2017 Commencement Speeches

The 2017 Commencement Speeches from Kiernan Aiston, Richard Santi '17 and Tom Flemma.
Commencement Address: Kiernan Aiston

Thank you Dr. Flemma, Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, family, and friends. Thank you, Roy, for your kind words, and most of all a big thank you to the Class of 2017.

Even though commencement, by its very name, is an event designed to look forward, I want to begin by looking back for a few moments.

I am, after all, a history teacher.

Several years ago, while my mom descended a boulder field in a rainstorm, she slipped and fell over a 20-foot cliff, landing on her head. Miraculously, she broke no bones. She is, in fact, here today. Hi mom. And though she grew large black rings around the eyes, she suffered no lasting physical effects. I bring this up because once my mom had ended a protracted period of looking very much like a raccoon, and it became clear that she would indeed be fine, my wife said something about the accident that has since become something of a family motto. “Safety second”, she said.

Not safety first. Safety second.

She meant it humorously, obviously, but her statement carried just enough truth to stick. Before long, we were applying it retroactively so that it began to seem like “safety second” had somehow always been the Aiston family motto.

Much of this is ludicrous. Which explains, in my family, at least, why it stuck. It’s even more ludicrous as a piece of advice.
To be clear: I am in no way espousing a way of looking at the world that has left me with more stitches than I can count...
So here’s why I bring it up. As I thought more deeply about it, I realized that it’s always been safety second, all on it’s own. And so, I began to wonder. If safety does indeed come second...What comes first?

At varying times in my life, it has been fun first, adventure first, writing first, and so on. But each of them was fleeting.
So I set off on a mission to find what really comes first, and I’m happy to report that I think I have discovered it.

Before I share my discovery with you, though, I want to tell a quick story about what was most important to me when I was exactly your age--what “came first” as I pulled on my cap and gown- -because that dead-end, it turns out, reveals important lessons about college and beyond.

A little over twenty years ago and a little less than twenty miles north of here, I found myself in your position and I can say with certainty (and embarrassment) that, at that moment in my life, football came first. The day before, the headmaster had handed me an NCAA Scholar-Athlete award and then spoken at length about my “gifts.” This should have made me more uncomfortable than it did.

But, I was a pretty big deal back then.

My first day of preseason camp at the U of I only reinforced this feeling. That day, I was given, among other things, nine pairs of Nike shoes, a team sweatsuit, and one of those big open lockers with my helmet and jersey hanging in it--just like in the movies. And that day, despite the mid- August heat, I pulled on my team-issue sweatsuit and walked around campus. People looked at me. And why wouldn’t they? I was, after all, a pretty big deal. But this is not a story about my awesomeness. Oh no, far from it.

Five minutes into our first practice, I found myself lined up alongside the rest of my recruiting class. Across from us stood the seniors. One of them announced that we were about to experience something called the “Senior Hit Drill”. The way the seniors were smiling as he said this suggested that they themselves had once stood where we freshmen were standing at that moment.
The first senior stepped forward, scanned our ranks, and settled on me. “That one,” he said.

Pointing at me was Kevin Hardy. Consensus first team all-American Kevin Hardy. Butkus Award winner and second overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, Kevin Hardy. Kevin Hardy, Pro bowl linebacker, of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys, and Cincinnati Bengals. All 6’4” and 259 lbs of him.

The senior hit drill itself was a straightforward affair. You held a ball like so, and jogged along the sideline. Meanwhile the senior who had chosen you ran at a full sprint until your paths converged. And they did converge.

As I lay on the ground after the hit, the world wobbled like a slowing top. Part of it was the concussion, no doubt. But there were other reasons--and first among them was the realization that I was in way over my head. Meanwhile, most of the seniors were doubled over laughing. The rest had fallen to the ground.

Most unfortunate, after I had finished flying through the air, I stood up and realized that one of my team-issue Nikes, still fully tied, had come off and remained, upright, precisely where I had been upon contact. I walked over to my shoe, picked it up and made my way-- one shoe on, one shoe off--back to my place in line. The shoe is funny. It’s okay to laugh.

There it was, before I even stepped foot in a college classroom, a reckoning.

I had worked harder at football than anything I had ever worked at in my life to that point. I had broken school records, been first-team all-state. I had run a 4.48 second 40-yard dash. None of it mattered. Now I was “that one”, holding a shoe.

