Members of the School Committee; administrators, faculty, and staff; parents, family, and guests; and, most importantly, members of the Class of 2018 – it is an honor and a privilege to address you this evening.
During your time at SHS, you have collectively achieved many honors in academics, student government, the visual and performing arts, academic competitions, robotics, speech and debate, and athletics. I know one of your most cherished memories is when you experienced an incredible back-to-back triumph. No, I’m not talking about the two consecutive boys hockey state championships, but rather something you seniors found even more momentous: back-to-back snow days this past January. This started a run that included a total of six cancellations, three two-hour delays, and even one early dismissal. You’re welcome.
I actually had intended to include the topic of snow days in these remarks even before some of you referenced the many snow day calls I made during this past epic winter at Commemoration, and again just now in my introduction. While my job has many facets, the one that people are clearly most fascinated with is the power to cancel school due to bad weather. So, what goes into the decision to have a snow day? Ouija board? Flip a coin? Pressure from your clever social media postings the night before the storm? Pleas from my own three daughters? Nope. Of course, sometimes it’s an easy call, when the roads are impassable and school parking lots and entrances can’t possibly be cleared in time. Other times, it’s very tricky, because the conditions are questionable. Those situations, like many situations in life, require observation, analysis, and the consideration of principles before making a judgment. In the case of deciding whether to cancel school, I observe the road conditions (sometimes while still in my SHS Colonial pajamas); I analyze the weather forecast; and I consider the most important principle, which is the safety of students and staff. However, my decision does not hinge on whether there is any risk to safety – because there’s always some risk – but on whether holding school under those conditions will create too great of a risk. Regardless of what I decide is prudent, I know that some, perhaps many, will disagree with my decision and criticize me for it. I also know that I could very well end up being wrong and making a bad decision. Now, few if any of you are going to become superintendents and need to know how to decide whether to call off school due to a bunch of snowflakes, but I think the approach applies more broadly. In fact, in your futures, how you determine the facts, assess risk, make decisions, cope with disagreement and criticism, and acknowledge your own imperfections will determine whether you will affirm – or defy – the pejorative moniker used to label your generation: namely, that you are a bunch of snowflakes.
You may have heard that your age group has been described as “Generation Snowflake.” This stereotype stems from the idea that you can’t handle the metaphorical heat of the “real world” without melting away; that your ability to cope with difficulty or disagreement is fragile; that you cannot handle disappointment and failure; and that you cannot tolerate risk or even discomfort. Some who subscribe to this idea suggest that it’s all your parents’ fault, because they are “helicopters” who hovered too close, never allowing you to experience independence and develop self-confidence, or because they are “snowplows” who cleared away any and all obstacles and difficulties in your path, never allowing you to experience failures and consequences. This stereotype sometimes adds a modifier, as in “special snowflakes,” suggesting that the adult world has told you all along how unique and amazing you are, creating a sense of entitlement where you and your parents believe you should get a trophy just for being you – and woe to the teacher or coach who suggests that success needs to be earned, not bestowed.
But...I’m not buying into this stereotype. It’s not that some of these characteristics and behaviors don’t exist, because they surely do, and they can be very problematic. However, they have existed in every generation to some degree. I’m sure certain attributes show up with more or less frequency in certain generations depending on the times, but suggesting that everyone born between certain years, and their parents, all act the same is painting with a way-too-broad brush. Of course, the tendency of one generation to criticize the next as being less motivated, less respectful, and not as tough as one’s own has existed throughout human history, and that won’t change (I’ve done it, and you’ll likely do it someday as well).
So while some may think you’re all snowflakes, here’s what I know: I know that you’ve worked hard; I know that you’ve overcome obstacles; and I know that you’ve earned the many accomplishments you’ve individually and collectively achieved. I also know that you have been kind, accepting, and thoughtful regarding many of the challenges we face in today’s society, whether supporting those who experienced natural disasters, serving the less fortunate, or honoring the victims of school shootings. I appreciate the sensitivity you’ve shown. Unfortunately, the term “snowflake” has also become a way in which some seek to disparage those whom they deem as overly sensitive. While hypersensitivity is counterproductive, don’t fall for the falsehood that being sensitive means that you’re weak. Being empathetic, honoring differences, and considering others’ perspectives are signs of strength. As the late, great basketball coach, John Wooden, once said: “There is nothing stronger than gentleness.” Don’t confuse being tough with being callous, which is a problem every generation in our society is struggling with these days.
However, to live your best lives, you will need to develop the right kinds of toughness. You will need to develop the courage to take risks and put yourself in challenging, uncomfortable situations in order to develop your abilities, and you will need to stand up for what is right to develop your character. You will need to cope with disappointment and tragedy. When you do, you’ll be even stronger than before. As my grandmother often said, “You can’t come out steel unless you go through the fire.”
I am confident that you have the capability to defy the snowflake stereotype. To do so, be aware of the facts; be courageous and prudent when assessing risk; be principled in your decision-making; be open to learning from those who disagree and criticize; be humble in the knowledge that you are imperfect and your mistakes will be your own; be gentle and kind towards others; be resilient when the inevitable challenges and disappointments come; and be tough when it comes to doing the right thing. If you are these things, it won’t matter what anyone labels you, because you will be a person who makes your family, your friends, and yourself, proud.
On behalf of everyone in the Shrewsbury Public Schools, congratulations, and good luck.