Editor's note: Journalism teacher and Willistonian advisor Matthew Liebowitz gave this speech at the Senior Dinner (photos here) on May 18, 2018.
I remember the first formal speech I heard, when I was eight, at Papa Gino’s in West Hartford, CT, after my team’s last little league game. Gene Antico was the catcher’s dad. He wasn’t even our coach. But he made us put down our Cokes and pizza and he stood up and talked for five minutes. I have no idea what he said, but I do remember the very end, when he clearly said: “Wash your feet.” This is going to be better than that.
This speech has points:
1. Try Everything
Part 1: Try Everything
I’ve had 28 jobs.
I didn’t like all of them. I flipped rugs at Kaoud’s Oriental Rugs on South Main St. I was awful at flipping rugs. They were huge and heavy and I was 15 and looked the same. I got fired after one day. Kaoud’s has been having a going-out-of-business sale for 23 years.
I worked at an after-school program in Colorado and during a soccer game I kicked the ball and hit a 5th grader smack in the forehead.
I worked at a shop where I took a screw with no Phillips or flat head and put it in a machine and pulled a lever and then it came out the other side but now it had either a Phillips or a flat head. In my interview for a dishwashing job in college one summer, the guy asked what makes me qualified, and I said I have two hands. I took a job writing about social media without having social media.
But I tried at all of them.
Ok, not at all of them; I tried about as hard at a mail room job I had as Shirley does to stay in dress code. But in every job, even the screwdriver shop, whether just to make some money so I could buy Nirvana CDs or so I could move to California and Colorado and Connecticut and New Jersey and California again and Massachusetts, I tried. I tried because I didn’t know which ones would lead to something and which ones wouldn’t. There’s no way to know. That’s what’s great about the position you’re all in. Everything could be something.
I stayed open to possibility that anything could happen. None of those early jobs turned into anything, but I tried at my internship at the Saratoga newspaper and that led to a freelance writing job at the Colorado Daily and that led to the Berkeley Daily Planet, and that led to being the one staff writer for two years for a newspaper in San Diego. Getting these jobs and collecting all these writing samples proved maybe I could teach writing, and then it worked, and I got a job teaching in California, and that turned into another job teaching in Springfield, and that turned into teaching here.
The point is: try try try. Try like I do to tell Sophie and Ana apart. Try like Harrison to stay in a tree. Try like Rob to reach your phone from the top bunk, or like Tori to get to class on time. Try like Connor Power to say Park with an R or Car or Dark or Short or Harvard or Far Tar Fair Hair Bear Chair More Door or Floor, or literally his own first name or last name. Try like Jake Durocher to take out his computer before 40 minutes have gone by. Try like Mr. Hanford to do ten minutes of uninterrupted work.
Part 2. Listen
Put down your phone. Look someone in the eye. Let people finish their sentences. At a party, ask questions.
I did this. I asked my friend Mike to tell me something amazing. He’s a climatology professor. He studies the clouds. Think about that as a career. Here’s what he said:
It’s pretty amazing how little of our home galaxy’s beautiful structure we can see at night due to the limitation of human eyes only being able to detect visible wavelengths of light. Visible wavelengths are attenuated (which means they lessen) over short distances by interstellar dust so we only get to see a tiny sphere around our solar system. But if we could see in X-ray wavelengths (like some telescopes) the center of the galaxy would stand out like a crazy flaming night sun.
I asked my other friend Mike to tell me something amazing. He’s a fly fisherman. Here’s what he said:
Small caddyfish larva spin a sticky silken web underwater. This talent helps them trap their food, which drifts helplessly through the water column, and also helps keep the caddyfish from getting swept downstream into the mouth of a trout. Medical researchers are looking into emulating this sticky-when-wet substance as an adhesive tape in the place of stitches during surgery.
I asked my wife to tell me something amazing. Here’s what she said.
Every decision we make shapes Noah’s history. The songs we listen to in the car are the songs of his childhood and the places we take him to as he grows up will make up the bulk of his memories of childhood that he will look back on for the rest of his life. We made a human, and we’re shaping that human. There is no greater responsibility on the planet.
Realize that your parents probably think the same thing about you. And realize how deeply and truly they love you. Right now, they’re probably heaving a huge sigh of relief you all made it and are off to college.
Listen and Ask Questions. You can’t hear if you aren’t listening and open to possibility. People have amazing stories if you just let them talk. Especially Mr. Neidz. Everyone in our country could benefit right now from listening and not talking.
Part 3: Wonder. As in: Ask Questions. Wonder as in BE OPEN to WONDER. Be in awe.
Look at the constellations. Don’t try to figure out which one’s Orion’s belt or the Little Dipper or Duncan’s disappearing mid-range jump shot. Just look at stars and be in awe of billions of shiny diamonds glinting against a charcoal black sky.
Drive across the country. Take a class you have no idea about, like Asian Art History or Environmental Science or Journalism. Take a class with the same teacher 10 or 12 times, like Shirley or Schaefer. Wonder about your classes. Wonder about your friends. Wonder about all the things that aren’t on the Internet. Take your headphones out. Listen to music with lots of other people. Walk in the snow. Be by yourself, be with friends, put down your phone and talk. Or listen. Be quiet for a long time. Join a club. Dye your hair. If someone says you’re weird say thanks. Drink orange juice on the roof of your college dining hall. You might end up marrying the girl you’re with 12 years later in July.
When you get to college hang out with quirky, different, funny, caring people. Talk to everyone. You never know who will become your best friend.
Here’s the last thing: I’ve only been here for two years, but I taught 50 of you and you’ve been open to learning and you’ve listened and I hope you realize I’ve been open to you and I’ve listened to you and I learned as much from you than you did from me. This is not a speech. It’s a thank you note. Thank you: Class of 2018. Congratulations.