Jeremy Del Rio of 20/20 Vision for Schools, and the founding chair of SchoolPartners.NYC, delivered this year’s Commencement Address at the graduation ceremony for Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens. Grover Cleveland was one of our Hope Week Partners last month. Below are the transcript and audio of his speech.
GROVER CLEVELAND HIGH SCHOOL
“Great Stories Demand Sequels”
June 24, 2015
Principal Vittor, distinguished faculty, honored guests, and most of all, Graduating Class of 2015 —
Thank you for inviting me to share this milestone with you. I remember fondly my own high school graduation, and consider it a privilege to create new memories with you this year.
I’m a fan of movies. Any movie buffs here with us this evening? [Me too!]
I’m a sucker for comebacks. Epics. Action flicks. Mysteries. Even romantic comedies. The genre doesn’t much matter. So long as the characters have depth, the drama feels real, and the conflict and context: compelling.
I took my boys to see Jurassic World on Father’s Day. Because who wouldn’t want to spend their special day watching prehistoric pteranodons and pterodactyls terrorize 21st century humans?
I also enjoy sports and music. Art and food. Photography. Adventure and traveling. Classic literature and John Grisham novels. I’m a New York City lifer with no desire to move.
I dabble in technology and social media. Ideas and discoveries energize me. Conflict challenges me. People draw me in.
My son feels the same way about video games and Youtube, card games and graphic novels, superheroes and trivia.
An eclectic mix of interests, I know. At times I feel distracted… Too many hobbies. Not enough focus.
I wondered for a season, what holds them all together?
How is it that that I am equally moved watching Steph Curry dethrone King James, as savoring a meal prepared by a Michelin rated chef? Why do timeless melodies stir my soul, and the Sistine Chapel awes me? Why do I buy a new paperback thriller every vacation? Why do I root for the underdog, in sports and life, yet bleed Yankees blue, even in the shadow of Citi Field? Why do sunsets still mesmerize me, and sirens lull me into deep sleep?
I realized not too long ago that what unites them all is the power of story.
Watch the Women’s World Cup, and it lures you with an unfolding drama on the soccer field. Plus the humanizing saga of world-class athletes whose dedication and resilience made them the best of their era.
Watch great newscasters and feel intrigued or infuriated or impassioned by the stories they tell — not the statistics they report or the theories they’ve mastered.
The best stories we return to time and again, season after season. Like Scandal. Or Empire. Or even Jurassic World. Twenty years ago, the first of four Jurassic Park movies made for a fun date night with my future wife and the mother of the sons we celebrated on Sunday. Like the song says, “We just can’t get enough.”
Consider for a moment, the power of a sequel. Glance at any summer movie guide and find that the most anticipated movies are sequels or remakes. Roughly seven out of ten movies might as well have numbers at the end of their titles! Just like last summer. And the summer before that. And just about every summer since motion pictures were invented a century ago.
Why? Because sequels sell. When we experience a great story, we don’t want it to end. And when the credits role, we can’t wait for more.
Now consider the power of stories to inspire action, again, and again.
That’s why the best storytellers shape our culture and society, and the values that define us. It’s universal. They win awards. Grammys. Oscars. Pulitzers. Nobel Prizes. MVPs. They graduate high school, and college, and become doctors, plumbers, parents, and world changers.
They also win fans, and customers, and even elections. Their masterpieces and inventions and discoveries endure. They frame how we think about the world, and — too often — what we think about it also.
We buy Nike sneakers because Nike convinced us to “Just Do It.” We voted for Obama because he convinced us electing him would restore Hope. We eat at Burger King because they convinced us to “Have it our way.”
Tall tales all, but stories we choose to believe – about ourselves, and the world in which we want to live.
So … here’s the big secret that the marketers and entertainers neglect to share.
The greatest stories aren’t captured on film or chronicled in newsprint. They’re not tweeted by publicists or pitched by pundits.
The truly great stories are the ones we live every day.
Not the facades we disclose in our selfies. But the self-portraits we create through authentic lives well lived in the service of others.
Today we celebrate great stories being written.
Commencement represents the end of the beginning. The prelude to chapter one. You stand today on the edge of the greatest story you’ll ever tell. The best part: no one else can tell your story better than you can. You have full creative control!
Of course, some will try. Haters gonna hate. We all know that. Deadbeats will try to beat you out of life. Leaches and scoundrels will try to suck you dry.
But none of them can control your story. Unless you choose to surrender the pen. Or the smartphone. Or, fundamentally, the power and freedom of your will.
Tonight, as you consider the narrative of your life, remember that every great story must answer six basic questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How?
Some of the questions have been partially answered for you. You couldn’t decide when or where you’d be born, for example.
Some of the characters have been inherited from other people’s stories, like cousins and neighbors. But you can determine the part they play in your epic life, and you can invite new characters into the journey. The people and places may change, but the central character never will.
Embrace the opportunity to answer other questions that arise along the way. Seemingly trivial ones, and big ones too, like:
• “What do you want to do as a career?”
• “Where do you want to go to college?”
• “Whom do you want to marry?”
• “How do you want to be remembered?”
These kinds of questions delight the creators within us all, and empower greatness when we realize that, in fact, we alone get to decide.
Some of the questions might still feel uncertain, like the, “Why?” Some of us take years — lifetimes even — to figure out our purpose. That’s ok.
Enjoy the ride, and in the meantime, take cues from the things that bring you joy. What excites you in the morning? What activates your imagination? What do you dream for your children?
The place where your greatest joy and the world’s greatest needs collide, that’s where you’ll find your purpose.
As we close, here are five suggestions that respond to the, “How?” If you forget everything else I’ve said tonight, write these down. They’re even tweetable.
1. Reject Passivity
2. Embrace Responsibility
3. Serve Humbly
4. Lead Courageously
5. Love Sacrificially
To reject passivity means to take initiative and seize every moment. Life isn’t for spectators. Stop watching other people live their lives, and start living yours.
To embrace responsibility means to welcome the consequences that your choices create – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Learn from your mistakes and keep making new ones.
To serve humbly understands that life happens best when lived with others. Communities thrive when we seek to enhance and support those around us, finding their best and collaborating to co-create enduring beauty together.
To lead courageously means a willingness to go first, even if there’s no guarantee than anyone else will follow. Sometimes the right thing requires defying expectations and rejecting the status quo. Always, creating a life requires us to fashion something that has never before existed.
Finally, to love sacrificially means to love even when it hurts. No greater love exists than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Live like this, and more often than not, you’ll leave your audience wanting more.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have been fashioned and equipped for this moment, and the lifetime to come. Now create a life worth living.
A life worth emulating.
A story that demands a sequel.