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2016 Commencement Address: Mr. Amos White

May 26, 2016

Mr. Amos White giving the 2016 Commencement Address The Colorado Springs School’s Middle School History Teacher and Division Lead Teacher, Mr. Amos White delivered the Commencement Address to the Class of 2016 at the 51st Commencement Exercises.

Thank you, Mr. Schubach. Families, friends, alumni, trustees, fellow faculty, and especially the class of 2016, I am honored to speak before you today. Some of you may be wondering why I, as a Middle School teacher, am the one giving the commencement address. After all, middle school is old news for these young men and women. Perhaps this class asked me to speak today as revenge for making them suffer through many projects in my courses. Although there may be some truth to this, I had the privilege of advising, teaching, and going on Walkabout with them in Middle School and coaching about half of them in Upper School soccer as well.

Having watched this class grow, I am impressed by the young men and women they have become. In Middle School, at times this group did not not get along very well, and many of them struggled with the same organizational and study challenges that most Middle School students face. Yet, over the years, they blossomed. I clearly remember sitting with the class on a ledge above the San Juan River one evening on Walkabout, listening to the water below. As they offered praise to one another in a sharing circle, I was touched by their maturity and vulnerability as they related what they most appreciated about their peers.

This group has always played hard, as evidenced by their passionate water fights on the river during Walkabout. I don’t usually end up in the river, as my nurturing nature typically doesn’t provoke any kind of attack, but this group was determined that I would drink from the silty waters of the San Juan. Their persistence was rewarded, and one afternoon, I got a good look at the underside of one of the rafts.

This class also thinks outside the box while having fun. Once, my boys’ soccer team arrived early to a game. While some members of the team were taking a nap or doing homework in my van, the soccer boys from this class took the hazard traffic cones out of the other van and were running around with them on their heads to pass the time — not something that any other group I have ever coached has done. Although I sternly instructed them to put the cones back, I was laughing on the inside at their exhibition of free-spirited joy. The years I coached the boys and girls in this class were marked by lots of laughter amidst all our hard work.

This class has always been quick-witted and quirky, and in Middle School, as their advisor, I was often the subject of bizarre stories they created. One such story was that I was born in Maine, crawled across the Canadian border and was raised by a secret branch of the Canadian Mounties before I was later adopted by Mr. Mike Kelly, another long-time CSS history teacher. Even the end-of-year gifts from this class reflected their unique perspective on things. At the end of 8th grade, I actually received some hair dye as a gift because some of them kept describing a mythical patch of gray hair on the back of my head. This group thrived in utilizing their sense of humor, and I have always enjoyed them for it.

But enough reminiscing — on to the subject of this speech. I racked my brain for a long time to come up with some advice that would serve you well as you head off to college and beyond. What I decided upon is a topic with which I have struggled for most of my life. My challenge to you today is “Be Present.” Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, you should work at being fully immersed, both physically AND mentally. In 2002, I had the chance to trek in the Himalayan region of Nepal. I climbed to the summit of Kala Pattar to reach one of the best viewpoints of Mt. Everest. On that November day, the sky was the deepest blue I have ever seen, without a cloud in it, and it contrasted sharply with the grey rock of Everest and the white of the Khumbu glacier sprawling down its side. In that moment, I intentionally burned the image of that scene into my memory, felt the crispness of the late fall air, heard the flapping of the prayer flags in the wind, and smelled the smoke rising from the village below. Because of my focus on being present, the day is still incredibly clear and meaningful to me.

