Graduation Speech: Top Ten Pieces of Advice for the Class of 2015

Honored guests, members of the board, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Bishop, fellow faculty, family and friends… and, most importantly, members of the class of 2015, it is an honor to be able to speak to you on this special occasion.  I want to thank you for giving me one last opportunity to stand on my soap box and give it to you straight as I have done for the past three years. I hope it doesn’t disappoint, but know that I have used my filter, and I am determined not to cry.

On May 20th, David Letterman, touted by Atlantic magazine as being the last true innovator in late-night comedy, signed off on the Late Show for the last time after 33 years.  In honor of his body of work, I have decided to share my own version of the Top Ten List with my Top Ten Pieces of Advice for the Class of 2015.

After coming up with an outline for this speech and identifying my top ten, I decided to do a little research before fleshing it out. Big mistake. What a rabbit hole of inspiration that was. You are lucky I am standing before you today with a speech instead of a link to a Google doc with more links to great commencement addresses. Anyway... I became particularly incensed when I happened across a speech that a fellow Texan, Matthew McConaughey,  gave at the University of Houston.

He totally stole my top 10 idea... except his was written first and he ended up with 13.

But it was too late to start over so here goes.... Coming in at number 10...

10)  Your elevator privileges end today.  Take a good hard look at the relief and exhilaration on your teacher’s faces right now. Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed getting to know those of you that I don’t teach like Hind, Danielle, and Ansh along with 20 of your peers in the 15 seconds before class as you crammed yourselves into an overcrowded elevator exacerbating my claustrophobia...because it was your right. You were seniors and you were entitled.

The thing is, entitlement will get you nowhere in life.

Back to McConaughey...To add further insult to injury, he also stole my first point... as his number one “Truth” was, “Life’s not easy...Don’t try to make it that way. It’s not fair, It never was, It isn’t now, It won’t ever be. Do not fall into the entitlement trap of feeling you are a victim, you are not. Get over it and get on with it. And yes, most things are more rewarding when you break a sweat to get ‘em."

...Like climbing four flights of stairs to get to class on time and avail yourself of the amazing education that ASB has to offer.  

9) Life is not a video game.  A couple of weeks ago, I wandered into the library to wish you all luck on your next exam that was scheduled to begin in 15 minutes, when I happened upon two of you playing a video game. Don’t worry I won’t name names nor will I mention the subject as it would certainly upset Mrs. Bajaj. Besides, I am sure it was a videojuego en español.



While working with a 5th grader on his exhibition project on gaming, I proposed a game of “would you rather?” with questions like, “Would you rather do your homework or play video games?”  You can guess what his answers were.

There is a time and place for “video games”. Many of you such as Camille, Gopika, Sam, Malavika, Marcel, or the class vampire, your valedictorian who sets his circadian cycles to eastern standard time, have already managed to game the game of education. Before any exam this past year, they would test themselves over and over  again with no risk involved, and failure meant nothing except to do it again....much like the grinding you do when you unlock a level of a video game and play it over and over in order to master it. This was a smart strategy and it paid off because when they actually took the exam, they already had the knowledge, tools and strategies that they needed to get to the next level with the maximum number of stars. Others of you approached that test as if it was your first attempt at this level. Sure you read the instructions, but you had no idea how you would do on it and you hadn’t practiced responding to the game elements of the test. Unfortunately, life is not like the movie, Groundhog’s Day.

Unlike Bill Murray, you don’t get to keep restarting life until you get it right, so instead of playing “Would you Rather?” next year when you are faced with choices, might I suggest you play “What would Ms. Hewitt Do?” I can guarantee that you won’t be taking many unnecessary risks if you use this strategy.

Speaking of choices...