I tell this story today because my own experiences and those of the hundreds of seniors I’ve taught over the last fifteen years suggest to me that something similar will likely happen to you at some point in the next few years. You will be faced with the realization that you’re just not as awesome as you thought. Hopefully it won’t come in the form of a consensus all-American linebacker bearing down on you, but it will likely come.

Maybe it will be a class you signed up for that, no matter how hard you work at it, you can’t seem to do well, this when your grades here were a great source of pride. Perhaps the senior hit drill may come to you in the form of an audition for a part for which you are not chosen, this when you had your pick of roles in North Shore productions.

I’m here to tell you today that all these things are healthy. They should happen. If they don’t happen, you’re likely not pushing yourself hard enough.

And I’m also here to tell you that when they do happen, get back up, dust yourself off, get back out there, and train more, audition more, paint more, read more, write more, work harder.

Let it thicken your skin. Let it help you become kinder.

Let it keep you ever in mind of how you felt at that moment and realize that there are people who spend the better part of their lives in that disturbing space–their worlds-wobbling–with much, much, much more serious matters than a football drill or audition or mid-term to worry about.

No. When you find yourself wobbling after your version of the senior hit drill, do not become disillusioned. It’s not that these things happen that matters. Because they will.

It’s what you do after these things happen that matters.

When you watch a Chef’s Table, or an ESPN 30 for 30, or nearly any Hollywood biopic, keep an eye out. There’s a reason why failure and resilience are leitmotif in any success story. There’s a reason why Winston Churchill said, “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” We do ourselves a favor when we remember that Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple.

As for me and football, I worked harder than ever and made some gains. But I also decided I’d better be more than just a football player. And even as I began to realize that I wasn’t special or singular, I realized that the place I happened to be was--that the people and professors and ideas swirling around me were. I found myself swept up into what I can only describe as an intellectual awakening.

Before I move on, I should add that I did reap an unexpected curricular dividend from the “senior hit drill.” In a physics class the following year, I didn’t need chalkboard examples to understand momentum or projectile motion. Because I’d felt them at work. First hand. But, I still have not, in all of my physics training, accounted for the behavior of that solitary shoe.

So “football first” didn’t really work for me. And, even though I have made a life for myself in academia, “academics first” doesn’t ring true, either.

Over the last several weeks, I have had even more reason than usual to look back and try to make sense of things. First, my Gram, the last of my surviving grandparents, died and I was asked to eulogize her. Then you offered me the opportunity to speak at your graduation. And finally, and perhaps most key in all of this, last Saturday, I turned 40 and my wife gave me a book full of pictures and messages from family, friends, colleagues, former players, and students.

This book, actually.

As I read through it, I began to feel like all these people I so loved and admired were speaking at my wake and I was somehow able to attend.

What overwhelmed me about this book--and what continues to overwhelm me--is the overriding sense of gratitude that I feel from and feel for the people in it. And I’ve come to realize that all of my successes--every one of them--are tied up in the people I care about and who care about me.

And it became increasingly evident as I read this book that what comes first had finally settled upon me, much as a full corporeal patronas settles upon a young wizard. Yes, as an Aiston, safety will always come second, but it is only recently that I have come to realize that gratitude comes first.

Now, before you think I’m being corny, hear me out, because aligning to gratitude shifts things in a massive way.
Consider football. Before last month, I hadn’t much thought about my football career in over a decade. Yet, consider what putting gratitude first has done to my understanding of its role in my life. I have come to realize that I was not “gifted at football,” football was gifted at me.

This explains how it is that I declare my football career as one of my great successes even though I failed to make it to the NFL. It’s because I am grateful to football, for football made me kinder, more accountable, and a host of other things I value about myself.
It was a gift...one that transformed me.

And ultimately, I showed my gratitude to my high school coach not by making it to the NFL, but by returning to coach with him, and by passing the lessons he taught me on to hundreds of other players. And coaching, it turns out, is what brought me, in the end, to teaching. And even if I had realized my 18 year-old dream and made the NFL, I’d be retired by now, and who knows what condition my brain would be in...

I offer as proof of my success no fewer than a dozen messages in this very book, written by my former players--some of which are profound, others ridiculous. Still more of the messages are from students and colleagues and friends at the school that I ended up teaching at entirely because of football. And the work I did at that school ultimately led me here, to this place, with all of you, and that’s pretty awesome.

For me, in the end, it’s really that simple. Great things happen for you and for those around you when you show gratitude.
It’s easy. I’ll show you.

