2018 Commencement Address: Anne Taylor
Aaron Schubach: “The class of 2018 asked Ms. Taylor to give the commencement address today. Anne Taylor’s teaching style epitomizes the CSS method, combining inventive, experiential techniques with rigorous academic expectations. Her AP Psych class has become a favorite with students. This year, she orchestrated the highly successful first year of the Capstone project. Please welcome Ms. Taylor to the podium.”
Anne Taylor: “Thank you, Class of 2018, for asking me to share this day with you. (Actually, I think this might be the ultimate payback for that public speaking class you all had to take with me in tenth grade…) And welcome to all of you who have come to witness this important event. After 27 years of teaching, I’ve attended a lot of graduation ceremonies. And while no setting is as beautiful as this one, there is a common shape to these speeches. The purpose is twofold. Part One: celebrate the graduating class—their triumphs over adversity, their unique characteristics—and help the audience appreciate these beautiful young people assembled here in front of us today, together, one last time. That’s the easy part… Part Two: impart some small morsel of adult wisdom to the graduates, without sounding stale or preachy, and issue a challenge before we send them on their merry way.
In order to accomplish Part I, introducing the class, I did a little research in the CSS archives. (History teachers actually enjoy that sort of thing.) Before each student entered the Children’s School, their family submitted an application, which included a description of their child’s strengths and challenges, as well as their hopes for their education. Entering middle school and beyond, students were asked to fill out their own applications, sharing their strengths, fears, wishes, needs and happiest times. And then, there are the teachers’ comments over the years. Allow me to introduce to you, then, the Class of 2018, as they each were when they first joined the CSS community, in their own words, as well as the words of their parents and teachers. While there is no question that they have grown immeasurably, it is also striking how much they have maintained some of their essential qualities.
Most of you graduates were born on the eve of a new millennium, in 1999. That year, the world’s population topped six billion, hybrid cars hit the U.S. market, and Spongebob Squarepants premiered on television. The rest of you joined us in 2000, when gas cost an average $1.26 a gallon and scientists handed us the first draft of the human genome. All while you were still in diapers.
By the time 2003 rolled around, you were all out of diapers and ready for preschool and PreK. Alec, Celeste, Adrienne, Jake and Natalie were the first CSS “thinkers and problem solvers” to join the Class of 2018, but first they had to pass an admissions interview. Alec made a tower ten blocks high…on his first try! His parents reported him to be an “early talker, a very healthy, active child” who was independent and enjoyed puzzles and wrestling. His preschool teachers noted, “his quest for knowledge is incredible, though he still needs help with certain fasteners and opening some containers at lunch.” Celeste impressed her pre-school teachers as “very kind and compassionate….coming to see what is wrong when a friend is upset.” She loved nurturing her stuffed animals at home, which no doubt laid the groundwork for her extensive volunteer work and recent Capstone experience with live animals in veterinary medicine. Her sister Adrienne was described in her parents’ statement as “a bright and independent child whose interests come and go,” but at that moment she had a passion for glassware and china, as well as singing and dancing to Barney videos. As a middle schooler, Adrienne called herself “energetic, creative and smart.” She was looking forward to musical theater, and was in need of art supplies. Jake’s earliest teachers said, “He shows awareness of others’ rights, stands up for his own, and shows confidence engaging in conversations at the snack table. He attempts all tasks presented to him.” Indeed, from playing the part of the tuna when they acted out the book, Swimmy that year, to becoming SCUBA Open-Water certified in high school, Jake attempted, and conquered, many challenges. Natalie’s parents told us: “Natalie absolutely loves music, dancing, singing, pretend play, Winnie the Pooh, trains and weddings! Her typical attire at home is a lion’s costume, Belle princess shoes and a magic wand. She is articulate and strong minded…with a wonderful curiosity and a desire to learn.”
In the fall of 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Equally impressive forces, Ali, Sarah, Julia, Keyton and Dean, hit the Class of 2018. Ali’s kindergarten teacher stated, “She comes to school with a positive attitude, plays well with others and is well liked by her peers. She is reserved at first but warms up quickly. Her physical [coordination] is above average.” (Anyone who’s seen her on a soccer field or basketball court knows how much of an understatement that was!) Sarah’s parents called her “precocious and strong.” Her Kindergarten teachers noted she was “good-hearted and eager to help her friends,” intrinsically motivated and a well-rounded learner. “She does not accept defeat when she is not successful the first time,” they said, “but tries another way and works hard to figure it out.” Five-year-old Julia was described by her parents as “a very eager learner, especially in Language Arts, but like everything else, she does it on her own terms.” Six years later, her fifth grade teachers declared, “The CSS Class of 2018 will benefit from Julia’s leadership and insights as a writer.” (Indeed they have…and always on her own terms!) Keyton’s parents described him as “charismatic, kind and generous….He memorizes everything he sees or reads about Thomas the Tank Engine, and has been on many train rides around Colorado.” In 10th grade this group, led by Keyton’s charismatic moves, stole the annual lip sync contest and the prize shoes from the seniors. And just a few weeks ago, they did it again, this time led by Keyton’s live saxophone solo. Keyton may have dropped the trains, but he’s developed a passion for music that he can ride, around Colorado and beyond, for a long, long time. Dean’s mom wrote in his application, “If you did not know Dean R., you might think of him as ‘Mr. Serious’ because he is so focused on whatever he is doing… But after just a few minutes…you realize he is very articulate, curious, polite, energetic and has a silly sense of humor.” Entering middle school, Dean described himself as book-loving, energetic, funny, and very connected to his friends. That Kindergarten year was a big one beyond CSS as well. Microsoft released the XBox 360, YouTube hit the Internet, and Facebook went mainstream. Video games, YouTube, and social media would shape your childhoods and forever change your world—for better and for worse—in ways that we are still trying to fathom.
