current.  No sooner is a thing brought to the surface than it is swept away and replaced with something else.”  After a quotation like this I’d pause for dramatic effect and go onto the next quote, which I’d introduce with equally dramatic effect. These quotes were interspersed with references to books we read in English class.  To this day, my high school friends swear that I emphasized that these were books we read in Honors English class, which now makes me cringe.

It also makes me cringe a bit to think that, at the time I gave this speech, I was five foot four.  Puberty was a good year or two away.  So now imagine, as I did when preparing this speech, one banal quote after another, delivered in a soprano voice:  Time.  Time.  Time.

Clearly I’m still working through this experience, which is why today I want to talk to you about:  time.  I’d also like to talk a bit about kindness and courage, and maybe say a word or two about death as well.

A lot has happened during your time here, more so for the doctoral and C.A.S. students, who have been here longer, than for the master’s students who started at the same time I did last August.  But even in just this past year, we have witnessed both triumph and tragedy.  The Red Sox won the world series, which could fit into either category of triumph or tragedy, depending on your perspective.  We mourned the loss of the great Nelson Mandela, the tragic sinking of the South Korean ferry and the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner, the loss, just yesterday, of the magnificent Maya Angelou, and we stand, still, in horror and anger at the abduction of 200 girls in Nigeria who pose a threat to some for the simple reason that they want to go to school.

We also cheered the remarkable athletes who graced the mountains and arenas of Sochi during the Winter Olympics.  We marked the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon by remembering those who were injured and killed, and those who risked their own lives to help others, and then we welcomed back, with cheers, hollers, and hugs, the runners who returned to finish what they had started last year.  Even closer to home, we started the year with four floors on Longfellow Hall.  Now we have, well, three.  But soon there will be five.  Sometimes you have to move backward first in order to move forward.

We also learned a great deal this year, though I confess that, despite the song, I still don’t know what the fox says.  We learned, to my kids’ delight, that snow days don’t affect student achievement, which had them wondering why every day is not a snow day. We learned that the federal government isn’t so great at creating websites.  We learned that Ellen Degeneres’ selfie at the Oscars took approximately 30 minutes before being retweeted 1 million times.  My selfie from the next day’s faculty meeting, by contrast, took 3 days to reach roughly 40 retweets.  If you are like me, you learned a lot of new acronyms, like, AIE, QPAE, MBE, TEP, EdLD, EdD, QP, DP, HDP, TIE, L&T, EPLIP, and close to one hundred others that make up daily conversation on Appian Way.   We were also reminded of the compassion of our fellow humans, when thousands of volunteers helped transform San Francisco into Batman’s Gotham City for a five-year old boy named Miles Scott, who is fighting leukemia.

Many of you, like me, may be trying to reconcile how much happened during one year—how much you saw, learned, experienced, and changed—with the feeling that this year began only yesterday.  I do feel like it was just last week that I was suggesting at orientation that you wear a cap because you never know if it’s going to rain or shine, and caps are useful for both, and that you ask not just why, but why not.  I’m glad to see that you were listening, given that you are all wearing caps, and judging from all you accomplished this year and from conversations with many of you, it’s clear you’ve been asking why not.

I’d like to end the year like we began it, by taking one more moment to offer a little advice.  You have spent your time here preparing to transform education in ways large and small, and I hope and trust you feel prepared and inspired for that task, because, like I said at the beginning of the year, the world needs you.  You may be worried about what lies ahead for you professionally, but don’t fret.  You are the luckiest graduates in the entire university, because you are going to work in education, and there is no higher calling, no more rewarding or meaningful field.  So instead of talking to you about what you are going to do, I would like to talk a little about who you are going to be. The two are not exactly the same.  So instead of professional advice, I would like to offer some personal advice, and that advice relates to how you might use your time wisely.

