In 1989, Jennifer Lee spoke at her high school graduation. It is a speech that she now admits revealed very little about what it meant to be her because that was something, at the time, she was still figuring out.
On Tuesday evening, 28 years later, Lee took to the podium once again to address the 334-member New Canaan High School class of 2017 as its keynote speaker—getting a second chance to deliver something more personal.
Yet after learning that she would address the students, Lee felt denial, anxiety and fear being chief among them. To aid her in finding a theme for her speech, the mathematics teacher and 22-year veteran of the New Canaan Public Schools conducted a survey with her students, asking them who their favorite elementary school teachers were. Unbeknownst to them Lee, and her speech, would be the beneficiary of its results.
It was Lee’s spin on the Rober Fulghum book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” What followed were pieces of advice that Lee read which were contributed by several teachers who once taught the evening’s graduates when their journey through the New Canaan Public Schools was commencing.
Mrs. Nicholas, a third grade teacher at South School wrote, “Be kind to others, unconditionally.” Then Mr. Fritz, a third grade teacher at East School shared, “Be proud of who you are.” Mrs. Charkales, a kindergarten teacher at South School added, “Go with what you know. When you have no idea how to approach a problem or task, start with what you know and move from there. When you feel overwhelmed, take it one piece at a time—you will get through it.”
Later, Lee mentioned a piece of advice that was shared by East School first grade teacher, Mrs. Hastings, but is a quote from the end of a poem by Fulgham: “Be aware of wonder.” Those words reminded Lee of a time when she rode the train into New York City and she noticed a little boy experiencing such a ride for the very first time.
“To most of us that train ride has become a means to end. Something we have to endure to get where we need to go,” Lee said from the middle of the field at Dunning Stadium, with a nod to many of the hundreds in attendance who make that very same trip daily.
“But to that little boy, every bird, tree, house, and even dumpster, he glimpsed at out the window was a new source of curiosity and amazement. Aspire to approach every experience like it’s that first train ride. Throughout your 13 years of education in New Canaan, I hope we’ve given you the tools and confidence to hypothesize, investigate, analyze, synthesize and even innovate in order to feed your sense of wonder.”
She addressed the hundreds of students, family members and friends gathered at Dunning on a picture-perfect summer night, with a breeze blowing across the stands and field. The graduation ceremony included the singing of the “The Star Spangled Banner” by NCHS concert choir members, Pledge of Allegiance, NCHS chamber orchestra playing Guns n’ Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and a recessional, “From Lambs to Rams” composed and arranged by Nicole Howard Krog.
One component of that survey Lee gave her students was to ask them what they thought some of the most important things they learned in elementary school were.
The responses consisted of the following: work hard and be kind; how to communicate and work with others; treat others how you want to be treated; how to read and write; phases of the moon; how to be industrious; addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (Lee’s personal favorite); and, don’t use a lot of glue.
Lee followed that with what she hopes these graduates have learned since then.
“One thing you’ve had to learn in school is how to take tests,” she said. “Even after you’ve completed all your schooling, you’ll still face many tests—tests of patience, endurance, compassion, faith, humility. How you perform on those will matter way more than any test you took the past four years. I hope you’ve also learned to try something again even if you were terrible at it the first one, two or ten times…I had no idea how much I loved to teach until I’d been doing it for quite a while. When students ask me when I knew I wanted to be a teacher, I often joke that when I first started teaching, I still wasn’t even sure how I felt about people yet. My first few years in the profession were turbulent. But if I’d given up, I would’ve missed out on getting to know you all over the last four years—and the over 2,000 students I’ve worked with at NCHS before you.”
Lee also said she hopes these graduates, among other things, have learned to see with a critical eye and hear with a critical ear. That in today’s media climate, you must be able to discern for yourselves the difference between what’s real and what’s fake as well as the difference between fact and opinion. And that trial and error is not the worst way to learn.
“Seeing something fail and figuring out why it happened can teach you a lot about how something works.”
Several others addressed the families and friends of the graduates at the stirring ceremony. Here’s some of what they said:
- Student Coalition President Jack Dahill: “I was trying to figure out a way to sum up our four years here in an appropriate anecdote or an inspiring quote, but the truth is you can’t. The amount that we have learned and how much we have grown, not only as students but as people, is astonishing. In just four years we have built the foundation that will carry us onto college and the world. Out here on this field today is the future. This is an extraordinary group of talented young men and women. And I’m so proud to call all of you my classmates. There is no doubt in my mind that we will do amazing things.”