What would this class be without Samantha, who came in first grade, described by her parents as “outgoing, lively and positive. She loves to sing and play with animals.” Years later when asked what she was most looking forward to in Middle School, she said, “Everything! I know I’ll love it!” She described herself as “fun, adventurous, curious and determined!” (And I noticed that she used more exclamation points in her application than all other members of the class combined!)
In 2007, Netflix started streaming online, and Jade entered the second grade. Young Jade liked “reading, reading, and more reading,” as well as writing and “all things Egypt.” Entering middle school, she confessed, “When I was younger, I was an overly sassy baby,” but her parents must have forgiven her, for they wrote, “Jade has a complexity and depth that are hard to define…When Jade cares for you, she cares deeply and completely, and will stand by your side, no matter the circumstances.”
A few years passed before Lewis came along in 5th grade. His application stated: “I want to know more about geography. I wish I could become an architect or something to do with geography. I need teachers who want to listen. I am best at soccer and writing. I think my mom and dad are my personal heroes because they love me.” Later that year, Ian joined from Pauline Memorial, where his teachers noted he was “thoughtful, inquisitive, friendly and bright, with a tendency to bore easily.” His parents described him as “creative, hard-working, individual, and competitive,” noting that an advisor who understood sibling rivalry would be a good fit. Ian himself noted that he secretly had a Star Wars Lego collection.
In 2011, Apple introduced Siri on its iPhone 4S, the world’s population topped seven billion, and you all entered middle school. Seventh grade saw the arrival of more new boys. One was Connor, whose biggest need of the moment was for the Minnesota Vikings to have a better record than the Green Bay Packers that season. (They did not….They went 3 and 13…) He reflected on the challenges of being a military child, concluding that his dad’s deployments had strengthened his social skills and allowed him to take a leadership role in his family. Another incoming 7th grader, Joe, shared the most important advice he had received to date: “From my dad it’s to think before I do. My mom taught me that no matter what happens, do my best. In conclusion, I am a trustworthy and kind person, a loyal Scout and an all-around good guy.”
Entering in 8th grade, Annika was described by her parents this way: “She is a deeply compassionate person with high regard for the rights of all life on our planet.” On her own application Annika said, “At school, I want to be with kids who are bright, love to learn, have their own personalities and aren’t afraid to show who they are.”
In August of 2014, you all moved to the El Pomar Building for high school. Later that winter, the Broncos won the Superbowl, and Emma joined the class. In her mother’s words, “Emma is self-directed and driven. She is a joiner and wears many hats. She loves leadership positions.” Fourteen-year-old Emma told us that her happiest time of life is actually the present. “Every day I am faced with a new and exciting challenge. Each moment of the day presents a greater story. I feel as if I have never been happier.”
In 2016, Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time, and Sammi joined us for junior year. Her parents appreciated her out-of-the-box thinking and artistic tendencies, present from a young age. In her own application essay, Sam described her happiest time when she was picked from the crowd to try out for a fourth grade basketball team, the Lady Bombers. “To conclude,” she wrote, “feeling wanted was an amazing experience.…This event changed my life.”
And last but not least, Maury arrived half-way through junior year from El Salvador, and our soccer team rejoiced! Many of you are familiar with the poetry of his moves defending the CSS goal, but what struck me even more were the poetic words of his application. Maury mused, “The happiest time of our lives is when we stop focusing on the past or being worried by the future. The happiest time is when we live and enjoy the present with our loved ones. When we start to collect memories, instead of things.”
We should all take a moment to heed the words of these graduates: Enjoy the present. Collect this memory. Here. Now. Let the present moment be your happiest time. Today in particular presents you with a greater story. What an amazing experience it is to feel wanted, to have teachers who want to listen, to be with people who are bright and motivated and aren’t afraid to show who they are. It changes your life.
