Honored graduates, trustees, distinguished faculty and staff, Academy alumni, family and friends, it is a privilege to speak to you today at these 49th commencement ceremonies of Interlochen Arts Academy.
Good morning, graduates of 2011, on your very special day.
This morning there is a spirit in this auditorium, a spirit that you have brought to us today by your presence, and that is shared by all those sitting out there. That spirit comes from a combination of hope and energy, an intersection of achievement and talent, commitment and desire, a spirit with the brilliance of a rare star, a Betelgeuse in the universe of potential, that represents who you are and what you are capable of becoming. It is a day of boundless expectations.
I have been giving a great deal of thought to the significance of this year that we are ending today, and the year ahead-the 50th anniversary of the Academy. Two quotes that I happened upon this spring, one by President John F. Kennedy, and the other by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson have shaped my message.
Here on the eve of the 50th anniversary of this remarkable institution, the entire Academy community is thinking about looking back in history, and coming back to Interlochen. There is a third part that I want us to think about today, thoughts on the legacy that you leave, and how that legacy will require you to give back in the future, so that the next 50 years for Interlochen and the arts are as vibrant as the first.
Now you and the audience are likely going to sigh, roll your eyes and think that this is yet another presidential graduation address about money, and yes, it does require remarkable resources and commitment from so many to create and sustain this organization and your success. But as you will hear in the coming few minutes, giving back also underscores the boundless expectations we share today. Giving back implies a longitudinal progression of achievement for you, and an expectation for Interlochen of continued fulfillment of our mission and purpose. This clearly goes far beyond the pecuniary expectations you might think I would intone today.
In preparation for the 50th the alumni and development staff have been traveling with me all over the country, creating local steering committees of alumni and parents in the metropolitan areas where we will be touring next year. In those conversations what struck me were two things: the commitment over time that people demonstrate to Interlochen, and the achievement that they have exhibited over time, that they attribute to Interlochen.
On one of those trips I was in my hotel room and happened upon a PBS special on the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in January of 1961. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was in the 5th grade, and the entire student body of Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School in Quincy, Illinois, was herded into the auditorium to watch the black and white Philco television that few could see because large screen meant 19”, not jumbotron. Our principal, Mr. Prunty, admonished us to sit still and listen to this historic moment and he taped the microphone of the PA system into the ON position and placed it in front of the TV speaker. That was modern technology in 1961. In that setting I heard these words:
“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
I wonder if Kennedy knew the impact those words would have on our country. They launched a new era in American history, one in which we began to look at how we could help others, when individuals and organizations began coming together for a common good, an era of collaboration around shared values and community. If you have read the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, that moment in history is one in which we turned from PTAs and bowling leagues to community organizations and non-profits that enriched our national life in health, education, social responsibility, the arts and culture, civic life and community vitality.
Those thoughts from 50 years ago, just a year before the Academy opened, began to stimulate my thinking: what will—no, what MUST this community, the Interlochen community, ask of itself to energize its work for the years after our 50th anniversary? I wondered if those words of President Kennedy could be recast in a new context to challenge us as profoundly as his challenged a nation. Let’s give it a try.
“Ask not what Interlochen can do for you; ask what you can do for Interlochen.”
Same idea, different context. But what does it mean?
Ask not what Interlochen can do for you. Today marks, only partially, the end of what Interlochen has done for you, for little do you know that Interlochen will continue giving you something for the rest of your life. While the euphoria of this morning may not give you the depth of understanding or perspective of what you have been given by Interlochen today, over time you will come to realize that it has given you a great deal: lifelong friends, remarkable shared artistic and academic experiences, a sense of commitment, artistic, academic and creative discipline that raised expectations for you—and helped you raise expectations for yourself--that led to achievement of uncommon depth for a high school today. None of this can ever be taken from you. It will stay with you, and each year that you are gone your perspective and understanding of what happened here will deepen, and you will understand not only what Interlochen has done for you, but also what it will give you throughout your life. We’re kind of like the Energizer bunny of arts schools.
But in return, Interlochen asks that you look inward and ask yourself the second part of this new quote: what can you do for Interlochen?