8) In the phylogenetic tree of life, you either evolve or you become extinct. For the past 18 years, your parents, teachers and mentors have served as your genetic engineers. Whenever you made a bad decision resulting in an unfavorable mutation, we erased it and corrected your DNA. When you were too young to make certain choices, we inserted DNA that gave you an advantage in your tree of life. When you leave us as adults, you will become your own genetic engineers, as there will be fewer and fewer people in your life that are willing or obligated to serve in that role. Every choice that you make from here on out will either help you to develop advantageous traits and evolve through life, or they will make you more irrelevant and move you closer to extinction.  

Choose to evolve. You will be glad you did in the end.

7) Apply Newcomb’s Thong Theory to life whenever possible.  I was told by a student that I should copyright this theory, so it made the cut...but before I get fired I better explain. My mother always told me, “Never leave the house without clean underwear on because you never know what will happen.”  You see my dad fought in Vietnam, and upon his return he confessed to  turning his underwear inside out to get more wear out of them while he was Up Country. Sadly for my mother, they were already married, so there was nothing that she could do but live with the trauma and pass this life lesson on to my siblings and I. Whenever I pack for a trip, I always make sure to pack at least two more pairs of underwear than I think I will need. Just in case. 

Fast forward 15 years.

My very first group of IB students wanted to do an experiment on plants for their group 4 project. Now, this is embarrassing for me to admit this as a biology teacher, but botany is not my thing, I have actually managed to kill an ivy. So I confessed to them that I had a “black thumb”. Unfortunately, a few of the boys in the back of the room mistakenly heard me say “black thong”.  You can imagine the looks of horror on their faces. Talk about your TMI!  This snafoo eventually evolved into my thong theory. Whenever my students prepare for exams, I tell them to always pack two more statements than the number of marks they might expect for an essay question. Then when faced with an essay on the exam, they should choose their best “pairs of underwear” for the occasion.

You can apply this metaphor to many of life’s experiences outside of class such as job interviews, presentations, rushing a frat, getting out of jury duty, or surviving winter.  In life you have to be ready for the unexpected. Apply this theory and you will always show up prepared....with clean underwear I might add.

6) The biography of your life will be written on Instagram. What do you want it to say? Which parts of your life do you want to go viral? Author, Austin Kleon advises us to, "Share something small everyday. Open up your cabinet of curiosities, think process not product, tell good stories and teach what you know." Write your own biography and engage the world with snapshots of your life...


I for one, am going to add this moment to my biography by posting a selfie of me giving this speech with all of you in the background. It will go nicely with that photo of those two students playing video games before their Spanish exam.  Smile!


5) Laugh loudly, laugh often, and most importantly laugh at yourself.

Studies show that laughter lowers your blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, gives you an ab workout, improves cardiac health, boosts your T-cells, triggers the release of endorphins, and contributes to an overall sense of well-being. Who wouldn’t want that?  

I am calling it now, Esha Gogri is going to outlive us all.  She has the BEST. LAUGH. EVER!  On days when I was feeling a bit stressed or overwhelmed, I secretly plotted to do or say something that would set her off.

You have all provided me with a wealth of laughter over the years. Right now a montage of moments floods through my mind, like that time I had to get a rabies shot after attempting to take Cami’s test from her before she was finished... or that time that Rehan forgot to wear shoes to school.... or when Sanam became Gille’s muse for his slasher sculpture of her face... or Bang’s handmade “wallet” that was more like a felt Christmas tree ornament... or Ameera’s pretty pink “death trap” castle of immunity... or Mehernaz’s 10th grade badminton presentation... or that time she came to school with a black eye and a chipped tooth...from a relaxing session of yoga....  or Yash’s 55” home entertainment center he called a computer... or Aaron ... I am going to miss that smile... or Andrew’s “fake” tattoo... Sorry about trying to peel it off .... or how about that time that Gopika ate her twin ...

But thankfully that good old filter neuron is inhibiting that motor neuron that leads to my mouth... and all that I can say, one last time is, Sleutel! (inside joke)

While procrastinating the other day, I was scrolling through the book of faces, and there was a quote that resonated with me, by one of my favorite country singers, Reba McEntire. 

I think that the last one is most important, for those times when the other two don’t seem to be working out so well.

