The Class of 2015 graduated on Friday, June 12, 2015. The Commencement Address was given by departing faculty member and Director of Alumni Relations, Bryant Palmer.
Mr. Palmer’s Commencement Address to the RSS Class of 2015
June 12, 2015
Mr. Palmer: “Helloooooooooo, 8th grade!”
Kiddos: “Helloooooooooo, Mr. Palmer!”
So a couple of months after the start of my eighth grade year, my family moved from a small town in Alabama to another small town, this one in Florida. Of course this means I had to start attending a new school. I was hoping my new school would be glamorous in a sun-soaked and beachy sort of way, like the schools attended by teenagers on some of the shows I watched on TV. Turns out, this was not the case. Instead my new school was kind of terrifying. The kids smoked cigarettes in the bathrooms. They got in fistfights in the faculty parking lot. They cursed in front of teachers. They thought I was a genius just because I did my homework.
A few weeks after I got to this new school, I was walking down this long sidewalk while classes were in session—I can’t remember why—and there were three guys walking toward me from the other direction. I had an ominous feeling before they reached me, and sure enough, right after we passed each other, just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief that nothing had happened, these three guys turned back toward me and grabbed me—one of them grabs my arm here, another one grabs my arm over here, the third jumps in front and grabs my legs—and they pick me up and carry me, literally carry me, like fifteen feet away, which happens to be the location of the nearest trash can, and when we get to the trash can they lift me up higher and put me into it, feet first. They’re silent this whole time, which is its own sort of creepy, until I’m in the trash can, and then they burst into laughter and run away. This is how I find myself alone, standing in a trash can in a place I hate, in the third month of my 8th grade year.
Here’s the strange part of this story, though. If you’d asked me a day after this happened whether I’d ever been bullied, I’m pretty sure the 8th grade me would have answered no. I had been—and there were other incidents at this new school I could tell you about, too—but I just could not believe that I was a person who other people would want to pick on. This is probably not surprising to any of you who know me well, but I thought I was kind of awesome. I was nice to people and I was really good at school and I had a lot of friends back in Alabama. I refused to let these mean kids at this new school make me feel like I wasn’t special.
Now I don’t think any of you are going to be dumped in a trash can at your new schools next year, but there is a chance you’ll encounter some difficult moments. I guess the lesson of this story is that no matter what, you should never let other people determine who you are, or what you’re worth. Your value is not decided by the opinions of others. Honestly, though, I don’t think you need me to tell you this, because I’m pretty sure you already know it. You already know so much more than I did at age 14. That is one of the reasons I admire you. There are many other reasons. And I want to tell you some of them.
I admire the way Sophia treated herself like a professional journalist when she interviewed me for a newspaper article a couple of months ago. I admire the distinct and sharp wit of Elizabeth, and the sassiness of Nora, and the way Yulia and Arianna both carry themselves with such dignity and confidence. I admire Emi’s graceful dedication to being her best self, and Evan and Lewis for how much they embrace the things they care about, and Henry’s strict adherence to what’s correct, even when he shows that by pointing out mistakes we let slip in the yearbook. I admire the enthusiasm and creativity that Erica brought to all of her design ideas as we made the yearbook. And I admire Jordy and Rachel for their appreciation of literature, which reminds me every time we talk about books why I loved teaching English.
I admire Spencer’s competitive streak, the high standard he sets for himself because he always wants to win—in part because I’m the same way—and I admire how AnaBella embraces every single role that she plays, and I admire Zan, because she doesn’t even know this, but a couple of months ago when I was having a particularly bad day, I ran into Zan in the hallway, and she said hello to me and asked me how I was doing in such a genuine and caring way that I immediately started to feel better. I admire Sam Lipin for his bold and original sense of style and Sam Perman for pursuing one of his passions so fully.