Whether you are leaving here to begin or return to teaching, to become a principal or school leader, to start a school, to work in federal, state or local government, to be a counselor, to work in an advocacy organization, to work in higher ed, pre-K, or an ed tech start up, you will discover that time is not always your friend.  I know you have felt very busy while here as a student, but when you leave here, you will likely discover that you have even less time than you had this year.  There will be less time for late night chats with classmates, for lingering over (occasionally free) coffee in the Gutman cafe, for walks along the Charles River, for producing Happy videos, for sitting in a red sleigh that mysteriously appears out of nowhere in front of Gutman library, or attending a lecture or a talk by the likes of Temple Grandin or Mayor Menino. There will be less time for exercise or dinner parties or brunch. There may even be less time for showering and personal hygiene.  And time’s velocity will only increase.  Each year will go faster than the one before and the next faster than the one before that.  And then you’ll die.  Ok, any questions?

No, no, no, this is not meant to depress you, but to get you thinking now that you need to master time or it will master you.  To get you thinking:  what should I do with my time?  Who do I want to be?  How do I want to be?

So here’s how I suggest you use time to your advantage.  [I fear the advice will not be worth what you have paid for it, unless you were here on a full scholarship, but here goes:] You need to make time. 

You need to take time.  You need to steal time.  You must not waste time.  And lastly, you need to cherish time. You need to make time.  First, you do need to make time for showering and personal hygiene.  That’s important.  

You also need to make time for your friends and family.  Call your parents.   Call your brothers.  Call your sisters.  Email them. Twitter them; Snapchat; Instagram; Text; Facebook friend them.  Send them pictures.  Visit them.  If you have children, make time for them.  You can’t be a good parent in daily increments of 30 or 60 minutes, and time at home while your children are sleeping doesn’t count.  Make enough time for them that they seem bored by you. They never will be, but that should still be your goal. Make time to keep up with your friends.  Don’t miss weddings.  Don’t miss funerals or memorial services.  Both matter.

And don’t put any of this off.  Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow; don’t tell yourself you’re too busy.  In a couple of weeks, I’ll attend the wedding of my law school roommate to his partner of over twenty years, and while there I will spend time with some of my closest friends in the world.  I will pay a price to do this in terms of time away from work, and some time away from my own family.  But the benefit I’ll receive will be a large dose of joy, which I’ll carry with me until I see my friends again.

And that reminds me:  you can and should carry your friends and family wherever you go.  If you are nervous about a meeting with your boss or your colleagues, or about teaching a class, imagine yourself telling a friend about it.  Imagine your friend in the meeting or in the classroom with you, someone who would appreciate the humor in the situation.  Don’t actually talk to your imaginary friend during the meeting, but you already know that.  Your friends and family are the ones who can remind you when necessary, as Walt Whitman wrote in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a truly great poem, that it is not upon you alone the dark patches fall.  The dark throws patches down on us all from time to time.

In addition to making time, you should take time.  Take time to learn something new.  Take time to develop a hobby, or two, or three.  In fact, take time to become passionate about something completely unrelated to your work.  Take time to exercise.  Take time to travel some place you have never been.  And perhaps most importantly, take time to be kind. You are all going off to do truly noble and important work, indeed the most important work that can be done in today’s world.  It is work that offers unparalleled opportunities for fulfillment and satisfaction, and for that reason, as I’ve said, you are incredibly fortunate.  You have come from all across the country and the globe and will spread, like a giant HGSE diaspora, to all corners of the world.  But in my view the importance of your work does not fully satisfy your obligation to be kind.  You need to take time to be kind on a daily basis.  That means paying attention to those around you who are in need.  Noticing who is having a hard time.  Remembering who has a birthday.  Taking time to buy a gift, or to send a card, or to send an email to celebrate someone else’s success or milestone.  Taking time to ask your students, their parents, your colleagues, not just how are you, but are you ok? Taking time to say in word and deed to those around you:  I see you.  You are sometimes going to feel too rushed to lend a hand to someone who cannot in turn help you.  Resist that impulse and take that time.  Surveys and studies show that one of the things that consistently makes people happy is doing something kind for others.  So if you think about it, it is actually in your self-interest to be kind.

Every now and then you need to steal time.  Play hooky.  Check out, whether it’s for an afternoon, or a day, or a weekend.  Drop your responsibilities, be spontaneous, or do something unexpected.  If you are teacher, take your class outside to romp in the field or playground or run around the block.  Better yet, invite their parents to join you.  If you are principal, organize a surprise picnic for your teachers. When you’re hemming and hawing about whether to do this, ask yourself:  what will I remember more, doing what I planned or doing something out of the ordinary?  Don’t take this too far and ask yourself this every day.  You might end up riding your bicycle naked through Harvard Square instead of going to work simply because the former would probably be more memorable.  Not that I’ve done this.  Not yet, anyway.