And graduates, what is glaringly, beautifully, redundantly evident in these words written about all of you, from ages 2 to 16, is not just how much you are still the same, but also how very much you are wanted and loved and valued in the world, and that is not something to be taken lightly. Parents—biological and adoptive—often backed up by grandparents, aunts and uncles, have given you their unconditional love and a meaningful education; they have been your safety net, your sounding board, your training wheels. At times, they may have felt like your punching bag….But over and over again, they made you feel wanted. Look out there now and find your personal heroes who have enabled you to get to this moment today. Collect this memory, together.
This brings me to Part II of the Commencement address: Passing the baton with sage advice, and a charge for you graduates as you depart these marble columns. Just like a good ECS, I think this calls for two essential questions: First: What do I want for you in the world? And second: What does this world need from you?
To answer these, I’d like to turn to a quote I saved from a Chipotle bag several years ago. It struck me, as I sat there eating my chicken burrito, so I cut it out ,and I’ve had it taped up by my classroom door since then. Here’s what it says: “We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”
These words are originally from Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard. To me, Pinker’s words are a call to engage in the world. To give yourself permission to try something, even though you know it might not come out just right. We’ve encouraged you to do that a lot here at CSS. You’ve heard it so much, it’s almost a cliche… “Step out of your comfort zone.” Try a new sport your senior year. Try out for the play, even though you’re not a “theater type.” Live with a homestay family where the food and the language are unfamiliar. And every time, you came out stronger, more mature, and more engaged with our imperfect world. As Julia put it in her reflection on the India ECS this spring, “Apathy dies with experience.” You cannot be apathetic to human suffering and resilience when you’ve visited refugee camps in the Himalayas or eaten lunch at a table with the homeless downtown. You cannot be apathetic to the value of bilingualism when you have traveled abroad and used your classroom Spanish or French to communicate with students your age about music and iphones and your life’s dreams. You cannot be apathetic to the beauty and power of nature and the need to protect it when you have clung to the deck of a two-masted tall ship in the midst of a storm off the coast of California, dove amongst the beautiful but bleaching coral reefs in the Caribbean, or paddled the Mississippi for five days straight, finding freedom on the river. And you cannot be apathetic to the need to respect and honor cultures different from your own when you have stood atop the majestic Andes, looking down at the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. Your CSS education has given you a wealth of experience in and beyond the classroom. It is my hope—and my expectation—that you will use it well. Engagement, not apathy, is what the world needs from you.
But how do you engage? And in what? Defining that is both your incredible freedom and your weighty responsibility as you ask yourself: “What motivates me? (now that the college admissions process is finally over…) What can I contribute? What is my place in the world?” These are not multiple choice questions that you answer in bubbles with a Number 2 pencil on a scantron sheet. They’re not even FRQs on an AP exam, with the freedom to choose blue or black ink and write in complete sentences. Answering these questions is your life’s journey. In the words of the late science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” You, graduates, have already made a great start on that journey. And it has been my honor and my pleasure to have shared some of it with you.
Some things I want you to take with you on the rest of your journey: First of all, your passion. It’s great that some of you are quite clear about your passions already. But I also know that others are still defining these. And that’s okay, too! Most people don’t have their passions delivered to them from on high on a lightning bolt; they don’t arrive at the front door in a brown UPS truck. Passion is not passive. You have to pay attention. Daniel Pink, another psychologist who studies motivation, tells us, “Instead of trying to answer the daunting question of ‘What’s your passion?’ it’s better simply to watch what you do when you’ve got time of your own and no one’s looking.” So get back in touch with your intrinsic motivation. You had it in Kindergarten. It’s still there. Identify your passions and share them with the world. But be careful. Finding your passion doesn’t mean sinking into narcissism. No doubt, you are each your own special snowflake, but it’s not all about you. The world needs your empathy and your selfless compassion for people everywhere, as well as your passion. We need leadership that acknowledges our common humanity and our interdependence on this beautiful, fragile planet.
Second, be sure that you bring along plenty of optimism on your journey. Pessimism tells us, “You can’t stop world hunger, so why bother spending your time volunteering in a soup kitchen?” Optimism says, “Today, some people in my city will eat because I showed up and made soup.” But optimism should not be blind. It should not be romantic or naive. A healthy dose of realism is necessary. This keeps us from doing stupid things. It also keeps us from thinking that everything is okay in the world… It isn’t. There are a lot of problems that need fixing. Polar bears are standing on shrinking ice caps. Girls are denied an education and shot for demanding one. Closer to home, we are still struggling to keep our children safe in their schools. But optimism says we have the human ingenuity, the technology and the capacity to solve these problems. We just need the mindset and the will to make it happen.
So, in short, graduates, what I want for you in your life is to be fully engaged with the world, however you define it. Take a risk. Kill apathy with experience. Find and follow your passions. Be guided not by narcissism, but by compassion and empathy. Let optimism buoy your spirits and light your way, but temper this with healthy realism. What does the world need from you? Howard Thurman, theologian, writer and civil rights activist, put it this way: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Class of 2018, as you live your journey, you will find your place in the world. It may not be a perfect world, but it will be a better one because all of you are in it.