Friday, June 10, 2016

Graduation Speech - 2016 - Union Middle School

Below is my graduation speech for the Union Middle School class of 2016. 

Most educators will tell you that certain grade level groups of students take on certain personalities. One class may be known for their compassion. Another class may be known for the athletic ability. The class of 2016, littered with extremely talented students, was a collection of kind souls, many of which were in utero either during the events of 9/11/01 or shortly conceived thereafter. I often wonder if there is a connection to the stress our society felt at that time and our students' leap before you look behaviors. Regardless, as I share below, it's a unique class with tons of potential. I'm looking forward to their story over the next four years.

And as always...

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. I stand here on the cusp of the end of my fourth year as the Union Middle School principal, my sixth year as a UMS Tiger, my eleventh year as a school administrator, and my sixteenth year as an educator. Truthfully, I’ve spent my entire life in education, as I stepped into the classroom within months of graduating from law school. I have seemingly always been in and around the classroom. And despite these decades of days spent in education, I’ve spent most of the past school year unsure about how to best address the Union Middle School class of 2016.

I’ve changed topics more than a dozen times. I’ve entertained offers from students and teachers alike to take my place and have them give this speech instead. I even thought about recycling one of my past three graduation speeches and taking a somewhat easy way out of this situation.

Every time I begin to write this speech, I return back to some words shared by a football coach to his team from this past March. Even though he is addressing a locker room of professional athletes, I feel like his speech resonates quite well for the Union Middle School class of 2016.

Let me explain why: This is one of the most perplexing, most challenging, and yet most rewarding assortment of students I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. As a class, you have an overloading of talent, a collective potential matching any past graduated class, and yet have personally provided me with enough anxiety to officially turn me gray.

And that’s the Union Middle School class of 2016.

The speech I earlier referred to was from John Harbaugh, brother of Jim. He’s the current coach of the Baltimore Ravens, a professional football team. If you follow football, you’ll know that there have been more than a few members of the Baltimore Ravens who have made some poor choices over the past few years. Here, coach Harbaugh had recently received news that one of their first year players, Tray Walker, was in critical condition in the hospital after sustaining injuries in a dirt biking accident. Tray was riding a bike without proper lighting. He was wearing dark clothing despite it being 8 o’clock at night. And no, he was not wearing a helmet. The story doesn’t end with good news either; Tray eventually passed away from injuries sustained during the crash.

During the brief moment between hearing the news of the accident and the fateful conclusion to Tray’s story, John Harbaugh wrote a letter to his players expressing his thoughts and his concerns for his team. And while the circumstances are incredibly different for our students today than they were for Tray that fateful day this past March, coach Harbaugh’s words reflect rather well my own thoughts on the Union Middle School class of 2016.

And so, I’d like to share what John Harbaugh wrote to his players upon hearing the news of Tray Walker’s accident:

He said: This is what I would be saying to you in the team meeting room if we were together today: There is a lot going on out there and you are going to be involved in tough and difficult situations. You are making and will continue to make important choices pretty much every day. That’s okay. That’s our reality. It can even be very good to be put in different circumstances. To make it right, you are going to have to grow up fast. Probably faster than many of your friends and family.
Please remember to…
Lead in your home. Take care of Your Family and Yourself every single day. Think about who you are and where you are going, and what you stand for. Look after one another. Only then can you be your most effective on the job and in every area of your life.
You see, coach Harbaugh stresses the need for his players to take a stand for the important things in their lives. Do not underestimate the support and significant efforts of your parents, your grandparents, your teachers and your friends, all of whom have helped you arrive at today’s promotion ceremony. Please realize that you’re going to need to rely on all of us as you move forward into high school. It takes a mature and strong sense of self to ask for help. Continue to look after your friends; they may make some seriously poor decisions during their next four years. Sometimes, you might be the one experiencing the lapse in judgment. Just as you would want them to be there for you, make sure you are there for them. All of you know the difference between right and wrong, so let’s do the right thing.
Mr. Harbaugh continues… Please consider your actions and choices. There are always consequences. Choose who you allow to advise you. Consider the quality of the council you take. Put yourself in positions to succeed. Turn away from unnecessary and risky behavior. Take care of your physical well-being. Live a healthy lifestyle. Pursue those things that make you better. Rest well. Eat well. Laugh with those who you love and love you. Fulfill your obligations effectively.
I agree with coach Harbaugh: There are always consequences for the choices we make. Sometimes, good things happen. Other times, there are negative results from the choices we later wish we hadn’t made. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t challenge yourself during your high school years and beyond. If you put forth tremendous effort and think you have failed, you haven’t. Some of our best lessons come from the risks we take and the reflections we then make. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again. This time, more intelligently.”
Mr. Harbaugh also shared… Be your own best friend. Do not be an enemy [onto] yourself. Turn away from trouble and harm. Walk away from foolish behavior. Ignore silly and unwise advice – You’ll know it when you see it.
This. If nothing else summarizes the class of 2016, it might be these short five sentences. I’m going to re-read them.
Be your own best friend. Do not be an enemy [onto] yourself. Turn away from trouble and harm. Walk away from foolish behavior. Ignore silly and unwise advice – You’ll know it when you see it.
The gravitation toward trouble and harm is great. This doesn’t ever go away. It actually gets increasingly challenging during high school and college. Now is the time for each of you to be your own best friend. Be nice to yourself and help yourself achieve your goals. All of you have the grand, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we call high school starting in three short months. Make sure you give yourself the best chance at success that you possibly can.
Mr. Harbaugh also shared...  Get to know those people in your life who manage to walk free from the weight of self-created obstacles. Get close to those who have gone where you want to go, and have accomplished what you want to accomplish. Grow Spiritually. Think about what and who you want to become.
Speaking as a parent of four and a principal of a thousand four, it is very clear to me that many of the barriers we’ve placed in our way as human beings were put there by our own actions, by our own decisions. Students… right now, think about an adult who has the life you one day might wish to emulate. It could be a parent, a celebrity, a principal… Ask them what they had to do to reach their goals. Goals are good. Goals help you map out where you’re headed and what you have to do to get there. Every choice you make can get you closer to the person you want to be. Every decision will have an impact.
Coach Harbaugh goes on to plead with his players to consider what is at stake in their lives every time they make a choice that could come back to haunt them. He encourages the team to live fully but with purpose. To be there for one another. To reach out when they need to.
And this is why I’m so afraid of this class moving on to high school. So many of you have not fully learned how to think about the consequences of your actions before moving ahead with the impulsive decision you’re about to make. Sure, it might be due to your frontal lobe not being fully developed until you’re 25 (or 45, according to my wife - I think she’s an optimist when it comes to her husband). Maybe you truly think you know better. Please allow me to be blunt here: you don’t.

