Commencement Address by Student-elected Speaker Olly Cohen '16, May 29, 2016

We’re here today because graduating high school is a milestone in our lives, and to paraphrase Ferris Bueller, "it’s nice to take some time to stop and look around once in a while."

So, in the spirit of “stopping to look around”, I’d like to share four lessons that I’ve learned at Millbrook. Before I get into them, however, I just want to say that they’re not easy to learn. I work at these lessons everyday, trying to improve myself, and frankly, I’m not even that good at them. So, there’s no pressure to master them tomorrow or the next day.

First, Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails.” You can be happy anywhere, even in prison, just by adjusting your attitude like sails to the wind.

Tony Robbins, arguably the most influential motivational speaker in our age, says “Find your passion.” Well…I say, “Be passionate, and you will find many passions.” To give an example, I’ll use my good friend Danny Mitchell. When Danny was in sixth grade, he won an attitude award, which came with a tee shirt that said, “Attitude is everything.” As a post-grad at Millbrook this year Danny embodied this idea. When he got deferred from the college he had committed to for basketball he refused to be give up. Despite the fact that he had expected to be in college, Danny whipped up about 20 college applications in the span of a month. At the time he said, “Call me an optimist, but I still think everything’s going to work out. To be honest, I really don’t have a choice but to be an optimist at this point.” Three months later, Danny got into the school to which he was originally committed, and everything worked out perfectly. A negative attitude only would have made the experience more painful. When Danny had the idea to start a flag football league this spring, and I took on the challenge with him, we wouldn’t have been able to do it without positive attitudes.

Second, Tom Hanks once said, “The only way you can truly control how you are seen is being honest all the time.” I’ve seen this play out many times. Those who act the same with their friends as they do when they are alone are the most loved by their peers. A great example, is my good friend Andrew Colangelo. Is Colangelo here? Does anyone know if he made it today? Andrew Colangelo is just about the sincerest and most brutally honest person I know. He acts pretty much the same around everyone, whether you’re a guy or a girl, senior or freshman, or just an acquaintance. Some people may find his forthright honesty unnerving, even disturbing because realistically we don’t expect an acquaintance or even a friend to be completely honest, and the truth is often more embarrassing than a lie, especially in Colangelo’s case. He’ll greet you with a cross-eyed look of delight and a groaning sound expressing innocent glee. Still, I can confidently say that everyone who knows the guy loves him.

Another example is my good friend Will Bliss, who is not afraid to tell it the way that it is. In a Case Dorm soccer game earlier this year, Vince, our beloved dorm head, was the ref, and he was just awful. All the dorm leaders, myself included, were complaining to each other, but Bliss actually went up to Vince and told him that he should never be allowed to ref again. I was happy just to complain behind Vince’s back. Bliss, however, successfully vented his frustration and communicated the problem to Vince, solving it. Bottom line: life is easier and more enjoyable when you can say what you honestly want to say.

Third: all it takes to command respect is a little confidence. Without having to know the people in a room you can usually tell who the leader is by looking at the the person who stands the straightest and is surest of himself or herself. Just think of your prefects, these students who lead assembly and set the campus vibe are the most confident people at Millbrook; like Isabella Buccellati for example. Her confidence is most apparent in her performing. When Isabella first sang at Millbrook she didn’t seem to project much confidence. But now she is easily the most confident performer at Millbrook; she moves on the stage with swagger and certainty. In her performance of Sunday Candy in a recent Arts Night, she actually forgot the words, but you wouldn’t have known it because she was so relaxed on stage, it was as if nothing went wrong the entire time.

It can take months or years to develop confidence, real confidence, not just feeling good about yourself when people treat you nicely or when you put other people down. The kind of confidence that will stay with you through a speed bump or a failure. Because truth be told, you will need to retain your confidence the most, not when you’re doing really well or when everyone loves you, but when you’ve been knocked down and need to get back up. When you forget the words to a song, or when you are rejected from college, you need to have the self-assurance to trust in yourself because you’re not betting your confidence on what someone in an admissions office thinks of you or what anyone else thinks of you. You get true confidence by believing in yourself.

Fourth, T.S. Eliot said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” There is far more we are capable of than we realize. There is no universal rule book that tells you what your limits are. Just look at Stephen Curry, this year’s NBA MVP. He made 402 three-pointers this season when the previous record was 286 three pointers, also set by him. Curry blew this previous record out of the water by about 40%. In professional sports, this is unheard of. It’s a big deal when an athlete breaks a record by one point or one game, not by 116 threes. And to me, the most incredible part of this feat is that no one, not one person predicted Steph Curry’s greatness. No one foresaw that he would change the game of basketball and become the greatest three-point shooter of all time.

Curry took hold of his own destiny, which brings me to the second part of this lesson: as William Jennings Bryan said, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” Nobody is going to wait for you to achieve your dreams. Steve Jobs wasn’t sitting on the sidelines when he was ousted from his own company. Instead he went and took over another company in its infancy. Ten years later that company produced its first film, Toy Story. That company was Pixar. Another example is honorary member of the class of 2016, Brendan Fitzgerald. Fitz is moving out to L.A. next year pretty much on a limb. He visited over spring break, and said, “Yeah, this is where I wanna be,” so he took fate into his own hands and decided to go.

So, in conclusion, why are we all at this commencement ceremony? Why bother giving this speech? What’s the point in stopping to look around? Well, if we finish our Ferris Bueller analogy, then we’re stopping to look around because life moves pretty fast and we don’t want to miss it. It’s closure, but more so, it’s reflection. We want this chaotic mess that we call high school to mean something. This search for purpose is a fundamental element of being human. At the end of the day though, it’s up to you decide what you got out of high school, out of Millbrook.

The lessons that I shared today my friends, they are what high school meant to me. It’s what I learned and who I met that define my experience, and I’ll keep my memories of these days forever. So, thank you to all my friends, the back table, and my family, my mom and dad especially. Thank you to Mr. Clizbe, Mr. Powers, Mr. Zeiser, Vince, Mr. Wagner, and Fitz. On behalf of all of the graduates of the class of 2016, thank you, parents and faculty, for looking out for us and guiding the way.

To the Class of 2016, this is the one moment when every single one of us is thinking the same exact thing. What happens next? Take comfort in that. This is a special moment. Thank you.