"Getting Off 'the Rez' and the Ten Things You Won’t Hear at Graduation" by Michael Herring, faculty speaker

I am Native American and you all are…not. I am a card carrying Eel Clan member of the Onondaga Nation. When I refer to card-carrying member, I mean just that. My Red Card (yes, it is in fact red!) validates my ethnicity. Amongst other things it asserts that I can hunt and fish anywhere in the U.S. for free. When I retire and we move up to Maine, I will begin my bow-hunting career – I know I will be camouflaged and silent in the woods. It is genetically coded in my being.

So why speak about ethnicity in a commencement address? I think the juxtaposition of the Onondaga Nation Territory and Noble and Greenough School provides a lens for an examination of time well spent and to quote Dartmouth College President Emeritus James Wright: “A life well led.” Let’s be realistic here, though. The Onondaga Nation Territory, what I will refer to as “the Rez,” will never be confused with the hallowed halls of Nobles. The Rez has all the stereotypical trappings of Native American reservation life: abject poverty, rampant unemployment, a dearth of economic opportunities and things of a similar ilk. Yet, despite the problems inherent with life on the Rez, there are many aspects of tribal life in Nedrow, N.Y., that draw comparison to our “home” here.

I have annually spoken in Mr. Mauck’s and Mr. Tejada’s English classes regarding my ethnicity. I recently gave my presentation; I recounted some of the trials and tribulations I personally encountered during my times on the Rez. I also described how life has a tendency to be dichotomous in an insular environment. My mother, galvanized at a young age, resolved to get off the Rez, to provide a better life for herself and, ultimately, her children. Indeed, she may have been the first Onondaga woman to graduate from college. Despite, her longing for an assimilated life in modern American society, she recounted to her children why life on The Rez was special in so many ways. My mother explained to us how important traditional tribal culture was for her mother: the language, religion, dress, powwows, lacrosse and False Faces belie the more documented, negative aspects of tribal existence. We at Nobles have our own traditional tribal culture, the things we hold dear: honesty, respect, academic rigor, service and experiential learning, leadership for the public good, assembly, the Castle, springtime on the Beach (Art Street), Milton games, Opening Day of Baseball lunch, time spent in Gleason Hall, Halloween, and a soon-to-be post-graduation Faculty Receiving Line.

In my U.S. History class, we recently examined this dichotomy viewing the PBS documentary Chiefs that ostensibly chronicled the 2000-01 and 2001-02 Wyoming Indian High School’s basketball seasons. The players were talented and the team was successful. The film also chronicled how difficult it was for the players to live a hybrid life between a traditional tribal existence and modern American society. The players and coaches spoke repeatedly about “getting off The Rez,” Our Class of 2012 might also find getting off our Rez difficult on some level. I hope our new graduates will find some angst in the departure process. The relationships forged over the years with classmates, faculty, and staff will remain strong of this I have no doubt. Indeed, these very relationships (part of what makes leaving the Onondaga Nation Territory burdensome) will make things hard for the Class of 2012 as they leave behind the numerous, special people here at Nobles. But it is also the magic of this physical place, our Rez, that will make leaving not as easy as one might think. I would surmise we’ll see how hard this will be during the Receiving Line in just awhile. Let the tears flow I say as they will be tears of joy in the main.

It is now time for the Class of 2012 to leave the idyllic confines of 10 Campus Drive. It is now time to get off OUR Rez. It may not always be easy trying to live off our tribal confines. Our traditional tribal existence forces us to examine how we interact with one another. Indeed, relational pedagogy lies at the very heart of our Rez. Our Rez mandates that we aid in the betterment of our fellow man. Leadership for the Public Good is part and parcel of the lexicon of our tribe. This is not mere rhetoric as the Class of 2012 has lived this mantra providing assistance and support to such disparate endeavors as The Cotting School basketball game and the Dedham Food Pantry Drive. I have no doubt that The Class of 2012 will continue to do well at doing good.

My time at Dartmouth College ushered me along a path toward a heightened sense of my ethnicity. I took an economics class based fundamentally on Milton Friedman. I gravitated toward Friedman’s teachings; what resulted was a contrarian. I began to question things. Now, one has to understand the home in which I was raised. My father was a college professor and my mother was a remedial reading specialist. They were progressives of the highest order. From a political standpoint, my parents were left of, say……Karl Marx. One can imagine the conversations over Thanksgiving dinner! This questioning mindset brought me closer to my ethnicity as Onondagas are quite contrarian. Why so? Let’s check the Red Card…

So as we embark on the Commencement of the Class of 2012, I will refer to the reputed University of Chicago economist and public policy planner Charles Wheelan who recently delineated on National Public Radio his unique ideas regarding graduation speeches. More specifically, Wheelan developed his own graduation speech philosophy based fundamentally on the things he wished people told him at his graduation. Professor Wheelan developed these into an essay entitled the 10 Things You Won’t Hear at Graduation.