- First Selectman Rob Mallozzi: “It’s been three and six years, respectively, since my kids graduated from NCHS. And I’ve really missed the connection that this school brought to our family. I must say, though, that this year I had the chance to be reconnected with both the high school and its students. Among the experiences was Town Hall taking on 12 high school seniors as interns, which was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I believe those 12 students were a very, very good representation of the class of 2017. They were well-spoken, hard-working, polite and engaged—not at all like the Darien High School kids that I graduated with in 1980. This class has added so much to the fabric of our town through its volunteer efforts, participation in absolutely everything, and by simply smiling at, and engaging with, the members of our community. So I bring thanks and appreciation from the town of New Canaan and wish you nothing but the best in your future success.”
- Principal William Egan: “Graduates, tonight and in the next few weeks, you are going to get plenty of advice about your life and your future. I would like to speak to you about something else—your parents. While tonight’s a big occasion for you all, this is a momentous occasion for your parents. Over the years you’ve probably had your parents say thousands of things to you. Some made sense, some either weren’t true or made no sense, and then there were things that went unsaid. Phrases your parents said that aren’t true or just don’t make sense are ones like, ‘If you want to act like a child I will treat you like one’. Or ‘what part of no don’t you understand?’ Ones that are true are, ‘I was your age once, too, you know.’ And ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’. Wait until you have kids of your own and you’ll understand. And graduates, there are things your parents are feeling tonight and will never say to you. Things that are secret to parents’ feelings and their hearts. Things such as, ‘When you leave me, it’s like a piece of my heart is walking around outside my body’. A parent breaks off pieces of their heart for each child—your heart’s no longer fully whole unless your children are around you. If you want to know why we worry so much or why we always ask you to text or call when you get there, this is why. You hold our heart in your hands. Graduates, remember your parents these next few years and beyond. Whether you’re heading off to college, the military, or elsewhere, while you’re having the time of your life they will be missing you terribly.”
- Senior Lauren Carlson: “I propose that graduation is not just a celebration of us high schoolers but a two-part responsibility. The first is to recognize all the amazing individuals that have guided us to this point. And the second is knowing that from this day forward, we must in turn become those individuals. I’m sure when each senior on this field thinks of those who pushed them to this point the most, his or her parents come to mind. Parents we all owe you a debt that we’ll never be able to repay. New Canaan is also blessed with an exceptional school system—the credit for which goes to the caliber of its teachers. In my time at the high school I’ve been introduced to some of the most dedicated, caring, persistent individuals I have ever met. This day is less about us and more about you—the people who got us here. I urge all of my classmates to genuinely thank everyone who got you here today and to begin to help others make this same journey.”
- Senior Quinn Curren: “In 1905, Einstein published his Theory of Relativity. It states that as a particle nears the speed of light, time for the particle slows down. And as you get closer and closer to the speed of light, time dilation becomes more drastic. The faster you go yourself, the slower you are in the eyes of everyone else—it’s paradoxical. But there does exist a perfect speed where the balance between velocity and time is optimized. For every ultimate goal you want to achieve there is this perfect balance between progress and the quality of life. This balance is relative as it varies from person to person. But there does exist an optimal place. Moving too slowly means you’ll never reach your destination while moving too quickly means you’ll have missed out on moments with your friends and family—they’ll have lived a full life in one day of yours. Similarly, living myopically means you’ll have missed out on the world around you. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to empathize, gives one a more satisfying life. Assuming the best in people instead of the worst makes life more enjoyable.”
- Senior Will Santora: “Every time I watch “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” I always make sure to pay attention to the scene where Ferris gets ready for his adventurous day playing hooky. While I’m not saying that I promote skipping school, he did have some good advice. His famous line, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” is uttered in that scene. And while I’m not great at taking mental notes, ever since I was little I kept those words of advice with me. Because Ferris is right! Life does move fast. Everything is accelerating. Why look at our own lives! We are ending such a stable time. Our days had been planned for us and safety nets were always there to help back us up. But now, everything is shifting. It’s a quick shift. One that should earn a little bit of time to look at before we miss it. Getting bogged down in the middle of the change can put anyone into a slump. However, I think the power of adaptability and perspective has never been stronger or more important. It allows us to cope with the wave of change. And if you can ride the wave, be adaptable and find happiness for yourself, then you will have success. Even better, if you can cause happiness and promote kindness to other people and the world then you will have even more success. I wish this level of accomplishment for all of us.”
