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Class of 2013, I Have a Long Memory

May, 2013
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Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, graduating students:

img_94991Man first landed on the moon on July 20th 1969. Scratchy black and white film of that momentous event was soon broadcast around the world. That evening it flickered on a boxy little television set in the back garden of a British Embassy official in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, which was then the largest country in Africa. It was my first day of work as an educator, and the official had invited me and thirty other volunteer teachers to a reception at his house to mark the end of our one-day orientation. The next day we would be sent off to teach in schools scattered thinly around that huge desert country.

In the morning I jumped aboard a wooden sided train that would snake around River Nile’s vast northern bend towards the riverside village where I would be teaching English for the following year. I sat in my compartment talking to a young man dressed in flowing white robes. We ordered a tall jug of a deep brown drink that I assumed was the juice of an unknown fruit, but it turned out to be water drawn straight from the Nile. The brown color was river mud, which gave the water a slippery viscosity not unlike raw egg. But it tasted fine. My new friend told me that many Sudanese did not believe that the Americans had landed on the moon, nor did they care. Drinking our muddy water and gazing out over the occasional trackside donkey across the unchanging Nubian Desert, the space race, as it was then called, seemed irrelevant and even trivial.

A day later I climbed down from the train, joined a flock of goats on a small paddle steamer across the world’s greatest river and was met on the far sandy bank by the principal of the school. My work as a teacher had begun.

Forty-four years later, I can look back on a career spent in eight countries and ten schools. I have had more adventures of the body and the mind than anyone is entitled to. I have seen the world’s population nearly triple in size, and I have watched technology advance in ways that were inconceivable a few short decades ago. On the site of that Nile village where I first taught English and kept chickens in my backyard there now stands Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, built by a Chinese corporation. More has changed in the span of my career than in any period in history.

img_9360So, Class of 2013, I have a long memory. But I can tell you something to be very proud of. You are the finest and most interesting graduating class that I have known. And I’m not alone in thinking that. Consider this…

A few weeks ago your teachers organized an assembly that I am sure you all still remember, in fact I think you will remember it forever. It was the last period of your last day of class. The theater was packed with silent students and teachers listening to an excessively boring lecture on study skills. Your homeroom teachers brought you late into the assembly and as you filed into the back of the theater you were castigated from the stage for your late arrival. Such injustice, or so it seemed. Then, on a pre-arranged signal unknown to you, the theater erupted with noise as students and teachers yelled, whistled and clapped you on to the stage to receive our best wishes and encouragement for the IB exams and for your futures. It was a good old-fashioned, raucous, joyous pep rally and it was all for you. More than that, it was the first pep rally in our school’s history. So why did it happen?

To find out, I conducted a poll of your teachers. I asked them to submit the words that they thought best described you, our Class of 2013. They plundered the English dictionary to uncover an astonishing range of adjectives that delighted me for one main reason. Every single word they submitted was positive, and every single word contributed to a picture of a class that has been much loved and admired by its teachers and which will be greatly missed when you leave. Here is the picture of you, a bilingual picture, that your teachers have painted in words. You hold your head high yet with compassion, your core is cohesive, and the wings that carry you are creative, caring and industrious. That’s how your teachers see you, and they are absolutely right. Believe me, it is extremely rare for teachers to describe a graduating class in such emphatically complimentary terms. Of all the graduating classes I have known you are the most admired and the most loved. That is why your teachers held that pep rally; beneath the pizzazz was genuine affection.

img_98391You have impressed us for two reasons more than any other. First you have achieved something that most classes do not. You have created an immensely attractive group identity, such that when we think of you we conjure up the kind of adjectives that I have just projected. But at the same time each of you has retained a striking individuality with your different personalities, talents, and interests. I think of you collectively as an atom, albeit a very mighty atom, in which the individual particles are held together by the strong force of collegiality. By that analogy the power that will be released when you go your separate ways to the far corners of the earth will be immense, but I know it will be the power of good.

