The commencement address is referred to as the Derby Day Lecture — in fact I gave the 222nd one in the school’s history. To me the difference between an “address” and a “lecture” is about 40 minutes but fortunately for everyone involved I didn’t go with my gut. In my experience, as with sermons, no one has ever complained about a commencement address being too short.
I don’t think I’ll be replacing Oprah on the short list for Stanford or Yale next year but my mid-May calendar is pretty wide open at this point. I’m just disappointed I was awarded an honorary 8th grade degree.
222nd Derby Day Lecture
June 7, 2013
New North Church
The Rev. Tim Schenck
A few weeks ago I spent some time with the 8th graders and had the opportunity to sit in on a number of their senior speeches. They touched on a variety of topics but I was so impressed not only with their public speaking ability but with the content. This is a group of young men and women who are passionate, articulate, profound, thoughtful, and witty. And, frankly, I’m a bit nervous having to speak in front of all of these wonderful public speakers.
As happens when learning the basics of oratory, they were encouraged to begin each speech with a formal introduction. Which went like this: “Honored faculty, fellow students,” and then since I was there they were required to add “distinguished guest.” Now I admit it was pretty good for my ego to hear that phrase over and over again. For some reason my family refuses to refer to me as “distinguished” when we’re sitting around the dinner table and I hardly ever get called “distinguished guest” when I show up at The Snug.
But this morning, I think we need to turn this around a bit to recognize that this is a special day in the lives of our graduates as we gather to celebrate the Derby Class of 2013. So here goes:
Mrs. Archer, esteemed trustees, honored faculty, family members, friends, and distinguished guests.
Today each one of you is a “distinguished guest” as we mark this milestone. You have worked hard to get to this moment and I encourage you to revel in it and savor it and enjoy it. Just don’t expect to be called “distinguished” for the rest of the summer. It’s not happening.
When Mrs. Archer first called on behalf of the Board of Trustees to invite me to offer the 222nd Derby Day Lecture, I had two initial thoughts. First, I have to admit I thought there’d be horses involved. And big hats and mint juleps. And that I’d be at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. I was all set to handicap the big race; the Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.
And then I realized she was talking about a different Derby Day. But a Derby Day no less grand in its pageantry and tradition and importance. And if you think about it, there are some parallels between the pageantry of a Triple Crown race and a DerbyAcademy graduation. Instead of the jockeys being all decked out in colorful racing silks, we have the faculty all decked out in colorful academic garb. Instead of the horses processing up to the starting gate, we have the graduates processing into NewNorthChurch. In both instances there’s a tangible sense of excitement and anticipation in the air; a spirit that not even a little bit of rain can dampen. There’s only one problem with this analogy: your lives are not a horse race. It’s not a sprint to the finish with blinders on. You’re here to enjoy each moment, to soak it all in, and to revel in the relationships you make along the way.
As many of you know, as a commencement speaker I’m not a completely objective observer — I’m also the father of one of our graduates. And so my second thought after being asked to speak today was what a wonderful, unique, diabolical opportunity to publicly humiliate Ben. I recognized a chance to get him back for all the nagging about homework and all the chauffeuring around town and all the times I asked about how his day went only to be given the one word response: “fine.” For parents of middle schoolers much of life is lived on a “need to know” basis and there is evidently precious little that falls into that category.
Okay, I promised I wouldn’t do or say anything too embarrassing — I mean besides my mere presence. But as many of you know, Ben has a certain pet he likes to talk about. A lot. Mimi the ferret. In fact, I understand that Ben’s known to his classmates as the Ferret King. I am so proud of him for this that it literally makes me want to weep. But I did promise Ben and some of his friends that I would somehow work ferrets into today’s address.
So here goes — four pieces of advice based on why you should not act like a ferret. First, ferrets are sneaky. They like to abscond with things like keys and mittens and important papers like homework. So my first piece of advice to you is don’t steal things.
This is related to number two. Ferrets live in cages. If you steal things you too might end up living in a cage. Don’t go to jail.
If not bathed occasionally ferrets begin to smell. Trust me, you haven’t really lived until you’ve bathed a ferret in the kitchen sink while your wife takes a photo of you and immediately posts it to Facebook. So the third piece of advice is, bathe occasionally.
Finally, ferrets sleep for 22 hours a day. Don’t sleep for 22 hours a day. You’ll miss school, you won’t be able to hold down a job, and you may well wind up living in a cage.
Okay, graduates, that was your brief ferret shout-out — I hope you enjoyed it.
Now when you’re dressed like this you have to at least mention Scripture. And there was a particular passage that kept popping into my head as I thought about this day. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus talks about those who hear his words and act on them as being like a wise man that built his house on rock. “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” But those who hear his words and fail to act on them are like a foolish man who built his house on sand. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell.”
What this speaks to in this context is the importance of a strong foundation.Through your parents and your teachers and your classmates and your entire Derby experience, you have a solid foundation for the rest of your lives; a foundation built on rock. No one can take that away. And as the storms of life swirl — and they will — you can always trust in this foundation. This foundation that has been built by loving parents, gifted teachers, dedicated friends, and by your own hard work. This foundation isn’t complete of course — it will be added to and fortified over the years. But much of this foundation is formed from the culture of support and honesty and creativity and love and care at DerbyAcademy. And it is a solid foundation upon which to build the rest of your lives.
And, yes, you have a lot more life in front of you. You’re facing four years of high school. And then four years of college. And then, for some of you, another two or three years or five years of graduate school. In other words, you have about another decade of school ahead of you. Your future holds tens of thousands of pages you haven’t read; hours and hours of homework you haven’t done; hundreds of essays you haven’t written; myriad math problems you haven’t solved, and tons of tests to study for.
Now, I’m not trying to depress you on this celebratory day; quite the contrary. Because your future is a great gift. And along with all that future hard work comes opportunity. You have the opportunity to make a difference in the world. You have the opportunity to be a force for good. You have the opportunity to impact lives. You have the opportunity to share your creativity and giftedness with others. And I know you will.
But if there’s only one thing you remember about this day, I’d like you to remember this — it’s something that’s important as you enter high school and it’s something you need to live a full, fruitful, healthy, and successful life: find your passion. It doesn’t matter what it is — playing the oboe or writing poetry or rugby or rock climbing or chess or chemistry. Experiment, try new things, challenge yourself, fail at some things and realize it’s all part of the learning process.
Your calling over the next few years is to find your passion, to seek out what brings you joy, to discover what makes your soul sing. Your passion is something as unique to you as your DNA. Only you can discover it and nurture it and allow it grow into maturity.
And as you step out of the familiar and friendly confines of DerbyAcademy into the new, exciting, yet unfamiliar place of what is to come, never forget the solid foundation upon which you stand. It will serve you well as you discover that each moment of your life is dripping with possibility and teeming with energy and passion. Go out and find yours.
Thank you and God bless you all in the years ahead.