Good Evening Everyone,
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Todd Feinberg, and I have been privileged to have been the principal of Union Middle School over the past five years. It is an honor to stand in front of you all today and truly means a great deal to me. I genuinely care about each and every one of my Union Tigers. I hope you all will keep in touch.
I’m going to start tonight with a positive. Actually, this entire speech is positive. As I shared back in March when I spoke with our 8th grade class, we love so much about each and every one of our 8th grade students.
We love your spirit.
We love your compassion toward others.
We love your curiosity, your growth, your silliness, and your seriousness.
You are a breath of fresh air. You make us smile, laugh, and have just the right amount of crazy to keep us adults on our toes.
So to impart a bit of wisdom on this already-wonderful group of three hundred plus young adults, I reflect back on two student stories from my time at Union Middle.
The first story began seven years ago.
The year is 2010 and I had just joined Union Middle School. As I’ve shared previously, I had spent that spring contemplating leaving education altogether. On a whim, I applied for and eventually was selected to be the assistant principal at Union.
One of my first student interactions was not with a middle school student, but instead with a 1st grader. This 1st grader would stop by a few times a week with her younger sister and hang out in our main office while their babysitter finished up her day.
This 1st grade student was incredibly friendly, extremely bright, and just loved to joke around. Of course, I called her George (because why not) and over the next year or two, almost every afternoon, we would challenge one another to word searches, admire her artwork, and just simply laugh at the silliest of things.
You see, this 1st grader embodied many of the traits I see in all of you, but most of all what stood out was how she, also like many of you, excelled in how to build relationships with others.
We adults are often told that relationships aren’t the only thing, but instead they’re everything. How we connect with one another. How we share a little bit of our lives with each other. How we forgive and how we love to make others smile.
Thus, my first bit of advice for the Class of 2017 is to always focus on your relationships.
Take a moment this summer (hint hint) to write a letter of gratitude to your favorite 8th grade teacher. Sometime tonight or perhaps this weekend, acknowledge that extra effort your family provided you over the past three years to reach tonight’s promotion. Just always try to be your best self; these relationships you plant today, no matter who silly and simple they may seem, always have the potential to grow into something beautiful.
And when we speak of relationships, I’m not talking about 300 day streaks in Snapchat or five trillion emojis sent back and forth over a ten minute “conversation” - Relationships are built upon human contact and concern, meeting with someone to hear their story, and share a little bit of yourself as well. We all could try to be a little more present in our digital lives.
And to that 1st grader seven years ago who through their kindness made such a positive impact on my own professional life… George, or whom many of you know as Alexis B., wherever you’re sitting here tonight as part of our promoting 8th grade class, thank you.
The second story is from the current school year. It involves a student who was new to Union Middle School for their 8th grade year. She was overflowed to our sister school Dartmouth and didn’t arrive on our campus until late September, only knowing one other UMS student prior to her arrival.
As a student myself who started 7th grade as the brand new student across the country, I was amazed at how effortlessly this student made it look. She sought out a group of friends who would raise her up if she was feeling down. She excelled academically. Often, when she crossed the sidewalk to leave school each day, she’d often say a quick “thank you” to whatever adult was there to help.
Obviously, much like our promoting class of 2017, she’s an amazing student and individual.
But what impressed me the most about this student was during a music assembly, back in March.
Our students had recently completed a swing dancing unit, the first such dance curriculum for Union Middle School students in a long while. As our amazing band students were about to perform, our band director, Mr. Kay, shared with the students in attendance, “If you want to get up and swing dance, feel free!”
The band began to play and, much like I’d expect for a group of middle school students, no audience member flinched. You could see people pretending to stand up as if they were going to be the first person on the dance floor. You may have seen a few friends joking with each other, trying to convince one another to start dancing. Regardless, no one moved; no one took that risk of being first.
Until this student, who began her 8th grade year at Union Middle having to rebuild her entire social and school persona from scratch… she stood up, grabbed her friend’s hand, and began to swing dance in front of the six hundred kids in attendance.
A few students gasped, some chuckled… until two other students joined on the dance floor. And then two more. And then ten more. And then seemingly everyone fled from the bleachers and began swing dancing. It was quite a sight to behold: kids just being kids, blissfully free from the social pressures of being afraid to stand out.
And I reflect back on this one student who led the charge. This one student who started a mini dance dance revolution at our music assembly that morning. I remember being incredibly impressed at how bold she was to take this chance, to ignore what someone would say, to not worry about what she looked like if she ended up as one of the only students dancing.
Thus, my second bit of advice for the Class of 2017 is to not be afraid to stand out, to stand up, and allow yourself to be who you are.
What I found so remarkable about this student, who you all know as Courtney S., is that she did something I could never have done as a 8th grade student and probably many of us here today would have strong reservations doing as an adult.
Courtney wasn’t afraid to be the one leading the charge. She took a huge risk and showed how leadership can take many forms. I believe that all of you have the capability to be a strong leader in whatever it is you do. Don’t be afraid to be a positive trendsetter and don’t be afraid to be the first follower either.
There is a third quality I wish for our graduates to reflect upon. Truth be told, I feel like it’s something that our 2017 graduates already do quite well.
It is a trying time in the world today. One of the most challenging roles of your educators, your parents, your grandparents, truly anyone who wants to impart wisdom upon you, is trying to make sense of what’s happening outside our school gates, in your communities, across town, throughout our state, within our nation, and across the world.
For our Union Middle School community, it has been an especially challenging year. Family members we’ve lost. The private troubles of your classmates that were never shared. It has been one of the toughest last months of school I’ve ever been a part of - many of you have kept me up at night, worried whether or not you’d be ok.
Knowing how challenging it is to be a teenager in today’s society, I offer the class of 2017 my best advice possible: be kind.
Kind to your classmates, kind to strangers, kind to your parents, kind to your neighbors. Please be kind to yourselves as well. Just be kind.
When a special needs 7th grader was having a hard time around another group of students, you rallied at their side... walking them to school, spending lunch with them, and making sure they felt included.
When Bryan Stow shared his story with you during a school assembly this past February, you chose to donate a portion of the proceeds from an upcoming dance to his foundation.
We have watched you comfort one another through the crises of middle school. We see the hugs (which are still for high school, by the way) you offer your classmates when you know they’re having a bad day. Your little random acts of kindness do not go unnoticed by your teachers, your parents, and most importantly, from your classmates. I wish more adults in this world, especially perhaps in the today’s political arena, had your kind, helpful spirit.
As Mr. Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
To the Union Middle School class of 2017, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your leadership, and thank you for your kindness. I wish you all weren’t leaving just yet.
But I think the world needs you more than we do right now. Go out and continue to shine. We are going to miss you.