- Senior Rebecca Serven: “I can say with absolute confidence that the class of 2017 was the best class to walk the halls of NCHS. Rest assured that I’ll see some of my fellow classmates starring on Broadway, being drafted by the NFL, gracing the cover of Fortune Magazine, or becoming visionary entrepreneurs. However, those are all things in the future. While I have no doubt that each of us will carve our own path to pursue our passions, I’d like to ask each of us to be fully present in this moment. It’s only once in our lives that we will sit in these chairs graduating from New Canaan High School. Over the past couple years I spent time volunteering at Waveny Care Center. During my experience there I got to meet people like Hazel Gorman. One day I asked her what her favorite memory is. I thought she would tell me a story about growing up in Brooklyn, or about the day she got married, or perhaps when she became a mother. They all were good guesses but instead the memory was of a moment when her soon-to-be sister-in-law Elizabeth, in a beautiful, red two-piece bathing suit was walloped by a giant wave. As she was nowhere to be found, everyone was in a panic. When she finally emerged, her bathing suit top was gone. And she walked out of the ocean and onto the beach completely unaware of this. And the best part, said Hazel, was her brother’s face being filled with complete and utter embarrassment. Hazel was reflecting on 99 years of life and chose that one moment—which I think is beautiful. It really wasn’t just a story, it was a gift. As we look toward the future, I hope that we will not only celebrate the successes we have but also the little moments that the gift of life presents us.”
- Superintendent Dr. Bryan Luizzi: “As you take this next step in your lives, if you remain true to what you’ve learned and to who you’ve become, you will be remarkably well prepared for the exciting future that lies ahead. I would like to share my congratulations and say ‘thank you’ to all of the parents, families and friends who have generously helped each of you succeed on your life’s journey thus far. In addition, I’d like to offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to my colleagues—both here at NCHS and throughout our outstanding school system—for their exceptional efforts these past 13 years. Their efforts, and the efforts of the entire community, have helped this class accomplish remarkable things. And as a result of everyone’s efforts, I say with surety and optimism that this year’s graduating class is ready to step forward with the confidence, character and courage to improve our world. We are extremely proud of each of you and wish you all the very best in everything you do going forward.”
- Board of Education Chair Dionna Carlson: “While this is my second commencement address, this year’s is very special to me because my daughter is a member of this graduating class. So, Lauren, I’ll do my best not to embarrass you. But I’m your mom so no promises. Class of 2017, you’re heading in to a time of your life that many of the adults here remember with great fondness. You’re leaving your families and this amazing New Canaan community to forge your own place in this world. Follow your passions. Try to find work and study that energizes you. If you pursue your dreams you are more likely to find true happiness in this journey of life. You’re off to climb mountains, and to borrow a line I’ve heard used many times before, ‘Make sure you’re climbing mountains for the view that you want to see. Not so that others can see you.’ “
As a teacher, Lee is well aware that you never stop learning. And being a teacher of mathematics, Lee knew that it never hurts to use some numbers as evidence to support your point. After asking questions such as, “How many of you were at a live concert but watched an entire song through your phone screen?” and “How many times have you interrupted a real conversation in order to text someone else?”—Lee shared her stats.
“According to the website statista.com, Teens spend more than 200 minutes per day on a mobile device,” Lee said. “That’s more than fourteen percent of your day or close to twenty percent of your waking hours. It’s likely that some spend more time texting, tweeting, posting and SnapChatting than sleeping.”
Her advice on how to change that?
“Learn to be present and to spend time living your real life.”
And along the lines of what being present in life can feel like, Lee closed with one final thing she hopes the class of 2017 will also learn as they venture off on their own respective journeys: “To surround yourself with people you love to be around. Your teachers, counselors and coaches, all of whom are patiently sweating in their dark-colored robes—I love being around these people. We’ve cried together in moments of grief and laughed together so hard that we almost cried then, too. I respect and admire the time and care they’ve put into making these last four years special for you—and I’m proud to be their friend and colleague. They’re risk takers who don’t take themselves too seriously all the time. And so, class of 2017, as evidence of this, I leave you with one last gift. Cue the music!”
And what followed was Lee and her colleagues participating in flash-mob dance routine to the tune of Andy Grammer’s “Good to be Alive.”