On Saturday, June 2, 2012, the International School of Beijing’s 161 member class of 2012 clad in flowing black gowns and deep blue entered their long-anticipated graduation-ceremony on red carpet.
As the graduates sat down under auspicious red and blue dragons, ISB’s Head of School, Tarek Razik, welcomed friends and family to the momentous event. He shared the poem Desiderata with the students, reminding them to “be cheerful” and “strive to be happy” because “with all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”
His speech was followed by two student speakers John Joseph Wong and Francesca Bottorff.
The first student speaker, John Joseph Wong, better known as JJ Wong, delivered a humorously dramatic message of victory in his speech and congratulated his peers on reaching “The end of grade school. (The beginning of more school)”. He will be studying Economics at The University of Toronto after living in Beijing for 12 years.
Francesca Bottorff followed JJ’s address by challenging her peers not just to “bloom where [they are]planted” nor to “reach up for the stars” but to “worry more about what [they]can offer the world…and expect less of what it can offer [them]”. She also urged the audience to “get off facebook, and get into someone’s face”. Born in the United States but raised in Beijing, Francesca is excited to study Politics at the University of Chicago.
The full text of both speeches can be found at the end of this post.
The last speech of the day was given by faculty speaker Cinder Merritt who surprised the audience by prefacing her speech with birthday wishes to two students for whom the day was doubly special. The advice she shared with the graduates brought many parents to tears (which parent doesn’t cry on the day of their kid’s graduation?).
Speeches were followed by a presentation of diplomas and several lucky students whose parents were on the Board of Trustees received diplomas from mom or dad.
ISB’s graduates hail from over 20 and will be attending prestigious schools in different corners of the world including Cambridge University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Brown University, the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University.
The ceremony concluded with graduates throwing their caps and a shower of balloons in ISB colors—blue and white. A reception with personalized class of 2012 cupcakes, a string quartet and photo-taking galore completed the evening against the backdrop of banners stamped with the class’ symbolic Chinese character yi (義) which they chose to encapsulate their youthful vision of a higher standard, their boundless resolve to pursue it and their stamina to leap from thought to finish.
You can find more pictures of the event in our online gallery.
Below is John Joseph Wong’s speech, in full:
Ah, look at all of you. The ISB graduating class of 2012, all Harry-Potter-like in your long, black gowns, those lovely sapphire-sashes that rest easy on you, and those pointy square caps an almost dreamlike weight on your head, messing with your hair and all. It feels strange, doesn’t it? A little bit nervous? Up on stage here today, the hot lights upon you…Maybe a tad too formal for our teenage lives. And yet, there really is nothing bizarre about it, because all of us here today have earned this small moment of recognition. I am here not to simply run through the motions; the formalities. Instead, I am here today to deliver a message of accomplishment, a message of victory. Against all odds, despite what our teachers and mentors may have thought (though they do love us), despite what our parents may have thought (and they DEFINITELY love us), and despite perhaps what we have thought. Somehow we’ve made it; we’re here – At the wondrous beginning of the rest of our lives. And we are not the valiantly defeated, but the triumphantly victorious.
So how on earth did we get here?
Don’t you remember? Those long nights an epic struggle against our greatest adversaries; homework, and the never-ending onslaught of tests and quizzes. All those moments of worry, of concern, even doubt. “Maybe this is too much for me, maybe I don’t have the quality to finish what I started.”
And yet look around you. All of us standing here today have persevered, we’re here. – The end of grade school. (The beginning of more school). But nonetheless, we’re here.
I want to talk about ISB for a moment. I’ve been at this school for eight years, and let me tell you, it is undoubtedly a top-class institution. And you know, although I’m sure at times it might not quite seem so, we’re extremely lucky and fortunate to have all these resources at our disposal, as well as the expertise, professionalism, and care of our teachers and the faculty present.
The skills and values we’ve learnt from this school are far too numerous to elaborate in blu-ray detail, but I’ve got to go over some of the important ones.
In a school as diverse and accepting as ISB, communication is everywhere. It can be something as simple as greeting somebody in the appropriate manner, from the classic “hi”, the familiar “hey!” and the eloquently teenage “yo wassup!” communication is vital. The ability to express yourself, to have a say in things, to make your voice be heard among the crowd.
