June 5, 2018
“Three Questions”

These remarks were delivered at the June 2, 2018 Commencement for Landmark High School in Prides Crossing, MA.  Landmark is 2-12th grade day and boarding school with a special focus on educating bright students with language-based learning disabilities. First-in-class, Landmark draws students from across the US and other countries.  

When Bob Broudo asked me to speak at Landmark’s graduation, I was stunned – so stunned I replied, “Bob, you’ve got to be kidding!  I am not a sports hero, a business hero, or a superhero.  And I definitely can’t tell jokes.” 

When I told my daughter Lucia how I responded, she said, “But Mom, you are MY hero.”  And that was all I needed to hear.  I feel very honored to be here.

I’m sure Bob asked me to speak today because my husband Jim and I had more children attend Landmark at the same time than any family in its 47-year history!  Counting each year Mike, Lucia, Mari and Ali attended, would add up to 27 Landmark years and 54 parent-teacher conference days!  I guess that would make Jim and me heroes of a sort!  It certainly made us feel very blessed to be members of the Landmark community.  And forever grateful.

Today is the day to lift up our children and the students we have grown to respect and love.  But it is also the day to honor all the heroes among us – all the Mothers, Fathers, Grandparents and Guardians, who have fought like tigers for these students.  In my 12 consecutive years here, I witnessed time and again that Landmark parents stand out because they stand up; they stand up ferociously and selflessly for their children. 

Today is the day to honor all the faculty and staff who have nurtured our graduates’ exceptional abilities.  As Mary Kahn, Landmark teacher for three decades, shared: “Each student has brilliance in them.  My job is simply to bring it to light.” 

Today is the day we celebrate Landmark as an institution, birthed in 1971 by a visionary leader, Charles Drake, and led by people who have enhanced the language and math curricula with the arts, athletics, community service, and spirituality, the pursuits that enable people to live full and rewarding lives.

Just as important as the curriculum are the values Landmark instills in its students.  Values like true inclusivity, treasuring the uniqueness of each person.  Mutual respect built on self-respect.  Empathy, the key ingredient of the esprit de corps I have seen here like nowhere else.  And risk-taking, because, as Bob Broudo has stated: “students who try new things, who ask good questions and who learn to have their own voices, (they) become stronger individuals and better self-advocates.”

Graduates, this is definitely, your day, and surely the climax of your own unique stories – no doubt stories of resilience and transformation.  I know, because I have had the incredible privilege of reading the stories within the applications for the Landmark Alumni Council Awards. 

There is power in stories, the kind of stories that disclose the fears we faced, the lessons we learned, and the people who set us on a new path.  My wish is that each of you graduates – wherever you go – you will be comfortable telling a story about who you are…a story that illuminates what you stand for and whom you stand with…a story that can be whittled down to one topic sentence crystallizing your life’s purpose.  And so, these are my three questions for you to consider: 

  • “What is your story?”
  • “What do you stand for?”
  • “What is your sentence?”

My reflections on the first question, “What is your story?”, come from the book, Becoming Wise by Krista Tippett.  Krista has interviewed scores of wise women and men for her NPR radio program, “On Being.” 

Knowledge is grounded in facts, she notes.  But wisdom emanates from stories, stories rooted in our own experience.  Krista observed that stories often reveal that “we are made by what would break us.”[i] 

My son, Mike, who attended Landmark in 5th and 6th grade, is now 26, a college graduate, and pursuing blacksmithing and blade-smithing.  He takes a bar of steel, subjects it to searing heat in a forge, and hammers and grinds and twists it into a hook, handle, blade or even a bottle-opener! Mike loves to describe how the process makes the metal stronger and sharper.  Sometimes, the intense heat changes the very molecular structure inside the metal and it develops an exquisite swirling pattern that glows through to the surface. 

Just like metal that has been forged into invaluable tools, you are emerging from Landmark as persons who are tough, practical, sharp, and break-the-mold thinkers and doers!  “We are made by what would break us.”

One of your classmates told a story about a challenging time when he “had to have grit and perseverance.”  When he was practicing for the long jump…his spikes gripped the turf too tightly, his foot got stuck, and… he landed directly on his shoulder!  He knew instantly there was something horribly wrong, as did his coach, who called the ambulance immediately.  The ER doctor gave him medicine for the pain, as she popped his dislocated shoulder back into place. Your classmate said, “It was undisputedly one of the most painful times of my life.”

With a damaged bone and torn rotator cuff, our Landmark athlete asked his doctor if he could run in the championship meet the following weekend!  When the doctor strongly advised him not to, our athlete said, “I did not train for this so long to not finish what I started — to win this championship!”  So, with a special brace to keep his shoulder in his socket, he painfully practiced for the next four days, keeping the image of winning foremost in his mind.   On the day of the race, he kept repeating, “I CAN, I WILL, I MUST!”

Using all his explosive power, he finished the race in second place!  He knew from that point on he could accomplish anything if he went into it wholeheartedly! …So, can each one of you! 

Good story telling begs good listening.  Krista Tippett calls it “generous listening,” the kind of listening you do daily at Landmark.  As one of student said,

“When I came to Landmark Freshman year, I met people who listened to what I had to say.  They were there when I needed a shoulder to cry on.  Over the years, they have taught and shown me that nobody is perfect, but that I am perfect just the way I am, and they love me no matter what.”

And we do.