We ask you to wear a bike helmet because we know that you could be seriously hurt if you’re involved in an accident. We ask you to think long and hard about your decisions prior to making them so that you give your internal voice a chance to convince yourself of doing something different. We say repeatedly “come to us if you have a problem” because we want to help you. Because we care and because there is only one you.

At the end of the day, I’m sharing a letter from a professional football coach who is telling his team something he’s surely said many times over. I suspect the coach knows, deep within himself, that not everyone is listening to what he’s saying. He knows that it will be just a week, a month, or a year until the next bad decision is made by one of the players on his team. As your principal, I often feel just as powerless to stop the eventual poor choice some of my students may make.

And much like Coach Harbaugh, I’m standing in front of a group of young adults who have their whole lives ahead of them. This is a group of kind and inclusive students. Yes, as a class, you’ve been quite challenging and yet I feel I’m going to miss the laughs we’ve shared and the friendships we’ve made more than any other class I’ve worked with. You are all really good kids, full of unlimited potential. We’re going to miss you. Please take care of yourselves. Please take a minute to listen to what your loved ones share with you. Life doesn’t get easier, but it does get better. Please think twice as you move forward in your educational journey. We, your parents, your friends, your teachers, and your principal, are always here to help.

Before I close, I’d like to share a quick story. A couple of years ago, I had a few spare minutes to watch the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards. Back in my childhood, MTV would actually show music videos on their channel and not Teen Wolf episodes on repeat. Despite the change in programming on MTV, I’ve always enjoyed watching the annual awards show, often learning about new bands I’d never heard of. On this night, I discovered my new favorite band.

The performance began with a guy on drums and another at a piano. There were hundreds of people in the crowd, all standing silently still and each wearing a white ski mask. This was something different, something unique. The singer’s lyrics seemed to linger a bit longer and felt to be crafted with purpose. He’s singing that “quiet is violent” and how “somebody stole my car radio”.

As the song continues, the lead singer has left his piano and is now racing around the stage. All of a sudden, the entire crowd comes to life and starts jumping up and down in rhythm to the music. The singer jumps on top of his piano and leads the entire audience in song. It was completely mesmerizing.

Fast forward 18 months and I’m sitting at the Fox Theater, watching this band, Twenty One Pilots, live. During these 18 months, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with every song they’ve ever performed. I had their album Blurryface on repeat for most of the summer and first semester. I spent many lunch periods chatting it up with other Twenty One Pilots fanatics at Union Middle, some of whom have shared their Twenty One Pilots art with me or even their performance of a cover of We Don’t Believe What’s On TV. And yes, both the art and the song were amazingly done; we have very talented students here at Union Middle.

At the concert, the lead singer, Tyler Joseph, gave an incredible performance. Per his own admission, he had suffered many failures in the music industry before hitting it relatively big. He’s given interviews about his own emotional challenges, often called his “blurryface” persona. Nearing the end of the concert, Tyler addressed the crowd one final time. He encouraged the crowd to join in on the energy of the night but also quietly shared that whatever our troubles were or whatever actually brought us to the building tonight… he assured us that we weren’t alone in what we were going through. He swore this to be true. And I believed him.

And this is what I want my promise to be for each of you. While I may not fully comprehend what it’s like to be a 14 year old about to embark on a journey toward high school, I pledge to you that I’ll always be here to help you along the way. I’m extremely proud of each and every one of you. I truly believe there’s never been a harder time than today to be a young adolescent on the verge of adulthood. Please know you’re not alone on this journey. No matter your story, no matter what you’re going through, I’m willing to listen. If nothing else, remember you’re not alone.

And so, our 2016 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 2016.

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