Class of 2004

Singapore American School
Commencement Address
by Eric Burnett
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Good evening, Mr. Gross, Mrs. DeFord, members of the Board, distinguished faculty, proud parents, honored guests and you, almost alumni.

Thirteen years ago, your parents walked into your kindergarten class holding the hand of a nervous, excited two-foot tall munchkin. They met your teacher, gave you one last hug and waved goodbye. For your parents, the years that followed passed in a blink. For you graduates, they sometimes passed painfully slow. Yet, thirteen years ago you all shared one thing in common. There were probably tears shed that day because your parents left. Today, there will again be tears, but this time it is you that is doing the leaving.

I was asked a question a few months back by one of your classmates, a young lady with a fondness for horses. She had just left the classroom of Mrs. Hill, her 6th grade science teacher. Mrs. Hill had said that this would be the one graduation she would definitely not miss. So, this young lady came into my room and asked, "Why do teachers like us so much?" Now, this question sounded just a bit pretentious and I don't exactly remember how I responded.

I think what she was asking was why is this class unique? I’ve had a few months to hash out a proper response. I’ve had some trouble. You see, I can’t define you all as a group. Yes, there’s a group of you that created a culture of competition that permeated throughout the class. There’s a group of you who can pass from adult to adolescent conversation seamlessly. There’s a group of you who has excelled athletically. Another has found success in the arts. There’s a group of you who lived on three hours sleep because you’d been studying all night, and a group of you who lived on three hours sleep for entirely different reasons.

Though you are so different, there are a few consistencies in this class. For one, you’ve started asking questions many of us didn’t start asking until our 30s. At some point in time over the past few years, and maybe only in the last couple months, you've started wondering. You’ve jumped through all the hoops. You’ve played by the rules. You’ve achieved the goals defined by your peers, your teachers, your counselors and the college admission gods. But while you were pushing for these goals, something happened. You realized something was missing. At this point, some of you just shut down. Others did the best they could hoping the next phase would be different.

A rather spunky thespian asked me last year in a psychology class, "Mr. Burnett, why is it that people always tell us we need to work hard and postpone our happiness. They tell us to try in high school, so we can get into a good college. Work hard in college, get a good job. Spend a ton of time at work, get lots of money, save for retirement and then at the ripe old age of 65 you can start being happy. Why is it that we have to postpone happiness until we’re too old to enjoy it?"

I just smiled. He got it. He asked the question many of us avoid. The answer would force us to ask ourselves why we prioritize our life the way we do. Oftentimes the only way we can justify all that we lose out on, is believing that the eventual payoff will be worth it.

Now back to the girl’s original question. Why do teachers like us so much? Well…I can‘t speak for my colleagues. The truth is, many of them still scare me. But I can speak for is myself.

I will miss you for one reason. You are an extremely likable group of young adults. Though "likable" won’t score me a six on the hallowed Six Traits Rubric, it’s the closest adjective I could find. Five years ago, when I first taught this class, I thought I’d landed in teaching utopia. Your creativity and effort produced work I had never seen. You were hyper competitive then, but you also had this amazing ability to laugh at yourself, and create your own humor. When I returned to this class a few years later, some of the faces had changed, but the group that joined you was equally endearing, equally driven, and equally witty. You made work fun.

Now, because I’m treading precariously close to mimicing some poignant passage from Chicken Soup for the Soul, I also need to mention another reason why I like you - you are quite easy to manipulate. The word "manipulate" might seem like an insult, but in the hands of mind molders like ourselves, it’s been quite valuable. You see, because of the ulta-competitive environment you’ve created, all of us needed to merely set forth a challenge and then watch as you fought over yourselves to achieve the goal. Oftentimes, it was this competition that pushed you to reach levels you never would have attained without that lovely little impetus called peer pressure.

From here, success will be a little bit more difficult to define. To this point, the rules have been black and white. Jump through hoop A and you will receive reward B. Success gets a little fuzzier from here on out.

