Recently I got an email that I might have dismissed as Not My Job. But the email was from a teacher. And this teacher clearly needed my help.
My name is Ariel Margolis. I am an 8th Grade Teacher at Kehillah Schechter Academy, located south of Boston, MA (USA). One of my school's special traditions is to have every 8th grader compose and deliver a graduation speech. As the teacher in charge of the ceremony, I want to give the very best I can to my students so that they not only feel empowered to deliver their words but also give them important skills that they will need for their futures.
I was wondering if you would be willing to speak with me to share your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions along with best practices about speech writing and delivery that would help make my students' speeches pop and as a result, have my students shine.
Please let me know if you are willing to speak with me.
Thank you in advance.
I didn’t answer Ariel right away. In fact, I slept on it. In fact, before sleeping on it, I drank on it. The next day, I wrote Ariel back through a clarifying hangover.
I understand why you're looking for help. Your task is impossible! How many speeches are we talking about here? How long are the speeches supposed to be? How many days and nights will the ceremony last?!
More importantly: How in the world are all these kids going to find something candid, fresh and worthwhile to say to fellow students who know full well that all they're thinking about is summer break, and making it last as long as possible because on the other side is the terror of high school? And how are the other students and parents going to bring themselves to listen to one another grind through these platitudes? This “special tradition” that you speak of sounds more like a hoary habit, and a guaranteed snoozefest for everyone involved.
The idea of which personally offends me, a thousand miles away in Chicago. That's because I'm editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, which means it's my job to search the world for vital speeches. Most days, this feels like scouring the Indian Ocean for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Why? Because most speeches delivered in the world are mind-numbing. Why? Because children learn very early on that a speech is a compulsory ceremonial thing, rather than a voluntary communication thing. So CEOs, nonprofit directors, government officials and church elders use speeches to do exactly what they learned as children that speeches are for: saying nothing, at length. This is not a proper use of precious human time.
Besides, these are eight graders. Even theoretically speaking, how many of them could have developed a genuine idea that hasn't occurred to their classmates a thousand times?
This ceremony is going to be torture, Ariel, for everyone involved. And you're the only person who can stop it!
And the good news is, you don't have to stop it. Just alter it. Instead of asking them to “compose and deliver a graduation speech,” simply have them write and tell a story that illustrates the significance of their time at Kehillah Schechter Academy. Tell them the only requirement for the story is that it be true (even if that means it's preposterously exaggerated and full of outright fabrications). “No ideas but in things,” said the poet William Carlos Williams. No speeches but in stories, says Vital Speeches editor David Murray.
If you can teach your students to stand in front of their fellow travelers and give meaning to life's long slog by organizing it into mythology that welds individuals into a community—well now, that's something worth doing. And something that will make them valuable citizens for the rest of their lives. It's a special tradition indeed.
That's the extent of my thoughts, ideas, suggestions and best practices.
Even if you follow my advice—and I understand if you don't; special traditions don't change easy—I can't guarantee you a scintillating graduation ceremony. Lots of kids, like lots of grown-ups, are pretty dreadful storytellers. But if your school is truly an interesting and distinctive place, there's a chance that the graduates' stories will harmonize, and something truly magical and memorable could take place. Whereas, with the Forced March of the Graduation Speeches, there is no chance of that at all.
Whether or not you take my advice, please do let me know how it goes.
David Murray, Editor
Vital Speeches of the Day
How did Ariel respond? He took a couple of days, during which I assumed he had written me off as an asshole. I always forget that teachers have actual work to do.
Finally he wrote back to say:
"Your response was... TOTALLY HILARIOUS AND WITH MUCH TRUTH TO IT. Being part of this school and its traditions, I can fairly say that unless members of the audience have a close connection with the speakers, they would probably rather (a) melt ice (b) swallow a pitchfork or (c) both."
He shared my advice with the heads of the school, who also received it well, one writing back:
"I love that you wrote [DAVID] and even more so loved his answer. I HATE graduation speeches and I HATE the quotes from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). None of this is genuine and it is written to please the adults."
The ambitious Ariel is looking for professional speechwriters to help the students craft their stories. Anyone interested may reach out to him at amargolis at ksa-ne dot org.
The rest of us wish him luck in his attempt to change the stubbornest tradition in one school—and then the world!