Now, I want to contrast this experience with another day when I was first dating my wife, Lara. We were teaching together at an outdoor school in Washington, and we decided to hike near Mt. Rainier. The day was beautiful, and the scenery was breathtaking, but as the day wore on, I became preoccupied with my desire to watch Men in Black that night. Because Netflix didn’t exist at that time, I wanted to rent this film from the local video store before it closed. As we hiked, I realized we were not going to make it at our current pace, so I got the brilliant idea to convince Lara that we should run back to the trailhead and out of the beautiful scenery we were enjoying. She indicated that this was not what she had in mind for our hike and that she was not going to run. So, being the sensitive boyfriend that I was, I took off without her, stopping every so often to wait for her and hoping she would pick up the pace. She, of course, never did. We ended up having a miserable second half of our day and a VERY long drive back to the outdoor school. Had I stayed in the moment and been truly present on our hike, I would remember a wonderful day with my future wife rather than the train wreck it became. Class of 2016, these two stories show how our focus on the moment can have a dramatic impact on the quality of our lives.

Unfortunately, many of us are constantly looking to the horizon. We often say to ourselves, “If only this class were over,” or “If only we could be on the next break or the next adventure” or “My life will be better once…” You fill in the blank. This wandering of our minds from our present circumstances does not build satisfaction, rather it detracts from our getting the most out of our current situation. In fact, a recent study out of Harvard revealed some interesting findings on this topic. Researchers gathered reports from people all over the world with great diversity in their income, age, marital status, occupation, and education. The researchers asked: “How often does someone’s mind wander from their present circumstances?” and “Does mind wandering, even if it is about pleasant things, cause people to be happier than if they stayed in the moment?” They found that most people’s minds wander about 47% of the time and that mind wandering has a significant negative impact on people’s happiness, even if they are dwelling on positive memories or thoughts. So, for those of you who are thinking about the delicious food you will eat at graduation parties instead of staying in the moment and tracking with my speech, you are not as happy as you could be right now.

Mind wandering and wishing for a different experience are only two ways that people can fall into the trap of not being present. Another major hindrance to fully enjoying those around us is our technology. Now, don’t get me wrong, smartphones and laptops are incredible tools that are often indispensable in our daily lives, but they can get in the way of our connecting with the people around us. How many times have you seen people in a park, a restaurant, or even their own living rooms focused on their electronic devices instead of enjoying who and what is around them? A couple years ago, Apple produced a commercial with a teen who was constantly using his iphone to take video footage of family members. His relatives enjoyed making snow angels, sledding, and decorating the tree. At the end of the commercial, Apple showed that the boy had created a video to share with his family as a gift. Everyone loved it, but I found it sad. Watching it, I realized that he captured lots of great memories, but he was not a part of any of them. Sometimes, we just need to put away our laptops and phones and commit to being with the people who are with us. If we do, we will deepen our relationships, develop our social interaction skills, and not miss out on amazing things, big and small, like the giggles of a baby, the enthusiastic storytelling of a young child, or the random meeting of a stranger who could become our new best friend.

Life is a gift, and we will make the most of it, and be happier, if we focus on staying in the moment. Now, senior class, if your friends and relatives ask you about your future plans, please don’t respond, “Hey, didn’t you hear what Mr. White said? We are supposed to be present and not think about the future.” This is not quite the message I intend. There must be a balance in all things, so we do need to prepare for the future. Do you remember the story of the ant and the grasshopper? The ant gathered food diligently for the winter, while the grasshopper frolicked and did not concern itself with such tedious, but necessary, chores. In the end, the grasshopper died. This is not what I want for any of you. So, hard work and planning are necessary. But, as you venture forth to college and life beyond, I challenge you not only to take with you the problem-solving skills, ingenuity, creativity, and ethical decision-making abilities you have developed here at CSS, but also to make the most of each day by trying hard to be present in every experience. In fact, as you go through this day, focus on the details — the blue of the sky, the applause as you walk across the stage to receive your diploma, the hypothermia from which you may be suffering as you sit in the shade, the proud faces of your loved ones, and the bittersweet emotions you are experiencing. If you are intentional about this, today will remain forever etched in your memory. Graduating Class of 2016, I wish you much happiness and success in all you pursue. Congratulations!”

Mr. Amos White giving the 2016 Commencement Address