The second reason is that you have achieved something that is even more unusual. Through your individual and collective character and conduct you have given more to the school than you have taken. You have been role models for your younger peers. You have studied hard, but have found time to play and coach sports, to contribute to the arts, and to pioneer our growing commitment to community service. You have developed an extraordinary relationship with your teachers that is mutually appreciative and respectful. Some of you have influenced the school in ways that are deeper than you may know. Three years ago, for example, one of you asked a question that has changed the identity of our school. It was a question about the fit between the school and its students and it started a conversation that spread to the school’s leadership, faculty and board. Ultimately it resulted in our school recognizing that the school must fit the student, not the other way round. That is how we have developed our strong focus on personalized learning. This approach to learning, together with an emphasis on academic rigor and creativity, has come to characterize the distinctive nature of education at BCIS. If ever there was evidence that a school should listen to its students, then this was it.

So, you can see that as a class you are much admired. But now you face a challenge of a different order. It’s called life after school.

The problem with life, as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, is that it must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. Or, in the words of E.M. Forster in his novel A Room with a View, “Life is a public performance on a violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along.” I’m afraid it is inevitable that you will play some wrong notes from time to time, and it may therefore be worth listening to a few words of advice, even from someone like me who has made more than his own fair share of mistakes. Here, then, are my three rules of life.

First, some advice about the most important thing you’ll ever do, which is to fall in love. Now when it comes to falling in love, never listen to a physicist. Beware especially when they talk about electromagnetic attraction. The laws of electromagnetism may be good for electromagnets, but they do not apply to us humans. In physics positive attracts negative, but in human relationships the opposite is true. As I’ve said, every one of you is extraordinarily positive. Please stay that way, and be careful. Negativity is potentially attractive because it is easy. To be negative you don’t actually have to do anything except find fault in others. The world has lots of negative people – look at any blog, newspaper column, or opinion poll. Be friends with those who have a positive, can-do outlook on life like you and choose your life partner from among them. Fall in love with someone who will enhance the possibilities of your life story and you theirs.

And still on the subject of love, it’s essential to fall in love with someone wiser than yourself. They do exist. Someone who is positive and who is wiser than yourself will keep you out of trouble, at least most of the time, and that’s worth knowing. Trust me, I am the world’s authority on this.

Paradoxically, my second rule of life is to make a nuisance of yourself, politely of course. Do not always do as you are told; do not always do what is expected. People who always do what is expected of them do not add to the sum of human ingenuity. Therefore do more than is expected of you. People who do as they are told acquiesce to the status quo. Do better than that. If the world were perfect I would advocate compliance with received mores and behaviors. But it is very far from perfect, and you have the education and the mindset to change things. I don’t mean make things slightly better for privileged people like those of us in the theater today. I mean improve things for those who don’t know what it means to go to school and graduate, for those who go hungry, for those who are the victims of insecurity and violence. It’s a big ask, but I am asking you, because more than any other class I have known it is within your power.

img_9970Finally, don’t grow up too fast, or, even better, don’t grow up at all. However sophisticated your future circumstances, hold on to the mind of a child. Here’s why, and it’s an example I experienced only last week. A three-year-old girl came with her parents to my home for supper. This little girl spent most of the evening sitting under the dining table rather than on her chair, which is what you would expect from a three-year old. But from time to time she would take my hand and lead me bravely down our long, dark hallway in search of animal footprints. We found evidence of elephants, bears and other exotic beasts that I had not known inhabited my apartment. To her my apartment was the Serengeti Plain or the Amazon Jungle and it was there to be explored. I was reminded of the intense curiosity and boundless imagination of young minds. Adults all too easily lose these key traits. Don’t let it happen to you. If you stay young in mind as well as in heart then every day will be an intellectual adventure. Just imagine.

It’s time for me to finish. You are young people with an enviable reputation and huge potential. You are about to go to some of the worlds’ finest universities and colleges. But remember that while a good education is the best possible start in life, it is no guarantee of future success. Life

is complex, demanding, gloriously unpredictable, and as full of laughter and adventure as you choose to make it. You will play your life in public, learning your instrument as you go along. Therefore listen to others, choose your friends and partners with care, retain the sense of wonder of a young child, and always do more than is expected of you.

Class of 2013, like everyone here today I am immensely proud of you. You have achieved everything, no, more than everything, that your parents and teachers had hoped for, and you have made our school a better place for those that follow in your footsteps. Thank you. Congratulations on your graduation, and I wish you all a happy, fulfilling and successful life.

Thank you. 


Nick Bowley

Head of School, Beijing City International School




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