No graduation ceremony was held when my daughter’s class finished 1st grade, so I was not invited to give the commencement address. But if I had been the featured speaker, I would have said something like this:
Thank you, Chancellor Walcott, for that kind introduction. Parents, principals, teachers, classmates, janitors, Mayor Bloomberg, thank you all for coming today. Most of all, to you graduating 1st-graders: Congratulations! Job well done! Most of you probably recognize me, because I’m the father of — yes, that’s right! But let’s not shout. Always raise your hands, because — OK, that was a mistake, because now all of your hands are up. Instead, let’s put on our listening ears, sit down, and let me say something really important.
The completion of 1st grade is truly a historic moment in your academic career. When you look back, you’ll realize that kindergarten, which seemed seriously important only last year, was just a warm-up for the grade you just completed. In kindergarten, teachers had to reinforce basic ideas such as “Share” and “Take turns” and “No ankle biting” and “Don’t laugh when another kid burps loudly in class.” First grade marked the start of REAL education — as I’m sure you realize, because you faced homework every weeknight. You learned to read and write. You learned basic addition. And you learned that, if a kid actually does burp loudly in class, it is OK to think it is funny so long as you don’t actually laugh out loud. These lessons will serve you well in the future.
Many years of education lie ahead of you. But only now, as you leave 1st grade and go to 2nd grade, will you find that you have doubled your grade number. A year from now, when you go from grade 2 to grade 3, your grade number will increase by just 50 percent. And between your junior and senior years of high school, going from grade 11 to grade 12, the number will increase by just 9 percent! So the leap from 1st to 2nd is truly historic! But now, as I gaze at your blank faces, I realize you haven’t yet learned percentages, so all this is going right over your heads. Also, I can see that many of you have noticed that Adam's mom is setting out cupcakes on the table, and you’re patiently waiting for me to finish talking.
So let’s move on. Eyes on me, thank you. In 2nd grade, most of you will be 7 years old, a crucial age for memory development. Because learning and memory are closely related, 2nd grade often marks the start of serious studying, so don’t expect to catch a moment’s break. It’s also the age when most children discover the advantages of using memory. From your parents’ perspective, one advantage is that we might not have to remind you every single morning where you put your stupid backpack. Another advantage is that you might help the old man find his keys or wallet now and then. Personally, this will be a big plus.
Second grade also will be your last relatively carefree year in school. In 3rd grade, you’ll face your first New York State standardized tests, the start of a long series of annual exams that will determine many things — from what middle school you can attend, to the price of real estate in this school zone. This 3rd-grade leap into standardized tests probably won’t affect you all that much. You’ll see testing as just another rung on the evolving academic ladder. But your parents will be affected in ways they can’t really show you. We grown-ups want you to do well on these silly tests, and we’ll help you prepare, but we know the onset of standardized testing will in some ways mean the end of the years when you learn simply for the sake of learning. Your moms and dads will seem a bit sadder when you’re in 3rd grade.
So I urge you to embrace your transition to 2nd grade. Next year, if you spot a caterpillar, pick it up and look closely at it. Ask your teachers questions about the caterpillar — what it eats, how it poops, whether it will become a moth or a butterfly. Second grade will probably be the last year when your teachers can answer such questions without worrying whether you’ll be tested on the material.
Thank you. Now, go get those cupcakes.
For a truly inspiring speech to graduates, click here to read the commencement address given to Wellesley College Class of 1996 by Nora Ephron.