And then there’s teamwork. We’re dragons. For those of you who follow A Game of Thrones, we’re not dragons of House Targaryen, we’re dragons of House ISB. And I don’t know about you, but to me, dragons sound like a pretty athletic beast, and with all its mystical, mythical qualities, I’d wager that dragons are pretty darn good at art, music, theatre, you name it. At ISB, it shows. Working with your peers and mentors, whether for extracurricular pursuits or academic endeavors, all those tasty group projects we’re forced to, I mean, that we enjoy doing, the value of teamwork has been etched into our hearts and souls. And hopefully, this cooperative spirit that ISB has fostered in us will shine through in our futures.
Life always comes with problems, and that’s where innovation kicks in. Creativity and innovation, the ability to tackle obstacles in new ways in order to achieve optimum results, and yes, ISB students do have a knack for doing everything in their power to acquire said results – often in the form of grades, which arguably in the grand scheme of things aren’t quite as important, quite as “life-or-death” as we might like to believe, but are nonetheless pretty to look at. However, the journey to acquire whatever it is we have achieved is important, it’s significant. The hopefully metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears, all that hard work and effort that we’ve put in, that letter grade or two-decimal grade percentage may be forgotten, but I pray the skills and experiences learnt will not be. For that is what remains truly valuable.
ISB students are ridiculously efficient. That may come as a shock to some of you, but a lot of us I’m sure are grand-masters, maestros, legendary even at the art of accomplishing the most amount of work in the least amount of time. Admittedly, this skill is often acquired as a side-effect of one of humanity’s oldest diseases; procrastination. Nevertheless, when the chips fall, we’re pros, professional procrastinators, but also experts at meeting deadlines. And don’t get me wrong, I’m in no way advocating procrastination, but the reality of life is that sometimes things happen, and the experiences of surviving day-to-day on a rigorous IB program where sleep is currency will become immensely valuable at such times of peril.
Finally, there is passion. Mediocrity is not the goal of such a wonderful educational experience. And I’m not talking about the vague idea of finding your own passion or whatever, because I know ya’ll have things you love, whether it’s academic, artistic, musical, athletic, social (you know, like in chemistry; dative bonds?), or other, by all means get out there and go for it. Actively pursue what you love, don’t just twiddle your thumbs and wait around. Life isn’t always going to be “Good times and Ayis” I mean, if you have a passion for something as mundane as say, showering, don’t you ever drop the soap, just keep on scrubbing. And bringing that analogy into our lives, just because we’ve made it this far doesn’t mean we can start being complacent. We’ve got to keep at it. No matter what it is in life. Keep striving for that elusive happy-place known as “excellence”, “success”, and “accomplishment”. We work hard. We’ll party harder. All in good taste.
So yeah, bask in the moment if you want to. We’ve conquered the IB, SATs, the APs, the banes of high school existence. College (or the military, for some of you) is the next step. We’ve got to rise up to this new challenge, up the game, take it to the next level. We’ve got our whole lives ahead of us, so don’t lose that fire now. I’ve had an amazing time at this school, met boatloads of awesome people, and forged some real legit bonds and friendships, and I hope you all have too. So let’s get out there, show the world what we can do.
After all, you only live once.
Below is Francesca Bottorff’s speech, in full:
Class of 2012, faculty, parents, family, and friends: allow me to preface this speech with a few disclaimers. Today, I won’t tell you to “bloom where you’re planted.” I won’t urge you to “reach up for the stars.” I won’t emphasize the importance of “seize the day.” Why? Because you’ve heard those things countless times. Today, I’ll do something that may shock my English teachers—something that I was never good at, in all my years as English student: I’ll cut to the chase, because the message is simple.
I have attended ISB for thirteen years. There is seamless transition from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school. The courses in our high school curriculum increasingly mimic those offered in college, both in terms of diversity of selection and academic rigor. This, of course, comes with a cost. A year of ISB high school education now rivals that of many colleges and universities. These four years of high school have given us opportunities to engage ourselves academically, extracurricularly, and personally.
You all know of the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in the U.S. last year and spread across the world? When measured by the caliber of education we receive, we are the 1% they speak of. That privileged 1%.
My question is this: what did we do to deserve this privilege?
