By Charis Denison, The Urban School of San Francisco
Urban School Graduation Speech — June 2002
(delivered as Charis was leaving Urban to begin Prajna Consulting)

Hello. Thank you for inviting me up here today.

After eleven years of teaching I have discovered two signals that indicate to educators that we have done our job right regarding high school seniors. Both express themselves around the first week of May. I bring these signals up because they are directly relevant to the words I choose to share with you today. One is that by the first week of May you (the seniors) have decided that you now know everything and so virtually anything I (or anyone) might say at this point is superfluous. The other is that your eyes are so fixed on the horizon, the immediate appears a mere formality—perhaps irrelevant.

That said, since you now know everything and listening to anything I can tell you about your immediate reality is irrelevant, I am choosing to acknowledge my own graduation today, and would therefore like to tell you what I have learned by sharing three lessons you have taught me.

The first lesson you have taught me is about fear and failure. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence carefully doing certain things very well. I did this methodically. I did this because no one ever properly introduced me to failure in such a way that it was not seen as something to avoid at all possible costs. My parents still love to tell the story of my learning to ride a bike. My father took the training wheels off my powder blue Schwinn, set me on top, and gave me a gentle push. I rolled about five feet, fell off (landing on my six-year-old face), picked up the bike, rolled it back to my waiting father, handed it off to him and said, “This bike doesn’t work.” The bike was put in a shed, and I refused to touch it. (Obviously, I was not a poster candidate for the risk-embracing, adventure-seeking child at this point.) It never occurred to me that screwing up might be something other than perilous. I finally began to get the picture at fourteen when my brother forced this lesson upon me. I was learning to rock climb and was attempting my first vertical crack in the mountains of Wyoming. We set up the ropes and harnesses and, as we were looking down from the top of the climb which I was certain was about 28 stories tall, my brother said, “OK, now. You need to fall first.” Well, of course I looked at him like he was an idiot. I will spare you the arduous and tearful hours that followed before I made that fall, but my brother’s point was that I could not successfully attempt that climb without trusting the process that would get me there. I needed to feel my full physical weight held up by the ropes in order to start my ascent without them. Without knowing I could fail and survive, without trusting the process and the available support (in this case, my loving brother), I could not take the proper risks involved that would allow me to reach the top on my own.

What does this have to do with you? Until I came to Urban, I never saw this approach embraced to the point of true cultural acceptance. However, I am continually astounded at the process you have embraced over these past four years. Indeed, I feel you all spent most of your high school years learning to lean into this process rather than brace against it. I remember my teens and how I was convinced the world around me would fall apart if I made a mistake. I cannot find that teenager in any of you. With some minor setbacks, you work together unafraid of things “not working out,” of trying one method and, then, realizing another is better. Indeed, your thrill, your joy seems to come from this exact exploration. An example: I hear you come into the office I share with Derek and say, “I’m really bad at skiing, can I go on the next cross country ski trip?” Or, “I am scared of heights, is there a climbing trip coming up?” And what about academics? In Math, you are evaluated on your process and, it seems to me, you embrace this concept by taking risks with equations that others might not take the chance on. And, in your community involvement, I am honored when you come to me and share your pitfalls and mishaps concerning the people and agencies you work with. I must share a particular incident that brought this lesson home to me. This spring a member of your class blew off his project placement for a day in such a way that a group of children was let down and the trust of the agency involved was compromised. Now, of course, there were extenuating circumstances, of course their was some miscommunication, but when it came down to it, in the end, he blew off going to project that day. Now, what is important about this story is who of us hasn’t screwed up and who of us hasn’t done things we were ashamed of? What’s important is that this senior came to me the next day and told me about it. However, he didn’t tell me about it as if I were there to absolve him. He didn’t tell me about it because he was afraid of my reaction. He didn’t tell me about it because he was afraid of my knowing about his failure. He told me about it to let me know what he had done about making it right and to get some feedback on how he had handled it—on his process so far. (Now, perhaps he also told me to cover his own butt to a degree, but granted, you and I have to admire that move, as well) but what so impressed me in that moment is what impresses me about this class. This student knew that this experience was his and his alone. Like this student, you all are interested in your own success and are actively engaged in the process to achieve that success. You have great confidence in your ability and great trust that allowing yourself the room to take risks and explore your mistakes will actually get you there. And you are not afraid of, indeed you welcome, feedback along the way. This is something I am still learning. And I thank you for showing me.

