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Find Courage Within

By Gary Peritz, Upper School English Educator
Upper School English Educator Gary Peritz addresses the class of 2024 during commencement.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
                                          ~Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

We are here to celebrate the members of the class of 2024. I am honored to speak on behalf of this distinguished faculty of exceptional teachers. Now, it may come as a surprise to those of you who know me that I don’t always make it easy for my students to appreciate my charms, so I am truly flattered to share their day to celebrate achievements, share memories and embrace the exciting possibilities and challenges that lie ahead. 

Students, you understand that commencement speakers are supposed to say something engaging, inspiring and memorable. But truth be told, my hope is that as you are graduates of Country Day, I’ll only be reminding you of what you already know.

But here’s a fun fact you don’t know. It was this week in 1974 that my class of 900-something graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Huntington, New York. I’ll take just a moment to allow the students to do a little calculating. I’ve been a classroom teacher for 40 of those 50 years, the last 27 here at Country Day. That’s a long time spent with kids going through some daunting years. And now here we are. Graduation day has arrived, and I am offering you six simple tips or curated bits of semi-solicited advice worth remembering as you head off into the wild world. Let’s begin.

1. The work is hard. Do the work.
You’ve heard this for years. Don’t forget how to be a student. Be prepared for class. Complete the reading. Take thorough notes. Annotate your text. Use ink. Go to class. Sit in front. Connect with your instructors and your classmates. Be willing to share what you’ve learned, to listen, to check for understanding. Get used to hard, honest conversations. Cultivate your “soft” skills. Know that work will fill a large part of your life, so learn to take pride in what you make and do.
2. You will make mistakes.
It’s inevitable. Accept it. Period. Trust painter Bob Ross’s observation that “there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.” You will have to take risks. Perhaps you’ve heard that to get something you never had, you must do something you never did. Remember, fortune favors the bold. Fortune also favors the prepared mind.
3. Keep a good thought and an open heart.
Kindness, compassion and gratitude are the measures of emotional intelligence. Practice peace, love and understanding. Affection is a gesture. Show it. When you need to get out of your head, go outside. Never underestimate the power of a good walk.

4. Get to know your parents and grandparents. Be nice to your siblings. 
These folks are your guardian angels, and you are never far from their thoughts. Like it or not, you carry their hopes and dreams with you. They’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future. Keep them close.

5. Surround yourself with people who read.
The sardonic social commentator Fran Lebowitz wrote “Tips for Teens,” which advises you to “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself.”

And, for me, most important of all:

6. Find courage within. You’re going to need it.
Aristotle said courage is the “first virtue because it makes all the other virtues possible. Without it, no other virtue can be practiced consistently.” Maya Angelou points out that “you can be kind and true and fair and generous and just, and even merciful occasionally, but to be that thing time after time, you have to really have courage.” So how to have it? 

The author and social worker Brene Brown argues, “Courage is…a habit. You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by ‘couraging.’” Fair enough. I’d add that “couraging” gets easier when you live with compassion and commitment to others, integrity and self-esteem, and walk with purpose and a deep sense of truth.

Well, there you have it. Ring the bell. School is out. Class of 2024, I rejoice in your excitement and anticipation for what’s to come. I encourage you to live and study with intention, to immerse yourselves in what you love. It’s time to get on with your “one wild and precious life.” Godspeed, seniors. Happy trails and safe travels to you. 


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