Professor Wheelan’s disenfranchisement with commencement speeches began with his own graduation from Dartmouth College. Wheelan, tired of typical, trite-sounding messages of ‘seize the day,’ ‘dream big’ and ‘make the world a better place,’ developed what he referred to as an “anti-commencement speech.” He delivered this anti-commencement speech at his alma mater, Dartmouth College.
While listening to Professor Wheelan on NPR, my contrarian tendencies came to the fore. Using Wheelan’s 10 Things You Won’t Hear at Graduation as the fundamental underpinning, I give to you my “Anti, Anti-Commencement Speech.” I have taken a degree of poetic license here so bear with me … or simply give me a break!

Professor Wheelan’s No. 1 Thing You Won’t Hear at Graduation: Your Time in Fraternity Basements was Well Spent. I enjoyed my time as a member of the Greek System during my undergrad days to be sure. I think Mr. Henderson, also a Dartmouth grad, would say the same. Yet I think we both agree that time spent in a singular place with a small number of people is antithetical to what we hold dear at Nobles. I wish I had traveled, I wish I had broadened myself via active engagement with campus life as a whole. The Class of 2012 has been inculcated in moving beyond those areas of personal comfort. Today’s graduates have been advised, cajoled and, perhaps, even coerced at times to take risks, to place themselves “in harm’s way.” If Professor Wheelan’s advise were heeded to the letter of the law, the Nobles community might not have witnessed some incredibly courageous acts by members of the Class of 2012. In particular, the Nobles community would not have witnessed public statements of a personal nature made by Diego Seligman – statements that made all truly think and reflect. In addition, Michael Reiner’s daring work with the girls’ varsity basketball team stands as testament to the risk-taking we espouse here. It is not always easy when one ascertains one’s passion may go unfulfilled in a traditional setting. I do believe Michael found his P90X with Coach Gallagher and the team.

Number 2 on Professor Wheelan’s list: Some of Your Worst Days Lie Ahead. It is difficult to be too contrarian here as each member of the Class of 2012 will face measures of adversity both small and great. Adversity can be the finest of teaching tools. Adversity forces one to examine or re-examine how one goes about one’s affairs. The Class of 2012 should, when faced with adverse times, remember well words oft-quoted by members of this community. From Mr. Baker: “Character is what you do when no one is watching.” And from Ms. Guy: “Never worry alone.” And from Mr. Henderson: “It is what you do after that illustrates the true measure of a person.”

Number 3: Don’t Make The World Worse: Don’t make the world worse?! From unethical business practices here at home to near-genocide in Syria, there is a goodly measure of “worse” occurring in our world today. But the Class of 2012 has been wrought in a forge of a wholly different manner. It has been wrought in a forge of respect, empathy and service. Indeed, today’s Nobles graduates have been charged, mandated to “leadership for the public good.” If our graduates adhered to simply not making the world worse, the efforts emboldened by Ms. MacQuinn and Ms. Hurley would be for naught. The Nobles community, the community of Greater Boston and untold numbers around the world would be the lesser if not for the selfless contributions of the Class of 2012. In quiet, unassuming fashion, Sachin Lal, who offered nearly 300 hours of service - doing two stints as a tutor at Roxbury Prep, lived the mission of Nobles. Additionally, Ekene Nwanko, Rahul Matta and Eddie Adams contributed nearly 250 hours of service in a variety of settings. Sophia Geanacopoulos, in her last week of school, selflessly assumed the organization of one of the time-honored rites of Nobles springtime: Art Street! Clearly, these members of the Class of 2012 were the captains of the varsity service learning team.

Number 4 on Professor Wheelan’s list: Marry Someone Smarter Than You Are. I am not quite sure why he thinks this should matter. What I would hope the members of the Class of 2012 do is marry (if this is your preference) or engage in meaningful relationships with those people whom you love and respect. Hopefully, this person will be your best friend and one who can make you laugh on a daily basis.
Number 5: Help Stop the Little League Arms Race. This one was tough for me because, on some level, I have been an active promoter of this for over a decade with my involvement in the club lacrosse world. I would tend to agree with Wheelan here as he refers more globally to positioning and specializing young people for the BEST things, the measuring of young people’s self-worth by whether they made the AA, elite lacrosse team, the select, youth symphony orchestra, or even got into the most prestigious school! To quote Professor Wheelan, “You will never read the following obituary: Bob Smith died yesterday at age 74. He finished life in 186th place.”

