Supportive Board of Education, my dear passionate and talented colleagues, you incredible loving and supportive parents, devoted families of the graduates, and most importantly, proud and distinguished members of the fabulous class of 2016, it is with the deepest gratitude that I stand before you today. Seniors, this day formally marks the commencement of the next phase of your life. Me too, although it took me 35 years to graduate. I have been a long-time a Warrior, but what can I say in a few minutes that might help you as you embark on your journey? I need to start by saying you possess far more knowledge than I ever dreamed of at your age. You are tolerant beyond your predecessors, you are more genuinely committed to others than I have ever seen, and you are always eager to team up as Warriors and achieve more together than you could by yourself. For those reasons, I have often felt that I received more inspiration from you than I ever gave to you. My generation may not have solved the world’s problems, but it did produce you wonderful, caring, loving people, so there is indeed hope for this country and for our planet.
Before I expand on that, I feel compelled to offer a few musings that have sort of sustained me. Humor can be such a constructive tool; my dad, a career teacher and the one who inspired me to teach, often said; “if you can’t goof on the kids, and let them goof on you, it isn’t much fun.” So, first I’ll goof on myself with some material I have heard from a few of you.
Living in the same high school this long simultaneously made me younger and stronger, as well as balder and wider. Teaching hundreds of students is intellectually, emotionally and physically exhausting so it’s a good thing we have the summers to recharge our batteries. At this point I can’t figure out why they call it REtirement because I was getting tired more easily 10 years ago. This phase is supposed to be relaxing, so in my case it should be called “spare-tirement.” I often have a Kramer moment in the morning when I look at the mirror, but at least the eyes staring back still glimmer with the hopeful energy of the youth and positive spirit that you all share with us every day, and then I try and find my car keys.
Now I’ll goof on you a little. One thing I’ve learned at Wilton High School is that freshmen males and senior females are not even in the same genus, never mind species. By the time the sophomore year rolls around, many males actually lose any maturity they may have acquired. I’ve often fantasized about shipping most sophomore boys to a large island for a year-long boot camp. Those hormones really kick in when they form groups of two or more, and as the number in the group grows, the ‘duh’ factor is exponentially increased. This has been known to cause stress in the life of all teachers, but consider that I often had over 50 freshman and sophomore boys at the same time, and they were armed with instruments. It is amazing to me that we never needed an ambulance, or that anyone ever listened to me at all, or that I have any hair left.
Having raised one of each and having taught both, I have observed that girls can be silly at this age too, totally obsessed with social media on their phones while the boys play video games on theirs. Girls can perseverate for hours and cause intense DRAMA over relationship issues that boys forget about in seconds, if they ever knew about them at all. I often challenged freshmen and sophomore girls and boys alike to see how long they could go without saying “I”, “me” or “my,” and as I am sure the adults would predict, 99% didn’t last three sentences and many didn’t last three words. But that is all part of being in high school; growing out of the stage of silliness and egocentrism. Watching that growth over four years is a miraculous metamorphosis. Mark Twain gave us some insight into youthful development when he quipped: “When I was a young man, I could not believe how ignorant my parents were, but when I turned 25, I thought it amazing what they had learned.”
One humorous observation from my personal and professional life is that babies are physically exhausting, so it’s good that they are so cute, high schoolers are mentally exhausting, so it’s good that they have so much positive spirit, and college aged children are financially exhausting, so it’s good that we are so proud. By the way, I think you are still as cute as your baby pictures, and I think your parents are simultaneously laughing and crying right now. It has been quite a journey to his point indeed.
Huge changes took place with your mind, your body and your spirit whilst here as a Warrior, and more changes are inevitable in your next phase of life; the college phase, when you will likely craft a personal philosophy of life if you haven’t already done so. Here is my own: it is, very simply, that we are put on this earth, without choice of when or where, for one reason: to make the world a better place. At the core of this motto is of course love, and that is all you need to stay on the right path as life constantly barrages you with choices large and small. You’ve learned here, and this will continue in college and in life, that it is nearly impossible to read, hear, play, or see a great work and not find love, or the lack thereof, as central elements. So, you can’t imagine how psyched I was to do Beauty and the Beast as my last musical precisely because the three greatest words on planet Earth transform the Beast and his entire world from their selfish idiosyncrasies. Those three words; cast/class: I LOVE YOU!
Love is all you need to be constructive during your time on earth rather than destructive. Here is what Wikipedia says about the iconic song by John Lennon. The Beatles were asked to come up with a song with a message understood by everyone. "It was an inspired song and they really wanted to give the world a message,” said Brian Epstein (their manager). "The nice thing about it is that it cannot be misinterpreted. It is a clear message saying that love is everything." According to journalist Jade Wright, "Lennon was fascinated by the power of slogans to unite people and never afraid to create art out of propaganda. When asked in 1971 whether songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Power to the People" were propaganda songs, he answered: 'Sure. So was All You Need Is Love. I'm a revolutionary artist. My art is dedicated to change.'"
