Christine Todd Whitman

Deerfield Academy Commencement Address - May 28, 1995

Christine Todd Whitman
May 28, 1995— Deerfield, Massachusetts
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Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, friends, families, and especially today's graduates: Thank you for inviting me.

I'm going to start this speech in a slightly unusual way for a Republican -- by sharing a piece of advice I learned from the former Democratic Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. He said, "Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much."

That's a lesson I'll try to remember today.

Of course, it may be difficult advice to follow. As governor of New Jersey, I give a lot of commencement speeches, but this one is special. It's at one of the nation's premier secondary schools -- it's out-of-state -- it's for a group of students whom I've had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know over the past four years, and, with Kate in the class, it gives me the chance to truly embarrass my daughter!

But I will try to resist that urge and, instead, share just a few insights that might help you as you set out on new paths.

First, graduation is an important time -- a time for fun, a time for good byes, a time to make plans. But it is also a time to take stock about attitudes and direction in life.

When you leave behind the green and white and continue your journey through life, what will you take with you from your Deerfield years?

Beyond the facts and figures, the historical dates and mathematical equations -- all of which I think are important to learn, by the way -- I hope you'll take with you an ability to think critically and analyze information and situations well.

That means looking at both sides of an issue. Going beyond what you read in the paper. And yes, listening to one another. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." You can't hold opposed ideas if you refuse to hear them.

I commend Deerfield and its student body for tackling many difficult issues head on. I applaud the Deerfield Scroll for publishing thoughtful articles and editorials in which opposite sides on a variety of potentially divisive issues were discussed, debated, and championed.

But each of us here today -- and this goes double for those of us in public life -- needs to reexamine our commitment to listen to the other person's point of view. It doesn't matter whether you're on the left or the right of the political spectrum -- each of us owes one another a measure of civility to enhance and ennoble the level of public discourse in this country -- whether or not we agree with what we hear.

One of your classmates, Brooke Norman, said it better in an editorial. Brooke wrote, "Not agreeing with someone is a different thing altogether than refusing to listen to them....There will always be people out there whom we don't agree with, but we cannot hide from them forever."

I am happy to see that Deerfield has not been a hiding place for the Class of 1995. You have had solid preparation to confront the issues of the future. And it's a good thing, because as you go forward in the world, you will need that training more and more as we enter a new and exciting age of increased communication.

But don't confuse the information superhighway with the road to enlightenment. Just because you can "reach out and touch somebody" on the other side of the globe doesn't mean you're excused from reaching out to those in closer proximity -- your family, your neighbors, your classmates, your coworkers, or the person in trouble or alone. Only by bridging the gap between us will we make this world a better place.

Last year, while I was watching the Billy Joel/Elton John concert at Giants Stadium, I saw a young woman wearing a great T-shirt. It had a picture of the Cat-in-the-Hat meeting Calvin and Hobbes. The caption read, "In the strangest of places...Strangers stopping strangers just to shake hands."

I think we can all take a lesson from those cartoon characters. If they can break the boundaries of the funny pages to get to know each other, we can broaden our paths as well.

And I believe you will be amazed at how broad a reach members of your class will have in the future. I could be speaking right now to a future movie star, Nobel Prize winner, or President of the United States.

Well, I think I've already said more than enough, and we are all looking forward to the parties to come. But let me leave you with just a few last thoughts.

I know at my own graduations, excitement about the future was mixed with equal parts anxiety and sadness about leaving the past behind. But as you go forward, whatever you do and wherever you go, trust your instincts -- you know what is right and wrong. And be sure to take others along with you. Volunteer your time, contribute to worthy causes, and, yes, even consider public service.

There is no denying that you are a very fortunate class of young people -- a group of students who have had the advantage of one of the best -- if not the best -- secondary education possible. Keep in mind that to those whom "much is given, much is required."

And remember -- as you make your way in the world -- that your family should always occupy a central place in your life. When the cheering stops and the spotlight dims, you should have people in your lives who will love you and feel proud of you -- and whom you can love and be proud of too -- just as I do -- and I am -- today.

Thank you.

Copyright 1995 by Christine Whitman. All rights reserved.

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