I admire Alberto for his generosity of spirit (and for teaching me how to play Settlers of Catan), and I admire Cleo for her leadership on the Purim shpiel, which really was one of the best we’ve ever seen since we started our middle school. I admire Emily Bach for helping turn the fifth grade portion of that year’s poetry assembly into a beautiful and true moment of artistic expression. I admire Bradley and Daniel for their dedication to building apps that people want and need to play and use, and Michelle for her artistic vision and talent, and the thoughtfulness that inspired Oliver to bring me a tube of toothpaste in fifth grade after we had an intense discussion about fluoride.
I admire Katie’s self-possession and kindness, how Asher could be both funny and intense on the tennis court during practices this year, Annie’s matter-of-fact way of sharing her opinions, and Josh’s willingness to do a silly dance just about anywhere. I admire Shade’s uncanny ability to be presidential at the age of fourteen. I admire Samantha for her dry and poignant sense of humor and Alex for being decent all the time. I admire the friendship of Emily and Hayley and Chloe and Rachelle and Ella and Talia, which in a lot of ways reminds me of my closest group of friends, because they treat that friendship like the special force that it is, because they already understand that life is more fun when it’s shared with people you love.
I admire Ezra for the diversity of his interests and how wide-ranging our conversations have been, and I admire Daphne, dear Dar Dar Binks, for playing along so gamely with a running joke we’ve shared for almost four years. Last but not least, I admire Nicky, with whom I made a pact in the fifth grade that we’d survive the zombie apocalypse together, who told me two days ago that he’d be mad if I didn’t mention him by name in my speech and, without even realizing it, inspired this entire part of it.
You are a special group of young people. And I think one of the reasons we’ve had so much fun together this year is because we have a lot in common. I enjoy telling people that I’ve worked at Rodeph Sholom School since the dawn of time. By “dawn of time” I mean 1999. But in just a few weeks I’m moving to Denver, Colorado, to help my brother-in-law open a food hall. And you’re getting ready to leave for different schools. Leaving this place is a huge transition for all of us. But here’s some good news: we are taking so much of this place with us. That’s one of the reasons this is such an extraordinary institution. It’s inside us. It’s a part of who we are. It’s more than a building, or a couple of buildings, and it’s more than a diploma and it’s more than a job. Sure, we’ve got one of the strongest academic programs in New York City, probably in the country. But we’re more than that. Our school embodies a way of looking at the world, a way of reflecting on our places in it, and then acting accordingly, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of others, and that’s not going to stop when graduation is over.
Here’s what we have to do, then, as we get ready to leave. We have to figure out ways to make the next places we go as much like RSS as possible. Because imagine what kind of world we’d create if every person felt as supported and as connected and as inspired and as understood as we feel here. I’ve thought about what I’d say to myself if I could go back in time and talk to the 8th grade me standing in a trash can. Probably the first thing I’d say would be, Dude, get out of the trash can. But then I’d also say look, kiddo, this awful experience is going to be okay, more than okay, because it’s going to inspire you to do something pretty special: you’re going to become a teacher, and you’re going to work really hard to make sure that lots and lots of young people have a positive middle school experience that does not involve being stuffed in a trash can. I hope your middle school experience inspires you, too, that you work hard to keep becoming the best version of yourself, that you look for ways to help other people do the same thing, and not just the people you like the most but everyone you encounter. This is what your education here all comes down to, having the confidence and self-possession to be okay no matter what happens to you, and understanding your responsibility as a graduate of this school, that your job in life is to contribute goodness and thoughtfulness and kindness to whatever thing you’re doing, whatever place you’re spending time.
I love our school so much. And I loved being your teacher. Coaching you in tennis and leading the philanthropy program and producing the yearbook with you, even though you never stopped talking – those are experiences I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. I am so proud of you for what you’ve accomplished in your time here, for how much you’ve grown, for how much you embrace and embody what it means to be from Rodeph Sholom School. Take care of yourselves, and the world, and one another. Be nice to everybody. Please come visit Stanley Marketplace in Denver. And be good. We love you.