Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Keynote Address -- Fern Ridge High School, 2011

Editor's note: This Friday, May 25th will be my last day as a teacher. I am officially retiring. It's been a great run, and I gave it my all, but I'm ready to try something new--preferably something that does not involve teenagers.

Recently, I was excited to add a bunch of recent Fern Ridge graduates on Facebook. As I was looking through my list of Fernie friends today, I realized the amazing people I've been fortunate enough to meet in the classroom.

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of speaking to our most recent grads and their families at the wonderfully unique Fern Ridge High School graduation ceremony (Fern is the small, alternative high school I've taught in for the past three years). I want to share this with my family and friends, and all the Fern Alumni out there, because I know a lot of people are struggling right now. We live in a thankless world, and it's easy to get lost and forget what's important in life. Hope you enjoy it.

Fern Ridge Keynote Address, 2011

Chris Oliver

Ms. -----, Ms. -----, members of the Board, Fern Ridge and Missouri Options faculty and staff, parents, friends and family, underclassmen and future graduates, graduating seniors…Mom…I am honored to have the chance to speak to you today. As many of you know, this is my last year as a teacher. Yes, I am officially retiring from the classroom. This group of individuals in front of me had a lot to do with the timing of that decision. It’s not what you’re thinking Jake; your classroom behavior played almost no role in my decision. No, I’ve always known that teaching was just one stop in my journey.

Over the last three years I’ve grown very close to these graduates. I’ve never felt more proud of a graduating class in my eight years of teaching. As I watched you guys sprinting to the finish line, I realized that it was my time too. Seeing you all here today, this amazing and talented group of young adults, I feel a natural sense of closure and an overwhelming excitement for what the future brings for us all.

Thinking about what I wanted to say today has made me realize the many ways I identify with this senior class. I, too, am embarking on a new and unpredictable journey. I, too, am leaving a place and saying goodbye to people that have made a significant impact on who I am today. I, too, don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up.

When I came here three years ago, I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher anymore. I originally got into teaching because I hated my high school teachers, and I hated high school. I wanted to give students what I didn’t have. After five years teaching at a so-called “traditional” high school, I realized I had become one of the very teachers I hated. My classes were overcrowded, my curriculum was prescribed, and my creative freedom was undermined on a regular basis. By the time I got to Fern, I was disillusioned, burned out, and dreading another year as a cog in a hopelessly flawed machine. I no longer believed as I once had that I could change the system from within, so I wanted out.

I will never forget my first day of class at Fern. I was hired very late in the summer and only had a week to prepare, but I was ready. I had my first semester all planned out, all I needed was the students. As the first bell approached I anxiously went over my lesson, making sure it was perfect. I looked with pride at my posters and bumper stickers and thought excitedly about everything I had planned.

Then the bell rang. I stood at the door with a huge smile admiring the beautiful ceiling tile art, the unique, but welcoming green carpet, the pictures of past graduates hanging on the wall. I stood with that goofy smile and waited….and waited…and waited some more. No one showed up. I had a roster of ten, and not a single student showed up on the first day. I thought I had made a huge mistake.

I was wrong though. And the students did show up, eventually. As they slowly trickled in, one by one, and the days passed, I began to get to know them. I quickly realized, just as every new Fernie does, that I didn’t need to play the part anymore, I could just be myself. As the days turned into weeks, I began to understand how special this place is, and that spark was lit again. Fern Ridge restored my passion for teaching. The classes were small enough that I could get to know each one of my students. I could teach what I wanted to teach. I could say ridiculous things without fearing an angry phone call from a parent. I could have fun.

What really makes Fern Ridge great though, is its students. Sitting to my right are some of the most unique and talented individuals in the district. They may not blow you away with their test scores or wow you with their attendance, but I can guarantee you this right now, they will be among the most successful students to graduate from Parkway this year.

I have always been a Fernie. I think that’s why, from my first day, I felt like I fit in here.
When I was in high school, I always felt lost in the crowd. I felt miserable and alone. Nobody cared what I thought. Nobody valued my voice. I was just another face in a sea of faces and I got lost. It wasn’t until college that I learned what many of the students sitting here today know. Many of you here may not know what it means to be a Fernie. If you’re sitting here you probably know one though and some of this will probably sound very familiar.

