2015 Commencement Speaker: Ms. Amy Johnson-Smith

May 21, 2015

The Seniors asked Amy Johnson-Smith to be their Commencement Speaker today. A highly respected member of our faculty, Amy has taught at CSS for the last 22 years. She is our Upper School English Department Chair and advisor of the National Honor Society. Please welcome Amy Johnson-Smith.

2015 Commencement Speaker Amy Johnson-Smith

Thank you, Mr. Schubach. Parents, families, friends, alumni, trustees, fellow faculty, and especially the class of 2015, I am honored to speak before you today. I must admit that when the seniors asked me to be their speaker this year, I yelped a little and then agreed only with the stipulation that they must help me with my speech. So I asked them what they expected of me and what they wanted most from any graduation speaker. Although not a whole lot actually replied to my request, the students who did said that they wanted humor and warmth and memories and life lessons, so that started my own little design thinking. First, forced humor never works, so I nixed that idea. The warmth part kind of comes naturally, but I’m actually shivering right now. So…well, so much for that one, too. Memories? Yes, we do have those, but most of the ones the students shared with me did not include me, so I was again speechless. That left me with “design thinking,” which, if you’re unfamiliar with this catch phrase, involves limitless creative designs unhindered by practicality until, yes, life does get in the way, and the creativity has to be tamed – but hopefully just a bit.

So let me actually begin.

When I looked over “The Best Commencement Addresses EVER,” I saw multiple accolades for the class of “fill-in-the-blank” because that particular class has stood out from every other class anywhere ever in the history of humankind and the prospects of that particular class of “whatever year it happened to be” will undoubtedly go far and solve all of life’s mysteries that have come before any of us ever and our hopes for the salvation of the world rest solely on the shoulders of the class of “insert year here” and we couldn’t be happier for you stunning models of humanity, and believe me, there’s absolutely no pressure on you to succeed and save us all, but gee, it sure would be nice. And believe me, I do feel in my heart all of those accolades and hopes and dreams for you and for us all. Today is indeed a momentous day for you, and you will undoubtedly be regaled with oodles of praise and hope for a gloriously bright future, you’ll reminisce about your amazing class, and you’ll feel on top of the world, so I’m here to balance that out just a bit. “What?” you may say indignantly. “But I don’t want balance today!” you may be thinking. Sorry, my dears, I’ve decided that rather than exalt your greatness this morning, I’m here to tell you, Class of 2015, just how terribly insignificant you really are. Yes, I did say, IN-significant. Now before the rotten tomatoes start flying, please let me explain myself. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered many new twists and turns in my own life and my own existence, and those swerves in direction have induced an alarming philosophical inspection, introspection, and retrospection. This profound philosophical shift really took root for me on the Vision Experienced Centered Seminar of 2014. Thanks to my esteemed colleagues Greg Johnson and Miller Adam, I learned about the extreme limits of human sight (in case you didn’t know, we mere humans are only capable of seeing less than 1% of the entire electromagnetic spectrum). Although I have known since age 7 that my own vision was limited by nearsightedness, that fact about the miniscule amount of light available to the human eye served as a humbling reminder to me of just how little my visual world truly is. Next, again on that ECS, I gazed at electron microscopic images of the smallest possible sights available to the human eye, and I was awestruck. So much exists at all times that goes so far beyond my sight, and I was humbled once again. Finally, we wrapped up the ECS by traveling to Tucson, AZ to the National Laboratory where we gazed through enormous telescopes and heard about unfathomable plans to seek and find the edges of the universe, and some students showed me the scope of human passion for the unknown and the possibilities that exist beyond our little speck of a planet. And I was deeply, deeply humbled. Since then, I’ve realized that although I felt my world shaken by profundity, many, many, many hearts and minds had already experienced my profound revelation (simply googling quotes related to the word “significance” showed me that much), but what all those countless professional philosophers had in common with amateurs like me is the realization that we are so vastly insignificant in the grand scheme of life that it behooves us all to make our insignificant existences as vastly significant as we possibly can.

This year, this same thought came to me on the SE Asia ECS but on a less than cosmic note. As we encountered the swarms of people in Phnom Penh, the Mekong Delta, Saigon, and Hanoi, I was again struck by my insignificant little existence in this mass of humanity on earth. In Cambodia, we encountered the consequences of some humans believing that they were far superior to other humans. We saw the remnants of the basest form of humanity on earth in the Tuol Sleng prison memorial, and we were mystified by the highest form of humanity in the survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide. Traveling to the other side of the earth helped me feel that same awe that I had felt the year before, and I was once again humbled. Mark Twain once said, quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” (end quote) My life’s travels have confirmed Twain’s sentiment, and I would add in that healthy dose of humility to Twain’s summation. Travelling helps solidify humility on earth, and should confirm the demands on our simple little lives to work with the complexities posed by a planet of over 7 billion people and to do something, anything that truly matters, while remembering Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Lest you fear that you must now face a daunting task that may be construed philosophically as insignificant, let me assure you that your journey towards significant meaning in life has already begun. You have made a positive difference on this planet since the moment you were born, no, actually, since the moment of the awareness that you were to be born. And you have continued to influence and affect those around you ever since. Undoubtedly, your parents and your families and your friends believe in your significance, and even though I started out by calling you insignificant, you have actually had a profound effect on my little life, and let me tell you how: I’ve known one of you since your birth; another of you has been my son; still another, a nephew; I’ve welcomed 4 of you into my home; 7 of you I first met as younger siblings of my students before you, so I’ve watched you grow; 9 of you were respected colleagues of mine in the REACH program; I’ve had the privilege of traveling with 11 of you around our country and still 5 more of you around our world; I’ve tutored 3 of you privately, and I’ve been honored to share a classroom with each and every one of you. So you see, you’ve already been working on that significance factor with me, and you may not have even recognized it. You’ve made a positive difference in my life, and I will forever be thankful. You have left me with warm memories that will remain in my heart, mind, and soul. You ARE capable of spreading yourselves in significant ways, for you’ve already begun.

As yet another philosopher stated: “Time itself is meaningless unless we make it significant.” Thus, it is important to remember that you are just one teeny-tiny grain of sand in an enormous hourglass called your life. You are surrounded by more teeny-tiny grains of sand than you can possibly comprehend, and that hourglass is turned and all of us are pouring through, pulled by gravity together, doing the best we can to make every moment count. We CAN do it. We CAN make a positive difference. We CAN help those grains of sand alongside us pour just as smoothly and safely as possible, but we must remember how each grain is just as insignificant as the next, but together we make a valuable mass. For as Nelson Mandela said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

The coffee can of fate offered to the Class of 2015

Use your awareness of your own insignificance first to be humble and then to empower yourself to make a vastly significant difference in the world. Be kind; be positive; do something wonderful every single day; do not dismiss the miniscule world beneath your feet and in your cells; travel our great planet, respect it and all of its inhabitants; give of yourself and your time to others who are less fortunate than you; grow increasingly aware of the universe beyond our own little planet; own this insignificant life and be responsible for it. When fate deals you a rotten hand, which will happen sometime, I assure you, remember my advice in class when the Coffee Can of Fate gave us something we didn’t like: manipulate Fate, change the direction, find your path, help other people along their paths, find something significant to do, but don’t ever forget that in the great, grand scheme of things, your existence matters far less than what you do with that existence.

In closing, I present to you the Coffee Can of Fate complete with a little wish for each and every one of you. So draw one more piece of paper from this insignificant, little can; read what Fate has in store for you; and then manipulate it in the best way possible. Today, my wish for you is to celebrate your insignificance and then tomorrow, by all means, do something about it!

Thank you!”