But in the right context, asking what would be more memorable is the right question to ask.  About 17 years ago, my father, who was retired at the time, called my wife Katie and me early in the morning.  We were living in New York city, he and my mom were in New Jersey.  He called and said “let’s go to the Shore.”  The Shore, as you all should know, refers to the only real beach in the world:  The Jersey Shore.  It was my father’s favorite place.  Katie and I hesitated because we both had things we needed to do at work, but neither of us had anything we absolutely had to do, so we went to the Shore and spent the day at the beach with my parents.  It was my last trip to the Shore with my father, as he died, suddenly and unexpectedly, soon after that trip, and I wouldn’t trade anything for that day I spent with him.

So we’ve covered taking, making, and stealing time.  Two more to go.  The next is:  don’t waste time.  By this I don’t mean be efficient with your time, or exhibit good time management skills, though both are important.  What I mean, chiefly, is don’t waste time being afraid.  I can’t think of a larger obstacle to happiness or success than fear.  We all face fears, large and small, every day.  You need to get rid of them.  Or, I should say, overcome them.  I don’t mean to dwell on my father’s death, but when he died I realized how pointless it is to be afraid – afraid of meeting someone new, afraid of doing poorly at work, afraid of trying something new, afraid of being in a new situation, afraid of embarrassment, afraid of not fitting in.  You are going to feel a lot of pressure to conform, whether in your workplace, or in your neighborhood, in raising your kids, or in creating your relationships.  Don’t be afraid to do what you think is right, to do what you think is fun, to do what you think might work.  Have the courage to disagree or to say no, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to search for common ground, which sometimes requires more courage than simply voicing disagreement. Have the courage to do something that hasn’t been tried before, to do something that might be a total flop. Don’t be afraid, in other words, to stumble or even fail.  Happiness is risk’s reward.  The only rewards of fear are boredom and bitterness.

My last piece of advice:  Cherish time.  You need to embrace your life now, tomorrow, and the next day.  You are living it.  I know it might seem to many of you that you’ve put your life on hold while preparing for your career in education, but that’s not entirely true.  You’ve also been living your life.  The time you’ve spent here, like your tuition, is not refundable.

Some of you might also think that you are going to a job that will prepare you for a job that you will eventually love, so that the next few years are in some way just preparation for your real job, when you’ll start your real life.  I caution you not to think that way, because you are postponing your life.  Now is the time to stop preparing and to start living.  [You should love your job.  And even if you don’t love your job, you can still love life.  How?  By making, taking, stealing, and not wasting time.  And if you can’t love your life because you don’t love your job, that’s when you have to summon the courage to try something new.]

In closing, my hope for all of you is that you find the time and look for the ways to bring joy to yourselves and others each and every day, and that you will abide by the attitude of the poet Robert Francis in the poem Summons.    I first heard this poem on an unbearably sad occasion, the memorial service for a very young child, whose father was a law school classmate and remains a dear friend.  My friend’s brother read the poem, and I can’t tell you how often I think of it.  To me, the urgency of this poem captures how to live.  If you remember nothing else from this talk, I hope you’ll remember at least some of this poem:

Like I said, the poem is called Summons, and it’s by Robert Francis

Keep me from going to sleep too soon

Or if I go to sleep too soon

Come wake me up. Come any hour Of night.

Come whistling up the road.

Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.

Make me get out of bed and come

And let you in and light a light.

Tell me the northern lights are on And make me look.

Or tell me the clouds Are doing something to the moon

They never did before, and show me.

See that I see. Talk to me till I'm half as wide awake as you

And start to dress, wondering why I ever went to bed at all.

The poem goes onto say, in the last line: 

“Tell me the walking is superb,” but when read, my friend’s brother said:  “Tell me the waking is superb,” which I thought was a perfect alteration and a perfect ending to the poem. “Talk to me till I’m half as wide awake as you and start to dress, wondering why I ever went to bed at all.  Tell me the waking is superb.”

So tell yourself, tell your friends and family, and have them tell you that the waking is, indeed, superb.