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Pomp and Happenstance

A graduation speech for the kindergarten set

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Congratulations, kindergarten class of 2010! I’m honored that you invited me to address you today. I look at all your shining faces—well, not yours, Nathan; wipe that jam off your forehead—and I am filled with pride as I imagine you striding purposefully into first grade.

Maxine, Akiba, Hannah, Koufax, Ezra, Mahershalalhashbaz, Nathan, Herzl, Manilow, Spinoza, Golda, Ayn, Keren-Happuch, Brooklyn, Yauch, Sadie, Moxie Crimefighter, Esther, Henrietta, Moses, and Blanket: Mazel tov.

My best advice to all of you: Wear sunscreen.

No, really. Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, in her famous sunscreen-centric commencement address often attributed to Kurt Vonnegut because people are morons, offered lots of wisdom worth sharing today: Sing. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts; don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours. Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Koufax, stop poking Spinoza. I don’t care if he started it.

Graduates, don’t you think it’s funny that everyone focuses on commencement addresses for college students rather than kindergartners? College! Big whoop! You guys have learned far more this year than any Harvard or Stanford grad. The most important values in the world are the ones your teachers—thank you Ms. Engel, Mrs. Schneerson and Ms. Ciccone—have taught you in this, your first formal year of schooling. Even more important, though, is what you’ve taught each other. Not to channel Robert Fulghum or anything, but the lessons you’ve (I hope) internalized this year are the most important ones you’ll ever learn.

Don’t hit. Share your toys. Dance every day. Sing the clean-up song regularly. Notice when you’re hurting someone’s feelings. Take care of each other, of your possessions, of the possessions of others, and of the world around you. Be proud of your body and the things it can do. Notice everything. Be amazed at the wonders of the world.

I know you raised silkworms this year. You watched them grow from eggs to larvae to pupae to adults. You watched them die; you watched new generations be born. You learned what silkworms eat. (Everybody? MULBERRY LEAVES! Right!) You learned to hold newborn caterpillars very gently. You learned the best way to build a silkworm condo of toilet-paper tubes. You waited patiently for the metamorphosis and watched intently as moths emerged from cocoons. You learned the parts of a caterpillar’s body. Some of you even learned to unwind the silk thread from the cocoons to spin, dye with food coloring, and weave into cloth.

How many gazillion different lessons were in that silkworm curriculum? Life, death, caregiving, motor skills, patience, the scientific method, art, observation, aesthetics! How multidisciplinary and multifaceted your learning is! Kindergarten teachers have the most important and least appreciated job in the world. Now, some dopey parents think you guys aren’t preparing for first grade because you’re not focused entirely on math and reading. Oh, believe me, I know you learn stories and grouping and pattern-building (age-appropriate math) and writing here too. But to me, what’s really important for kindergartners is learning to love school, learning how to think and reason, learning how and why to care for something besides yourself. And you guys have done that.

You’ve taken the advice of Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus: “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” Good kindergartens are about process, not product. You haven’t used coloring sheets or done assembly-line art that’s more about providing something for us parents to hang on the fridge than about your process of creativity and exploration. You’ve listened to the wisdom of Dora the Explorer, even though her perky high-pitched voice stabs through my brain like an ice pick every morning before I’ve had my coffee: “No swiping!” ¡Hurra!

You’ve all had different triumphs this year. Keren-Happuch, you’ve learned to conquer your fear of the big slide in the playground. Spinoza, you’ve learned not to hit people with trucks. Golda, you’ve conquered your separation anxiety. Moses, you’ve learned not to pee in your pants.

Maxie, I am so proud of you. You are so funny, so hard-working, so thoughtful. You try so hard, even when things don’t come easily. A mama could not ask for a sweeter kindergartner.

When I was preparing to come speak here today, I looked back at some famous graduation speeches of the past. Sure, they were for older kids, but they still have something to teach us. Here’s what England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill told students in 1941: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Manilow, I’ve seen you refuse to give in when you build a tower that tips over. You start again. Henrietta, I’ve seen you refuse to give in to your baser impulses, your yetzer hara, when you waited your turn and when you could have stolen a cookie but didn’t. You’ve all learned about both honor and wisdom this year. Some adults forget, or never learn at all.

You could also think about what a computer guy named Steve Jobs told the class of 2007 at Stanford University. He said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Wait, why am I talking about death to kindergartners? Well, you know about death. You’ve seen your silkworms and moths die. Some of you may have lost pets, or even people you loved. Death is sad, but knowing about it should cause us to make the most of our lives. That, and remembering to buy stock in Apple.

Finally, I’ll end with the words of Stephen Colbert, who is a real funny man and a pretend doodyhead. He spoke to the graduates of Knox College in 2006. His big advice was to say YES. “Saying ‘yes’ begins things,” he said. “Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’ ”

I agree. Say yes.

And never forget what you know right now.

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Meryl Wheeler says:

A lovely piece, and that list of names totally cracked me up! Hope you had as much thinking it up as I did reading it.

Jeff Carpenter says:

As a high school teacher some years ago, I gave the graduation speech for the class that included my youngest son. My focus of the message for him, his friends and classmates, and to the community was to “step away from the mirror and look out the window” —in other words, step away from the self-absorbed view of life, and broaden the view to include service to the world. My administrator follows up a month later in the school newsletter with “Take a good long look in the mirror . . . ”
A great essay/speech—start the lessons young; h.s. and college are way too late for such beautiful and wise advice.

Susan McCarthy says:

Great great speech!

Aviva says:

Brilliant! I only wish I could have read this aloud this past weekend at a party for Dahlia’s kindergarten teacher.
Thanks for the great read, Marjorie, as always!

Martin says:

So very lovely. To Colbert’s remarks, I would add Emily Levine’s who loves the phrase “yes and…” and abhors “yes–but…” Thanks, Marjorie–and so very unsnarly of you…

Rifka says:

I am surprised she didn’t attack Israel.

Still the speech was probably over their heads.

Loved it. My kindergartener wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough for all of that, but you know, you New Yorkers talk fast.

Sorry, Rifka, you didn’t learn anything. You have to repeat the class.

Pepper Miyo Salt says:

you do realize that kindergartners won’t know what half those words mean… so most of the “joke” and such that make is “cute, funny, and whimsical” are wasted on the children and will only be understood by parents and teachers…

Fantastic blog you have here. You will see me reading through your stuff often. Saved as a favorite!

I’ve said that least 4694199 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be actually something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!


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Pomp and Happenstance

A graduation speech for the kindergarten set

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