Today, I get to give the fifth grade graduation speech at Dana Elementary. That’s where I was the Principal for a Day last fall.

Here’s the speech. I hope it is worthy.

(If you get to give a speech, feel free to use this one.)

Knowing What I Know Now
A speech for the graduating fifth graders
Dana Elementary, June 4, 2008

Thank you, Mr. K. I really admire you.

Hello, students. Graduating from fifth grade is a big deal.

I am here to congratulate you. You are moving forward. That’s great. Congratulations.

And I am here to congratulate your teachers and your parents. Your kids are growing up and going to school. Going to school is among the most important parts of growing up. Congratulations on helping these kids.

Someday you will be old. Maybe as old as I am. Maybe you will have gray hair and a bow tie.

I don’t wish this for you.

Sometimes people my age look at you and say, “Oh, I wish I were going into the sixth grade again.”

That’s what some old people say. “Oh, I wish I were graduating from the fifth grade.”

I think they mean it, but I think they are wrong.

They mean it because you are so wonderful, so full of pickles. You know what I mean by “full of pickles.” You wake up in the morning and you are determined to do something that is exciting, meaningful and fun. You want to climb that tree, swim in that pool, ride that bike. You are full of pickles. You are full of life.

From an older person’s perspective that looks great.

But, here’s what I think: when an older person wants to be 11 or 12 years old again, that older person is forgetting something.

The older person is forgetting that entering sixth grade is not carefree and happy-go-lucky.

The older person is forgetting that being 11 or 12 is really very difficult.

The older person is forgetting that, long ago, when the older person was 11 or 12, there were challenges. And those challenges were important. They certainly seemed important at the time.

The older person is also thinking, “I wish I were going into the sixth grade again, knowing what I know now.”

That’s an important phrase: “knowing what I know now.

After all, image yourself going back to second grade and reliving it. Not just watching today’s second graders, but being one of them.

Second grade was good, but you don’t want to relive it. Unless, of course, you could relive it, knowing what you know now.

If you could do that, you would be the world’s best second grader. You would know more about reading and math. You would know better how to please the teacher. You would be on every winning team during recess.

Of course, you would have to explain to everyone every day, why you are about four years older — and four years bigger — than everyone else in the class.

It would be like me showing up for sixth grade.

You would look at me and ask: “What’s with the new kid in the bow tie? And, wait, he’s not a kid.”

OK, let’s think about this for a moment.

If older people want to your age again, knowing what they know now…

Well, then, what is it they know now that they think would make life so wonderful?

Here are three things that I know now that I wish I knew when I was your age:

First, friends matter.
When I was 12, I didn’t think I had much choice
about who my friends were. My friends were the people who were placed
next to me in the classroom. Or the people who lived next door. It’s
easier to be friends with neighbors. But I didn’t realize how much
choice I had in choosing friends.

Now I don’t stay friends with people who bring me down, with negative
people, with people who always make me unhappy. I just don’t hang
around with them. So, if I were to go back to sixth grade, knowing what
I know now
, I would quietly move away from negative people and I would
look hard for people I admire — people I admire for their brains, their kindness and their positive energy.

And I would show them that I
am a friend worth having.

So, first, friends matter.

Second, words matter.
What you say has a lot to do with what happens to you.

When I was 12, I thought I could say anything to anyone anytime. I’m
still a lot like that today.

But words aren’t like basketballs, passed
back and forth. They are like arrows. Once you say something, you can
really never take it back. You can apologize. And the other person
might forgive you. But, well you know, you still said it.

If I were to
go back to sixth grade, knowing what I know now, I would say a lot
less. I would really consider my words.

So, second, words matter.

And, third, listening matters.
When I was 12, I listened to other people, but I
often made one mistake. When someone said something insulting to me, I
thought that it was really about me. But, in the years since sixth
grade, I’ve learned that usually, when someone insults me, it’s not
really about me. It’s usually about the person who is saying the

Here’s an example: My son is graduating from another fifth
grade today. Let’s say a classmate of his on the playground says to
him: “D_______ — (that’s his name) — D_______, your dad is an idiot.” Well,
at first, D_______ might think, “Hey, this guy has just insulted me.” And
it might make him angry.

But, wait a minute. That guy just called D_______’s dad an idiot. Does
that really make me an idiot?

Actually, maybe I am an idiot.

I can tell you that
sometimes I am definitely an idiot. Like when I stood too close to a
fireplace in my new fancy pants.

Every time I see the little hole in
those pants, I think, ”Man, D_______’s dad is a real idiot.” So maybe I
am an idiot, at least sometimes.

But, let’s go back to the playground. When that other guy called me an idiot, that wasn’t what made me an idiot.

He must have said it for other reasons:

  1. Perhaps he wanted D_______ to throw a punch at him. What sort of
    person wants to fight all the time? That’s a sad and angry person.
    Certainly not someone I would want as a friend. Or,
  2. Perhaps he wanted to let D_______ know that I am an idiot. Well, if
    I were an idiot, D_______ would surely know that. Believe you me, when I
    am an idiot, D_______ is often there, watching.

I don’t know why someone would bother telling my son that his father is
an idiot. But I do know this. It doesn’t really have anything to do
with D_______.

So I tell D_______, “If someone ever calls me an idiot, you can agree
with them. That’s OK with me. You can tell them about my new fancy pants with the little
hole in them.”

Of course, when a teacher tells you something that might be insulting,
you might want to think about it. The teacher is trying to help.

When I visited Dana Elementary as principal for a day last year, I
heard a teacher say that Mother Nature gave us two ears and one mouth,
so that we might listen more than we talk.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

If I went back to the sixth grade, I would see how far I could get just listening. I wouldn’t talk so much.

Well, those are three things I know now that might help me if I were to go back to sixth grade. I hope they help you.

May you have a wonderful summer, true friends, and a happy life.