Just thought I’d share a few images from tonight’s National Honor Society induction at John F. Kennedy High, as well as my remarks. I was flattered that they’d asked me to be the keynote speaker.
Dear inductees, family members, faculty and special guests, I am honored to be asked to make remarks at tonight’s induction ceremony. This rite of passage that is the induction into the National Honor Society is initiated by what these amazing young people have already achieved and what they’ve left behind in their wake, but it’s also a time for us to reflect on what lies ahead.
When the NHS began to recognize high school students in 1929, there were four central principles upon which the organization was to operate. They are “to create enthusiasm for scholarship, to stimulate a desire to render service, to promote leadership, and to develop character in the students of secondary schools.” These young inductees are showing their marked enthusiasm for scholarship by having achieved the academic prowess to earn the grades to be nominated, but while it’s so easy to stop there and rest on your laurels, it’s not the only thing that this organization, and your nominators, see in you and hope for you…and certainly expect of you.
The other goals of membership in NHS are service, leadership and character. We all know what service is. We all know that our American society is founded on the bedrock that is a culture of sharing and assistance to those in need. We all understand the concept of “barn raising.” You see, I believe that these four principles of the National Honor Society follow along the thinking of one of my personal heroes, Thomas Jefferson, who as you know is one of the founders of our nation. In 1818, he laid out his rationale for having a public education system, which was
“…to give every citizen information he needs for the transaction of his own business – To enable him to calculate for himself, express and preserve his own ideas, contracts and accounts in writing. – To improve by reading, his morals and faculties. – To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either. – To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor, and judgment. – And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.”
Now, I have to call out with special emphasis one of his points, “To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.”
This is where we see the intersection of the NHS principles of rendering service and promoting leadership. By these words, one of the main framers of our beloved Constitution is saying that knowledge and academic achievement should not exist for their own sake. Instead, he clearly spells out that being educated means knowing how to be of service.
So…what is this “being of service” thing all about?
One dictionary defines it as “to be ready to help or be useful.” The Christian bible, in Matthew 25, talks about “doing for the least of these.” Mahatma Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Now, while you inductees may never find yourself in a war of independence against the British colonial army, my advice to you is to always start with the simplest ways of being of service, those unglamorous but ethical demonstrations of integrity that must be part of your human framework first…before you ever begin to tackle the large societal problems of the day. Inductees, I’m talking about the basics of kindness and humility. The little things you do every day are going to add up to big things. In other words, don’t ever forget to speak up against bullying. Never miss an opportunity to help carry a physical or even an emotional load for a fellow student. Scour your mind for encouraging words for that classmate that just can’t seem to get a break. One of my favorite quotes about ethics is, “integrity is doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching.” These are the building blocks of good citizenship, and as the English poet, Samuel Johnson said, “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”
If your scholarship is not grounded in what is good and decent and right and just and kind and humble, it will be of no use to anyone at all…especially not to you.
With regard to leadership, I encourage you to take on the mantle of the servant leader. Lao Tzu, the founder of the Taoist philosophy, says, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Your job as leaders, and certainly the purpose of your scholarship, is to not promote yourselves as the only solution. Rather, it’s to help others find the strength in themselves. It’s to promote the voice of your community and to clear the underbrush so that they can move forward of their own volition. I know this is imagery that is totally different from what we imagine about leadership. I know the world always holds up the solo voice, the lone wolf, the maverick, as the example of leadership. But think about the quiet work that the adults around you do to help you get to where you are. Think about how they throw themselves into the task of facilitating your success…I mean not only your parents, but also your teachers, Ms. Peppel, your coaches and advisors…they’re all dedicated to the task of helping you shine. This does not mean that you will never speak truth to power on behalf of your community; in fact, you will be remiss if you do not do that. But I ask you to always let yourself be guided by what your community needs, by what it clamors for…and not so much by what you think they need. I ask you to always be open to dialog and to wisdom from the most unlikely of sources. I can tell you from personal experience that this is the true path of leadership and the way that leads to joy and a sense of true satisfaction and a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it’s in the rough edges of community that you will find the most profound of ideas and the most simple and logical of solutions. Let the voice of the people always be your moral compass.
So I again express to you my gratitude for letting me serve as a simple guidepost on your life’s path. Your community is proud of you. We reflect on the ways in which you have grown and in the strength of scholarship and advocacy that you’ve already shown, which we recognize here today through your induction into the National Honor Society. The namesake of this wonderful school, President John F. Kennedy, said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Let tonight mark the turning point in your existence in which you committed to be a lifelong learner and therefore a lifelong leader. Congratulations to you all.