The second lesson your class has taught me has to do with faith and came to me in a far more intense manner this last fall. You all had the terrible and profound challenge of beginning your senior year with the tragedy of September 11th. I do not want to go over that day again in detail. It was trying and awful and, in ways, we are still in it. However, you demonstrated to the rest of your community something very important that day, and the months that followed that taught me a lot about my faith in the future. Your reaction to the incident was a true inspiration. Rather than turn away, your class rose to the position of leaders in the Urban community to face this catastrophe. Again, in my teen years, I believe (although I would like to think otherwise) my peers and I would have first been inclined to hide from what was happening, to put our hands over our ears and eyes. Or, we would have possibly said to ourselves, “We didn’t create this. We didn’t ask for this. This is your world. Adults, you fix it. ” You didn’t do that. Your response to this crisis and all the “unknown” around it was to reach out, to seek knowledge, information, and solace from one another and your community. You asked for information on the religions of those involved. You asked for political experts to come and speak with you. You asked for ways to talk about the surrounding issues in a way that moved toward resolution. Now, for a nearby “adult,” this was a powerful situation to witness. I was so impressed with your courage to be angry and scared and yet move toward your fear with an active plan to gather knowledge in order to regain a sense of balance despite that fear. I was impressed with your faith in the fact that knowledge is empowering. This gives me, through you, enormous faith in our future.

A third lesson you are leaving me with concerns the idea of “Place” and a conversation you and I started four years ago that ends today. I spent the first year out of college in a wilderness area of Wyoming as a backcountry EMT ranger. I mean back country. I wanted to see what I was made of. I wanted to test my strength in nature and solitude. I wanted to get my parents off my back about what I was going to do with my English degree. Now, seeing that there are approximately 48 people in the state of Wyoming. And, perhaps out of those 48, 18 of them backpack. And half of those actually know what they are doing. My job consisted of living alone in a small canvas wall tent at 9,000 feet and looking for any of the nine people who might have been in trouble. Needless to say, I had a lot of time on my hands to figure out what I was made of. I left that job with a keen sense of how I do when I serve as my own community.

When I left that job, I decided to test out this new me but with a context. I traveled alone for a year in South East Asia. I wanted to know what the rest of the world looked like. I wanted to know how community was defined outside of our culture. I wanted to get my parents off my back about what I was going to do with my English degree. When I came back, it became apparent to me that I had a glimmer of who I was in silence and what I valued in community but that I was sorely lacking a place in which to put myself. I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. All I knew were two things: I wanted to be happy, and I wanted to be of use. You know what I was looking for—a gap.

This brings us to the lesson. By knowing you, watching you, and loving you, I was given the incentive to fiercely pursue this idea. I did it, I told myself, so that I could show you the way; so I could help you learn your own power. And these points are true, but I was missing the most important part. I didn’t realize the real truth of community and place. I wasn’t walking my talk.

I am certain you remember the two most important elements we have talked about regarding truly effective community involvement. One is that it is not about the amount of measured time you serve yourself and others but the passion, integrity, and authenticity with which you fill an identified need. The second is that in order for community service to be truly effective, it must be … selfish. That is to say that reciprocity is crucial in any relationship. That to give to others with the presumption that they have nothing to offer you back is arrogant and prevents us from moving this world forward in the direction that it needs to go. I have watched you work with these two concepts since you were fourteen. And I have learned more from you while I was supposed to be the “main giver” in this lesson than I ever learned in college and graduate school combined. I have protested alongside some of you in non-violent civil disobedience. I have written letters to city officials with most of you, and I have served the hungry and those in need with all of you. I say with honesty and faith that, yes, of course you can make a difference. You have already done that. But more importantly, you have the passion and skills to create community. That will bring positive change, but it will also bring you joy. And I wish you joy above all else.

You have taught me that, if we let you know the key pitfalls we have witnessed so far that seem to have slowed our generations down in sustaining positive communities, let you know we are here to support you, and then, most importantly, get out of your way, you really do know everything. At least enough to warrant our not mucking the up process for you. How do I know this? When I look at who you are as a result of creating community and actively seeking joy over your years at Urban, I see in front of me, not only a class of talented students, but teachers, medical assistants, political activists, research technicians, journalists, non-profit staff members, business entrepreneurs, artists, actors, and political interns. And this was just high school!

You have taught me, as I also step out into the world, that there are spaces for us waiting. (Gaps you might say.) For some of us those spaces are visible. For others, we can’t see them yet, and that’s OK. But they are there, and I do not have to be afraid of leaning into the fear. As you have taught me, it is often the shortest route to success. I will also seek as much information and knowledge as I can in this next quest for place because that is what will truly bolster me and those around me. And, finally, I will passionately seek joy and community, because I may have been teaching the words, but you have shown me the proof of them in action.

I am honored to have shared these years with you. It was a privilege—the biggest I have known so far. You have helped me create the person I am still striving to be. I wish you continued success. I wish you challenge. I wish you community. And I wish you joy.

Thank you.