The response is straightforward, if a little cold: we did nothing.
Does that make you uncomfortable? Because it seems to defy the timeworn values—hard work and sweat—that we’ve been preached as long as we can remember. The truth is, it shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. We were born in the right place at the right time, thanks to numerous conditions, most of them beyond our control—including well-educated and highly motivated parents, who seized opportunities to work in the world’s fastest growing and dynamic economy, and place the highest value on a good education for us.
We’ve internalized that idea, haven’t we? It’s the kind of message our parents drill into us time and again. The kind of message that goes in one ear, and comes out the other, simply because we’ve heard it so much. We’ve put on a pair of blinders. We’ve become selective with what we want to digest. We can choose to filter out the nagging.
Now, let me just ask you: are you okay with that? Because if you are, you’re not alone. We’re all afflicted by it—a sense of entitlement.
Today, I’m going to suggest you do something that your parents and teachers might raise their eyebrows at: don’t be so quick to adhere to the advice of “following your passion.”
If you’ve heard some of the most famous commencement speeches in history, many of them hammer home this single idea: follow your passion, pave your own way, live your dream, discover yourself.
We’re on the brink of adulthood, about to be college freshmen, and in a few years we’ll be in the painfully competitive job market. Of course we have thought and talked about our limitless potential to explore whatever our heartstrings tug us toward.
Do we pause to consider that this advice might be false?
New York Times columnist David Brooks believes in something else: placing our passions and our individualism at the center of the universe is a recipe for disappointment.
We are fortunate to have been mentored, tutored, coached, and—to some extent—coddled our entire lives with structure and routines. But in a few short years, we’ll be entering a world yet to be defined.
We’re instructed to find ourselves, to chase our dreams. But is it really possible to make that inward quest and expect to emerge with all the answers?
We’re told to practice individuality, to let our inner selves shine. But might fulfilling your duty sometimes mean that you should contain yourself?
Ultimately, when we talk about what it means to be an adult—which I think is synonymous with assuming responsibility regardless of age—the concept of “passion” is secondary to something else: excellence. As Brooks says, and I agree, it’s excellence that we admire the most.
In his 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell proposes that one is unlikely to master a cognitively complex task unless one has practiced for 10,000 hours. But sheer quantity, although extremely important, is not the only thing. Those 10,000 hours must be invested in doing the right things. This is where our understanding gets messy. Don’t be afraid of ambiguity. Don’t be afraid to toy around with your work, but don’t overdo the tinkering either. What is most important is that you extend yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of doing. Follow a specific plan to measure your progress. Laser your focus. Working right is more important than finding the right work. The road to excellence is ambiguous, messy, doubtful, and draining. That’s why so few people reach the finish line. As the Chinese saying puts it well, 有志者成千上万，成事者寥寥无几.
One of my favorite economists, Thomas Friedman, put it beautifully:
The “Age of Average” is over.
So what’s required of us now?
The mindset of a craftsman. The attitudes of an artist. The quest for excellence. That’s where we fall behind. We’re overwhelmed by the endless possibilities afforded to us simply because we attend a school as top-notch as ISB. Yet, our 21st century college environment and job market doesn’t owe us anything.
Our job is to practice our craft. Be our own harshest critics. Focus on developing skills that are highly valuable. Worry more about what we can offer the world…and expect less of what it can offer us.
Unlike most of your fellow students at university, you will be among a minority of students who have traveled the world, lived in an emerging economic powerhouse, and have witnessed China’s overwhelming transformation over the past decades.
Privilege alone is like an undiscovered diamond in the rough. Don’t allow it to be tainted by entitlement. Act on your responsibility. But be strategic about which desires to act upon. Don’t be misled into believing that the self is at the center of the universe. What overrides it is a positive, dynamic, worldly spirit that sets you apart and elevates you from your competitors, and most importantly, what you can offer that no one else can.
For most of who know me, I’m not big about social networking. The only time I temporarily had a Facebook account was when a good friend of mine created one for me without my consent. I don’t think that Facebook is necessarily a bad thing, but today I urge you to leave with just one borrowed phrase: Get off your Facebook, and get into someone’s face. You don’t owe that to the world as much as you owe it to yourself. Thank you.
Top photo courtesy of Dan Zhang, ISB Alum.