American School Commencement Speech

Chargé d’Affaires Mark Johnson

Friday, June 7, 2019, 9:00 A.M., American School

Remarks by Deputy Chief of Mission Mark Johnson at the American School Class of 2019 Graduation Ceremony

 

June 7th, 2019

Good morning Escuela Americana. Did you ever think this day would come?

I know. Been there. Lots of ideas going through your heads.

What will my life be like when I leave the comfort of my school and my home or for some, my country?

Will I have any friends?

What do I want to be when I grow up?

What is my dream? What is my passion?

Should I try to connect with that one tonight . . . or the other one?

How can I get to all those parties this weekend? Let me help on that one – don’t drive yourselves. Parents, big brothers/sisters, Uber. That choice is easy. Don’t be part of the yearly graduation tragedies.

So the challenge here is to carve out your attention for just a few minutes given the competition from all those thoughts firing into each other, and to say something that might be helpful as you write the final words on the pages of the first book of your lives, and begin writing an exciting new volume. For it is you who write the stories of your lives – so I hope you paid attention in English and Spanish classes.

Most people say they don’t remember what was said at their graduations. But I believe that without even realizing it, during these celebrations we pick up messages, thoughts, ideas that we let tumble around in our brains, maybe discuss with friends. Joined with the insights, values and desires we have shaped at home and at school, they help move our lives, subtly, in a new direction.

I would like to thank Dr. Polly Parker, the School Board, and all the teachers and staff at the American School for inviting me here today. I ask that we take a moment to thank them all for helping you arrive at this important juncture of your lives.

I know many of you were expecting Ambassador Jean Manes, but due to a family issue, she was not able to join. However, she wishes you all the best, noting the special connection here between Salvadorans and Americans. I urge that this continue as we seek to improve security and prosperity for both our people.

High school graduation represents an important moment, and the first in a series of achievements over the course of your lives. But, while it is the end of the path that led you here, it is really the beginning of what you are destined to accomplish. And, as you create your own journeys, you will continuously face decision points – choices – similar to the ones I mentioned earlier.

So, to mark this important day, as is tradition, your school has asked me, someone who has navigated a reasonably successful path from high school, to stand before you and provide some words of wisdom.

Well, I can tell you this, you will hear lots of advice around graduation time. And your parents are all in the audience perhaps hoping that you will hear what I have to say and suddenly you will know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life.

It’s not so easy as that, is it?

I too have a child graduating this year. So I know from both a student’s and a parent’s point of view what everyone has gone through – the anxiety of the PSATs, SATs (I have to study for those things?), applying to schools we’ve never heard of, chasing errant commas and missing apostrophes, the before midnight deadlines – is that East Coast Time or El Salvador time?; and the waiting. Finally getting into that school, or deciding upon your gap year plans, or getting a job. And then receiving that first tuition bill from the university – It costs what??!! – Did you know that one year today at a U.S. university costs more than I paid for four years when I graduated . . . plus all the cars I’ve ever owned.

And on top of all this, you are supposed to already know what  you want to do with your life.

It’s a lot to take on.

The secret is that there are many answers to that question, and they will change as you change.

Back when I graduated, the only real thing I knew was that I wanted to serve. Serve my community, serve my country, something that was and still is to this day a core value I learned from my family, and I hope to have instilled in my children.

With yesterday being the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, and the sacrifices made by thousands of men and women fighting together for democracy and freedom for people they had never before met, the notion of service to others is front and center, as it has been for this son of naval officers and enlisted, from the Spanish-American war – an Irish immigrant plumber – WWI, WWII, and Vietnam.

And I have talked to the U.S. Navy many times over the years about serving with them, but, during my college years I heard about the Foreign Service – the State Department’s diplomatic corps.

I thought, this is a great opportunity to serve my country, and perhaps the broader world. “I’ll get to know a couple of countries, I’ll learn Spanish and then after maybe 5 years I’ll go back home and do something else.” – business, politics, charity, teaching.

Well.

It’s been 26 years and 8 countries later … and I have yet to fully learn Spanish.

So much for my plan.

And although I still don’t know what I’ll do when I get older, I have yet to find something else that fulfills my need to give back. We tend to think that we need to have it all figured out, that we need to have all the answers, and know exactly what we want and how we’ll get it.

