My Graduation Speech for the Vistamar Class of 2021

Hello all,

Last time I sent one of these out it was talking out why I was all hot on a crypto social media platform. Honestly I am still there, but I won't bore you with that today.
(Don't all sigh in relief at once...)

Most of you know that I am a teacher at Vistamar School. And at the end of this long, strange, and weird school year I had the great honor of being nominated by the graduating class to be the faculty speaker for their graduation dinner. (Well it wasn't a dinner this year, we were all seated in a huge banquet tent- but the honor was no less tarnished by that.)

I sweated this speech like I've sweated very few things professionally. By reading time, I had no sense of whether it was working or not, but I am happy to report that it was well received. I got very positive feedback from the administration and parents, and most importantly, the students. I had a number of requests for copies of the speech, so I transcribed it and dropped in the slides that I had created. I thought you might enjoy it also.

Longtime readers of this newsletter might recognize some of the topics as things that I had worked out here first. There was an economic benefit for that, as I had already written parts of the speech. But in the end, the stories that I included best fit the themes. And they were all things that I needed to hear and learn at the time that I wrote them. Besides, all five of the longtime readers here have probably forgotten them. I had almost forgotten them as well.

There are some inside jokes that don't travel well outside of Vistamar, things like the Miot Scale, named after a beloved and habitually wisecracking colleague of mine (I'm glad he has such a good sense of humor!)
But I hope that you find most of this speech entertaining and thoughtful, despite the few inside jokes.

I hope you're doing well and hope to communicate with you more soon. Enjoy!

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First of all, thank you all for your faith in me. The fact that more than half of you think I could do this without completely embarrassing myself, or boring you, is at once frightening and humbling. I’m pretty nervous! My grandma would say something like “You’re more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room fulla rocking chairs”. And I knew some of you would not know what that phrase means, so I added that gif in the corner to help.
When I was told that I was nominated to address this class and their families, I did a little research into speeches like this. They often include some humor and some wisdom. And trying to come up with something possibly wise to impart, I thought of this diagram on the left. I made it years ago to help me with my own work and I return to it often. And I’ve found that it’s applicable to many things. So I’m going to tell you a handful of stories, each of which will illustrate the importance of these qualities.

Also in preparation for this address, I thought back to my own graduation. But that was pretty useless because I don’t actually remember it at all. Which frankly, is a liberating and comforting thought in this moment. Perhaps some of you will be lucky enough to forget this speech also.
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I suspect that I was nominated for this honor for one reason in particular- my uncanny ability to roast you all mercilessly. As illustrated on this graph, you can see that I rate pretty high on the “Miot Scale”, a Vistamar Teacher’s only concrete assessment of our abilities.

And here might be the problem, because my rating on this scale is likely based on my quick and timely responses to the ridiculous things that you’ve all said or done in these last four years.

Like the time I shushed one of you during an all-school assembly and you deflected your embarrassment by looking at my clothes and declaring me a “style icon”. And I replied with “I only wish I was your ‘shut up during an assembly’ icon.”
Or the time in class when I put up a picture of Bob Ross saying “Don’t Vape” and every time someone asked to go to the bathroom, I would look at them gravely and say “Be a friend to Bob.”
Or any time that any of you have complained about my musical taste in class, so I’ve started the song over, turned it up, and said cheerfully “I’m sorry I can’t hear you with all of this great music on!”
Or the time I just let out a long, sad, and defeated curse word in front of a class when one of you said that a sneezing attack meant that you might be pregnant.
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So the formal nature of this address will not inspire the improvised withering remarks that you’re all so fond of. But to do this evening justice, I will have to rely on my second most useful trait as a teacher.

I will attempt to impart this information by showing you some of the art and things that I love. Like the many days that I have played “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman on endless repeat in my class. You all begged me to change it, then laughed about it, then fell in love with “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman because she is a goddamn national treasure and I bet you have that song on a playlist now.
(Incidentally “Goddamn” is not the expletive that I muttered in “Sneeze Pregnancy” class.)

I think this subtle focus on a more heartfelt address will work, because whether it’s a snide retort, or a quick one liner, or a boring class lecture on how I am in fact not a “Boomer” (I’m GEN-X) you have always been respectful and kind to me. Maybe that’s because we actually started at Vistamar together. You will always be my graduating class.
And our rapport is even more solid, because I think you all know that I actually respect you a great deal. We have built a rich moral bank account these last four years. And, pandemic aside, you have weathered some noble experiments at Vistamar, like your freshman year when you were the only grade ever to participate in an Art Survey course, taking three involuntary arts courses in one year. Most of you had never taken a Digital Media course, but in our class you made some good stuff.
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Like this image where one of you photoshopped Danny Devito’s head on a bunch of Doritos- er sorry. “Devitos”.
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Or this Neil “De Grass” Tyson (I believe that one is up in the hallway, if you want to take a closer look later.)

I really do admire you all so much, and I am blessed to have spent four years as a part of your education. Even if we’ve only just met this year- or the few of you that I have never had the chance to have in my class- I hope that I have been a small but positive part of your education, even if only for the next 10 minutes. And I thank you for the opportunity to participate in this special way during these last few days of your high school career. Let’s get started.

