“The Right Words at the Right Time”: Commencement Speeches and Essays for End-of-the-Year Reflection

It is six o’clock on a Saturday night, and I am sitting at my desk in my classroom. The end of the semester is definitely near! While many of you might still have weeks of instruction left on the calendar, I am down to my last week before finals and commencement. My desk is a fort made out of paper stacks, my grading bag sags with the weight of leftover assignments, and my head swims with end-of-the-year to-do lists for my classes, the yearbook club, the English club, and my professional development plans.

Across the room, Friday’s  “Commencement Speech Wisdom” quote of the day is still written on a small white board: Larry Lucchino, former CEO of the Boston Red Sox, tells the Boston University Class of 2008 that “Life is not about warming yourself by the fire; life is about building the fire.” Lucchino’s advice  is great for seniors at commencement or teachers at the beginning of a school year, but right now, I’m sure many of us would like to be stretching out in a lawn chair next to the bonfire rather than building it!  Others’ posts on this blog have often comforted and inspired me like a quiet moment around a fire, so today I invite you to put up your feet–if only for five minutes–and join me for a little reflection and inspiration.

I found the quote from Larry Lucchino’s speech on NPR’s The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever web app. I’m the emcee for my school’s commencement ceremony, a job that includes coordinating auditions and practices for our student commencement speakers, and I often direct students to this site for inspiration.  If you and your students need a pick-me-up, I can’t recommend the “show another quote” button enough! (Former forensics competitors and speech-loving forensics coaches beware: The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever is a rabbit hole you will never want to escape!) 

One of the first commencement quotes I wrote on the quote board, a new classroom tradition I started this year, came from Anna Quindlen’s speech to students Mount Holyoke College that eventually became her book, Being Perfect: “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”

Last week, Rebekah and Allison shared what they wish they had known when they started teaching; I wish I had internalized Anna Quindlen’s wisdom before I started teaching. Quindlen’s words calmed me when my first trip to my new classroom brought me to tears (I had been terrified that I, barely more than a senior in college, was going to ruin all of my high school seniors’ lives). I realize that I’m still learning to live by Quindlen’s advice, and I know that following it is one of the best things I can do for my students.

When I wrote Anna Quindlen’s quote on my board last Monday, I was reminded of a commencement speech cliché: the acknowledgement that “commencement” is both a beginning and an ending. I’ve often told people that Quindlen’s words were my “right words at the right time,” a description I borrow from Marlo Thomas’s collection of celebrity essays, The Right Words at the Right Time, one of the first–and favorite–mentor texts that I share with my freshmen. Thus, thinking about Quindlen’s words this week brought me all the way back to the beginning of the school year.51y02b6xvg0l-_sx258_bo1204203200_

The Right Words at the Right Time, like many college commencement speeches, features celebrities’ and dignitaries’ best advice. Jay Leno, Mia Hamm, Conan O’Brien, Cal Ripken, Sen. John McCain, and others write about the moments when they heard or read “the right words at the right time.” This mentor text is an “oldie but a goodie.” Students get to choose which essays they read and can learn more about famous people who fascinate them. The prompt each celebrity’s essay answers–“When did you receive ‘the right words at the right time?’”–is also easy for students to answer. Inspired by the mentor essays she read, my student Kimberly turned a small moment with her grandmother into a reflection on how she should approach life and cope with the difficulty of her parents’ divorce:


“Take the time that we have and make it the best it can be.”  These few words have helped me through the tough times in life and also when I have had to make decisions regarding what I want to do with my life. These words were spoken to me by my grandma at her house about 9 years ago. My grandma’s house is one of my favorite places to be. It feels warm and welcoming like a bed after a long day at work or school. Whenever I go to my grandma’s house I always feel excited, because when I go there it usually means I am having a sleepover with my cousins. That night I received advice that changed how I look at life for the better. […]

My grandma was one of the only people who knew how I felt about [the divorce] and still is one of the only ones. When I started crying, she had some idea of why I was crying, but she still listened. I told her, “ All I wish is to be here more often, with people who understand me and will listen to me without getting angry when I say what I need to say.”  All I wanted was someone to listen to me. All I wanted was to be with my grandma all the time.

My grandma gave me a hug and told me, “ Take the time that we have and make it the best it can be”. After she gave me her advice, I wasn’t too keen on listening to her. I was expecting her to say something like, “We will try to work something out.” When she didn’t try and help me I was kind of disappointed and just thought the advice was nothing I needed to listen to. That night in bed I was thinking,  and all that kept coming to my head was my grandma’s advice. Little did I know that she gave me advice that I still follow today.

I have been thinking about sharing my folders full of “right words at the right time” essays with my juniors, too. This summer, they will write personal essays that “commence” their journey toward commencement! Wasn’t it a few weeks ago when I talked with my seniors about how to write their personal essays? Graduation for the class of 2017 will be here before I know it…

This is all lovely and ruminative, Stefanie, but how can these “fireside” reflections work for my classroom?

Glad you asked! (And thanks for snapping me back to reality–I was staring a little too hard at that imaginary bonfire!)

  • “The Right Words at the Right Time” is a great prompt for a freshman’s personal narrative or a junior’s personal statement, but it can also inspire notebook time writing or final exam reflection. My colleague, Carolyn, shows her seniors the film The Power of One after their IB exams. Then, since the main character in the film draws strength from the voices he hears in his mind at times of adversity, she asks the seniors to reflect on whose words–from literature, from our school community–will echo in their ears.
  • The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever has links to YouTube videos and full-text copies of many commencement speeches. Consider using the site’s resources as a mentor texts for speech delivery or speech writing, and challenge students to write a speech for the “commencement” of your course, their school year, or their middle or high school experience. If you are in the midst of a novel study, consider having students write a commencement speech from the perspective of a character in the novel.
  • I argued with Larry Lucchino a bit at the beginning of this post; use the quote generating feature on the Best Commencement Speeches, Ever app as a catalyst for argumentative writing. Or, challenge students to use one of the quotes as an epigraph for an original poem.
  • Remember “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”? The spoken portion of the recording, based on a graduation-themed column by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, reads like a mash-up of commencement speech advice. Students could watch or read some commencement speeches and create their own commencement mash-up for the Class of 2016. The most tech-savvy could even record a track and sample a favorite song in between advice “verses.”

Clearly, my brain is running around in circles as I think about the cycle of beginnings and endings we witness every year. Whether you are nearing the end of your school year, already thinking about the next, or just trying to stay sane while straddling both, I hope that this “fireside chat” offered a little respite from the chaos and a chance to remember and be thankful for your “right words at the right time.” Sometime, somewhere, some students might be thanking you for delivering the “right words at the right time,” too.

Which of these ideas might you take into your classroom? How can commencement speak wisdom breathe life into your students at the end of the year? Leave a comment below, find us on Facebook, or on Twitter @msjochman.

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