Message to the 8th Grade

I always like to start this by thanking the parents. From all of us, your students last teachers here at Pawcatuck Middle School to all you, their first teachers, thank you for sharing your children with us for the last four years. It has been our  honor and privilege to work with them and all of you.


I always struggle with this talk. One of these days I’ll write one of those canned speeches, you know like one of those, “The world is your oyster’” kind of things. Then again after reading The Pearl with Mrs. Cassata this year, talking about oysters might not work. Still, every year I try to come up with something original that address the 8th graders or the times. Some years it’s easy; other years it’s difficult. This was one of those difficult years for me to come up with something that is appropriate for everyone and for the times we live in. So here it goes. I call it Legacy and Lies.


I few weeks ago I attended the Connecticut Association of Schools Scholar Leader banquet. They had a terrific motivational speaker names A’ric Jackson. He was an awesome speaker. I feel bad that you folks are stuck with me. In his message, Mr. Jackson talked about a very interesting concept - legacy - in a very different way.


The legal definition of a legacy is a gift of personal property or money from someone who died. We also tend to think of legacy as a list of accomplishments left behind by someone. Oh, you know, like, well Tom Brady comes to mind. Mr. Jackson, however, had an interesting take on legacy as something more transactional. I want to extend his challenge to all of you for you to build your legacy at whatever high school you go to next year. But I’ll come back to that in a few minutes. First, let’s talk about lies.


You’ve been lied to. Reality TV is not reality. The Kardashians are not reality and the Kardashians are not worthy of your squad goals. There are no real housewives on TV. At its core, every reality TV show has a kernel of mean spirited behavior. You’ve been punked, you’ve been pranked by this. If you strive to outplay, outlast and outwit - you will lose out.


You’ve been lied to. A social media presence is not the be all and end all. You’ve been lied to. The number of followers you have doesn’t matter. The ratio of likes to followers on your posts doesn’t matter. Social media was created to connect and unite people. Unfortunately these days it is used instead to cast a net of negative interactions even wider.


And you’ve been lied to that problems with social media is a kid problem. It’s not. It’s a human problem. Ask a female sports reporter, ask a woman who works in the video game industry, ask Hall of Fame pitcher Curt Schilling. (Not bad, see how I was able to make a Patriots and a Red Sox reference in this message.) Even I guy like Marc Maron - if you don’t know who he is - he’s a successful comedian who has had is own TV series and he has a very successful podcast where he’s had people from Keith Richards to President Obama come into his garage and talk with him for his podcast, evan Marc Maron has take to take a break from social media.


Growing up you have been inundated with negative interactions as the new normal by every  media: TV, radio talk shows, social media. All of this where what is celebrated and rewarded is the cutting comment. That’s what gets the laugh and the applause. The constant one-upmanship in a constant game of roasting or burning your friends with mean comebacks.


And you know what the worst of it is? No one ever talks about the cost of it. This is a quick economics lesson in opportunity cost. Basically, if you spend time or money doing X, you lose the opportunity to do Y. And here you lose out twice in opportunity cost.


First, there is a huge opportunity cost for yourself. When you invest so much time and energy thinking of that perfect quick comeback or being on guard against one, when you spend so much time and energy looking for and inventing drama and things to rant about, you lose so much. You lose the personal resources that you could invest in more positive things, other people, your learning, and your authentic self. You also lose your life force. All of the negative habits are like the apps that run in the background on your phone killing your battery. Whether you realize it or not, the constant hum of negativity drains your battery.


There is another cost. This constant lure into negatively silences others. It marginalizes others, and it casts a shadow on others. It robs them of engaging and participating with their own authentic selves. It robs you of the experience of interacting all together with your best selves toward the future. They lose, and you do too. Forgive me for using a little hyperbole here to make a point and to make a Star Wars reference. I think about the scene from the first Star Wars movie when Obi Wan reacts to the destruction of the planet Alderaan. He feels the disturbance in the force, “It’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out...and were suddenly silenced.”


Then again, if you look at the big picture, maybe this isn’t hyperbole. Across all the schools in the country millions of students are made silent from their authentic selves whether by direct and overt meanness, or just by the fear of it. What a huge opportunity cost that is for all of us.


Let’s get back to the legacy part. The ancient Greeks had two concepts that were intertwined, timê and kleos. Timê was more related to honors, the tangible representations of accomplishments like trophies and awards. Kleos was about someone’s renown - what people say or hear about you. Interestingly enough both could be legacies inherited from generation to generation.


I want to extend Mr. Jackson’s challenge to all of you. The challenge is to enter high school with a conscious plan to build your own legacy. Not just but collecting awards and trophies, but by building your transactional legacy every time you want into or out of a classroom. Share your authentic self. Create the space for others to share their authentic selves. Invest more of your energy in what really matters other people and your education.

Let’s return to that legal definition of legacy for a minute. What if a legacy was not a gift of personal property, but rather a gift of a person’s properties? Make a plan now, this summer, to build your transactional legacy in your next four-year journey. Thank you.