A Fernie marches to a different beat. Unafraid of what others think, a Fernie will walk down the hallways singing at the top of their lungs. A Fernie will hold protests, and write letters and schedule meetings when they feel something is not right. A Fernie is PROUD to be a nerd. A Fernie creates amazing works of art, and isn’t afraid to call themselves an artist. A Fernie will tear up reading a poem in front of the whole class, or the whole school. A Fernie lends a hand to a fellow student when they need it. A Fernie fights for social justice. A Fernie is brutally honest. A Fernie tells you how it is. A Fernie tells you who they are, sometimes very loudly. A Fernie knows how to use the darker side of the English language, both for good and for evil. A Fernie will take the stage alone and without fear and dance or sing or act or play the ukulele. A Fernie will be a perfect angel for a week, just for a blowpop on Friday. A Fernie is a leader in community service, even if they can’t sit still in the classroom during the week. A Fernie isn’t afraid to fight for their beliefs, whether that fight come in the form of the marines, the college classroom, or the workplace.

So I say to you graduates here today, be thankful for the opportunity you were granted by the district to attend a school that allowed you to be yourself. Go out and live your life like a Fernie. Then, tell people about your experiences. Stop a board member and shake his or her hand. Write a letter. Speak at a meeting. Every year this place has to fight for its survival and it’s a horrible shame. Every year administrators and educators are forced to quantitatively justify the need for a small community like this.

As I said before, I came here disappointed because I failed to change the system from within, but what I didn’t realize was that some parts of the system don’t need to be changed at all, people just need to open their eyes and see them. Fern Ridge should be a model, not just for alternative schools, but for all schools. A school should be small enough to give each and every student a voice. The staff should be compassionate enough to make sure each and every student feels like someone cares about them. The classroom communities should be tight enough, that each and every student feels capable of doing the extraordinary. Nobody should EVER feel invisible and alone in their school.

We live in a society that has forgotten the value of creativity, compassion, independence, and standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of punishment. It is no longer acceptable to forge your own path. We are asked to submit, bend our morals, and chase money and material possessions over our dreams.

But success is not about money and possessions. Success is about living a full life. It’s about finding something you love, and putting your entire soul into it. And when that thing no longer makes your heart race with excitement, moving on to something else. Who said we had to stay in the same place for twenty years to be successful. Success is about finding someone you love. Listen to me now, that person is out there for each of you. Be patient. Surround yourself with people who make you feel beautiful and smart and amazing. No matter what, remember that success is about following your dream, whether that dream is fixing cars, teaching school, performing stand up comedy, or becoming the first female president of the country. Happiness has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with being proud of who you are and what you do.

You all come here today at the end of a journey. For some it was relatively easy. For some it was long and trying. No matter what your experiences and memories of high school are, go out into the world confident—without fear. Believe me when I say this, you can do anything. No matter what problem gets thrown at you, you can figure it out. You’re ready.

I want to take a minute talk a little about fear. Everyone, regardless of how successful they are, regardless of how experienced they are, regardless of how brave they are—everyone—knows the unforgiving face of fear. It’s that little voice that plants a seed of doubt in everything you do.

It starts when we are young. Don’t paint during reading time, you might get sent to the corner. Don’t draw during math class; you might get a call home. Don’t speak without raising your hand, you might get yelled at.

It’s still there as we get older. Don’t ask her out, she might say no. Don’t take that class; you might not be smart enough. Don’t read that poem, they might make fun of you.

By the time we’re in high school, sometimes that little voice grows to angry yell. Don’t act like that, they might laugh at you. Don’t dress like that, they might not hang out with you. Don’t speak in class, they might embarrass you.

By the time you get to senior year, it can be hard to even get out of bed in the morning. But now, your decisions matter. Don’t go for that scholarship, they might reject you. Don’t choose that major; it might be too hard for you. Don’t go into that career, you might fail.

We all hear that voice every day. It’s the source of everything we didn’t do, everything that we wish that we had done. It doesn’t matter what you choose to be when you grow up, as long as you don’t submit to that angry little voice of doubt. To be successful, you have to live without regret. The only way to do that, is to go out into the world defiant and unafraid.

So my message to you today is go out and fail. Nobody succeeds in everything. We are a society obsessed with winning. We cry when we lose. We get angry. We turn to television and video games and partying to forget. Don’t forget. Instead, reflect on your failures. Write in a journal. Create a website. Run a marathon. Paint a painting. Sing a song. Build an engine. Do something that allows you some time to reflect. To learn. To grow.

These ceremonies are important, and it is an honor to speak today, but this is such a small moment in the amazing adventures you are about to embark on. Each of you has an important story to tell, a verse to contribute to this powerful play.

Take the lessons you’ve learned here at Fern and apply them to your lives. Don’t conform. Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t be afraid to have an adventure. Take risks. Change the world. And if you ever wake up one day and look back over the past two, three, five, ten years and every day seems the same, and you don’t like where you’re heading, RUN! If you feel trapped, just realize that you hold the key. All you have to do is open the door and walk away.

Thank you.