Corvallis High School Commencement Address, June 7, 2019

June 7, 2019

 As Delivered

Thank you for that kind introduction.  It is an honor to speak to you this evening and to congratulate Corvallis High School’s great class of 2019!

Indeed, it is a pleasure simply to be back in Corvallis.  I have been away for a long time, but this community will always have a special place in my heart.  I have many vivid memories from my years here, including from my own graduation ceremony, at which Phil Luarca, a popular business teacher and wrestling coach, gave the keynote address.   

But today, it’s the prior year’s graduation ceremony that really has me thinking.  When I was a junior, I was one of the student-ushers who helped the graduating seniors to find their seats, just like the young people who were in the center aisle earlier tonight.  The speaker that year was a CHS graduate who had become an anchorman for NBC News, Mr. John Hart.  I remember thinking that he spoke very well.  I also remember thinking that he told charming stories about a quaint, bygone era from long ago, and that he seemed very old.

When CHS invited me to address this year’s graduating class, I thought about John Hart’s speech, and I looked to see how old he was.  It turns out he was 46.  Like 46:  I am 57!  So if John Hart seemed old to me, I must seem downright ancient to you—or maybe 46 and 57 both seem so old that the difference doesn’t really matter!

Anyway, that discovery makes me very cautious about any reminiscing I might be tempted to do.  I’ll try to stick to the present.  But I can’t help saying one or two things about the past.  I’ll keep my references to the quaint, bygone era brief, I promise!

To the extent that anybody in town recalls what I did as a student here, they probably remember me for being part of a chess team that went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and won the national championship.  Just about everyone celebrates championships. I am proud of what that team did, and I was proud to hear your Spirit Commissioners talk about the championships that you won this year.  CHS is still a powerhouse, and I’m glad!  But it is not so obvious why championships matter.

Winning a championship is exciting, but it doesn’t really make the world any better than it was.  If there’s a championship, someone, by definition, is going to win it, and everyone else will be disappointed.  That’s just what championships are.  Writing a poem; painting a house; visiting someone who is lonely; tending a field; caring for a patient; inventing a new kind of battery; tutoring a student—those are the kind of things make the world better.  They add value to the world, instead of just dividing things up the way that a championship does.

And here’s something that might seem surprising about what I myself remember from that championship season.  Yes, I remember bits and pieces of the tournament, and I certainly remember the crowd that welcomed us home outside the old high school when we returned with the trophy—a crowd that included a couple of cheerleaders, perhaps the first if not the only time in American history that cheerleaders have ever shown up for a chess team.

But some of the first memories that pop to mind from that year aren’t about the competitions at all.  They are about the projects that we did to raise money to pay for our trip back East—like sweeping up the parking lot around a local restaurant, or standing outside the Oregon State football stadium in a cold rain waiting to help park cars for a concert by a group you’ve never heard of called “the Fifth Dimension.”  The concert got cancelled because the weather was so bad.

When I was corresponding with your teachers about this speech, Mr. Schapker asked me whether I knew where the national championship trophy was.  I did not.  In fact—though I didn’t tell him this—I really don’t remember what it looks like.  So I remember the parking lots better than the trophy.  What’s that all about?

Well, maybe the parking lot was super-cold and uncomfortable, so being out there was an unforgettable experience.  Or maybe, as I told you earlier, I’m just getting old.  But I think there’s a better, and more important, explanation.

Human beings find meaning in collective projects that bring us together around demanding goals.  That is why we celebrate championship seasons, and that is what matters most to me about my team’s championship.  I treasure the camaraderie that I shared with my teammates, the pride that we took in being Corvallis Spartans, the way that we worked together in parking lots and in competitions, and the growth that we experienced as we pushed ourselves to do better.

You have all been part of important and meaningful collective projects over the past four years in your own careers as Corvallis Spartans.  You have participated in projects through your teams, your clubs, your service projects, and your classes.  And you’ve been part of a bigger project as members who join together to form the class of 2019 that graduates at this ceremony today, with a credential that marks a real achievement and brings joy to your families.

As you have undoubtedly learned from the projects in which you have been involved, it takes energy to organize projects and participate in them.  Some people think that digital technology makes interpersonal connection easier but in some ways social media actually make it harder.  It is so tempting to think that we can genuinely connect by texting, or facebooking, or tweeting, or whatever-the-next-kind-of-apping might be.  Don’t believe it.  Digital interactions are like sugary food:  they make you feel like you’ve eaten but they are not enough to nourish your body or your soul.

The kind of connection that matters most is human, personal, and face-to-face.  That is what you have had for the past four years as Corvallis Spartans.  That is what you have here tonight, with your classmates and friends and families surrounding you.  Hold on to that.  Seek it out.  Forge relationships, create connections, join projects, make a difference!

As you go out into the world, I hope you will make an effort to find shared projects that make a difference in the world.  There are a lot of ways to make a difference, and they don’t have to be grand or newsworthy.  They might involve creating public art or planting trees or putting on plays or starting a business or doing scientific experiments or, for that matter, forming a chess club.  But I guarantee you that projects you share with others, in the service of a purpose greater than yourself, will make you happier and will make the world better.

I have great confidence that you will find and create projects that matter.  I have heard wonderful things about you from your teachers as I prepared these remarks, and I know that the spirit of Corvallis High School burns brightly within you.

I expect that your experiences as Spartans will fortify you for the journey ahead, not only in the next few years but long into the future—even when you become as old as I am now (unthinkable though that may seem!).  I want to conclude these remarks by thanking you for the chance to say a few words this evening, and, most importantly, by joining your friends and your families in sending my heartfelt congratulations and good wishes to Corvallis High School’s GREAT class of 2019!  Congratulations, and thank you!