Robert Thirsk High School grads, you make me proud

I participated last week in the graduation ceremony for the 2017 class of Robert Thirsk High School. In the evening, I attended the class’s grad banquet. It was the third graduation for the school which has now been open for four years.

As a member of the ceremony’s platform party, I congratulated all 450 graduands as they crossed the stage to receive their diplomas. They made me proud. I was also asked to address the students and pass on some words of wisdom. This is what I had to say:
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You – the 2017 graduates of Robert Thirsk High School – have been on my mind. Over the past three years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know you and to see you in action. I’ve seen you in debates, building robots, producing films, playing music, performing on the playing field, asking astute questions. Getting to know you has been a joy and has bolstered my confidence in our future. Our society will soon be in your capable hands.

Thank you for inviting me to join you this morning. Graduation is one of my favourite times of the year – a time for celebration and reflection. It’s a time for celebration because you’ve made it! Woohoo! Congratulations! Excellent! Well done!

Graduation is also a time for reflection because whenever we accomplish something extraordinary, it is appropriate to pause and take stock of what’s just happened and then consider what might lie ahead. In September 2014, you entered Robert Thirsk High School from one of our junior high or middle schools. Today – May 2017 – you are graduating. I wonder how the time that you spent in high school impacted your lives?

Of course, you are taller, bigger and stronger than three years ago. You have more personal freedoms and mobility (many of you now have driver’s licenses). You have acquired new knowledge and skills. Your perspectives and attitudes about our city, our nation and our world have changed. Your personal relationships – with loved ones, parents and friends – have evolved. Your beliefs and priorities of life have changed. You are more confident than when you began high school three years ago.

I view you today as markedly different people. How did this transformation happen? Your experiences with Thirsk learning communities and interdisciplinary studies had something to do with it. So did your positive relationships with teachers, classmates, coaches and teammates. Your participation in student government, sports and clubs stretched you. The unique culture at Thirsk that focuses on “personalizing, connecting and thriving” also played a role.

The pace of change these last three years has been rapid. The barrage of quizzes, tests, exams, essays, and projects has been non-stop. It hasn’t always been fun. But working outside of your comfort zone made you stretch and grow. Challenging experiences are the foundation of character growth and are at the heart of education.

Of all phases of life, perhaps the teenage years are the most dynamic. Be aware, however, that personal transformation is not limited to high school. Humans evolve and progress throughout life. Ongoing life experiences spark personal growth – growth in the way we think, how we engage with our community, how we perceive our world and view our leaders. To become vibrant, resilient, self-reliant, problem-solving citizens, we continually change and grow.

For example, when I graduated from high school, I thought I would become an engineer. However, I actually became a medical doctor and eventually became an astronaut. When I graduated from high school, my priorities in life were me and my post-secondary education; today I’ve changed and my priorities are now the well-being of my family as well as the stewardship of our planet. Throughout my life, I’ve voted across the spectrum according to my perceptions of our current national situation and what I deemed at the time to be good leadership. In high school, I had little interest in the opera and ballet; today I have more. The music I listen to has evolved from pop and heavy metal then, to classical and jazz now.

I’m a markedly different person today than I was when I graduated from high school.

If I had the capability to go back in time to give advice to 17-year-old me, I would recommend that I take more time for self-reflection – reflecting on where I came from, how I got here, and where life could potentially take me.

Someone once said, “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Of course, as an astronaut, I buy into that. If I don’t have feedback from the Canadarm2 position and rate sensors, then I can’t control the robot arm’s trajectory to grapple a spacecraft or maneuver a crewmate about the outside of the space station. But this ‘measuring and managing axiom’ also applies to life in general. We need to regularly measure what has transpired in our lives and manage our future the way we’d like. We shouldn’t let life control us. We shouldn’t go with the flow. We need to be in charge.

Here’s a suggestion: divide the rest of your life up into three year increments (as though life is a series of high school experiences). Pause at the end of each increment to ask yourself if your life has undergone significant change, and if you are transforming as a person.

If the pace of change slows or stops, we need to be concerned. If I’m doing the same things in the same way as I did three years ago, then something is amiss. If the way I plan a spacewalk, or make a presentation, or perform my fitness workout is the same as previously, then I’m not innovating nor progressing. If the opinions that I hold today are the same as they were three years ago, then I’m stagnating.

You have been a student at Robert Thirsk High School for the last three years and excelled. Your high school education has been characterized by extraordinary learning and dramatic change. In a sense, your educational experience models what life in our external world should be like – constant change. As you leave Thirsk, become a student of life – a lifelong learner, a lifelong producer. That approach will produce positive change in your personal life as well as the world.

It is an honour for me to be associated with your school in name. I enjoy staying in touch with you and hope that my involvement has added value to your education.

To the 2017 graduates of Robert Thirsk High School, congratulations on a job done well and with flair. Live long and prosper!

The 2017 grads of Robert Thirsk High School celebrating a job well done!

The 2017 grads of Robert Thirsk High School celebrating a job well done!

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