To be honest, each of you has already done something for Interlochen. You have given us your spirit, and that is a big part of what will make the Interlochen experience such a lasting one for you.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish poet and writer, says,
“It is not likely that posterity will fall in love with us, but not impossible that it may respect or sympathize; so a man would rather leave behind him the portrait of his spirit than a portrait of his face.”
Every one of you on this stage will leave part of your spirit here, and they join the spirits of the nearly 9,000 graduates who have gone before you in the previous 48 years.
Spirit is reciprocal at Interlochen, because it is the spirit of Interlochen, and the spirit of our faculty and staff who have nurtured you, guided you, motivated and challenged you, the spirit of this place, that will continue to give to you in the future.
Spirit, however, is something living, and it must be nurtured and renewed. We can renew it in two ways. It can be renewed by the spirits left by those who come after you, in the 50th, 51st and later classes. But that is not enough. It must be renewed by you and all those who have come before you. Your spirit cannot stand in isolation. By asking what you can do for Interlochen, you help revitalize the collective spirit of Interlochen that we all share, because it is only in that reciprocal act that we will be able to continue doing for future classes what you experienced here as the class of 2011.
That reciprocity requires that in answering the question, “what can I do for Interlochen,” that you must give back. In our 50th celebration many will look back, and many will come back, but how many will give back?
You will be quick to say, how can I give back? The answer comes in three parts: time, talent and treasure. Let me give you some ideas.
First, TIME. While time has become as precious a commodity as money, time is the one thing that you can easily give. For instance, you can stay in touch with one another and Interlochen. When your class representatives like Ben or Lydia send you emails or ask for information, write them back. Let us know where you are. Take the time to stay in touch with your Interlochen friends. Talk about Interlochen with new friends, in your jobs, with your friend’s families, and with your family. Attend Interlochen events when they are in your community or nearby. Watch Interlochen on the web or YouTube. Check out the website. Find and connect with Interlochen alumni in areas you move to. Volunteer. Across this country are people who work hard on behalf of Interlochen. They bring alumni together for special projects, or to help organize and support our tours, or visit local high schools to recruit or staff Interlochen tables at recruiting fairs. Perhaps most important, find the time to come back to Interlochen, to renew your spirit. It isn’t hard to do these things, to find the time, but only if you ask yourself on a regular basis, “what can I do for Interlochen.”
Second, TALENT. This you have in abundance. Your creativity is the hardest currency you possess. As you leave here for a success that is unknown at this time but not uncertain, you must share those talents with others and let people know that Interlochen is part of your life. Insist that Interlochen be listed in your biographies. The greatest of the sharing and healing arts, teaching, must be a part of your future. We cannot last long as a creative culture unless you are willing to share with others what you learned here, and elsewhere on your creative journey. And when you teach or perform, share that Interlochen helped shape the talent that you are using. You must bring your talents back to Interlochen, be a willing role model for the next generations of Interlochen students. If you are one of the chosen who is on stage or screen, galleries and bookshelves, be willing to come back to share your talent for Interlochen—at Interlochen.
And finally, TREASURE. When you ask, “what can I do for Interlochen” I hope that some of you will choose to support this institution in tangible financial terms. To the mother last night that told me that when she won the lottery she was going to give it all to Interlochen I say, “I have an agreement backstage for you to sign.” What is treasure? It could be your time. It could be your talent. It could be your children, who you nurture and provide with the arts as your parents have done for you, and perhaps encourage them to attend Interlochen. And yes, it could be in the form of gifts that sustain and help us to grow. None of this exists without those who care enough to ensure the best possible environment and resources for future student success—resources for great faculty and staff, facilities, technology, experiences—and scholarship resources to help the great students sitting before me benefit and prosper and grow because someone cared to make all of this possible for you.
Ask not what Interlochen can do for you; ask what you can do for Interlochen. It’s a simple exchange, not Keynesian economics. It is about the relationship between time, talent and treasure. It is about looking back, coming back, and giving back. It is about heart, soul, and spirit. The future of Interlochen is about you, and how you choose to answer the question long after you leave, what can I do for Interlochen?
And so my friends, it is time to go. Travel safely. Make wise choices. Do the right thing. Keep in touch. Visit often. Remember this place, and these times. Love. Learn. Lead. It is your destiny.