Commencement Address
Bennington School, Inc.
June 22, 2010

Good morning!

It is absolutely wonderful to be here. Many of you don’t remember me, but I worked here for twelve years. I’ve now been away for six living in the Midwest and soon to return to this part of the world. In fact, the last time I wore a jacket and tie on this campus was when I interviewed 18 years ago, in 1992. Back then, I wore a tie because I wanted a job, and wearing a tie is one of the things you do to get a job. Today I wear a tie out of respect for the students here and the fantastic program where you have all lived and gone to school.

Can I say more about that? If there is one thing that I’ve learned about Bennington School, it’s that the kids that have spent so much time here are worthy of respect. I’ll repeat that. The kids that have spent so much time here are worthy of respect. Anyone that’s ever tried to make changes to their life can tell you that it isn’t easy. It takes guts. It takes courage. It takes the ability to stand up for one’s self and say that no matter what the whole rest of the world wants, you’re going to be your own person. Each one of you is making that journey, and I’m sure that some days are much easier than others.

I am a proud Bennington School graduate. I didn’t go to school here, but I learned a lifetime of important lessons working with and working for the people that you see here. I learned about how to take the right kinds of chances from Jeff Labonte. Sometimes it’s okay to take a risk here and there to make your life better. It sure has worked for me. I learned about compassion and dignity from Fran Moriarty. I learned about forming deep connections with other people from Lee Gallagher. I learned about always keeping a sense of humor and working hard from Pete Serino. I’ve learned about learning from watching folks like Ralph Bennett, Scott Goetz, and Jack Racette. These guys have all challenged themselves and worked on themselves more than you might know. Of course, as long as I live I will never forget Dwaine Wilwol’s patience and common sense. And I learned about how life is about making memories from Shelley Rolf. She was the first person I knew who made books for some of her students about their time here.

Speaking of books, I want to thank Shelley for making sure that each of the graduates got one. Hey, just for a moment, look at these nice books. And maybe when you’re done taking a look at them, you can close your eyes and just kind of run your fingers along them. You can feel the binding and the cover and the pages. There’s nothing like a book on a summer day.

Now look at the pages. They’re blank right now, but you can imagine that this is a book about your entire life. And as you imagine that this book is your story – a story about your life – you can wonder to yourself how far into your life’s story you are. What page of your life’s story are you living right now? Who are some of the most important players in your story? What kind of book is it? An action/adventure? A romance? Who knows, maybe it’s a self-help book? That’s for you to decide.

I told you before about the things I’ve learned from the people at Bennington School. I think about these people every day, even after all these years. Some are here, some have moved away. Some are near and some are far. Some I can only remember the faces, and others I can only remember the names. I am so grateful to have known them all.

So as you look at the pages of this book, how will the things you’ve done here and learned, how will all that hard work re-appear in your future? What parts of Bennington School are you longing to hang onto. When things are going well in your life and you look back on the good times here, you might find yourself thinking of calling and thanking someone. Who will that be? And on the other hand, when things aren’t going well and you think back on the lessons you learned here, whose face – whose voice – will come to your mind? What parts of Bennington School will go with you?

Now don’t think that’s a death sentence. There really is life after Bennington School! For some of you that begins in a few minutes. There are many, many chapters in your book. If I can make one suggestion, I hope you’ll remember the activities. Here’s why.

There is a funny thing about programs like this. A lot of the kids that come through them feel like they’re doomed not to have a good future. Well all the studies say that’s not true. Life can be hard; there’s no doubt about that. People do all kinds of things with their lives. In the past few years, I’ve had the honor to interview a lot of people who lived in programs like Bennington School. Every one of them told me that programs like Bennington that let them be a kid, gave them access to outdoor activities, canoe trips and camping, etc. made the difference. A lot of the people that I’ve talked to – and there have been hundreds – look back on those experiences as being important parts of their lives.

So now many of you are leaving. That is as it should be. Let me just show you one more thing. This is a glass of water. I couldn’t bring enough water to share with everyone, but we’ll have some in a few minutes. Take a look. Now that you’ve been through Pete Serino’s education, how many molecules do you think there may be in here? Pete? I’m going to guess that there are as many molecules in here as there are people on earth.

As you look at this water, what do you notice? I see that when all the molecules are together, they form something essential. We might not think about this every day, but this water is like our planet and its people. Now if I took a dropper with some mud or hair goo or something else that’s gross, would you still want to drink it? Me neither. I guess the question for me is that sooner or later, you’re going to be like the dropper full of water that adds to this big bottle of water. What’s your contribution going to be like? How can you make it a better drink of water? How can you make it a better planet?

We’ll be done in a moment. Can I ask you a few questions to think about? You can keep the answers to yourself. It’s just for you to think about:

  • What’s been the best thing about Bennington School? I know we could all complain, but what’s been the BEST thing?
  • What’s been the most fun thing about Bennington School? I know the times haven’t been all fun. What have been the most fun times?
  • And if you had just quit and said forget it, what would have happened? What would your life be like in the later chapters of your book?
  • We’re almost done. Why would others want you to take the things you’ve learned at Bennington School and apply them to the rest of your life? Why would others want you to take good care of yourself?
  • Last question. What’s the NUMBER ONE thing you can take away from your days and nights at Bennington School?

And when you have an answer to that, in your own mind, draw a circle around it, because that’s your own special motivation. The one thing you can always have with you.

Thank you and congratulations!