For the first time in its history, at the International School of Prague, the class of 2019 went on “parade” throughout the school in their caps and gowns to celebrate and share their upcoming graduation with everyone at ISP. Some of the seniors felt awkward, some were immensely proud and some just enjoyed the fun of the moment, as onlookers, especially younger students, cheered and dolled out high fives to the graduates to be.
That weekend we assembled at the ornate Palac Zofin to celebrate the class of 2019 at the annual graduation ceremony. It was an inspirational event with evocative speeches, and wonderful performances.
Each year, I have the honor to address the graduates and assembled families and friends, often attempting to impart some words of wisdom and inspirational prose. This year, I felt a need to address a not so uplifting theme, an “inconvenient truth” if you will. As I delivered my address to the graduates, I honestly felt uneasy and uncomfortable, as if my message was unsuitable for the occasion. Nonetheless I felt a sense of urgency that has been escalating and intensifying across the globe and felt compelled to surface the “elephant in the room.” Ultimately, my message (which follows) was one of hope.
“Each year as I write my address for the ISP graduation ceremony, I try to put myself in the shoes of the graduates who are about to take their next steps towards a greater independent role in the world. I reflect on what their hopes and dreams for the future might be and I reflect on this roller coaster world they will be joining.
Whether I think of my own children or our graduates sitting here today, I cannot as a father or as an educator ignore the challenges that you will face, large and small.
Leaving home, as many of you will be doing, facing the world for the first time, more on your terms than ever before, you will find yourself exhilarated at times and at other times daunted. I believe though that you are all well equipped to make new friends and to learn new things. I strongly encourage you to keep an open mind. Don’t be afraid to change your opinion about the world as you learn from it.
These are experiences and challenges I hope and trust you will, for the most part, relish and successfully surmount. They will help you grow and evolve as human beings.
So far I’ve been talking about a world that is more or less under your control, but there is also a new reality that is not so easily grappled with. Each day it is becoming clearer, more than at any time in my lifetime, things are not going to be so simple. I’m talking about the planet that you are inheriting. Or to put it in starker terms:
“We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children. We have not borrowed our children’s future — we have stolen it.” Dr. Jane Goodall
All of you here on stage with me, as well as you in the audience, I am sure you are aware, that virtually every credible scientist alive today believes human beings are under a real existential threat from the decline of the earth’s natural life support systems.
As we can readily notice ourselves, with dramatic changes to the weather and wildlife around the world and even here in Prague; As we hear about the exponential increases of wildlife extinction; As we watch in real time the threat that rising sea levels pose; As we read the increasingly dire warnings from organizations such as the UN and many, many others. It is natural to be fearful for what the coming decades will bring, impacting not only us, but our children and our children’s children.
But I am not here to tell you graduates, that we look to you to resolve all of this on your own, a problem that my generation has failed to tackle head on, because I believe it is up to all of us to make changes. The news is dire, and I do have hope because ….
Because … I am also seeing new leaders emerge. One young leader who has recently burst onto the scene is leading by example and speaking truth to power, with strong words we all need to heed:
“We have to understand the emergency of the situation. Our leadership has failed us. Young people must hold older generations accountable for the mess they have created. We need to get angry, and transform that anger into action.”
Many of you will recognize the words of Greta Thunberg, a remarkable Swedish schoolgirl, who at age 15, began speaking out about the need for immediate action to fight climate change and who has since become a well known, outspoken climate activist.
Her leadership is having a huge impact, especially among young people. Just two months ago, an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries around the world joined her call to strike. Together they protested the lack of action taken so far to stop man made climate change.
And again not even two weeks ago, young people around the world took to the streets in even larger numbers demanding change from our governments and business leaders.
Incidentally, while ISP seniors traditionally take a “skip day” where they take off from school for a day. This year, they chose skip day to coincide with the worldwide youth protest day called by Greta Thunberg. (Below are some pictures of our graduates participating in the protests.)
Greta Thunberg is raising our consciousness to the dangers of apathy and I believe this is a hugely positive and significant development. And while the shift is still too slow, it is happening. There are signs that businesses and politicians are waking up to the growing demand for change as well.
And quite recently right here in Europe we have been witnessing the power of the ballot box. As young people come of age and vote, governments will also change. So it is because of leaders like young Greta and her followers that I have hope.
Granted most of us are not a Greta Thunberg or a Jane Goodall for that matter, but I am sure that the graduates here beside me have the foundation to be the clear-headed, bright leaders in whatever field it is they choose to enter, as I know them to be thoughtful and committed, and I know they have the skills and the values necessary to not only succeed in this world but to make a difference for the better.
A few weeks ago my wife and I travelled to New York City to join our son as he graduated from university. We were lucky enough to meet many of his friends at his recital and graduation. We also met a group of ISP alumni at an ISP reunion in the city later that week.
I often have had the pleasure to meet such groups of young adults with a history of time spent at ISP. What strikes me every time I meet our graduates, is how thoughtful and solid these young people are, how mensch-like, if you will. It was so encouraging to hear them speak of their dreams for the future, and their thoughts about their place in the world.
As Greta, who was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize tells us:
Through my story I want to tell other children all around the world that they should stand up for their rights. They should not wait for someone else… and their voices are more powerful. Their voices – it would seem that they are weak, but at the time when no one speaks, your voice gets so loud that everyone has to listen to it. Everyone has to hear it. So it’s my message to children all around the world that they should stand up for their rights.
And as Dr. Jane Goodall, who visited ISP just a few years ago tells us:
“You, as an individual, just have to remember that in your life, you matter, you have a role to play and that every single day you live, you make some impact and you get a choice as to what kind of impact you’re going to make”
You will encounter these words, as you enter the halls of ISP.
If we have taught you anything at ISP, it is that each of you can make a difference in the world, and I am confident that you have been well prepared at school and at home to find your place in your chosen field.
I sincerely hope that you will take Greta Thunberg’s simple youthful courage and Dr. Jane Goodall’s sage wisdom with you on your journey.
Ultimately, my message to you is one of real hope. I am hopeful and confident that you will go out into the world cherishing the precious gifts around you. I am hopeful that your generation and even my generation is equipped with the will and the ability to guide the world back into balance. We are counting on each of you to make a difference! Congratulations to the class of 2019!”