In 1967, “All You Need Is Love” was a reaction to the Vietnam War and to our country’s intense struggle over civil rights. The song proclaims that love is the most powerful weapon we possess to defeat evil. Earlier in the 20th century, Gandhi said; “The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others”, and he described the power of love in this way: “When in despair I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won; there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.’ He also said, “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” Though his life was taken from us prematurely by an assassin’s bullet, he was able to wield the weapon of love to peacefully gain the freedom of his country from imperial Britain. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King went to India, met with Gandhi, and used the same tactic of passive resistance to help pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968, but King never got to see it because his life was also taken from us prematurely by an assassin’s bullet. These tragic deaths of two monumental heroes of the 20th century should remind us of two things; that love IS the most powerful weapon humans possess and that a gunman cannot kill hope. In our current world, there is clearly much for us to ponder in this regard.
I find it tragic that your generation is still strapped with the idea of supremacy, an evil ever plaguing society. We have used it as a moral justification for some awful things and we just can’t seem to shake it. One recent example was the white supremacist in Charleston who killed 9 people at the AME church to try and start a race war. Instead, because those incredible folks possessed enough love and courage to forgive him, to hate the sin and not the sinner, he and his cause were exposed for what they truly represented: pure intolerant evil! In the wake of that, the Confederate flag FINALLY came down from the State Capital. Thus, even in the darkness of such hateful destruction, there is always hope. Hope may be frail, but as the song we will soon sing proclaims; “it’s hard to kill”. When you believe in the good within people, then heroic acts of brotherhood and love do nothing less than cause the miracle of hope for a better future.
We all have the daily power to help or to hurt; to construct or destruct, and our acts do not need to be monumental. When I started here I didn’t know much about running a big, powerful band program, or even conducting for that matter. What I had was a passion for playing and teaching so I knew this was the right career. I shared my philosophy already, but how I arrived at that belief was through a letter from a student after my first year, a young lady I barely gave any attention to or hardly even remembered. She was a mediocre sax player, quite shy and always flew under the radar but nevertheless, her letter changed me forever. In it, she told me that I quite literally saved her life. She had felt invisible, thought ill of herself, and contemplated suicide, but that my positive energy in class, and my simply saying hi with a smile in the hallway whenever I saw her, asking how it was going, and then listening, these were the things that saved her. To my utter surprise, she felt I believed in her. I had no idea how much power I had to help or to hurt. Talk about a miracle. That was the most powerful lesson I ever learned and it has helped me with my choices.
Life is full of forks in the road and every time you come to one you have to make a choice. College will present you with career choices, friendship choices, relaxation choices, if you’re lucky, romantic choices (I met my soulmate, my wife Patty at UCONN), and several choices about the type of person you want to become. Facing those forks, I think we tend to say, “My heart tells me to, but my mind tells me not”, or vice versa, and then the internal debate rages hopefully long enough to make the right choice no matter how tough the situation. When that happens, I really think it helps to have a personal philosophy, because that will seep deep within your subconscious self and really help point your moral compass. Love is North on that moral compass and that is why love is the essence of all faiths. Knowing most of you as well as I do, I am confident that you will make the right choices, because your wonderful parents, teachers and friends have already shaped your conscience in such a positive way that you already possess a strong moral compass.
Many of you know how much I love Harry Potter. Today he is especially germane not only because Harry makes great choices guided by pure love at every major fork he faces and thus defeats evil, but also because this school has been your Hogwarts for four years, and mine for 35. To honor that we are going to celebrate with a special recessional. Like Hogwarts, our school holds memories and enchantments and it is a place where the family of students and teachers spend most of our waking hours together trying to learn how the world works both intellectually and otherwise, and as individuals and in groups and teams that demand that we transcend our individuality. These wonderful teachers are, in a real sense those characters, so of course I thought it was so cool when the science department actually dressed up as Harry Potter characters on Halloween. Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets said of teachers; “Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” Good teachers teach people not subjects and you need to know that when we talk about you, invariably a glimmer comes to the eye of every one of us right before we confess how much we love you; not like, not enjoy; the verb is always love.
In closing, I believe you and I have been blessed to be born in a time and place of privilege. I know you are keenly aware of that fact, and that makes my heart sing. Your parents, your teachers and your community have given you an amazing opportunity. That is what makes this town a GREAT town. You are worthy of the effort and sacrifice made to help you become the fine young adults you are. So now, take responsibility for turning that opportunity into action and devote yourself to being constructive in whatever you do. Stop and make the right choices at the forks in the road. Always think of the WE as well as the ME and go forth every day with love in your heart; enough love for everyone, and make the world a better place. I for one, am quite sure that you will do just that and I am looking forward to watching it happen!
Peace and love.
Frank ‘Chip’ Gawle