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If you’ve taken any of my classes you’ve probably heard my speech on talent at least once. I think the idea of talent and genius does more harm than good. The weird idea that some of us are supernaturally selected to receive some advantage in a skill actually devalues hard work and practice- the things which I have found to be much more important factors in success than natural talent. And the idea of genius puts undue stress on people to produce great works that might influence and inspire, instead of leveraging their creativity by removing the pressures of production, and uplifting them to feel free to play- an integral component of growth. This idea starts when we’re young and persists through adulthood, and it can create a barrier between us. It keeps people separate from what I think is the most basic human activity, to express ourselves.

And in the history of Western Art- the Eurocentric portion of human creation that is most hamstrung by this notion- there are few works more well known than the sculpture David by Michelangelo. And there is a story told about it’s unveiling that perpetuates the idea of genius:
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It’s 1504 in Florence, Italy.
And the story goes that at the unveiling, a spectator asked Michelangelo how he could make such an incredible and sensitive masterpiece from a blank and ugly block of marble.

Michelangelo replied “It was very simple, all I did was chip away everything that didn't look like David.”

Now, it’s very easy for a master of any discipline to quip about their work. But the fact is that David is not the product of “Genius.” Even if we set aside the fact that Michelangelo had four assistants to help him carve the piece, he got those assistants because he spent years flailing about with his craft- sometimes as an assistant to others- learning the practical skills required to make sculptures. Things like how to choose the right piece of marble from a quarry. How to properly hit a chisel with a hammer, and the precise angle and the right force needed to take off what he wants. He needs to know when to stop. And to learn that he would have had to have gone too far, at least once.

He had to practice for hours to learn how to polish David's eyes into symmetry, and how to carve a furrow into his brow. He learned how to structure curled locks of tangled hair on the side of the head without slipping on his ladder and sending David's ear crashing 14 feet to the dusty studio floor. He knows what Contrapposto is and how to use it. He knows that David's hand which holds the fateful stone is hanging down and therefore would have more blood in it and he knows how to represent the pulsing pressure of a living vein in marble- he's studied models and cadavers and so also knows the path that the vein would follow.

That's all a heck of a lot more than just chipping away the parts that aren't David. Hard work, study, practice and dedication is more valuable than talent.

But perhaps the most insulting part of this legend is not that it completely ignores the years of work that Michelangelo has put into being really good at sculpting, it’s that the story isn’t even true. It never happened.
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Michelangelo never said that line. An anecdote that became this story was first printed 150 years ago in England, and in the resulting time it has traveled across oceans, and been attributed to many different artists before finally being attached to Michelangelo and his sculpture. The first mention of this story ever being about him is from an educational journal printed in the 1960’s. (It makes you wonder about the facts you might find in educational journals…)

But for some reason, we needed to make up this story, we still want it to be true.

And I think this story persists because believing in genius over work can let us off the hook. Then, when we might stumble or fail, we can point to something else- something outside of us as the fault- instead of getting up and trying again. And again.
When someone does better than us, succeeds in something before us, we can just say “I’m not that talented.” or “Not everyone gets to be a genius”

But I hope that you all have learned at this school that failing can actually be really useful. I hope that along with devaluing the genius model, we might have also illustrated that you stand to learn more from your failures than successes.
Success tends to inspire well trodden paths, but failure inspires study, practice, and risk.
Whatever the challenge or the cause, remember that to fail is to have an opportunity to do it better next time.
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And there is one more thing to learn from this sculpture before we end this topic, and it’s the choice of moment.

The biblical David was actually a popular subject in renaissance art. There were a lot of David sculptures before Michelangelo's version. As a matter of fact, I bet all of the Ninja Turtles made at least one David- I know Donatello did.
Anyway, pretty much everyone before had portrayed him in the same way: In the aftermath of his fight with Goliath- David as victorious. He was often sculpted standing on Goliath's severed head, with his enemy's oversized sword in his youthful hand. Occasionally David was even depicted rearing back to swing his slingshot with all the force and dynamism of a Jack Kirby comic book.

But Michelangelo's really interesting innovation here is that he breaks with that tradition and chooses to focus on another time; the time right before the fight. And the tension of that moment is displayed in subtle places- like those veins in the hand, and the weight of the feet. In this moment, David has committed himself to the battle of his life and his preparation for what is coming next can be seen in his delicately worked and skillfully furrowed brow. Michelangelo is using his understanding of the figure to make a pose that conveys confidence, wariness and resolution.
Instead of showing a simpler story of intellect beating brute force, Michelangelo spent 4 years of his life creating an homage to the moment that lies between choice and action, the moment of pure potential.

In David's face you don't see victory, you see determination and focus on the future. He trusts and is prepared.

David could throw a rock, and Michelangelo could sculpt one.

And it’s worth noting that YOU all have spent 4 years of your lives getting to this same moment. You are right now, in that time between choice and action.

And all of us here tonight think that you are prepared, and we trust in your success.

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Sometimes we need more than skill, practice and hard work. To innovate you need outside influence, no matter what field. As this quote suggests it can sometimes be a matter of simply connecting previously-unconnected things.

