Below is my graduation speech for the Union Middle School class of 2015. This speech was different from my previous two graduation speeches in that I struggled to find the right words that I wanted to say to this class. It was actually at their Promotion Party a week prior where I sequestered myself in my office for a total of 90 minutes and just started typing. By 11 pm, long after I'd sent home our 8th grade students with their parents after three hours of candy, dancing, and Foosball, the graduation speech was 99% complete. My wife, as a middle school counselor herself, provided a few key additional lines and it was done.
During the dozens of times I practiced this speech, I only once choked up. It was during the last segment of the speech during the story time. At the promotion ceremony, in front of a crowd of students, parents, staff, and community members, I felt my throat closing at multiple points. At the mention of our families fertility struggles. At the story of the student and his journey. And at the end. This has been such an interesting class of students. There is so much potential within them. I'm hopeful they continue to make us proud.
Thank you parents for your support over the past three years.
Thank you staff for your continued dedication to our students.
And thank you students for just being you.
Here is the graduation speech. Enjoy.
Good evening everyone once more to our 8th grade promotion ceremony. My name is Todd Feinberg, and I have been privileged to have been the principal of Union Middle School for the past three years. And what a three years it has been.
Look at these 297 eighth graders bound for the foreign land we call high school. It is a talented, kind, considerate, and sometimes forgetful group of former mischievous little 6th graders that we as a community have molded into the young adults who sit before us all. It is a challenging group to speak to. They are diverse. They are unique. And they are quite special to all of us.
Students… I struggled in writing this speech. It’s true… I couldn’t find the words I wanted to share each of you during these last few moments. After all, in less than thirty three minutes, you will have officially promoted from Union Middle and be 9 short weeks from starting all over again, this time as freshmen in high school. We don’t have that much time together and there is a lot I want to say. And so I would like to share the words I wish my own middle school principal had said to me during my own middle school promotion ceremony when I was 14 and thought like many of you, that I already knew everything I needed to know.
I think my middle school principal would have encouraged me to try everything. Yes, I mean everything. Try everything in sports. Try everything in school. Try every educational, extracurricular, or athletic opportunity I could. We adults want you to be safe but we also want you to explore. We do. Sometimes, it just scares us what you will find, but that’s doesn’t mean we don’t want you to keep looking.
It is incredibly important to take risks in your life. It’s also quite smart to have a safety net of support just in case something goes wrong. If you try and fail, I’m proud of you. If you just fail without trying, you’ve wasted an opportunity to learn where the world is your classroom. As Dave Elkind, a professor at Tufts University, once said “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure, we learn how to cope.”
And parents… yes, time to talk to the parents about your role here. You need to show your students that it is okay to take risks and it is okay to fail. It is not about perfection; if anything, we parents need to model our own imperfections so our students know that it is okay to try and not reach our goals on the first, second, third or even the millionth attempt. Try to discuss your own personal failures with your children. Let your children know that you have failed and that they too will fail. Let them know that this is okay.
On a personal note, my wife and I tried to have children for the last 8 years. That’s eight years of doctor visits, eight years of start-stops, and eight years of tons of talk about giving up. Ten days ago, she delivered twin boys. This moment doesn’t happen without the previous eight years of struggles and the previous eight years of failures.
I also hope my middle school principal would have shared how to be a successful person in life and how to find “The Happy.”
I believe they would have encouraged me, like I am advising each of you, to be nicer. To our teachers. To our parents. To everyone. And most importantly, to ourselves.
Students… you are good enough just how you are right now. None of you need to be taller, faster, skinnier, or bigger. You are all exactly how you should be. I cannot stress enough the importance of self acceptance and self compassion. We are not defined by our successes nor our failures. Nobody is perfect, so please don’t compare yourselves to others. From the outside, the student sitting across the room from you in Mrs. Jorgens’ 8th grade Language Arts classroom may look like everything is great but don’t be fooled. Everyone has their own personal struggles. Some just may hide their worries better than others. I would like to encourage all of you to be honest and to support one another. Remember: nobody is perfect.
My former principal would have shared with me that everything from here on out will be a blur but that doesn't mean you have to spend your time taking pictures of these moments on a cell phone. Sometimes, your memory of the event is significantly more precious than one of the Instagram pictures you post for your six thousand followers. Just enjoy these days. Be in the moment. Help others have their moment.
My former principal would have encouraged me to laugh often and surround myself with people who lift my spirits and make me feel good about who I am. While you can never have too many friends, please make sure you have the right ones walking alongside you during your challenging days. And don’t forget these words from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And I hope my former middle school principal would have shared a story. I do like stories.
And in this story I’m about to share, many of you may know the names of the key individuals. Please know that the names aren’t necessarily important and the message I hope you take away could involve any one of us.
About 16 months ago, an athletic 7th grader began to struggle. Things got worse…. things got very very scary for everyone… but eventually things got better. Along the troubling times, a Union Middle 7th grade science teacher went to the student’s house to work together on assigned classwork. Our school counselor met with the parents to help assist with their student’s transition back to Union Middle. His team of teachers made a commitment to give him whatever he and his family needed to be successful during his 8th grade school year. Our school community rallied around the family, providing support, a listening ear, and an occasional visit from Sharkie.
The story now fast forwards to a week prior to the annual spirit game. A UMS basketball coach meets with the student and convinces him to join the 8th grade conference champion UMS basketball team for the spirit game. The morning of the game, the student is vomiting, almost too weak to stand. The night of the game, with Union Middle leading Dartmouth late in the 4th quarter, two UMS coaches, with full support from the UMS athletic director, call a timeout and create a play to get this student the ball, knowing that he would be fouled. Play resumes, the ball is in-bounded, the student gets fouled and he goes to the line to shoot two free throws.
And the story could stop here. It doesn’t need to have a happy ending. Not every story does. Everything that has happened over the past fourteen months during this student’s journey is noteworthy and remarkable. The amount of support for this student from his classmates. The staff who reassured the family that they’d assist the student every step of the way. To the UMS boys basketball team who not only welcomed this student on to their team but were perhaps the most excited and loudest support group for him in the gym on this night. It’s already an amazing story.
But this story doesn’t stop here… because we still have two free throws.
In life, you will have free throws. You will be expected to perform and do something where you won’t have the strength to make it happen. You’ll try and you may fail. This was the first free throw on this night. It air-balled left. Everyone’s excitement for a special moment quickly turned to fear for what could have been a memory of embarrassment for this student.
And that’s when I looked out at the free throw line and saw the student. A student who like many of you had struggled at some point during your middle school years. I looked at this student and expected to see someone ready to crumble. I expected to see someone ready to quit. I didn’t see any of this. Instead, it’s about what I heard. I heard laughter.
This student, in front of hundreds of friends, students, parents, and community members, had the biggest smile on his face and just seemed content. The moment for him wasn’t necessarily about making the free throw; it seemed to be about everyone who managed to help him get to this moment. Every classmate. Every teacher. His parents. The community. Each and every one of you. He just laughed, happy to have the opportunity to shoot a free throw.
I hope all of you have the chance to take your free throws one day. Don’t shy away from these opportunities. And even if you miss your first free throw, you just never know what can happen on your second shot. As we’ve seen, the ball may just bounce your way when you try again.
So don’t give up. Don’t let each other give up. Just don’t ever give up.
2015 graduates. Thank you for being a part of my life over the past three years and thank you for being a part of each other’s journey. You have each brought something very unique and special to Union Middle School. You will be missed but we are quite excited to see where you lead us next. We’ll be watching, ready to support you along the way. Congratulations, Class of 2015.