Sooner or later we all have to make a speech. Some people rise to the occasion more than others. My first speech was at a friend’s wedding when I was in my 20s. I decided to talk about fantasy football and bombed spectacularly. So last year, when the Tam High senior class elected me to be their faculty speaker at graduation, I knew what to do. I said no. I’m comfortable talking in front of a few dozen kids. But closing out a ceremony in front of 2,000 people? I’m no headliner! Besides, I heard the guy the year before had killed it by integrating Drake’s rap lyrics into his speech. How was I going to top that? With the encouragement of some of my students, however, I relented and delivered the address. On the following pages you will find the text of my speech, along with some metacognitive looks into my writing process. I’ll let you decide if I should have gone with my instincts and sat this one out.
Greetings Principal Farr, faculty, administration, board members, grandparents, parents, siblings … dogs … dog walkers, dog groomers, dog orthopedists, dog psychologists, dog open space lobbyists, dog CrossFit instructors and, of course, class of 2017 graduates!
It is an honor to be here today and share with you a true 21st-century American success story. Listen carefully and you may soon find yourselves on the path to greatness.
That greatness was inside of a boy, who sat, like you, at his high school graduation down in Palo Alto a few decades back. That boy had pulled himself up by his bootstraps and gained admission to Stanford University. He had done it through his own grit and determination.
(And multiple edits from his professional writer father on his application essay. And two prior generations of Stanford grads in his legacy.)
But mostly, yeah. It was the grit.
Then, after college, with nothing more than six months of paid living expenses from his parents, he started an internet company.
(Well, he didn’t start it — a computer science buddy from his freshman dorm started it and was like hey, you want to help me with this?)
But the young man had the brilliance, the foresight, to say, yes. Yes, I will start that company with you because I am not doing anything else right now! And so the two started that company. They did it their way. On their own. Through grit.
(Sure, there was the older Stanford buddy who back-doored them into USWeb as a subsidiary from day one. And sure, there was that internet bubble.) But within two years that boy had become a man. A man with $50 million of illiquid, doomed internet stock. He was 24 years old. He got his picture in the Wall Street Journal.
And do you know who that man was? This guy! Me! I was that dude!
And boy was I a schmuck. I partied too much. I’d get angry when people suggested my success was due to luck. I made my own luck! Or so I thought. I was entitled. I was arrogant. I had no clue who I was. And deep down, I was pretty terrified that I was a fraud. In short, I was unhappy.
There were three events that saved me from schmuckdom.
The first event was I became a teacher at Tam. I showed up the first day, ready to bestow my talents upon the school. Then, 15 minutes in, the students locked me out of the room. Those kids had mad skills.
Things did not immediately get better. Kids can smell the fake on you. And the worst teachers try to pretend to be someone they’re not. I apologize to this day to any student I taught before about 2007. [Valedictorian] Nell Mitchell — great speech! Where’s Nell Mitchell’s family? Wave. There you are. Is Nell’s older sister Alex here? Alex — sorry. My bad. Anybody else? OK.
The second event that saved me was I married a wonderful woman who loved me enough to call me on my crap. She pointed out my elitist impulses. She threatened to leave me if I didn’t get sober. It was very hard, but I did indeed get sober and, in turn, more humble.
The third event was my daughter Annika was born with Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), a bizarre, ruthless genetic syndrome. Imagine how hungry you were last night, right before dinner. Or around midnight last night hanging out with your friends. Multiply that by three. That is what my daughter Annika feels every second of the day, even after her last bite of dinner. Annika literally will eat herself to death if left alone with food. Like all sufferers of PWS, she also endures various other cognitive, emotional and physical challenges.
A few years ago, Annika started attacking her younger siblings and running away from home. I have never felt more devastated and helpless. In December of 2016, having exhausted all other options, we enrolled Annika at Latham Centers, an amazing residential school for PWS students in Brewster, Massachusetts. Now she is safe and thriving, as are her siblings.
But here’s the thing about Annika: she is only 10 years old. I miss her so much. It hurts a lot. I get to go see her next week for the first time since April.
From these three events, I’ve learned just how much our lives are influenced by luck. And I’ve learned that privilege is not just something born into at the expense of those less fortunate. Privilege also is an insidious force that can turn on the privileged themselves.
To those of you who do not come from privilege, I will not patronize you about how lucky you are to have the chance to truly succeed on your own. Poverty is imposed upon our children with greater ferocity every day, an inexcusable trend in a supposedly modern, egalitarian country.
To those of you who share my privilege: be vigilant. It is hard to know just how lucky we are. But there are opportunities to listen to people from different circumstances — these people know things that we don’t. And there may be moments when you have a tingling sensation that you are about to take that privileged path of least resistance just because it’s there.
Instead of taking that path … parents — earmuffs — please cover your ears. Thanks.
Instead, don’t major in what they want you to major in. Major in what you want to major in. Don’t go to the college or take the job that will look cool on social media. Transfer! Quit! Take the job that’s harder and pays less but actually makes people’s lives better. Live life on the edge! Volunteer! Become a journalist! Work with kids! Drive a used car with no extended warranty! You know, crazy stuff!
With or without your parents’ blessing, if you fail to weigh your options, if you instead blindly take the privileged path, you may find one day that you have lucked into a shiny life that you thought would make you happy but that, in fact, makes you miserable. This can happen to anyone. Even the president of the United States.
Finally, whether you’re privileged or not, don’t shy away from adversity when it hits.
The last year has been the most difficult of my life. I have days when I cry thinking about my daughter. But my love for my wife and my children has never been stronger. And I have never felt more fulfilled in my professional life. It sounds crazy, but I am happier right now than I have ever been.
I leave you with a quote from Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
“Instead of seeing all the problems you experience … as problems, you need to develop the habit of recognizing them all as beneficial conditions supporting happiness, and in fact being causes for happiness … Stop the thought of complete aversion to suffering … generate the thought of welcoming problems. When you have accomplished this and actually feel happy rather than unhappy to have problems, problems no longer become obstacles …”
May you have ample problems and the grit to push through them. That is what a true success story looks like in the 21st century.
Congratulations, Class of 2017!
Jonah Steinhart is a teacher, writer and film producer. He runs the journalism program at Tamalpais High School and currently is writing and producing a feature documentary on Prader-Willi syndrome with actor/director/producer Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues, Breaking Bad).
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline “Time to Fly.”