Marshall Arisman is a world renown illustrator and painter and one of my artistic heroes for the reasons I’m about to explain. To me illustration is a form of fine art, and not many artists can show that as well as Arisman.

But when Marshall Arisman was fresh out of art school and trying to build a career in illustration he tried to follow the advice of every art director that would talk to him. He followed the trends and popular style, and incorporated everyone’s opinion on success into his work. And he was unhappy.
He found that his work had little clarity- that he hadn’t developed anything that you would consider a "voice". He was constantly behind the curve because he was following trends in his field instead of creating new ones. He was barely scraping by, he was unchallenged, and he was miserable.
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So he decided to start over.
He sat down and made a list of things outside of art that he felt he had a real working knowledge of. This list included 3 items: Animals (Because he grew up on a farm), Hunting (Because he grew up on a farm) and Psychic Phenomenon (because his grandmother considered herself a clairvoyant and it had a deep effect on him growing up.) So he stopped listening to other people’s advice on how to be successful, stopped trying to make work that fit an existing genre, and began to make work that involved these outside things instead. And surprisingly, he found himself getting hired.
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Work started piling up for him. All kinds of interesting and previously unseen doors opened up, because he was using his interests and intuitions as a source, and bending it towards the job. He invited influences outside of what he was taught, and he found that he could apply his working knowledge to solve many art problems.
In short, once he set out to make work that stepped outside of popular thought in his field- work that reflected his understanding and curiosity, his work stood out, and everything seemed to click. At least, he was happier.

Pulling from diverse influences and finding connections that no one else has stumbled across yet is the key to creative success in any field. If we could all make a list like Arisman did, and if we allow our work to be influenced by experiences from anywhere outside of our discipline, then we can innovate. And with less effort, we can set ourselves apart from the pack.

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So we’ve talked about the importance of study and work, and we’ve talked about the simple benefit of connecting previously unconnected things. Now we’ll talk about what you might bring to the process.

When I started working at Vistamar 4 years ago, I had 2 greyhound dogs. If you know Greyhounds, you know that they're almost comical in their un-dog-ness. First, they all look emaciated- and they’re supposed to. They skulk around the house, peeking around the doorways, and they split their legs like giraffes at a waterhole when they try to pick a scrap up off the floor. They rarely sit on their haunches like a normal dog. Some of them never figure out how to use stairs because they have never seen them. They’re like some kind of goofy deer in your home, and they sleep 16 hours a day- mostly on their backs on the couch- their spindly and bony legs spasming and kicking the cushions, trying to win another race in their dreams.

But you take them to a field to give them the space to do what they know and all of a sudden, in a split second, they make perfect sense. They snap into shape and they're a miracle of organic machinery.
Greyhounds have suffered centuries of breeding and horrible abuse to end up this way. They are born and bred to be moving at 45 miles an hour for 5 minutes a day. Their entire being supports this, and believe it or not dealing with all of that silliness and awkwardness in a pet is so worth it to see them run. And this part is key- not to see them win some race, the rules of which they don’t even comprehend- Just to see them run free in a field. And better yet to see the smile on their panting face when they've been allowed to access their purpose.

What do YOU look like when you access your potential? What funny, or strange shape do you have that is unique to you? Perhaps something that you’ve always been made fun of for, that made you feel like an outsider, that might even rub people the wrong way until they can see it bent to purpose? Maybe some personality quirk or way of looking at the world that doesn’t quite fit in everywhere you go. We all have them, and they’re the most important part of us, because it lets us be unique.
They make us a perfect shape.

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It is a blessing to see an object at its potential, even more so when that object is a person. It's a rare treat. This kind of lightning can be fleeting and momentary and, if it happens in an auditorium, people will give it a standing ovation.

I think that understanding the importance of Study, Influence and the Individual is the best way to capture that lightning in a bottle.

I heard the writer Harry Crews say in an interview once that “The world persists in removing our edges. Society favors the ‘well rounded person.’ But don’t forget that everything important comes from Jagged People.”

He cautioned that “Institutions take our teeth away.”

I believe that this institution does better than that. And I hope that while you’ve been at this school, you’ve found the value of study, practice, and dedication to a craft. That you’ve been given time to discover some of these things that are unique to you, and I hope you’ve been opened to new experiences as a way to enrich and guide your life after Vistamar.

When you put empathy, curiosity and kindness down as the guiding principles for growth and success, those jagged edges you may have, actually become your strengths.

And I'm thinking that the best thing you can do when you walk out of this tent tomorrow, is come to terms with these things and use them to be your perfect shape.

Then in your perfect shape, you have an obligation to move- to express yourself, and to make our world a richer place.

You are indeed my graduating class, and I will miss you terribly. Thanks for all that you have taught me, and for restoring the faith of this aging Gen-Xer (not a Boomer).

Knowing you has made my own future brighter indeed. Thank you.
And thank YOU for reading.
If you are on this list because of my art, you might be interested to know that my site is regularly updated. Feel free to check back in there.
A while back I posted an in-depth youtube video showing my process for a recent painting. I hope you enjoy it. There's a little narrative going on in that video that makes me laugh.

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