A Most Unusual Commencement Speech July 07 2017

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

Over the last few days, reports have come out about a commencement speech given in early June by Chief Justice John Roberts at Cardigan Mountain School, an elite middle-school for boys in northern New Hampshire.  Justice Roberts addressed the ninth grade class in which his son was graduating.  The speech was recorded, but not televised and not publicized until a few days ago, when it showed up on YouTube.

Instead of the often lofty, aspirational tone of many commencement speeches, this one was rather subdued and caught peoples’ attention because of how it attempted to inject a dose of both reality and caring into the minds of the graduates.  I have taken the liberty of providing some extensive excerpts below:

“Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you.  I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why.  From time to time in the years to come I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.  I hope that you will suffer betrayal, because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.  Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted.  I wish you bad luck, again from time to time, so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life [maybe I would have substituted ‘trials’ for ‘bad luck’ and ‘blessing’ for ‘chance,’ but you get the point].

"And understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.  And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then your opponent will gloat over your failure.  It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.  I hope you will be ignored, so that you know the importance of listening to others.  And I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.  Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen.  And whether you benefit from them or not will depend on your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

"Now some tips as you get ready to go to your new school.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten to know many of you young men pretty well, and I know you are good guys.  But you are also privileged young men.  And if you weren’t privileged when you came here you are privileged now, because you have been here.  My advice is … don’t act like it.  When you get to your new school, walk up and introduce yourself to the person who is raking the leaves, shoveling the snow, or emptying the trash.  Learn their name and call them by their name during your time at the school….

"When you pass by people you don’t recognize on the walks - smile, look them in the eye, and say ‘hello.’  The worst thing that will happen is that you will become known as the young man who smiles and says ‘hello.’  And that is not a bad thing to start with….  The last bit of advice I give you is very simple, but I think it could make a big difference in your life.  Once a week you should write a note to someone.  Not an email, a note, on a piece of paper.  It will take you exactly 10 minutes.  Talk to an adult; let them tell you what a stamp is, and you can put the stamp on the envelope.  Again, 10 minutes, once a week.  I will help you right now, I will dictate to you the first note you should write.  [He went on to describe the note they should write to their teacher thanking them for their work.]  He closed by saying that “it will mean a great deal to people who for reasons most of us cannot contemplate have dedicated themselves to teaching middle school boys."

Justice Roberts had some quotes from Socrates and Bob Dylan (from Forever Young) in the speech as well, and a few aspirational remarks.  But what struck me was his candor with the students about preparing to learn lessons from real life and how to care for people going through challenging times. It was like the breath of fresh air in graduation speeches.

Now realistically, if I had heard that speech as a ninth-grade boy, it definitely would not have sunk in.  And the same might be true for these ninth-graders.  But as we have grown and have come to understand the Scriptures, by God’s grace, we have hopefully learned some of these lessons, and are still learning them.  We have been treated unfairly; we have seen betrayal; we have seen loneliness; we have seen trials; we have seen gloating; we have been ignored; and we have taken privileges for granted. But in the process, hopefully we have learned about true joy, compassion, loyalty, fair treatment, and the value of friends, among many other things.

Jesus was way ahead of Justice Roberts, because He taught the disciples about many tough things they would face in life.  Just within the Sermon on the Mount (all references from the gospel of Matthew), He had profound messages of hope, but He also prepared the disciples with important counsel for the hard road ahead, such as:

  •  He said that those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10)
  •  He said “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great” (5:11-12)
  •  He taught about forgiveness (5:23-24)
  •  He taught about the importance of dealing with anger (5:22), lust (5:28), greed (6:19-21), and worry (6:25-34)
  •  He taught about blessing others and not taking revenge (5:38-42)
  •  He told the disciples that they were to even show love toward their enemies, instead of hate (5:43-46)

The Cardigan Mountain School speech was but a pale reflection of Jesus’ teaching.  As revolutionary as Justice Roberts’ words may have sounded to the graduating class, how much more revolutionary must Jesus’ words have sounded to the disciples?  And they sound radical even to us today. Just as Justice Roberts showed his care for the students and their futures by not giving them merely a “feel good” message, so the power and hope of Jesus’ words still ring true for us today, as hard as they are to hear sometimes. Not everything will go the way we might have hoped, but Jesus said (and demonstrated) that our joy is not dependent on how things turn out or how people treat us. True joy is anchored in a contentment that God is in charge, and if we have paid close attention in the school of Jesus, we will also learn thankfulness, loyalty, compassion, fair treatment, the value of friends, and many other life lessons that are transformative in our lives. And do you know what?  You can send a note to the Teacher right now.  It’s called “prayer.”  Just thank Him for all He has been using to to teach us, for His love, for His infinite patience, and for His grace to help in our times of need.

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Steve Smith