So today, I’m setting forth a series of challenges. Whether or not you follow any of these is totally your choice, but…and here comes the manipulative part…those of you who actually adhere to these suggestions are 87% more likely to find eternal happiness and success than the classmate next to you who naively chooses to ignore this advice. So ladies and gentlemen…the challenge begins now…

1) I challenge you to take advantage of the fact that you’re starting new. This might be the only time in your life where you will change your geographic location at the precise time you have unprecedented freedom? In the words of the famed mathematician Joseph Lingle, "Once you leave high school, you’ll never have to ask again for permission to go to the bathroom." Freedom is more than toilet independence. Many of you have talked to me about how outside factors have prevented you from being yourself. You wanted to change parts of your personality or try different activities, but your reputation and expectations prevented this. Once you step onto your new college campus, these factors don’t exist anymore. The only person that prevent you from being the you that you want to be is you.

2) I challenge you to recognize the people you’ll meet will not have your international perspective. How could they? When I was growing up, we learned about California history in 3rd grade. This was followed the next year by a unit on California history. The next year we took a break from California history to learn about America, only to revisit California history the following year. You can’t fault your future peers for their views. So, fight the urge to ruffle their hair and say, "Ahh…gee…you adorably provincial little American. Aren’t you cute." Be patient. Answer their seemingly ignorant questions and inspire them to see the world outside the U.S. border.

3) I challenge you to avoid passively accepting the Cliff’s Notes version of the world. Many of you have survived in an age where information was merely a entry away. Unfortunately, too often the summarized version of life leaves out crucial details. Be willing to truly understand multiple perspectives before making judgments. When choosing your news, know that there is usually an inverse correlation between the quantity of color pictures and the quality of discourse. Know that there are two sides to every story, but usually only one being told.

4) I challenge you to figure out your social comfort zone. People will invite you to study at the library. People will invite you to chat over a cup of coffee. You might even be invited to a fraternity party where people drink sasparilla and dance suggestively. It’s OK to accept these invitations. But you need to learn that it’s also OK to not want to go. It’s even OK to be alone on a Friday night.

5) I challenge you to seek out Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Aristotle once taught the danger of living your life in extremes. Don’t work too hard. Don’t be a flake. Avoid long distance relationships. Avoid spending eight hours a day with a psychotically insecure girlfriend who can‘t leave you sight. Jay Gatsby taught you that wealth isn’t everything. And the Joads showed you how poverty isn’t a hoot either. Find balance in your life.

6) I challenge you to learn quickly that you are not your resumes. You are not your college application. You are not the bumper stickers plastered on the car you might some day own if you ever can pass the driver’s test. So many of you have defined yourself by your clubs, your quantity of AP exams, your number of service organizations, your SAT scores. You are not to blame - you are a merely a creature of your envvironment. But…the quicker you pull yourself away from this mindset, the quicker you can begin enjoying your life instead of performing your life. Here’s a little scenario that will occur in colleges across the nation in the coming months. Recently, you’ve been asked the same two questions over and over - "where are you going to college?" and "what are you doing this summer?" Now in your first week of college, while you’re surviving a series of bonding activities, these questions will be replaced with "what’s your major?" and "where are you from?" With your Singapore response, you’ll probably have to suffer through some joke about being caned because you chewed gum while trying to ward off a terrorist plot by a SARS carrier. But then there will be silence. You could fill the silence with some profound question such as, "So…what kind of vegetables don’t you like?" or you could feel free to begin regurgitating regurgitate your resume - quote your SATs, introduce your GPA to the thousandths place or give a quick review of those 187 activities you listed beneath your picture in the yearbook. I have a feeling you’ll learn real quick that few people are interested in your resume.

7) I challenge you to smile often. Many of you are funny looking. Fortunately, a sincere smile can oftentimes make up for incorrectly placed facial features.

8) I challenge you to be a rebel and be the first generation to actually listen to their elders. It is one of the bizarre ironies of life that at the moment you most need to hear advice, you also feel you have unparalleled intelligence. Don’t underestimate the importance of experience. When someone from the receding hair generation offers a point of consideration, fight the urge to shrug your soldiers, roll your eyes and let your mind journey off to happy land. Know that human nature hasn’t change since those days back on the Tigris and Euphrates River. The people who’ve been around the block are usually the best ones to ask for directions.