I am grateful to you, Dr. Sherman for your grace and optimism, and for empowering your students to understand themselves more clearly.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Dachille, for reminding me what is most important in our craft: the connections we make with our students. If--in twenty years time--students come out of the woodwork to pay tribute to me as they have for you, I will count myself blessed.
I’m grateful to Ms. Molzahn, for being a great colleague to my mom and for teaching my sister. I am so thankful for all that she has done and continues to do for us.

I’m grateful to life’s “senior hit drills”, for they did not end with college. Time and time again, they have knocked me from my feet, and time and time again I have picked myself up, dusted myself off, grabbed my shoe, and come away a better person.

And I’m grateful for the looks that I see in the eyes of your parents right now, looks of pride and love and surrender. Those looks tell me that it is, indeed, as I have suspected it will be for me when my daughters are up on this stage...

That right now, up here, you seniors are not simply who you are today, but all that you have been from your first days on earth as well as all that you might be.

Which brings me to you class of 2017.

I am so grateful to you. Thank you for being the class that taught me what North Shore is all about--for you are the purest distillation of our school. It was only after coming to know you that I began to more fully understand the most amazing things about this place--that we’re a community of artists and musicians and athletes and scholars, a school where an Economist article and a Noam Chomsky lecture can peacefully coexist with brutal puns and even more brutal dad jokes. A school where people care about ideas and the world and about each other.

Class of 2017, you are so gifted. Some of you were born with gifts. Others among you are in the process of cultivating them, and, in the next few years, each of you will become aware of gifts you didn’t even know you had.

But in the end, I want to reframe that word: “gifted.” We tend to think of our gifts and how they make us unique, but let us consider a gift that you all share--you have been gifted with time in this place. And it is a gift. And it is a transformational one.

So, today, as you reflect on the bitter-sweetness of the conclusion of your time here at North Shore, I ask you to thank someone for the opportunity. I don’t care if you thank your parents, or your friends, or a teacher, or your god, doesn’t matter. I just want you to thank someone. Show your gratitude. For you have been gifted.

But as you do so, know this. To be gifted is to owe a debt of gratitude. To suffer it. “To suffer gratitude”--those are the words that the poet and essayist Lewis Hyde uses to describe it. “Moreover,” he argues, “with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us...that we can give it away again...Therefore, the end of the labor of gratitude is similarity with the gift or with its donor.”

This why I went back to coach football. This is why I teach. This why we show our gratitude to Ms. Molzahn, who was a gift to all of us, by trying to be more like her.

The gift you get today–the piece of paper you are about to receive and all that it represents, carries an identity with it. To accept it, argues Hyde, “amounts to incorporating [that] new identity...such a gift passes through [us] and leaves us altered. The gift is not merely the witness...to new life, but the creator.” And so each of you will suffer the burden of gratitude--and the only way to relieve that burden is to become the gift itself. To think critically. To engage fully. To be self-confident. To be ethical. To live and serve.
Congratulations and thank you, Class of 2017.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.

Senior Class Message: Richard Santi '17

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is my honor to represent my fellow classmates in addressing you all this evening. I have often been told that it is good practice to start off a speech with a quote. I wanted to start out by sharing an interesting quote I came across on the internet the other day. “Chocolate doesn’t ask questions. Chocolate understands.” Don’t ask me how that’s relevant.

Moving on, I can tell from standing up here that there are some emotions in this room permeating the air, and yes, I did look that word up. From how it looks to me, these emotions include joy, excitement, and what I’m sensing from many parents, surprise. I mean, after all, we’ve all had the experience where we are up at three in the morning trying to finish a 10 page paper due promptly at 8:15 the next morning, only midway through page two and simultaneously looking up on Google, “cool jobs you can get that don’t require a high school diploma.” But look at us. One way or another, all of your perfect angels are now ready to graduate from school and celebrate moving on to bigger and better things, mostly school.

And the one thing we’re always being told, from the time we are still having nap time in pre school, is to hang on to the memories, because this part in your life is going to fly by, and once its gone, forever it will be gone. I took this advice a little too seriously. I am an individual who thinks about the future of the past. Now it’s very likely that sentence confuses you, since it confused me when I wrote it, so let me explain. I have a big part of me that thinks in great depth and sometimes worries about how I will perceive events in my life in the future. In other words, when I am and old man, and to be cautious to not offend anyone in the audience I will not say at what age I consider to be old, I want to be able to look back on my time in High School and cherish all of the amazing memories that I have had. I hoped that I could remember how much fun I had on my very first day of high school, or the very first homecoming, or my senior prom. I wanted to have strong memories from all these amazing events.

