On Wednesday evening I was offered the opportunity to address the inductees of the National, Rhode Island, Spanish, and French Honor Societies and their families–a room of roughly 300 distinguished guests. Tonight I share this with you because I truly believe that when people know they can make a difference, they do.
It is indeed an honor to have the opportunity to address tonight those whom I have no doubt will be the future leaders in their chosen fields, in their communities, and beyond. Your work ethic, commitment to learning, and devotion to others at such a comparatively young age is an inspiration; and as much as it is an honor to address you tonight, it has also been a great privilege to be, for so many of you, your teacher.
At the risk of starting any remarks with “when I was your age,” when I was your age I would not have been sitting in this room. No accolades were heaped upon me in high school; and to be perfectly fair and frank, I didn’t deserve them. My GPA was nothing to brag about, I was not involved with a single sports team or extracurricular activity, some of my decision-making was questionable, and community service was something with which I was largely unfamiliar. I invested very little in my school and at that time even less in myself.
But you are different. You are here this evening because of who you are, how you perform in school and out, because of your steadfastness and your benevolence. I wish my 18-year-old self could have known you. You are worth knowing, worth emulating.
I thought for a very long time about what to say to you tonight, what the theme of my remarks would be, what you would remember. I started by interviewing my eight-year-old son, truly one of the most sensible people I know, and asked him to dispense his wisdom for this occasion. He had a lot to say—as he often does—and as I listened to his words I noticed a recurring theme—something I can only characterize as fluidity, as flexibility and space.
You see, what makes my son wise is that he does not see the world in black and white. He extends the boundaries, makes allowances for differences, and forgives readily. He has a grace that belies his years—much as you do—but he remembers and recognizes that not everyone is similarly privileged. He understands that we all bloom in our own time.
What I tell my own children and what I try to live is what I want to tell you tonight—that once we do bloom, it is imperative we share our knowledge with others, that we serve others and that we remember when we meet someone who hasn’t bloomed to give them space, give them the tools they need to be successful.
In fact, I would challenge you all—no matter where life takes you next—to reach out to someone else, someone who hasn’t arrived yet, and extend your hand—or your ear or your heart—and tell them they’re worth something, that they have potential, that you see it.
At the end of my senior year of high school one of my teachers asked me to come up to his desk. As I approached, I could see he had my exam paper in his hand, and I had no doubt he was about to term my responses utter drivel and give me the corresponding and unfortunate grade. But he didn’t. That’s not what he did at all. Instead, he looked up at me then looked at my paper, shook his head and said, “You know what? You really know how to write.”
And time for me stopped. This person took time for me—me, a then-mediocre student at best who had done very little in my four years of high school to earn the respect much less the praise of most of my hard-working instructors. He looked me in the eye. He spoke from his heart. And I realized he saw something in me.
And the rest is, as they say, history. I went to college, earned grades of which I could be more-than-incredibly proud, devoted myself to my community, to service, and readied myself to come here, to be here for you. It was a life-changing moment that was born in a mere nine words on a sweltering June afternoon in 1986.
As you travel on your journey, be on the lookout for potential in others as you realize and take care of your own. Invest the mere seconds it requires to tell someone what you see.
And then stand back and watch them bloom.