Board members, graduates, parents, guests, alumni, and employees — welcome to the commencement for the Class of 2016.
I gave my first graduation address in 1989, almost a decade before most of you were born. In my 23 years in education, I have stood on stage and addressed 10 graduating classes. In those early days, I got selected to speak. Not anymore. Now speaking is a job hazard. For you, not for me.
This year is unique, though, because I stand here today as the head of school and parent of a graduate. For the last few months, I’ve been asked by many well-meaning people: “How are you doing, Mike?” It’s almost like I’ve had some sort of disease. Talk turns to whispers when I come into the room. Tissue boxes just appear at my desk.
Well, nearing the end of this journey, I can tell you that I have been sick — with the parent version of senioritis, parental EMpty-nest-O-sus – otherwise known as Parental EMO. The symptoms are random waves of nostalgia, brought on by a walk past an empty bedroom, a glance at a pair of muddy cleats, or any trip to the attic. DON’T go into the attic.
The complications of Parental EMO? Well, they are complicated. There are the expected mood swings, coupled with strong bouts of denial. But I think the biggest is an overwhelming urge to plan celebrations. Lots and lots of celebrations. With pictures. Lots of pictures. And balloons.
My battle with parental EMO started early this year. I started this speech months ago. Usually on my runs. This is where my waves of nostalgia would hit. I’d come home all wet, wiping my face. My wife would ask what’s wrong.
“Tough, run,” I’d say.
“You’ll all wet.”
She’d look out the window. “It’s sunny, dear.”
She didn’t really say “dear,” I substituted it for another word, but it’s my memory and I like that better.
I thought today’s theme could be: “Thoughts On a Run.” But then you’d hear mostly lots of “Didn’t I just run up that hill?” and “Maybe I’ll just walk this little bit.” The good thing about all those runs, though, is that it kept my parental EMO symptoms contained.
Or so I thought.
Just two days ago I passed my daughter on the Quad, right in front of the Upper School building. We just had one of those great text exchanges, where she pours out her feelings about something or other — there always a something or other — and I answered with a curt: “You’ll be fine.”
So we pass, and she says to me: “What is wrong with you, old man, you are acting even more emotionally challenged than normal.”
OK, to be fair, what she really said was: “Are you OK, Dad?”
But I know what she meant. It was the eye roll. I’m not going to miss the eye roll.
So, maybe I haven’t gotten over my parental EMO — and here I am, with a speech to give, and I’ve so stuffed down my emotions that I’ve got nothing.
Previously, I might have gotten on my high horse to tell you that high school, that senior year, that all of this is about them and not about you. For 18 years, I’ve had an agreement with my daughter that I would keep “Dad” away from her school. But now is his time. Perhaps his only time. And what a stage.
Finally, my chance to speak from the heart.
See, this is what happens when you ask this Dad to speak from the heart. You get silliness or silence. No, you didn’t miss anything. All I gave you there was the silence. This Dad is also getting some smarts. I cut the silly remark from the last version of this speech. We have extended family in the house, so the couch is already taken. Although, I contend that tickles were and always will be a love language.
By now, it is pretty clear that if I’m going to have anything worthwhile to say today, I’m going to need some help. I bet if I could harness the feelings of all the dads in this room, I could generate the same emotional intensity as one normal human being, or half of Christa McElveen.
So, after that little tet-a-tet with my daughter and in the spirit of Cary Academy collaboration, I wrote to all the dads in this room to ask for help. Send me a memory of your child, I pleaded. At this point, I see all the spouses here looking at their husbands and going: “What did you say?”
Well, I’ll tell you what they said:
- Watching you finish your first marathon with a smile on your face.
- Watching you take to the stage for the first time with your guitar.
- Waiting as many years as possible before breaking the news that all the July 4 fireworks were not for your birthday.
- When the dance to Space Jam’s “Ya’ll Ready for This” ended prematurely when I threw you into the door jam.
- When I could run faster than you, like when you were in the second grade.
- When you learned that corn dogs and roller coasters were not a good combination.
- When your self-confidence skyrocketed after your 3rd-grade ski trip.
- When you learned you could catch a ball with your hands and not just your face.
- When you brought the supposedly dead possum into the house, and then learned the meaning behind the phrase “playing possum.”
- Letting my excitement get the best of my judgement by letting you learn to drive solo while videotaping from the parking lot. Mom’s reaction upon seeing that tape … priceless.
That’s good stuff, but we need to dig deeper here dads. You’re still channeling the goofy dad vibe. Work with me.
- Hearing “Daddy, you are my best.”
- Watching you, age two, pull spices from the kitchen cabinet and name each one.
- Pullen Park on a summer day, and you are three, sitting happily under a large tree. I call to you. You excitedly take two steps towards me, trip over an exposed root, and do a face plant.
- Recalling before prom your pronouncement at age five that you would never, ever, ever wear a dress.
- When your realized all your practice time in the playground could take away the butterflies before your first day in elementary school.
- Dancing with you as the King in your recitals.
- When you learned that bike riding was freedom, and never looked back.
- When making sure you had your belt for middle school became making sure you had your car keys in high school.
There we go. Thank you, dads. I think you’ve helped me find the emotional core. Something that all parents experienced, like a thunderbolt at your birth.
But you know, I’m not talking about fear. I’m talking about love.
That feeling when we held you in our arms at your birth. Electric.
Now, I’ve needed a little help to break past my parental EMO, but this is a shared story. To reference one of the masterpieces in British literature, it was the love of both James and Lily that surrounded and protected Harry Potter on his magical journey. I’d like to ask my wife Krista to stand and represent my better half. In fact, as I close this welcome, I’d like to ask all the parents of graduates to stand with us.
Graduates, know that love drove the sacrifices we made to have you on this stage today. During our journey, love and fear often fought pitched battles for preeminence over our emotions and decision making. We may not have gotten it right every time — but the way your hormones have been raging, we still had more common sense than you could muster on any day.
You leave Cary Academy today with so many wonderful attributes, but remember that the gift of love is not only the first thing you received in your life but is behind so much of what is right and good in the world: passion, inspiration, patience, sacrifice, acceptance, and forgiveness.
Finally, please know graduates that today you get the cure for senioritis — your diploma. I’m afraid parental EMO is a chronic condition.