2014 Cum Laude Induction Keynote

Editor’s note: Tim Farnham ‘84 presented this Cum Laude Induction Keynote on January 17, 2014 during Upper School Assembly in Phillips Stevens Chapel. 

Thank you, Headmaster Hill, for that kind introduction—a special welcome to all the parents, greetings to the faculty, members of the student body, and to the 2014 cum laude inductees—congratulations!! This is a huge accomplishment.

So, when I walked into the chapel this morning, I was—as you might imagine—flooded with memories. I thought I might try to open up this speech with “the last time I was in the chapel…” and I then realized I actually don’t remember what our final gathering was here—senior spring was a bit of a blur. But I do remember my first speech at assembly. Chosen by my peers to speak in front of the entire school. Back then, before email or twitter, we had important things that needed to be communicated at assembly. I was sitting back there—just like I was this morning—I got up, came to the podium, and said something like “JV cross country traveled to Westminster on Wednesday, and…..we lost.”  So, they tell me I have to speak a little longer than that today. Fortunately, I’ve written a few ideas down.

I came to Williston as a day student—14 years old, and I was already over 6 feet tall and weighed, maybe, 135 pounds.  I know what you’re thinking, basketball, right? Swanee, who was the basketball coach, was thinking the same thing. “He’s gonna be 6 foot 8 by junior year!” Then he saw my ball handing and shooting skills, and any dreams of a championship team were put on hold. Plus, I only grew another inch.

I had attended a different school for 7th and 8th grade, one that perhaps was not as academically rigorous as Williston, and when I got here, I was in for a bit of a shock. This was especially obvious in French class. I walked in the first day, sat down, and Monsieur Mayer started speaking to us. In French! No English, just French. I was like, are you kidding me? How am I supposed to learn anything if I can’t understand what he’s saying? I looked around, expecting to see panic on everyone elses’ faces, too. But no, it seemed that most everyone else was largely understanding M. Mayer, and even replying to him—in French! I later learned that the class was stacked with Willy Middle School graduates.  You know who you are.

Anyway, I struggled. My grade after four weeks was not what I wanted to be getting. So, I thought to myself, “it’s sink or swim.” I started to figure out what I needed to study and practice in order to do better in the class. Slowly, I began to understand what the teacher was saying; slowly, I began to put verbs and prepositional phrases together into what vaguely sounded like the French language. And by the end of the first grading period, I had a B+. It was not the class in which I was getting my best grade, but it easily was the class I was most proud of. It was the challenge, and the experience of meeting the challenge that was so energizing, so stimulating, and it kind of woke me up to what Williston was going to be about.

This is all to say that, I think I know about the hard work that you all have to put in every day, in all of your classes, to achieve good grades. It is not easy. You have to figure out when you can fit everything in. “I’ve got an Algebra test next week, when am I going to study for it?” You learn to plan out batches of time when you can do that work, write that English paper, study for that Latin test.

And for you, who are being inducted today, you are especially to be commended, for you have, ostensibly, really figured it out.  Cum Laude does not come easily, and it is earned by a consistent high level of effort. The late nights, the early mornings, the time management for studying, the striving for excellence, this is where it all pays off.  That is why we are honoring you today.

Now everyone does it differently, and it might come more easily to some than others. But one quality that I think may be shared is that you all have high standards which you expect yourself to meet. You consciously or unconsciously set goals and plan and execute a strategy for how to meet them. And when you do meet them, you don’t slow down. That kind of atmosphere—one of high standards—is one which Williston encourages and cultivates and it tends to infuse itself in all parts of your life. You don’t just do life halfway. You are all in.

You should carry with you that sense of purpose, that passion for life and learning, everywhere you go. It doesn’t just stay on campus. It goes with you to college; or that next summer job; or that sports camp. Dedicate yourself to excellence. That’s what cum laude means for all of us—it is the standard to which we all should strive, and you, today, provide us with that inspiration.

Now, there’s one topic that I wanted to touch upon this morning—because it’s been a common theme going around the circuit of commencement and honor society induction speeches and it’s got me thinking a little bit. The theme is, “Don’t be afraid to fail.” To begin with, I’m going to take issue with this statement. Personally, I think it’s probably OK to have a healthy fear of failing. After all, it’s a big motivation for working hard. That French class I had in my first year, I genuinely considered the possibility of failure, and that lit a fire under my feet and got me going.

Now I think what is at least partially meant by “don’t be afraid to fail” is “don’t be afraid to take chances” and “don’t give up.” I heartily agree with that. You SHOULD take well-calculated risks. If you are too conservative in your choices, and you only pick activities and pathways that you know you will succeed at, life is going to stagnate. The complementary rule to this is:  if you don’t learn to pick yourself up after setbacks, you will find progress very difficult. So taking risks can be good, especially if we are being pushed to new limits. But as I said, a healthy fear of failure might have an encouraging effect on performance.

So, what is it that we want to remember when we are confronted with challenges, when we face the possibility of failure? And this ties back to some of the earlier things I was saying. What you really want is the personal fortitude to DO YOUR ABSOLUTE BEST in every task that you undertake. Then, if you still “fail” there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You just get back up and figure out how to get it right the next time. In fact, when you are giving it your all, failure starts to recede in importance, perhaps even falling out of the equation altogether.

If we don’t fear failure, what should we fear?  We should fear going out and not giving it everything we’ve got. Living a life in which you only are giving half effort is a life lacking passion, lacking purpose; it’s not fun—it saps your energy. Giving it your all is always where it’s at.

I have two daughters, and they both took up sports I have absolutely no experience with—soccer and swimming. Watching them has been a wonderful learning experience for me. Take the swimming, for example. My older daughter loves to win races for sure, but if she comes in second, or third, or last, it doesn’t really matter as long as she’s gone out and swum a “personal best” time in the event. Swimming is great for this—unless you’re Missy Franklin, there’s probably someone faster than you out there. But my daughter can be proud as long as she has given it everything she’s got, and left it all in the pool. And there’s always new goals to set and shoot for. That’s probably how we should approach everything in life.

One more observation I’d like to mention is how you, as cum laude inductees, reflect on Williston, the school. Certainly, this ceremony is about celebrating your accomplishments.  You represent the top students in your class.  But I want you to think about–for a moment–who helped you get here. No doubt, you spent a lot of hard hours alone studying, and taking tests, and writing papers. But who has presented you with the challenges? And pretty carefully crafted challenges, I might add. Who has prepared you and supported you in meeting those challenges? Just like any worthy opponent in any sport, the challenges we face are mostly worthwhile in that we hope they bring out the best in us. At Williston, you have teachers and mentors who are both your challengers, and some of your biggest fans. Think about it–that is a priceless combination.

So when I learned I would be giving this speech to all of you, I did what any smart or desperate person would do, and I immediately sought out advice. And who better to seek out advice from, than my US History teacher and basketball coach, Swanee.  I went to his office in Reed (I think the disappointment over my lack of a second growth spurt has softened over the years), and I said, “You got any tips for me?” And he said, First, say something that might make them smile—I hope I have done that—and second, don’t go on too long. So, as you will immediately see, I know when to take the sage advice of a mentor.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to come and speak to you. It has been an honor for me. But today’s honors truly go to all of you. Congratulations!

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