Number 6: Read obituaries. This is another of the list of 10 to which I must subscribe. My assistant basketball coach Joe Day, a man with over 50 years in education, suggested doing this many years ago. His reasoning was two-fold: 1) quote: “to be thankful that it was not me in the paper!” And 2) to learn about how incredibly rich some folks led their life. Joe Day nearly quoted Wheelan verbatim years ago, “Obituaries are like biographies, just shorter. People of substance rarely lead straight-forward, linear lives.”

Number 7: Your Parents Don’t Want What’s Best for You. Wheelan opines that parents want what is good for their children not necessarily what is best. The assumption here is that what is BEST often entails adversity and risk, discomfort and angst. I disagree with this premise. I think parents and all the adults of this community recognize the pedagogical value of the aforementioned adversity. I believe our students recognize and value the process is an end unto itself. I believe our graduates recognize that there is value in the figurative and literal blood, sweat and tears expended throughout their Nobles’ years. The process of periodically struggling through the U.S. History research essay of sophomore year or the process of grueling mastery in Baker English and CP physics was an end of its own merit. The endurance of Monday and Thursday conditioning for Coach Ginsberg and the unrelenting rehearsals for Mr. Halperin was as important as game day or opening night. Practice, in my estimation, is sacrosanct.

Number 8: Don’t Model Your Life After a Circus Animal. Basically, Wheelan asserts that many of us are like trained animals. We perform tricks and somebody rewards us with peanuts or fish. Professor Wheelan alludes to maintaining a semblance of balance in our lives. I would urge the graduates to slow down and relish the manifold relationships and endeavors that make up the composite their lives. Don’t rush to get to business school or medical school. Enjoy your freshman English seminar. Enjoy a Sunday morning reading the paper. Root hard for your collegiate teams and attend in earnest the dramatic productions at your colleges and universities. Learn to work with your hands. Don’t worry about what major will place you in the proper stead for law school; just have fun being a scholar. Don’t worry (yet) about the things of older people. You are too young to be old now.

Number 9: It’s All Borrowed Time. I get what he is saying here. Wheelan uses the “hit by a bus” adage. Were one hit by a bus tomorrow, would one regret the manner in which one led one’s life? Or similarly stated, were one not hit by a bus for 20 years, would one be pleased by the path down which one tread? I think our Class of 2012 should not think of buses nor of borrowed time. Our graduates should consciously and deliberately attempt to maximize their utility and that of their fellow humankind. In economics parlance, the Class of 2012 should fulfill the Equimarginal Principle. Friedman would like that I think.
And finally, Number 10: Don’t Try to Be Great: Wheelan proposes that being great requires some measure of luck and other things beyond one’s control. Mr. Gallagher urged the Class of 2011 to be great emphatically (as he is often wont to do!). Wheelen also postulates the less one thinks about being great, the more often it will occur. I could not disagree more. I might urge a slightly different mindset in this regard. I would recommend the Class of 2012 relentlessly PREPARE to be great. Legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight (wait, you didn’t think I was going to get through this without a mention of Bob Knight, did you?!) has often stated, “the will to win is good, the will to prepare to win is vital.” I would simply steal this by stating to the Class of 2012, “the will to be great is, well, great though the will to prepare to be great is absolutely vital.”

The Class of 2012 knows something of being great already. The Class has exhibited excellence in the classroom. If the level of discourse in class and the extent to which ideas were given and taken are any indication of facility and/or greatness, then the Class of 2012 knows greatness. Our Cum Laude inductees are simply a small manifestation of this class’ academic prowess. The Class of 2012 certainly knows something of greatness athletically. Of particular note, the girls’ varsity basketball team’s incredible run this winter resulted in not only an ISL title but a NEPSAC title as well. The leadership of Karly Finison, Alli Parent and Lauren Taiclet established a culture of excellence, a 25-1 record and memories these girls will cherish for a lifetime. They were excellent because they prepared to be so every day.

I know nothing of the performing arts. No really, I don’t. Imagine that. Yet, a few weeks ago the Nobles Theater Collective staged a rendition of the musical Hairspray. My son Jonathan and I saw it on Friday night. With no background in music, vocal pursuits nor dance, I have absolutely no expertise by which to render an opinion….though I will anyway. The singing of Liz Neylan, Katherine Doherty, Amanda Diamond, Jerry Lherisson and others simply astounded the novices in the audience like me. The fact that Jonathan is still singing the songs is as good a reflection of excellence as any in my book. The cast of Hairspray was great on Friday, May 19.

It is now time to leave our Rez. You leave it with tools to embark on the Life Well Led. It may be difficult to leave this beloved Rez, this community that gave so much to the Class of 2012 and received so much in return. We are indebted to you and we will miss you. Just remember, this Rez will always be here awaiting your return. Good luck and congratulations.

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"Getting Off 'the Rez' and the Ten Things You Won’t Hear at Graduation" by Michael Herring, faculty speaker