By making yourselves vulnerable in the telling of your stories, you give others permission to do the same.  And by generously listening to each other for what makes you human – despite radically different life experiences and views – you can start to heal wounds.  As Krista quoted, “You can argue with my ideology, but you can’t argue with my experience.” And if all those people who are shouting at each other today about ideologies started listening to each other’s stories of pain and triumph, maybe, just maybe, we could build bridges across the chasms that are threatening to destroy our society.[ii]

Let me not confuse you:  while listening and trying to understand where others are coming from, we need not compromise our values.  Rather, the most powerful stories will answer my second question, “What do you stand for?”  What do you value so much that you would risk almost anything for it?  Some might say “fairness,” others “freedom,” or “compassion,” “truthfulness,” “faith,” “perseverance,” or “gratitude” – to name a few.

“What do you stand for?” implies, “Whom do you stand with?”  While we have been witnessing never-ending cowardliness and hypocrisy in the news, we have also seen unparalleled heroism – especially from young people – who are standing up for justice and standing with those who are sidelined, silenced or victimized.

We know where Emma Gonzalez stands.  A Cuban American, Emma stood bravely in her frayed jeans on the Washington Mall and said, “B.S.” to those politicians who failed to vote to prevent gun violence.  Standing before the world, she risked being shamed by those who viewed her as weird because of her buzz-cut and sexual identity. Paradoxically, her silence in her speech was her story – her 6 deafening minutes of silence – all the time it took for a gunman to murder 17 of her classmates from Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

We know where Malala stands.  In 2012 Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan defied the Taliban’s prohibition on girls going to school.  She was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman — but that only intensified her crusade.  Valiantly supported by her father, Zhai, Malala has since spoken before Presidents and the United Nations.  She has established a foundation to work for educational justice for girls around the world.  She has proclaimed, “I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.”[iii]  Today Malala is a college student at Oxford University. 

I know where my friend, Sam Vaghar, stands.  Sam was a shy 19-year-old who battled Crohn’s disease as a child.  One day in his college dorm room, after reading the End of Poverty by UN advisor Jeff Sachs, Sam felt compelled that college students like him — despite their personal challenges — could and must work together to achieve the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals. These are ginormous goals agreed to by almost every country in the world – goals including ending extreme poverty; reducing child deaths; and ensuring the very survival of our planet.  Three days after closing the book, this Freshman from Brandeis University was in a meeting with “the most important economist in the world”– and the Millennium Campus Network was born! 

Ten years later, Sam’s organization, with Prof. Sachs as advisor, has trained over 5,500 college students from over 300 campuses in how to be global change leaders. (Sam is my hero! I am honored that Sam has joined me here today.)

What is YOUR story?  What do YOU stand for?  And lastly, “What is YOUR sentence?”

Your sentence is the “topic sentence” of your life.  Your sentence summarizes your unique life purpose – what you are striving towards in both your personal and professional spheres.

Your life’s topic sentence will be a loaded one.  One with a purpose so BIG that you will be forever striving to achieve it; so BIG you would be embarrassed for anyone else to hear it; but so succinct it could fit on a Fortune-Cookie-slip of paper in your pocket. 

Even Presidents, with so much on their plates, and with so many competing agendas, need a single sentence. Last year would have been the 100th birthday of our nation’s 35th President.  John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, faced an onslaught of challenges in his brief tenure.  Daniel Pink told this story about him in his book, DRIVE

One day President Kennedy was visited by Clare Boothe Luce, a former Congresswoman and Ambassador to Italy – a woman who wanted Kennedy to be successful, even though she was a Republican.  (Imagine that bipartisanship!)  She urged the President to condense his mission into just one sentence. 

“A great man is a sentence,” she advised.   Abraham Lincoln’s would have been:  ‘He preserved the union and freed the slaves….’  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s would have been, ‘He lifted us out of a great Depression and helped to win a World War.’  A great man is a sentence.  What is yours, Mr. President?”[iv]

President Kennedy was challenged to abbreviate his mission to words ending in one period.  Because his life was cut short by a bullet, we will never know his sentence… 

        …But you can know yours. 

What is YOUR sentence that drives YOU to make your unique contribution to the world? 

Institutions have sentences, too.  They are called mission statements.  In a nutshell, Landmark’s sentence in a nutshell is to convey the gift of language.  We learn language to tell our stories and to listen for hints of our common humanity.  We use language to champion values like empathy and justice.   We use language to craft the topic sentences of our lives.  We use language to inspire others… and to call for a better world…

In the days of Wakanda, the imaginary kingdom brought to life in the movie Black Panther, King T’Challa used eloquent language when he called for a better world in his address to the United Nations:

Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe[v].

Just as in the times of Wakanda, our nation’s crisis days of bridge-breaking and wall-building must end!  And the young people today, they know how to end them.  If any of us older folks are not paying attention and standing alongside today’s young people, as they learn to stand with those who are starving, enslaved, shut out, shot at, uneducated, or inadequately educated… then frankly, we should sit down and let the young people among us lead the way.

Thank you, Bob.  Thank you, everyone at Landmark for sharing the gift of language.  Thank you to all who has embraced our family.  Thank you for the values you have implanted within us…and for the sentences that are quietly and urgently emerging from us…to bring forth better days.  Congratulations and Godspeed to the graduating Seniors of 2018!  You did it!

[i] Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise:  An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

[ii] Krista Tippett.

[iii] Malala Yousafzai, widely quoted on the internet.

[iv] Daniel Pink, DRIVE:  The Surprising Trust about What Motivates Us.

[v] From the post-ending scene from the film Black Panther, as quoted inhttps://hellogiggles.com/news/black-panther-post-credit-scenes-trump/ , accessed May 29, 2018.