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Graduation Speeches Seek to Inspire

Wednesday, May 25, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Graduation speeches evoke common thoughts: It’s not an ending, but a beginning. It’s the conclusion of one chapter in life. Be proud. Be thankful. Remember where you came from. It’s bittersweet. It’s a celebration. This time of commencement has many reflecting in the same direction, but the ceremony also provides an opportunity to share comments unique to a school's community. SAIS turned to heads of school via our listserv to find out what thoughts they offered to their 2016 graduating classes.

Michael Ehrhardt, head of Cary Academy in Cary, NC, was in the unique and emotional position of parent at his school's commencement, with his own daughter graduating this year. He worked on his speech for months (in his mind) before deciding to survey fellow fathers for their favorite memory of their child. They responded with recollections such as "When you learned that corn dogs and roller coasters were not a good combination" and "Recalling before prom your pronouncement at age five that you would never, ever, ever wear a dress" and "Dancing with you as the King your recitals."

After asking his wife and all of the parents to stand, Ehrhardt said, "Graduates, know that love drove the sacrifices we made to have you on this stage today. During our journey, love and fear often fought pitched battles for preeminence over our emotions and decision-making. We may not have gotten it right every time  but the way your hormones have been raging, we still had more common sense than you could muster on any day. You leave Cary Academy today with so many wonderful attributes, but remember that the gift of love is not only the first thing you received in your life but is behind so much of what is right and good in the world: passion, inspiration, patience, sacrifice, acceptance, and forgiveness." Read his full speech here

Many emotions play a role in a student's journey toward graduation. Billy Peebles, head of the Lovett School in Atlanta, touched on gratitude. “No matter how tough things get for us, we can see our way through our difficult moments by embracing a spirit of gratitude,” he said. He reminded the graduates to be thankful for their parents, teachers, and coaches, and for the many blessings they have received, as well as any setbacks they may experience. “Remember and be thankful for the tough times. We know that failure is often a wonderfully disguised opportunity for growth and insight. In forthrightly facing our setbacks and in resolving to grow from them, we learn lessons that will serve us well the rest of our lives,” he said. 

Jay Underwood, head of High Meadows School in Roswell, GA, offered thanks to the school’s 8th graders at their recognition ceremony: “Eighth graders, you will speak today about memories and experiences that High Meadows has given to you, yet there are so many things that you have given to US: you have made us proud with your displays of excellence in pursuits such as band and debate; you have inspired us with your warm mentorship of younger middle years students, modeling for them what it looks like to be a good citizen.”

At McCallie School in Chattanooga, TN, Head of School Lee Burns thanked his seniors for their contributions to the school: “Thank you for your service, your leadership, your accomplishments, and your character. Thank you for your hard work and humor, for your spirit and songs, for your ideas and intellect, for your touchdowns and takedowns, for your poems and plays and prayers,” he said. “You are a source of joy and pride for McCallie; you are a class that will always hold a special place in my heart ... and the hearts of my colleagues.”

With that, he also offered them a challenge: “Your diplomas should remind you that you have duties and obligations to others: to a God who created you and calls you to love and serve and enjoy Him and others. A life centered on serving God and others is a deeply fulfilling one,” Burns said.

Dr. Don Roberts, head of Lee-Scott Academy in Auburn, AL, also called upon a spiritual message with his address to seniors, in which he included “Seven Things I Want You to Do.” His first request was for them to put God in the center of their lives. “I’m saying this as someone who has done that throughout my life and I know what it really means,” he explained. “Doing so will impact every facet of your life. Go to Church. Read God’s Word. Not in a boring way but in a meaningful, searching, learning kind of way. Pray.”

The other six things Roberts suggested were:

Keep your family close.

Choose wisely.

Buy good underwear.

Learn to deal with failure.

Live life with passion.

One, two … do it!

At the Altamont School in Birmingham, AL, Head of School Sarah Whiteside reflected on the history today’s seniors have experienced as well as the things now part of their everyday lives, such as Google. She charged them to go on with greatness: “Beyond the boundaries of Altamont you must continue to learn independence of judgment and to practice tolerance and kindness. You must continue to cultivate the habit of thinking. You must be mentally, physically, intellectually vigilant — fascinated by the new instead of fearful of it. Seize the spotlight; you are worthy of it. You can handle it. This is a time of partings but more importantly a time of beginnings.”

At Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, AR, Head of School Christopher Tompkins also issued a charge to his seniors: "I hope that you will seek out your own paths – to be independent people; the independent thinkers who are the future guardians of our collective liberty. Go forth with the knowledge that you have a right to chart your own courses – to pursue your own dreams, pursue your own passions, and pursue your own interests." Read his full speech here

Poetry inspired some heads of school, such as Steven Jackson in addressing 8th graders at Sumner Academy in Gallatin, TN. The title and author are unknown but Jackson has read the poem (excerpted below) at 22 graduations:

“Success is failure turned inside out -

The silver lining in the clouds of doubt -

And you never can tell how close you are,

It may be near when it seems afar;

So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit -

It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.”

David Rhodes, head of King’s Ridge Christian School in Alpharetta, GA, has read the poem “Take Time” at 23 graduation ceremonies. A copy of it also was placed inside the cover of each student’s diploma. In part, it reads:

“Take time to think;

it is the source of power.

Take time to read;

it is the foundation of wisdom.

Take time to play;

it is the secret of staying young.

Take time to dream;

it is what the future is made of.”


Heads of School enjoy a unique position in giving remarks at their commencements or other end-of-the-year ceremonies. They can give thanks in a large public forum to many people deserving of recognition, they can reflect on a school's history as well as a current state of affairs, and they can offer last bits of advice before their students charge out the door toward their next adventure. While many sentiments are consistent across campuses how incredible the journey has been, how much students will be missed, and the high hopes that all share — each school head delivers an individualized message to his or her graduates that speaks only to their school's mission and the inspiration offered therein. 








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