Channeling High School Musical at the EHS Cum Laude induction

Today I had the privilege of giving the Cum Laude address at Episcopal High School where our daughter is a senior. It was the second time I had the chance to give the talk. It is a great event with lots of excitement for the students who are inducted. I chose High School Musical as the text, which was a good match for the seniors who grew up with the movie.

Here are my remarks.

Cum Laude Induction 2017

Episcopal High School

Thank you, Charley, and thanks for all you do for our wonderful school.

Congratulations to the Cum Laude inductees and to all of the EHS students, faculty, staff, and parents. It is an honor to be part of this important day in the life of your school and to have a few minutes to share some thoughts with you as you contemplate your time here and your future.

I was thinking of growing a beard for this talk, but I couldn’t get my mom to sign the beardie.

This is the part of the program where some adult comes to congratulate you on your accomplishments and get you excited about all the work that still lies ahead.

The first part is easy: great job! You’ve worked hard in your classes and given up other things you wanted to do in order to put points on the board. That makes an old academic like me very happy, and your parents and teachers as well.

And while we’re congratulating you, it’s also a time to think about all the things you have shared with your fellow students. Things like:

Roughing it on Burch;

Breaking the bleachers at Woodberry when you won The Game;


And you can remember all the time you spent waiting. Waiting for Sunday brunch to open. Waiting for your computer to log onto EHS Mobile. Waiting for Gideon to say, “Open our hearts, Oh Lord, and set them on fire.”

“With Love.”

“For you.”

It’s easy to reminisce and congratulate you on all you’ve done. It’s harder to get you excited about all the work you still have to do, so I’m going to need some help. To keep you engaged, I’m going to turn to a source of wisdom that many of you know well – the Disney Channel Original Motion Picture, “High School Musical.”

I know this is a shock, because most of you expect every EHS event to start with the playing of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September.”

Most of your parents are very familiar with High School Musical, as well, having bribed and pacified you with it on many long car rides.

You might not think of High School Musical as a source of wisdom, but speeches like this just need three sections, and I think I can find those sections in the text of High School Musical.

So here goes.

Getcha Head in the Game

My first point is this: getcha head in the game.

You wouldn’t have made it this far without slogging through limiting reagents, the Federalist Papers, and Macbeth, so most of you are already there.

You need to keep it up and – sorry about this part – you basically need to do it forever. Most of what you want to do will require graduate school and beyond, and the jobs you do in the future – including raising a family or whatever you do in your personal life — will require you to learn new things.
So I’m afraid you’re never getting out of homework. You might as well learn to love it.

Here’s an idea: don’t just learn enough to ace the test. Memorize the WHOLE periodic table AND the atomic masses. Read ALL of the Federalist Papers. Read the histories, the comedies, AND the tragedies.

Now you don’t have to do homework all the time. I mean, I understand that sometimes you’re just going to need a little fabulous.

And, hey, that’s not so wrong.

So take some time to have some fun, but don’t get to the point where you start acting like learning is uncool. If the cool kids are making you feel like you won’t fit in if you study too much, just remember what Phillip Seymour Hoffman said in ‘Almost Famous,’ “You’ll meet them all again on that long journey to the middle.”

Point is, Maroons, gethca head in the game.

Don’t Stick to the Status Quo

Now for my second point. I’ve heard it said that if you want to be cool, follow one simple rule, and stick to the status quo.

Bad idea.

The status quo ain’t cutting it. The earth’s temperature, inequality, health disparities, politics. They’re all going in the wrong direction.

This is the part of the talk where the speaker says that our generation messed things up and you have to fix it. The reason that part is in these talks is because it’s true.

Our generation invented synthetic collateralized debt obligations and the short squeeze. We bought Hummers and Escalades. We made ‘Alf’ a hit show.

We’re not leaving you in a good place. You’re going to have to do some things differently.

You need to do a better job than we did of not taking the easy way out. You need to go against the grain.

It is not better by far to keep things as they are.

So even if it’s uncool, you just might have to bake your very own crème brulee.

And while you’re at it, find and invent clean energy. Inspire children in school. Feed 7 billion people. Describe the world and sow understanding instead of conflict. Create hope for all the folks who’ve lost it.

It may sound daunting, but we believe in you. You’ve got the intellect and education. You’ve got time – many of you will live another 80 years or more. And you’ve got people who love you who will help.

With all you can do, the status quo is toast.

We’re All in This Together

So dream big. Really big. We’ve never needed you more.

Still, even with all of us to help you, you can’t get there without some pain. I wish I could fix that for you – we all do.

Maybe the major you’ve got picked out that will help you change the world isn’t the right one. Maybe the job you want four years from now won’t be there. Maybe you won’t get as much playing time as you’re hoping for.

Maybe the people you love will encounter their own pain and not be there precisely when you need them.

There’s nothing we can do to keep all of this pain out of the way between here and your dream. And when it comes, you can’t just wish it away. You can’t party it away. You can’t study it away. You can’t sleep it away. You can’t even binge it away on Netflix.

And your parents can’t sweep in and fix it for you.

You’ve got to own the pain and use it to get stronger.

As Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

As Brene’ Brown has said, we can’t dare greatly without vulnerability. That’s what makes it hard.

The arena is not always an easy place.

But you can dare greatly. You have the courage and support to do it, because you live in this big beautiful world with 7 billion other folks who all need each other.

That’s why we can’t shut people out. We can’t stop listening to the other sides. We can’t create success for some by taking the hope of others. We can’t destroy the air, oceans, and land that we all share.

Because when it comes down to it, Wildcats – I mean Maroons, we’re all in this together.

Together. Together, everyone.

We love you so much.

You’re soaring.
You’re flying.

And there’s not a star in heaven that you can’t reach.

Congratulations to the Cum Laude class of 2017!


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