A Public School Teacher's Thoughts on Graduation

In this era of endless criticism and negative portrayals of educators in popular media, from Waiting for Superman to Bad Teacher, many people might wonder how we who work in the classrooms of New York's public schools feel about our students. To answer that question, here is the commencement speech I gave last week to the graduating seniors at the public school in the Bronx, where I have been teaching English since my college graduation in 2003.

Good afternoon, class of 2011!

I'm excited and honored to be addressing you as a class today. Independent of my personal fondness for you guys, which began with the joyful hours we spent together doing SAT prep, and continued through English classes, senior trip, prom, and -- yes -- even Credit Recovery -- I've come to know you as an impressive group of young men and women.

For those who like professional sports, here are some "Class of 2011 Statistics": This is the first class in our school's history whose members have taken four different AP courses; the first class to represent our school at MSNBC's quiz show The Challenge; this class contains our first NCAA Division-1 athlete and our first student ever to go cross-country to college, as well as two enormously-talented rappers, a synchronized swimmer, several poets and songwriters, lacrosse players, football players and gymnasts; as a group you are fluent in at least eight different languages that I can think of; you have participated in innumerable community service projects involving everything from sustainable resources to visiting the elderly; and, collectively, you have accumulated approximately $100,000 in college scholarship offers!

Traditionally, graduation speeches have themes like "reach for the stars," or "believe in your dreams." Seems appropriate enough for a class like this -- so many times, you've surprised and inspired our school community by showing what amazing things you can accomplish through hard work and ingenuity. But, while I certainly believe that all of you are headed for happy, fulfilling lives, wherein you achieve whatever you put your minds to, what I want to talk to you about today is something all of us -- no matter how awesome -- encounter at some point: FAILURE.

Now you might be wondering: "Garon! It's our graduation, and you're going to start talking about failure? We just finished our Regents -- what's up with that?" But the fact is, failure's not a dirty word -- and if you got together every successful person you've ever met in every field you've ever heard of, the one common experience they'd share would be this: each of them has failed -- often, and spectacularly -- before becoming successful.

Take Bill Gates. Now, you might have heard of him... he runs this little-known company called Microsoft? Yeah, I thought that name might ring a bell. Anyway, when most of us think of Bill Gates, we might think of his being the richest man in the world, or of his giant computer empire, or even of the billions of dollars he donates to charitable causes. We don't think of him as a college drop-out who had trouble meeting girls and founded a failed software business called "Traf-O-Data" -- but that's who he was before Microsoft made him the influential man he is today.

Or, how about Michael Jordan? Did you know that young Michael was cut from his high school basketball team? In an interview once, Jordan told reporters, "I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot, and I missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

I could give you a million more examples like this. Little Albert Einstein's teachers thought he was mentally handicapped when he couldn't read at age seven -- he got horrible grades, and would definitely have failed his trigonometry Regents... and he went on to pioneer the Theory of Relativity.

J. K. Rowling was a depressed, single-mother recovering from a divorce, living on welfare, writing in coffee-shops because her apartment didn't have any heat, when she penned this weird book about a boy wizard... Rowling has said she saw herself as "the biggest failure she knew," and indeed, her book was rejected by publishers nine times before the 10th said yes, and the entire world came to know about Harry Potter.

The fact is, as nice as it feels to get something right the first time, there's no lesson in it. The accomplishments you'll be most proud of in life will be hard-fought, full of setbacks, errors, and -- yes -- failure. Sometimes you'll get it right on the 100th try; sometimes you won't figure it out until the 1000th; and sometimes, in the process of trying and failing, you'll figure out that you're meant to be doing something else altogether.

That's a lesson I've learned in my own life, albeit on a much humbler scale than any of the superstars I've mentioned here. Now, I know most of you are thinking, "Garon, you're such a nerd!" And while that's basically correct, the fact is, I wasn't a great student growing up. My 7th grade math teacher told my parents I couldn't handle the Honors track; in 11th grade I was encouraged not to waste my time and money taking the AP English exam, because no one thought I would pass. And that continued into college -- I entered as a psychology major, but in my sophomore year, after getting mediocre grades on all my labs, I over-slept my final in neuroscience, failed the exam, and bombed the course.

The thing is, once I came face-to-face with having flunked neuroscience, I realized I wasn't passionate about psychology. What I loved enough not to over-sleep, I realized, was reading and writing. I switched my focus to English--and the rest is history. Eleven years later, I find myself standing in front of an absolutely terrific bunch of students, who are kind, sensitive, hilarious, intelligent, and who make me realize that the path I've taken is -- for me -- the right one.

I'd like to close with the words of one of my favorite latter-day philosophers, the great Denzel Washington, from his speech to the graduates of University of Pennsylvania last month: "Fall forward. This is what I mean. Reggie Jackson struck out 2600 times in his career, the most in the history of baseball. But you don't hear about the strikeouts. People remember the home runs. Fall forward. Thomas Edison conducted 1000 failed experiments. Did you know that? I didn't know that. Because the 1001st was the light bulb. Fall forward. Every failed experiment is one step closer to success."

I wish you all as many failures as it takes for your deepest ambitions to be realized. Fall forward. Good luck out there, guys. We will miss you tremendously, and we are more proud of you than you can ever know.