David Neale, an English teacher at Julia R. Masterman, was the faculty sponsor for the Class of 2019. After recovering from a stroke in February, he delivered this speech at the school’s graduation on Monday, June 3.
Welcome to all of you.
Congratulations, Class of 2019.
You made it to graduation.
You screwed up, and, in spite of that, here you are. Yep. You heard me right. I said you screwed up.
Here’s why: We humans screw up. All the time. It’s what we do. Everyone you know messes up repeatedly. Your parents. Your teachers. The president. You. Everybody.
It’s expected. It’s OK. It happens.
I’m not talking about minor mistakes, like forgetting a homework or failing a quiz. I’m talking about the big stuff — the mistakes that others notice. The thing is, people don’t really expect you to be perfect. It’s just that when you do something wrong — when you’re unkind, you’re dishonest, you make a bad choice — you have an opportunity to fix the problem.
You’re Masterman kids. You’ve expected perfection for years. That list of colleges. These awards and scholarships. Sheesh.
But, life is different outside of the Masterman bubble.
When I was little, I always kept out of trouble when I admitted I messed up. When I was in first grade, I broke a clay figurine that my older sister had made in school. Instead of telling anyone, I hid the pieces. My parents were furious. Not that I broke something. I was 6. It happens. But that I hid it. If I had owned up, they would’ve been fine with it. They would’ve helped me tell my sister and saved our family some anxiety. I got grounded for hiding the broken pieces, but my parents reminded me daily that I would have been spared that grounding if I had owned up to what I had done.
I learned my lesson. Later on, in high school, I did it again. My dad builds model cars, and I watched years of his hard work fall into pieces on the floor when I bumped into a display shelf. Instead of trying to hide the pieces again, I immediately ran to him and told him what I had done. Together, we picked up the pieces so that he could begin to rebuild. I wasn’t grounded — my parents knew I felt terrible and didn’t want to compound that guilt.
Here’s my advice to you: People like you more when you’re honest and when you’re vulnerable. Admitting your mistakes is a sign of both honesty and vulnerability.
I have a special liking for students who come to me with a problem; in many ways, these students are easier to deal with than those who feign perfection. Remember this next year around your professors, around your new classmates, around your roommates.
This advice isn’t new to you. It’s built into the high school’s academic integrity policy. If a student ever gets caught doing something wrong, the school will call home, but only after a day. A few of you have been in Ms. Elana’s office when she’s told you that you should tell your parents before they find out from school.
When I had half of you in 10th grade — the last year I actually worked a full year — I assigned a paper that many of you disliked. When I graded the essays, I found four of you who had copied chunks of writing off the internet. You screwed up. You got caught. Ms. Elana and I met with you each and told you to warn your parents.
The following afternoon, I called four parents to explain the issue and discuss options. I discovered quickly that two of you had followed my advice. You told your parents what had happened and started the process of fixing the problem. I had productive conversations and you weren’t in more trouble when you got home that day.
The other sets of parents were completely surprised. Blindsided. Embarrassed. They didn’t want a teacher calling to drop a bombshell about plagiarism. I felt terrible when I hung up the phone — but you knew I was going to call and didn’t try to fix it. I know it’s not easy, but ignoring your problems won’t work.
Here’s why this is important: You don’t always get to control what happens to you. You may have a stroke on the way into work on a snowy morning. You may fall down the stairs or tear your ACL or get mugged on the bus.
But you can control how you respond to the adversity you face in life.
The unexpected happens, so take care of the things you can control. You can whine and blame others, or you can admit your mistakes and work to get others involved to help you fix those problems. You can put your head in the sand or you can get stronger from the adversity you learn to manage. If you pick up the pieces together, you can build stronger relationships.
The knowledge that you will make mistakes should be liberating. It’s gonna happen. It’s inevitable.
Repeat after me, 2019:
I’m gonna mess up. I’m gonna mess up.
It’s OK. It’s OK.
When I first learned to ski, I was scared to death of falling, of breaking a leg, of face-planting in a snowbank. I insisted on remaining on my skis. That first ski trip was just a day long, but, even though I never fell, I felt the muscle soreness for a week afterward. I had been tense and tight all day. It wasn’t fun. The next trip, a year later, I dreaded the pain for the entire drive there. On my first run, I wiped out. Skis and poles flew in four separate directions.
It didn’t hurt.
It was actually a little fun. Since then, I’m not as scared of falling, and I’m a much better skier. And I hurt a lot less after a day on the slopes.
Similarly, my family went white-water rafting last summer. The first thing we learned was how to fall into the water. Really.
My hope was to stay in the boat, yet here’s a man yelling at us to fall in. Getting wet helped us overcome our fear of the unknown. The life jackets worked. The water was refreshing. Surprisingly, there are no sharks in a river. Getting wet made the trip through the rapids a little easier and a little less intimidating.
Please, go out into the world and mess up. Fall on the slopes. Fall out of the raft. Don’t try to be perfect. Take chances. Be risky. Messing up doesn’t make you a bad person — it just shows that you’re human. Make mistakes. Just be quick to acknowledge your shortcomings so that everyone can help you pick up the broken pieces and move on.
Also, realize that others make mistakes, too, and this is a good thing. When a friend or loved one screws up, you have the opportunity to help them heal and to learn from mistakes. Be slow to judge; be quick to forgive. Show others the level of compassion that you would need. Help them pick up the pieces. Show them that you can empathize; you’ve screwed up, too.
As you prepare for college and beyond, please know that you’re going to continue to screw up. Don’t hesitate when you take steps forward even though the ground will be unstable and you will stumble a lot.
And if I’ve learned anything over these last few months, it’s that it’s OK to stumble a lot.
Accept that you’ll continue to make mistakes and embrace the opportunities those mistakes will create for you.
Congratulations, 2019, for graduating in spite of yourselves.