Speaking of procrastination....

4) Hit it and quit it! or as we say in TX, Git ‘er done! Procrastination is not your friend nor is it mine. I am very proud of all that my bio students accomplished.... IN THE END. If only you had adhered to #5 for the first 20 months, I wouldn’t have to dye my hair.

In life there are deadlines.  Make sure you meet them putting your best work forward.  

3) What happens in biology…. doesn’t really stay in biology. Circles of trust are never what you expect them to be. Words uttered in the whispers of gossip or the heat of the moment will leak out. Not everyone can boast such a strong filter neuron as myself ;-). Trust yourself. One of my dad’s favorite life lessons that he played on repeat ad nauseum was, “Before you do or say anything, make sure it passes the three gates. Is it true? Is it kind? and Is it necessary?” My advice... Get a cat. You can gossip and blow off steam until your heart’s content...Besides cats always look at you as if you have done or said something awful anyway… if you don’t like cats get a nice plant. I recommend an ivy, I hear they are hard to kill. Find your moral compass, and stay true to it.

The great Maya Angelou once said:

2) Empathy is not just a buzzword. Every class seems to have a collective character. Ask any one of your teachers and they will give you a few adjectives that describe each class... not all of them are flattering. For the last two years, one word has always come to mind first when I describe the class of 2015 and that word is nice.  In a world where a person’s self worth is determined by how many likes their selfie has on Facebook or Instagram, you guys sure do like a lot of selfies! 

All kidding aside, you have no idea what a great compliment this is. Every year I have a pile of letters of recommendation to write. Each one has to be unique and embody the true character and potential of a student in the best light possible. This can be tricky. One thing that we are always asked to do on rec forms is to list a few words that describe each applicant. What words would come to mind when people describe you? Are they accurate? Are kind, empathetic, and compassionate part of that list? Does your list reflect how you want to be seen by others?

If not, now is your chance to change perceptions.  

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for the first time when I was in 7th grade. Despite being written in 1960, one of Atticus’s lessons to Scout has stayed with me for the past 30 years:

Be kind first and foremost in life, and you will find fulfillment. Give back. You will find that the reward far outweighs any cost to you.

1)You and you alone are the architect of your future.

Again, I call on Matthew McConaughey to help me articulate my final point...

“Process of elimination is the first step to our identity. Defining ourselves by what we are NOT is the first step that leads us to really KNOWING WHO WE ARE.”

I promise, I stopped reading his speech at this point, or “my” speech would be entitled, Matthew McConaughey’s Top Ten Truths with Three Spare Pairs of Underwear. When I was your age, I was on a kick of reading epic novels. The bigger, the better, the greater the sense of accomplishment. That was when I discovered my first book crush, Howard Roarke in The Fountainhead. What a brilliant novel... Ayn Rand heralded objectivism, ethics of rational self-interest, egoism, and profit-seeking selfishness. Individualism trumped collectivism in her novel...   and it made me sick to my stomach. I hated all of it. To this day it remains in my top 5  list of books because at the age of 18, I finally had my first clue about my OWN identity...because of who I was not.  For the past 18 years your parents, teachers, friends and mentors have been trying to define you. We have projected our own hopes, dreams and values onto you with the best of intentions. We have pushed you to take certain classes, apply to certain universities, to choose certain careers, and align yourself with certain friends... or certain boyfriends (I apologize for that last one... you know who you are).

TODAY, we hand the control over to you. Reflect deeply on all of your life’s experiences and ELIMINATE those options day by day until one day you find the real you. Then define your own success and find joy in everything that you do.

Life’s just too short to do it any other way.  

This brings me to the end of my speech. It was no elevator speech but it did have elevators in it...that should count for something. I want you to know how very proud I am of each and everyone of you. I am a better person for having known you for these past four years and I will treasure the time that we’ve had together. I wish you all the best in your future and know that I will be following your biographies closely on Instagram.  

Thank you again and congratulations.