The following is the 2020 middle school graduation speech from St. Monica Catholic School, Mercer Island, WA.
If you are anything like I was when I finished 8th grade, you will almost certainly not pay attention to the speech I’m about to make. I hope you are better than I was.
When I was in tenth grade, I took a class called “Web Design.” We learned to use a software that real web developers used in their professional lives. I remember my first website: an interactive alphabet where each letter linked to an image of something from Star Wars. I was proud of that website, and I felt like I’d done something useful in building it; something practical. I had often complained to my teachers and my parents that I was never going to need to know what I was learning in school. I would not need to remember when the Germans conquered Rome (or was it the Normans? Or the Turks? Who knows?) I would not need to know how to use the quadratic formula. But this, perhaps, was something I could use.
Funny enough, seven years later, I did get a job as a web developer. But not because of anything from that class. All the software we learned was way out of date by the time I entered the market. The one practical class turned out not to be very practical at all. So much the worse, then, for all the other classes I took: geometry, history, government, and worst of all, literature. What, really, was the point of it all?
I might turn this question on all of you. Today, you graduate from middle school. What was the point of it all? What have you gained from this? What are we celebrating?
I might offer two answers. I asked a question just like this to my high school physics teacher. “Why, Mr. Stratton, do we have to learn about the equation for gravitational force? I’ll never use this.” He answered, “Of course you won’t have to use this. You won’t have to use any of the information you learn in this class, unless you become a specific kind of engineer. But that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re doing it because you need to learn how to learn, and your classes help you do that.”
That is the first time a teacher’s explanation of the value of school made sense to me. I still think it’s true. I landed my web development job not because I knew how to use the technology (which I didn’t), but because I was capable of learning on-the-go, and my future boss recognized that. Learning to learn is a highly valuable practice.
But I might take this a step further. What else have you learned in middle school? Years from now, you will not be able to pass the tests you passed this year. You will not remember when WWI started. You will forget how Aristotle defined the soul. You will try to help children with fractions and you won’t remember how they work. You will barely remember reading The Odyssey, and you won’t know what symbol Luke the Evangelist used. But this does not mean your work will have been for nothing. You will have exactly what you worked for: you will have your own self. For that is the nature of the Liberal Arts. As Sister Miriam Joseph says, the work of the liberal artist is intransitive: it begins and ends in herself. She is the sculpture she carves. You are the fruit of your labor.
Who have you tried to become this year? Who we become depends on what we do. A boy who chooses to listen to a classmate’s idea thoroughly before criticizing it becomes an empathetic man; a girl who asks her question even though she’s afraid becomes a brave woman; a teenager who chooses to act like they care whether Odysseus’ actions were just becomes an adult who wants justice. The fruit of what you’ve done this year is the person you are right now; the reward for what you do next is the person you will be later. What you do shapes your soul. Have you tried to empathize with ancient Greeks? Have you exercised the humility it takes to change your mind when you realize you’ve made a mistake? Have you resisted the desire to cheat, since cheating is good for a grade but bad for character, and character is more lasting? These are the things that forge your soul, and forging your soul is the best thing you can do for the world right now. You must become good. Your tests and quizzes will be forgotten, but you will always have your soul.
What comes next for you, then? The school year has ended. Your time at St. Monica has ended. But your mission to become a good person – the mission this school has always been for – has only just begun. And yet, it is also a time to celebrate. To borrow from St. John Chrysostom’s Easter homily, I might say this: If you have striven for greatness of soul from the first grade, receive now your reward: yourself. If you have striven since the fourth grade, see now the person you’ve become. And if you have striven for virtue only for the briefest of recent moments – perhaps only since this very moment – know that it is not too late. The Lord welcomes you, and will be with you. You are the fruit of the labor you have done, and you will be the fruit of the labor you do next.
I thank our Lord that I have been privileged enough to enter into your labor with you, and I pray that you will yet labor for many years. For, as you all know, creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. We all wait to see each other’s glory, which is the light of the virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love. These are the fruits of your labor.
The fruit of your labor is Christ within you, for “each mortal thing does one thing and the same: deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, crying “what I do is me; for that I came.”
Your reward is to act out in God’s eye what in God’s eye you are, and are becoming: Christ. For “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men’s faces” – even our faces.
The fruit of your labor is to be a king or queen, ruling yourself, free to do good, not a slave of your desires.
You are the fruit of your labor. I pray you have labored well, and I pray you will continue to labor well.
So St. Monica, as you leave this place, hear this: obey the greatest commandment. You are to love others as you love yourself, which means you’re to love yourself a great deal. So labor well. You will be your reward.