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Perspective | The power of our graduates to exponentially change the world

The following perspective is a copy of remarks given to the Edgecombe Early College High School Class of 2020 by Principal Matt Bristow-Smith. Bristow-Smith is the 2019 North Carolina Principal of the Year.

Good evening Superintendent Bridges, Edgecombe County Board of Education members, distinguished guests, families, friends, early college staff, and of course, the wonderful members of the Class of 2020. 

We call tonight’s ceremony a commencement, because to “commence” is to “begin,” and tonight is the beginning of “what comes next.” It may feel as if tonight may be the end of something: the end of high school, for example, or the end of childhood, perhaps, or the end of what’s familiar, safe, and friendly. And make no mistake about it, we are “graduating” you tonight!  But it is not the end of anything.

Every single experience you have ever had, every relationship, every challenge, every success and every failure – all of it contributes to who you are, what you believe, and how you respond to life’s challenges. So unless you are not you anymore, then I would challenge you to re-frame tonight not as an end but as a beginning, not as a last moment in high school but as a next step in the journey of life, not as the finish line but as a new starting line, not simply a graduation but a commencement.

As your principal and your school dad, I spend a lot of time thinking about how your school experiences and your life experiences set you up to take the first step after high school. You may find this hard to believe, but it’s never been just about your grades or test scores or credits, although all of that matters to some extent. It’s been about setting big audacious goals, working relentlessly toward them, encountering obstacles and creating workarounds, and approaching but never quite reaching your potential.

It has been about developing critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and citizenship. It has been about building strong relationships between people who are different from one another. It’s been about building your sense of self.  It’s been about shedding tears together because we have empathy, compassion, and heart for each other as fellow human beings. 

It’s been about getting to know yourselves so well that you can look beyond yourselves and see others, understand others, and serve others.  It’s been about the process — all of it — the design challenges, the junior internships, the senior projects, the Turtle Derbies, the Turtle Idols, all those town meetings, the classwork, the homework, the high-fives in the hallway, the “I love you’s,” the service learning, early college reads, trust levels, the family meetings for course registration, the “flat-on-your-face” failures, the mountaintop moments of success, the field trips, B Week clubs, college classes, our dream team of educators and staff, the good, bad, and ugly that come with being a true family, all those remind messages, and I know you’re waiting for it, so here it comes — growth mindset! 

It’s all been about so much more than what’s on your transcript. It’s been about helping you become you. You as an individual. You as the Class of 2020. 

I truly believe that your graduating class is unstoppable. Let the world know that the Class of 2020 is a force of nature. In 2017, when tonight’s graduates were sophomores, we watched a total solar eclipse unlike anything we’ve seen in America in 100 years — and we watched it together. In 2018, when tonight’s graduates were juniors, Hurricane Florence dropped 8 trillion gallons of water on our state — and we struggled through it and survived together.

And in 2020, as you are about to graduate, we have a pandemic unlike anything any of us has seen in our lifetime, and we are getting through it together. But as baseball hall of famer Wade Boggs famously said, “Our lives are not determined by what happens to us but how we react to what happens, not by what life brings us but the attitude we bring to life.” And to highlight this point, I would like to do some math with you.

All of us living through this pandemic understand the basic concept of exponential growth because we have learned how the COVID-19 virus operates.  Exponential growth is the idea that something always grows in relation to its current value over time.

Let’s say that I hire you to do some work around my house for the next month, and your rate of pay begins with one penny on day one and doubles every day for 30 days while you work your heart out. On day one, you mow my yard, trim my shrubs, and rake my leaves, and I pay you a penny. On say two, you weed my garden, wash my windows, and paint my front porch, and I pay you two pennies.  This goes on every day for 30 days. 

You work your heart out, and I double what I paid you the previous day. After seven full days of work, you would be earning 64 cents a day.  After 10 days, you would be earning $5.12 a day. But after 30 days, you would be making $5,368,709 a day.  In fact, if I started paying you a penny on day one and doubled it every day for 30 days, you would earn over 11 million total dollars in the course of one month. That’s the power of exponential growth.

In the case of the pandemic we now face, we have seen how exponential growth of coronavirus transmission has taken place. We saw the first confirmed case of the virus in the United States on January 20, 2020. That was just under five months ago from the date of this recording, and as of this morning, we have 1,219,066 known cases of the coronavirus in our country. 

From 1 to 1.2 million cases in just five months. Again, that’s the power of exponential growth, and that’s why we have all been working so hard to social distance and to “flatten the curve.”

So amidst all of this, allow me to explain why I have such great faith, hope, love, and optimism for the Class of 2020. As Emily Grimm shared in her remarks earlier, your graduating class has known hardship, and that hardship has deepened your souls, strengthened your character, and built your capacity to work around, work against, and work through tough times.

You are one resilient group. More importantly, you guys care about each other and your fellow human beings who share this planet. And after all that you have experienced and all the support you have had, I know you are committed not only to giving back but also to paying it forward to others. 

You may have heard the saying, “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” There is a difference between helping people, and helping people learn to help themselves. If I give you a fish, I have helped you once. But if I take the time to teach you how to fish, I have not only helped you feed yourself, I have empowered you to feed your family (and to teach them to fish so they can feed their community). So let’s do some more math.

We have 35 graduates in the early college Class of 2020. If you all teach just one person to fish each year – in other words, if each of you commits yourself to helping someone become empowered to help others – and if you do that just once a year for the next 30 years, and if those people follow your example and do the same, do you have any idea how many human beings could be impacted for good by the Class of 2020? I consulted two math experts — Mrs. Kim Long and Mrs. Kelly Jones — to confirm this. If we apply exponential growth to the Class of 2020, your graduating class could impact 3.8 BILLION people. That is 48% of our current worldwide population, or almost half the planet. 

That starts with a commitment to making what comes next not just about you but about others. It’s about making this commencement that you are about to take — this first step in the next phase of your life journey — about something bigger, more meaningful, and more challenging than just “following your dreams.” 

And the truth is that we need the Class of 2020 to be not only helpers but also champions. 

We need you to fight for equity, social justice, and human rights for all people.

We need you to fight for environmental stewardship to save the planet.

We need you to fight for high quality education for each young person that eliminates opportunity gaps no matter his/her zip code.

And we need you to fight for a basic sense of respect and decency for each other no matter your race, color, religion, gender, national origin.

This is not a political agenda. It’s a human agenda. It puts others first, and it asks all of us — the Class of 2020, those who came before you, and those who will come after you — to unite behind the idea that a meaningful existence on this planet calls on us to live for more than just us. 

Class of 2020, this is my charge to you — to take everything that has been poured into you, continue investing deeply in your own personal growth, and as soon as you are able, whether that is tomorrow, a month from now, or a year from now, begin living for others and paying it forward. Teach others to fish.

When you arrived to us five years ago, we introduced you to our early college motto: “Be yourself; leave completely changed.” Tonight, I will add a few more words of commencement guidance: “Be yourself; leave completely changed; and live for others.”

Always know that I love each of you. Our dream team of educators and staff at the early college loves you. And we are so grateful that we share this planet with you.

Matt Bristow-Smith

Matt Bristow-Smith is principal at Edgecombe Early College High and the 2019 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.