If you’ve ever watched a movie that is set in high school, preferably from the 90s, prom will probably be in it. That is that big moment that everyone talks about. Or even now, graduation. These big moments are always the ones where your parents are taking pictures of you, the ones all your friends are talking about, the ones that your kids are probably going to ask you about. There is a lot of pressure to have awesome memories during these so called, “big moments.” So I tried really hard to have a great experience, because I really wanted to have fond memories of the awesome homecomings, and proms and first days, and last days.

As this year was starting to wind down, I started to get the unfortunate and unwelcomed feeling that I didn’t really get what I was looking for. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy these big moments, I had a lot of fun at prom and homecoming. But, I can remember dancing and, sometimes the dinners before. These big events didn’t really stick in my mind as some of the greatest moments in my life, that I could see myself thinking about when I’m in my rocking chair, sipping iced tea listening to a good Ella Fitzgerald Record. You can see I’m very particular about how I envision my old age.

Throughout the year, Destin and I have left campus on many nice afternoons to make a Chipotle run. We always had something interesting to talk about on the drive over. I remember once it was about road kill, like literally we thoroughly conversed about dead animals. But that’s not my point. Sometime in one of the later months, Destin and I were talking about stories from the past, funny things that had happened to us, and one of us, I can’t remember who, brought up what we know as “The Budget Project Story.” Now the budget project story is an infamous story that took place in the fall of our 8th grade year. The budget project was something we did in Ms. Specht’s class in social studies. The idea was that we would simulate having minimum wage jobs and having to decide upon various expenses and choices to budget our money effectively not having much income.

Every day during class time, we would go to the library and research expenses, make calculations on our budget, and do a variety of other things. This went for a very long time, a few weeks to a month. When the project was due we had to turn in all of our papers and work. Every calculation made, every expense, every check, absolutely everything. You can imagine the many papers we had and the hours of work we had to put in to compiling all of those documents. So anyway, that fateful day came when it was time for us to turn in the project. During the past week all of us students were scrambling to try and make sure we had gotten everything turned in and all of the work finished. It was probably the biggest assignment we had up to date. At some point in the day, many of us were standing around talking about how long we had been working, how many pages ours was, those sorts of things. Meanwhile, Destin comes over. So someone asks Destin, “Hey Destin, have you turned in the Budget Project.” There was somewhat of a twinkle in his eye and his brow lifted, while he suddenly and politely asked, “What’s the Budget Project?”

Back on the way to Chipotle, Destin and I are cracking up when we finally get to the punch line. That is to this day perhaps the most famous Destin story we have, and thank you Destin for giving me special permission to publicly embarrass you in front of all these people. So thinking about all of this, I’m starting to realize something. It’s not that I have don’t have good memories, it’s that I don’t have the ones I thought I would have. As I stand here, ready to graduate, when I look back on my high school experience, what really comes to mind, is not my first homecoming dance, or senior prom. What comes to my mind are the times like when Kevin and I went out to lunch, and when I stepped out of my car, bird feces dropped out of the sky onto my face. I remember when Evan, Robbie, and I made a video for Spanish class freshmen year that advertised, “la super programa,” a weight loss program, where Robbie somehow ended up playing all of the characters, including la super programa clients, Juan, Lucy, and Miguel. I remember during AP Physics when Julia Kolbe was trying to act out throwing a punch, but in doing so actually made contact with my face. I remember during a Model UN conference when we were late to committee because the elevators were too busy and not working, so Mr. Dachille channeled a CIA agent and smuggled us down the service elevator. I remember when Coach Cy and Coach Bach always let us stop at the Oasis after our golf matches, and I consumed far too much Taco Bell to stomach. Speaking of golf, I remember the time when after a particularly frustrating round at the Merit Club, Jack Pierre’s five iron became two five irons.

In truth I feel much happier that these were the memories that stuck with me. If all I carried with me was the memory of a great prom, there wouldn’t be anything really special about that. Like I mentioned before, Prom is everywhere. Most people have a great prom experience. I like these memories a whole lot more, because they are special, something only I have and share with the people who were in them. And believe me, I share great memories with every single person that is sitting up here. They have been truly amazing people to share the last few years with.

