Words to Class of 2018 in final assembly

When I was 21, I spent a year backpacking around China. It was thirty years ago, and I don’t remember everything, but there was a moment among the many that I often think about. I was on a long train ride – and when I say long I mean 36 hours; trains were slower then. It was hot afternoon, with the sun low and a warm glow in the air. The train had stopped for no obvious reason; and I was looking out of the window at a man, probably about as old as I am now, working in the rice-fields through which the train passed. He was, I guess, only about 20 yards away, and I could see him very well – he was wearing long trousers, and a t-shirt. I don’t remember exactly what he was doing, but I watched him for, I guess, 15 minutes. He was not aware of me. Then the train jolted into motion, and he looked up, and we met each others eyes. As the train moved away he did not wave, but we both nodded to each other, and held each others eyes for 30 second until the track curved away. The train pulled on. I have never seen this man again, and never will – if I did I would not know him, even if he is still alive. He would certainly not recognise me.

But I have often wondered about him: Did he have a family? Was he happy? What were his hopes and dreams? Did he achieve them? What was his home like? Did he work for himself or someone else? Did he enjoy his work? Did he read?  Had we ever read the same books? Would we enjoy each other’s company? Would we make each other laugh if we ever met? Was he satisfied with a life well lived?

And I realised, as I have thought about tis over the years, that these questions are questions we most often ask only about ourselves, or family or close friends. We do not ask them, or even consider them, about most people. If fact, we rarely see others as even having interests like the ones these questions address; we tend to see most others as just minor characters in the plays in which we have the leading roles. But the questions still matter. And then a recent graduate wrote to me and mentioned a word that summed up what was quite an important moment for me, all those years ago:

Sonder:  the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own (here’s quite a good short video on the topic)

We tend to forget this.  We forget that each person in this room is living a life as vivid and complex as our own. We tend to think that people around us somehow owe us, or that their purpose is to somehow make our lives easier.  Of course parents and to some extent schools do play that role – but as we grow up, less and less so.
So days like today, where we are celebrating our Leavers –  give us the chance to recall that everyone’s going through the same thing as we are; we are all living our lives, trying to do the best we can – we are all alike in this.

You may know sonder with your friends and family, but it’s with people who are very different to you where you will actually learn the most – perhaps people from a different culture, perhaps grandparents, or with service partners, or some of our cleaners if you have had the privilege of getting to know them. You’ll gain a great deal from them – with the elderly, for example, you’ll see that their present, is a way of looking into your own, distant futures.

So I would ask us to consider this realisation that everyone is living a life as vivid and complex as our own. And to remember that our perspective is one of, in this room alone, less than a thousand individuals.  All these individuals live a life that is equally valuable, with equally valuable concerns, cares, loves, worries, hopes and dreams,

We need to remember that, when we need to – which is precisely when it is hardest.  And that brings us back to leaving, where in an understandable excitement we can be caught up in our own perspectives, and forget that others matter.  I want to remind you of that; if everyones’ perspectives counts as much as our own, then we need to be mindful of others when we leave.

So, Grade 12, leave well. Be remembered for your ingenuity, your sense of fun, your sense of inclusion. Be remembered for being kind – not just to your friends; that’s easy – but also to the people who have made everything you have done here possible – support staff, facilities staff, cleaners and teachers; and also the people you may not have gotton along with, or whom you may have fallen out with. Remember sonder, that these people have just the same inner lives as you do; and they deserve the same respect as you do. One mark of a grown-up is the ability to give and receive apologies in good grace; so close your time here ensuring you have mended any fences that need mending. If you can do that, if you can laugh withpeople, not at people, you will be creating something that enhances, not diminishes, the reputation you have worked so hard over the years to establish. Most of all, you will be remembered for your generosity of spirit and for the kindness of your consideration.

So Grade 12 and all other leavers; leave well.

Let me close by acknowledging what we teachers know, what your parents know, what future employers will know, and what research tells us: that your futures are not determined by your exam results; that your rich inner lives, your hopes and dreams, are not determined by the next few weeks. Your success will be measured in the kindness and integrity of your actions, your ability to see other perspectives, the quality of your thinking, and the strengths of your friendships; not in an academic qualification.

I say that to Grade 12, but really, the message is for us all – that the really important successes or failures in our lives do not happen at discrete points, but throughout our daily lives; they are in our control everyday.

We wish you all the very best.

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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