The Class of 2017 chose College Counselor Lauren Cunniffe to deliver closing remarks at their graduation.
Thank you, class of 2017, for this honor. I’ve heard that pausing during speeches helps to command the audience’s attention - to be honest, in my case, pausing means I’m trying to calm my racing heart and catch my breath. I did not have the benefit of PB’s rhetoric class. The fact that I’m standing here clutching the podium shows how much respect and affection I have for all of you.
Senior forum must seem like such a distant memory, but you may remember how I’d trot out my observations about how the college application process is not a sprint, but rather a marathon, that you can’t just show up for a long distance race or a big goal without any training and expect to do well. You have to do the long, sometimes tedious, often solitary runs. The fact that you are all here today is evidence that you did the work and crossed the finish line, arms raised in victory.
But you all know how and why you’re here today so I’m not going to talk about that or ask you to re-live the horrors of applying to college (but it wasn’t really that bad, was it?). I’ve been thinking about the other things that happen during training and racing, during high school and college and beyond. Don’t worry, I’m not going to abandon my favorite metaphor as I talk about this - I’m still going to rely, in super corny ways, on running.
There was a story that was in wide circulation recently about a young woman who’d trained for a half marathon and was nearing the finish line at the end of the race. Suddenly, despite her months of training, her body just couldn’t quite get her there - she started collapsing with that finish line banner in sight. She staggered and was clearly struggling and disoriented. A number of runners passed her by, their eyes firmly on their watches and their personal goals. But some runners did stop to help - offering her their arms so she could try to continue more or less under her own power, on her own trembling jello legs. But it wasn’t enough so one of the runners actually picked her up and carried her over the finish line.
I suspect that all of you have had a moment or two during your time at Stoneleigh-Burnham when you felt just like that runner: you’d hit the wall, run out of physical and mental energy, and just couldn’t take another halting step or produce another brilliant word for an essay or muster up any energy for another way of knowing. We sort of expect that close friends and family members are there to support us, but have you ever had the remarkable experience of having someone who didn’t really know you notice, really notice, that you were struggling? Did that person’s kindness help you reach that finish line, or maybe just get you through another hard day of training? So, finally, here’s the thing I’ve really been thinking about: The way that kindness is getting some much deserved attention - not just in that bland, “oh, she’s so NICE” sort of way but in ways that actually mean something and possibly open new, unexplored horizons of opportunity for you.
Now let’s make a distinction here between nice and kind. You all possess amazing qualities: maybe even some you don’t always hear at commencement ceremonies: you’re brilliant and goofy, introverted and tenacious, sophisticated and complicated, gregarious and quirky, emotional and wise… I just don’t see a dull word like “nice” defining any of you, especially not one that carries with it that utterly obnoxious social imperative about women having to be “nice” to be accepted or successful. What I do see in you is compassion and kindness - I see in you the potential for a muscular, ferocious, long distance ultra marathon type of kindness, one that will allow you to flex the power of your intellect and your voice in tandem with a curiosity about how far your Olympic strength kindness can take you.
In a society where tangible accomplishments are loudly celebrated, where politicians boast about vulgar victories, where shouts and insults take the place of productive debate, where civility and basic decency take a back seat to “winning” at all costs, being kind is actually sort of a radical act, something that can transform everyone involved, and one that I predict will get you recognized in ways you don’t necessarily expect. It matters little where you fall on the political spectrum: this is a challenging time for civil discourse and simple kindness. In the climate in which we live, kindness is practically an act of defiance and rebellion - and it is certainly not a display of weakness. A president I think of with wistful affection, Franklin D. Roosevelt, once said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
I’m not going to leave you with a vague directive to go out and do good deeds; instead I am going to ask you to exercise your kindness muscle in some small way every day. You may experience jello legs and soggy noodle brain along the way but you will know how to help yourself and others afflicted with those odd maladies. As graduates of Stoneleigh-Burnham, you are in a position to create and follow your own training plans, knowing that your intellect, determination and kindness will carry you across so very many finish lines.