9) I challenge you to learn quickly that the adage "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you" is a fabricated load of sh…garbage. Realize the power of your words; they have the power to scar, and the power to uplift. Many of you still remember a classmate who felt the need to share with you a little nugget of honesty. My all-time favorite is Bird Legs Burnett. Jennifer Gardiner. 1985. With some quality therapy, I’ll get over this slight. However, as you get older, the situations become more severe and your ability to control the English language becomes more deadly. Choose your words wisely and work on your edit reflex. Every thought that enters your mind does not in fact need to exit your mouth.

10) I challenge you to question why you dislike people. A few generations back, a witty man named Confucius said, "When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves." Let your annoyance with others be the mirror to your own faults.

11) I challenge you to realize the attainment of goals should guide you, not consume you. At some point, know that your happiness as an adult will not be defined by the mere attainment of goals. Many of you, myself included, pushed yourselves to the next level through the wonderful game of "I’ll be happy when…" or "I’ll be successful when…" and then finished the sentence with whatever flavor of the week goal that fit that moment. But your friendships, your marriage, your family life won‘t be assessable quantitatively. Your friends won‘t give you an annual review, your children won‘t give you a grade, and your wife won‘t give you a certificate of achievement - though many of us husbands know that wee definitely deserve one. These people will only want your time. They will want you to treasure the journey with them, not merely reaching the destination.

12) I challenge you to learn the art of keeping silent. When people talk, listen. No one has ever learned anything while talking.

13) I challenge you to ask for help…when you need it.

14) I challenge you to expand your definition of friendship. To this point you’ve been limited to a small segment of the population from which to choose your friends. All that changes the moment you leave high school. You might enjoy chatting with your professor. You might become best friends with your boss. You might even find you like someone from Wisconsin. Be open to friendships in the oddest of places.

15) I challenge you to avoid gripe sessions. During my freshman year at college I was whining about something to a colleague she turned to me and said, "If you were ever sitting around a fire with a group of people and throwing your problems into the fire, you’d be so embarrassed at the triviality of your problems that you would be the first to reach in and grab yours out." Now, I didn’t have the superb figurative language analysis skills back the, that I do now, but I still had an idea of what she was talking about. You must have perspective. You’ve seen true strife. Be careful not to journey to the land of melodrama where you hyper-inflate your daily roadblocks into monumental issues.

16) I challenge you to give yourself options. The further you go in school the more options you will have later. Don’t handicap your future by goofing off.

And finally, I’d like to not leave you with a challenge, but a few requests.

First, look at into the audience at your teachers. We’ve spent years with you; in this overseas community many of you became our extended family. In this cycle of teaching, each year a new crop of young adults enters our lives, only to exit forever a few months later. This end of the year always leaves us with conflicting emotions. Yes, there’s not a one of us out there that hasn’t counted the exact hours until our plane will leave Changi Airport. But, at the same time, we know that tonight will end yet another cycle. We’ll add yet another 100 faces to our photo album of classroom memories. And we know we’ll probably never see any of you again. Next year in US history I’ll head back to 1492, in Western Civ I’ll be back talking about a hairy hominid named Lucy, and in American Lit, I’ll be chatting about some lady named Hester who can’t get this letter off her chest. Give us a break from our routine and check in with us every now and again. We’d love to hear where your life has taken you.

And finally, your parents. Try to look through the lights and find their proud faces beaming down on you. These next few months are going to emotional for your parents. All you’re thinking about is jumping into adulthood. All they’re seeing is their baby leaving the house. You spoiled them those first few years - you gave them you first smile, your first steps, that first bath where they washed your adorable little tushy, that first time you sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," that first time you read. There was a time when all they wanted to do was throw you on the bed and see how many different ways they could make you giggle. Yet years ago, they too made this same walk to the land of "Wide Open Spaces" and they know what comes next. They fear that your relationship might become one of brief contacts during summers, a couple of shared meals for holidays, and a few random phone calls from time to time asking for money. This reality scares them to death. So…promise me. Promise me you’ll stay a bit longer at the dinner table just to talk. Promise you’ll reassure your parents you’ll call them four times a day. And Promise me that when your mom hugs you, when she hugs you like you once held her thirteen years ago, this time…let her be the one to pull away.

…and to the class of 2004, I want to thank you for this honor. When I step off this stage you will have given me a memory I will never forget. Congratulations class of 2004. I will miss you.