Needham High School graduated 306 talented young men and women this past week in a ceremony marked by much ceremony, pomp, and circumstance. They were cheered on by a supportive community and excited parents who should all be immensely proud of their children and of themselves for achieving this milestone.
After being encouraged by some parents, I have decided to post the comments I shared with the members of the Needham High School Class of 2009:
Remember that your character matters.
Over the last 13 years you have been a student, immersed in academics, scholarship, and co-curricular activities. Today this community honors your academic success by awarding you a diploma signifying your preparation and growth. Indeed, this is the community’s annual celebration of student learning, excellence, and achievement.
While we celebrate your academic proficiency, I urge you to remember—your character matters. I believe, and I know I am not alone here, that while we have supported you and will continue to encourage the growth and development of your mind and body it has been critical to nurture your heart and spirit as well. Without character, it is unlikely you will use your mind and hands to expand your knowledge, enrich your learning, or serve others in a meaningful way. The good thing is I know you get this!
Each of you has wonderfully rich, personal gifts—good looks, intelligence, charm, and athletic and musical prowess. You have thus far demonstrated the ability to hit the books, tutor a kid, or score in overtime. To do so, you relied on teamwork, diligence, sportsmanship, personal responsibility—those attributes, that character, are the stuff of your success.
Can we engage in purposeful learning and be successful without character? Without a conscience? Can we master the technical details and use our accumulated knowledge and skills to advance? Well, sure. For a time. One only has to consider our current reality and understand that it was not a dearth of advanced degrees, technological savvy, or creative financing that resulted in the economic mess we now face; instead, at its root, laziness, imprudence, dishonesty, and greed drove planning and decision-making. It has been the absence of character, not a lack of knowledge, that has prevailed.
A high SAT score, a big win on the field, or the number of community service hours racked up may get us through the college gate but by themselves they cannot be the goal. In fact, these achievements are meaningless if, in the end, we do not have the strength of character to do the right thing, the just thing, the courageous thing, when called upon. I know your teachers have challenged you in the classroom, and I hope in the process they have encouraged respect, fairness, and honesty.
Because your character matters. And your parents and your teachers know this to be true.
Haim Ginot, a Holocaust survivor, wrote a chilling letter to teachers after he survived the horrors of the Nazis. He wrote:
“Dear Teacher… I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by university graduates.
So I am suspicious of education. My request is this: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.”
He concludes: “Reading, writing, and arithmetic are only important if they serve to make our children more humane.”
I would add that AP courses, varsity athletic letters, scholarships, first violin in the orchestra are all important, but only if they strengthen your understanding of yourself, of others, and provide you with the tools needed to make this a better world. It is hard work, patience, tolerance, integrity, caring, sacrifice, and for many of you your faith—in short, it is your character that will enable your continued growth and success.
Use your beautiful head to get the right answer. But draw on your character to do the right thing.
When things get tough, and they inevitably will, when you are all alone, and you most certainly will be, it is your inner strength, your depth of character that will allow you to accept fear with courage, defeat with grace, and success with humility.
Congratulations for demonstrating a commitment to learning. You would not be here this evening if you were unable to prove your worthiness in the classroom and within the school community. Remember it is your humanity, your character, that will sustain you and enrich a world that desperately needs your scholarship, service, and leadership.