(Guest Post by Sarah Miller, Chief Academic Officer of Phoenix Academy Network.) This graduation speech was written and delivered by Sarah Miller, CAO of Phoenix Charter Academy Network at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts on June 13, 2013. Phoenix Charter Academy Network is a group of schools in Massachusetts that serves high-school age students who have become disconnected from academic environments, and offers them support, structure and motivation to complete high school and go on to higher education. Phoenix Charter Academy Network is a group of schools I have worked with for nearly a decade, and my pride at the 27 graduates of this year’s class, many of whom are the first in their families to go on to higher education, is unbounded. I was moved by Sarah Miller’s call for authenticity in this speech, and her naming the difficulties of being authentic, no matter where we are in our lives or what our developmental phase. This speech touched the audience watching these beautiful young adults graduate by calling out an essential human challenge: to be ourselves and to show up as ourselves in a world that often does not support authenticity or realness. A powerful human observation, wrapped in a graduation victory gift.
Hello Graduates. I am really honored to be standing here with you, to get to share this stage. Today, I want to talk to you about authenticity: authenticity and honesty. And to do that, I need to talk to you about my yoga class. I really love my yoga class. I really, really love it. And one of the reasons I love it is that it’s totally acceptable to go to yoga and just do this for an hour and a half. You can go, walk in, and sit on the floor the entire time. Because this is an actual pose in yoga. It’s called “child’s pose.” And many teachers will tell you that child’s pose “is always on offer.” And what this means is that no matter what the rest of the class is doing, you can always just sit….just rest….just be yourself. No matter what everyone else is doing, you can just sit down and relax. Child’s pose is always on offer…it’s always there for you. So the rest of the class might look like this:
And you might just feel like sitting like this:
Many of you already know that we get so many messages about what we need to be or need to do or should want to be or should want to do that figuring out who we are as individuals really is quite difficult. Our families, our friends, our society, our TV shows, our movies, our Facebook pages, our iPods, our schools all send us messages about what we should be or do. But just knowing you are getting messages about how to be isn’t enough. You have to do more, you have to be different, bigger than a person who just “knows.” And this is my challenge to you:
- Without demerits or detention or a Dean, figure out what’s right to do and do that thing, regardless of what other people around are saying or doing.
- Without grades or AP scores (clap for our first Advanced Placement students ever) figure out what you want to learn about and learn it deeply all the time. Just learn all the time.
- Without Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, develop actual friends who are real and who matter and who inspire you to be and to give and love you for who you honestly are.
- Without the Oscars or the VMA’s or the Billboard awards, pick your favorite music and listen to it relentlessly.
All the stuff I just mentioned doing is pretty typical for a graduation speech and they all bear repeating because doing these things is really, really hard. Going your own way and being you is really hard, even if you think it’s not–it totally is. And this is exceptionally true if you’re at all competitive. Because sometimes in life, you’ll feel like you’re being asked to do this (metaphorically, of course):
Everyone around you might be able to just like handle it. All the people next to you on the T or on the bus or at work or at school might just be able to go ahead and do that (metaphorically, of course).
You might just be thinking, “I just wanna do child’s pose.” I wonder how many of you would? I wonder how many of you would just do what you feel like you want or need to do? I wonder how many of us, the grown people in the audience, your children, yourselves, all of us: I wonder how many of us really have the strength to do what we want and need in life? So, who cares? What’s the real point? It’s not yoga, that’s not the real point. I don’t really want you to sit like this, I want something much more extraordinary for you.
Because I have a grave concern and deep worry. I worry about a world where we don’t think and act independently. I worry about a world where we just do what we’re told and act in a way that everyone else does and nothing more. I am gravely concerned about a world where we just do or be without thinking because it seems convenient. So, I’m challenging you today to think, feel and act in the world with one word in mind: AUTHENTICITY. As I’ve come to understand it, and I know I’m not old enough to really know but as I’ve come to understand it, being authentic and working through all this life stuff as an honest individual turns out to be one of the greatest challenges you’ll face. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of times in your life where you’ll actually need to conform. You’ll need to be like others and “go with the flow”. That’s cool, sometimes you need to just drive in the right direction (this time I mean this both literally and metaphorically). But you have to decide when that’s going to be. And you have to decide for you. And my hope is that you can figure out how to surround yourself with people who can help you be more and more authentic and honest the older you get, people who help you be more you. In a world that’s sending you messages to conform and think the same, find the individuals that help you be you. Because sometimes, you’ll need and want to be like this:
Sometimes you’ll need to be purple in a sea of gold, or say no when others say yes, or stand up for yourself, or go against the tide, or decide you don’t actually like Beyonce or whatever seems to be the popular opinion. (For the record I think Beyonce is just fine….). And doing all this real activity takes real strength, real, deep-down, authentic and honest power.
So, in this new stage of life, I hope for you the strength to handle life with this kind of calm clarity, I wish you the strength to hold yourselves up, to be yourselves and trust your authentic self, and to be good with that–with you. And I want you to know that Child’s Pose is always on offer. It’s you that has to decide the difference. When do I stand up? When do I give into what I want? What do I authentically need/want/demand of myself? And with those questions asked and unanswered, I offer you luck. I love you all a lot and am wonderfully excited that we are sharing you with the world in a more official way. So go on college, trade school, jobs go on, go out and do whatever that really, honestly means. Congratulations.