I remember distinctly, sitting on a porch one clear-skied summer night with my dad and a very close friend of his, shortly after I graduated from law school. At some point my Dad’s friend turned to him and asked: “Hey Joe, what do you want to do when you grow up?” And my dad without missing a beat answered: “I haven’t decided yet Stan, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

And I remember thinking: “Oh, these guys haven’t figured it out either.” After a bit of reflection, not sure whether it was the stars or the whiskey, I realized: “Oh, these guys haven’t figured it out either.

These men were in their fifties, with families and careers and jobs, and had led accomplished and successful lives (one had been a well-regarded U.S. Congressman – not my Dad), and here they were, sitting on a small porch in upstate New York, sipping whiskey, wondering what they would do next.

And that’s the thing, human beings are not static creatures. We are always changing; we gain experience and – hopefully – become a bit wiser. Every now and then we all should stop and take a moment to think: What do I want to do when I grow up?

What do I want to do with my life?

I asked myself that question after my first five years in the Foreign Service and I realized that at the core, my passion, my goal, remained the same: I wanted to serve my country, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself, I wanted to try and make a difference, and to help others. I could be part of the problem. In my assessment, not helping, turning away, is part of the problem.

Or I could be part of the solution.

I chose to be a part of making the world better. My path wasn’t the Navy of my father, both grandfathers and great grandfather. My service was diplomacy, it turned out. Connecting people and serving U.S. objectives while seeking those Venn diagrams of shared interests.

And for others it might not be government work at all. Look around you at the people who are making a difference, who are serving their communities. Look at the teachers and staff of the school. At the parents who selflessly sacrificed to drive you to classes, to tutoring, to your games, who work jobs that they perhaps don’t love in order to support a family they do love. And who, while running businesses and creating jobs for others, find the time to coach and support charities, and be those famous Madres Enlaces. This is the fabric that makes up any healthy community. Service comes in many ways.

Over the years whenever I have found myself at a crossroads, I always go back to those first questions: What do I want to do? Am I still driven to do it? Am I making a difference?

This is why passion matters. When people say be true to yourself, this is what they mean. What you care about achieving most is what motivates you when things get tough, and will drive you to give just that one more inch.

And if you are wondering if you have really found your passion, ask yourself if you are willing to put in the effort. Are you willing to do the hard work? Work the long hours? The sleepless nights? Are you willing to give it all even when success is uncertain? How about when the most insidious power asserts itself – self-doubt?

If the answer to that is no, then what you have is a dream, not a goal.

Those are okay, too, but it’s important to know that there is a difference. My dream might be to become a pro surfer. But it will never be a goal because – frankly, on a good day, I am about two paddles away from what they call a “kook” (not so good). Make no mistake. I am out there every weekend persistently trying to improve myself.  But . . . here is some advice for the parents – if surfing is on your bucket list – start before you turn 50.

So my passion pushes me to do something else for a career, for my family, just as it pushes me into the water every weekend. If you haven’t found your passion yet, it’s okay, keep looking, keep trying new things and embracing uncertainty. Sometimes fear of the uncertain stops us from attempting different things. From making those friends at college, or tasting a weird food, or trying to understand James Joyce or jazz or modern art.

Fear is not a bad thing, it’s the way our brains tell us: “you can do it, just be smart about it.” Fear is meant to give us pause, to force us to do some research and balance out risks, but not to stop us. Take a risk. You might discover your passion somewhere completely unexpected.

So my advice is to be afraid and do the thing that scares you anyway. If scared is the only way you can do it, then do it scared.

Find your passion and surround yourself with people who believe in the same things you do, and who want to build the same future that you do. Hold their hand as you face down those fears together and create the world you want to live in.

Take a risk on people. Take a risk on love. Take a risk on yourselves, and know that each of you is much more capable of success than you can imagine, if you only give yourselves the chance.

And more importantly, imagine how you could change your worlds if you combined forces working with each other, for each other, facing your fears and taking those calculated risks.

To the class of 2019, congratulations to you all.

Some of you know what you want to do when you grow up, and others will figure it out soon enough. Go out and make a difference. Be a part of the solution, and make this world, your world, better for you and for all of us. Go write the story of the rest of your lives. We can’t wait to read it.

Thank you.