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Pomp and Happenstance

A graduation speech for the kindergarten set

Marjorie Ingall
June 14, 2010
(Kindergarten graduation photo by Joe Duty; some rights reserved.)
(Kindergarten graduation photo by Joe Duty; some rights reserved.)

Congratulations, kindergarten class of 2010! I’m honored that you invited me to address you today. I look at all your shining faces—well, not yours, Nathan; wipe that jam off your forehead—and I am filled with pride as I imagine you striding purposefully into first grade.

Maxine, Akiba, Hannah, Koufax, Ezra, Mahershalalhashbaz, Nathan, Herzl, Manilow, Spinoza, Golda, Ayn, Keren-Happuch, Brooklyn, Yauch, Sadie, Moxie Crimefighter, Esther, Henrietta, Moses, and Blanket: Mazel tov.

My best advice to all of you: Wear sunscreen.

No, really. Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, in her famous sunscreen-centric commencement address often attributed to Kurt Vonnegut because people are morons, offered lots of wisdom worth sharing today: Sing. Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts; don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours. Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Koufax, stop poking Spinoza. I don’t care if he started it.

Graduates, don’t you think it’s funny that everyone focuses on commencement addresses for college students rather than kindergartners? College! Big whoop! You guys have learned far more this year than any Harvard or Stanford grad. The most important values in the world are the ones your teachers—thank you Ms. Engel, Mrs. Schneerson and Ms. Ciccone—have taught you in this, your first formal year of schooling. Even more important, though, is what you’ve taught each other. Not to channel Robert Fulghum or anything, but the lessons you’ve (I hope) internalized this year are the most important ones you’ll ever learn.

Don’t hit. Share your toys. Dance every day. Sing the clean-up song regularly. Notice when you’re hurting someone’s feelings. Take care of each other, of your possessions, of the possessions of others, and of the world around you. Be proud of your body and the things it can do. Notice everything. Be amazed at the wonders of the world.

I know you raised silkworms this year. You watched them grow from eggs to larvae to pupae to adults. You watched them die; you watched new generations be born. You learned what silkworms eat. (Everybody? MULBERRY LEAVES! Right!) You learned to hold newborn caterpillars very gently. You learned the best way to build a silkworm condo of toilet-paper tubes. You waited patiently for the metamorphosis and watched intently as moths emerged from cocoons. You learned the parts of a caterpillar’s body. Some of you even learned to unwind the silk thread from the cocoons to spin, dye with food coloring, and weave into cloth.

How many gazillion different lessons were in that silkworm curriculum? Life, death, caregiving, motor skills, patience, the scientific method, art, observation, aesthetics! How multidisciplinary and multifaceted your learning is! Kindergarten teachers have the most important and least appreciated job in the world. Now, some dopey parents think you guys aren’t preparing for first grade because you’re not focused entirely on math and reading. Oh, believe me, I know you learn stories and grouping and pattern-building (age-appropriate math) and writing here too. But to me, what’s really important for kindergartners is learning to love school, learning how to think and reason, learning how and why to care for something besides yourself. And you guys have done that.

You’ve taken the advice of Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus: “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” Good kindergartens are about process, not product. You haven’t used coloring sheets or done assembly-line art that’s more about providing something for us parents to hang on the fridge than about your process of creativity and exploration. You’ve listened to the wisdom of Dora the Explorer, even though her perky high-pitched voice stabs through my brain like an ice pick every morning before I’ve had my coffee: “No swiping!” ¡Hurra!

You’ve all had different triumphs this year. Keren-Happuch, you’ve learned to conquer your fear of the big slide in the playground. Spinoza, you’ve learned not to hit people with trucks. Golda, you’ve conquered your separation anxiety. Moses, you’ve learned not to pee in your pants.

Maxie, I am so proud of you. You are so funny, so hard-working, so thoughtful. You try so hard, even when things don’t come easily. A mama could not ask for a sweeter kindergartner.

When I was preparing to come speak here today, I looked back at some famous graduation speeches of the past. Sure, they were for older kids, but they still have something to teach us. Here’s what England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill told students in 1941: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Manilow, I’ve seen you refuse to give in when you build a tower that tips over. You start again. Henrietta, I’ve seen you refuse to give in to your baser impulses, your yetzer hara, when you waited your turn and when you could have stolen a cookie but didn’t. You’ve all learned about both honor and wisdom this year. Some adults forget, or never learn at all.

You could also think about what a computer guy named Steve Jobs told the class of 2007 at Stanford University. He said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Wait, why am I talking about death to kindergartners? Well, you know about death. You’ve seen your silkworms and moths die. Some of you may have lost pets, or even people you loved. Death is sad, but knowing about it should cause us to make the most of our lives. That, and remembering to buy stock in Apple.

Finally, I’ll end with the words of Stephen Colbert, who is a real funny man and a pretend doodyhead. He spoke to the graduates of Knox College in 2006. His big advice was to say YES. “Saying ‘yes’ begins things,” he said. “Saying ‘yes’ is how things grow. Saying ‘yes’ leads to knowledge. ‘Yes’ is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say ‘yes.’ ”

I agree. Say yes.

And never forget what you know right now.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.