I am so grateful to have been a part of this amazing school, and have no doubt that one day down the line, when I am sitting in my rocking chair, and if you’ll remember, sipping iced tea, and listening to that Ella Fitzgerald record, I will be able to cherish many great memories of high school. Not the big ones, but the little ones. And the little ones are so much more meaningful. Thank you all, and my most sincere congratulations to the class of 2017.

Farewell to Graduates: Tom Flemma

Good afternoon everyone and welcome.

I want to begin by answering the obvious questions that you are all asking right now: No, I didn’t lose a bet to wear this jacket.
In fact, this jacket is the theme for this short talk. You see, along with the fun and elation and accolades that these young scholars have all earned, graduation day should include some tradition and reflection. That’s what this jacket represents to me.

This jacket belonged to my father, who passed away when I was 18. He was an amazing man in many ways, a cardiac surgeon who smoked cigars and had a wardrobe that defied easy characterization. He wore clothes that reflected the way he approached life—with color and vibrancy and flair. He told me once that you take what you do seriously, but you can’t take yourself too seriously. I’ve always tried to live that way.

In my many years at Hotchkiss, it became my own personal tradition to wear one of my dad’s jackets to graduation each year. (This one is probably on the tame end of the splashy spectrum. Some of the others one might consider “loud.”)

Every year in early June, when I would pick out that year’s fashion statement for graduation, I would reflect on my dad and my family and the role they played in getting me where I was; in shaping WHO I was. Graduation took on a new meaning for me as a result. Sometimes during the speeches I would zone out—just like some of you are doing right now—and remember conversations we had or things we did together. I did that this morning, and this week when I wrote this talk.

My hope for each of you up here on the stage is that you take some time to do the same. You’ve accomplished a lot to get here—you’ve worked hard and have earned this. You haven’t done it alone, though. I think very very few of us in life achieve great things in isolation. So while I have many hopes for each of you as your enter this new stage of your life, one of them is that you’ll take some time tonight, tomorrow, or over the next few weeks and months to reflect on all of those who helped you get here: your teachers and parents above all, but also siblings, grandparents, friends, etc. Make it a priority to thank them for the part they have played in your success. You’ll be glad you did.

Mr. Aiston spoke earlier about the power of gratitude. So for this moment, maybe it is graduation that comes second, while gratitude remains first. I’d like to invite you, the graduates, to stand and offer the ovation to your support networks that they truly deserve.
That, I hope, will be something we do each year, a tradition that I add to the myriad of North Shore traditions.

To our graduates: you are a wonderful class. In a year of transition, you’ve been steady and solid, leading by example and embodying all of the things about North Shore that drew me here. New faces in the Head’s office or amongst the faculty and staff didn’t phase you in the least, because this is your place and you know what North Shore is all about.

I’ve been touched all year by the warmth and kindness you’ve shown to me and to the younger students, and also impressed by all that you’ve accomplished individually and as a group. I could begin a long list of individual triumphs here, but I will resist that urge. Not only because I’d surely miss some, and its not really the North Shore way, but because some of the greatest achievements for people on this stage are quiet, personal ones. These moments have stories behind them, that maybe only you know, or that you shared with a teacher or friend. In celebrating all of you, we honor these private triumphs along with public ones, recognizing that each resonate differently.

You are well prepared for what lies ahead. Use what you’ve learned to make the world a better place. We need you and we are counting on you.

I truly hope that you came here to learn and laugh; to live and serve, and that you will continue to do them all as you go forth into the world. And when you do, don’t be afraid to wear a loud jacket every now and then.

We will now proceed outside to sing and lower the flags and ring the bell. As you exit the auditorium, please don’t linger in the lobby, but proceed swiftly outside so we don’t leave people stuck in the auditorium. After that, we will have a reception in the Science Center Atrium and I hope to see you all there.

And NOW, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my honor to present to you the North Shore Country Day School Class of 2017.

In closing, I’d like to channel one of Illinois’ favorite sons, Adlai Stevenson, who once gave same graduation advice that became a tradition at my school:

Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this
lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good
friends. And don't forget when you leave why you came. 
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North Shore Country Day School is a junior kindergarten through 12th grade, college-preparatory school founded in Winnetka, Illinois in 1919.  With rigorous academic pursuit as the cornerstone, North Shore provides many opportunities for all students to excel – in the classroom and the laboratory, on the stage and the playing field, in their communities and beyond.