In the fall of 1992, well before any of you were even a dream in the eyes of your families, I began my first year at the College of the Holy Cross, truly one of my favorite places in the world. That same year, Holy Cross started what was then called The First Year Program, now called Montserrat. The idea is that one of the first-year dorms would house all those in the program and, through an interdisciplinary approach in different classes, find answers to the following question: How, then, shall we live meaningfully in a world where there are so many claims to what is true and good?
You are all preparing to do something new in the fall, and whether it’s college, a gap year, a job, the armed services, or something else, you will have to grapple with this question: How, then, shall you live meaningfully in a world where there are so many claims to what is true and good.
So, if you will indulge me for just a few minutes, I would like to offer two bite-sized pieces of advice to try to find your answer to that question. Because the answer to that question will be as individual as the 184 of you are.
- Don’t shrink; and
- Be kind or, at the very least, be decent.
The first piece of advice: Don’t Shrink. This comes from a passage written by Marianne Williamson in her book A Return to Love, which often gets attributed to the late Nelson Mandela because he used it in his inauguration address. But the words are from Williamson, and the line is this: “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”
I want to take you back to the late 1980s, even longer before all of you were born – I was earning some money as a Little League umpire, barely older than the kids who were playing and certainly the youngest umpire on the field. A lot of people wondered why I wasn’t playing baseball. The truth is, I wasn’t really that good. I mean, I loved the game (and I still do – and as a native New Yorker, I still root for my beloved Yankees). Despite my love of the game, I could not play at a high level. I made our JV team in high school, but that was it.
So to stay close to the game, someone suggested I start umpiring. I did. And that I was good at. Given my enthusiasm for it and that even back then, before the internet, let alone instant replay, people were not signing up to umpire, I was assigned many regular season games. As the regular season ended, I think out of a sense of generosity, the commissioner gave me one playoff game … at third base. I was so excited!
Now, let me tell you, as someone who has umpired little league and high school baseball for more than thirty years, each position has its own unique challenges. When you’re behind the plate, there are tough borderline pitches. The first base has really close-force plays. The second base often has tricky tag plays. And at third base – well, at third base, you have to be sure not to fall asleep out of sheer boredom.
For the first few innings, I followed each and every pitch, and even though there were no calls at third base, I was ready for anything. By the third inning, my attention was waning, and in the fourth inning, I was looking around and not at the game, and by the fifth inning, I was just not focused. Little League games are only six innings, so it was getting close to the end when the telltale ping of an aluminum bat jolted me back to reality, and as I looked up, a white object went hurling past me down the third baseline. I had no clue if it was fair or foul, so I guessed and pointed fair… There were no arguments; no one said anything; it was like I was invisible. Which, by the way, is precisely how any official of any sport wants to be: invisible.
At the end of the game, the home plate umpire came up to me and said, Great call on that screamer down the line; I said thank you quickly. He then said, you have missed it, right? You were asleep, right? Yes…
But that night, I shone… And I still continue to umpire to this day.
My last piece of advice is: Be kind, or at least be decent. In whatever you do, wherever you go, whoever you meet. Be one inch kinder, one inch more decent.
Be kind or decent – simple in concept but seemingly and somehow terribly tricky in our world today.
Consider the following: During a marathon in 2021, a Kenyan runner Abel Mutai was a few meters from the finish line but got confused by the signals and stopped, thinking he had completed the race. Another runner from Spain, Ivan Fernandez, was right behind him and, realizing what had happened in front of him, shouted to the Kenyan runner to keep going.
As you might surmise, the Kenyan didn’t understand Spanish. So Fernandez pushed Mutai to victory.
After the race, a reporter asked Fernandez, “Why did you do this?”
Evan replied, “My dream is that one day we can have the kind of community life that pushes ourselves and others to win as well.”
“But why did you let the Kenyan win?” the reporter insisted.
Evan replied, “I didn’t let him win; he would win. It was his race.”
The reporter pressed and asked again: “But you could have won!”
Evan looked at him and replied, “But what is the merit of my victory? What is the honor of this medal? What will my mother think?”
Mr. Fernandez had a point.
You are graduating at a time in our world that is one of the most polarizing, as far as I can remember. The political climate, nationally and locally, is one where we respond first, sometimes with violence, and ask questions later. You are in the midst of a tumultuous, ever-changing world, and we are sending you off into it. When faced with this challenge, I humbly recommend that you do one thing: be kind or, at the very least, be decent.
You heard from Town Manager Andrew Nota on Friday at Ivy Day that public service demands compassion, empathy, and listening. The deep kind of listening; listening to understand, not listening to reply or respond. All those qualities live in kindness and decency.
That is not to say that I expect you to lay down in the face of something that you do not value – I expect you to stand up for what you believe is right. I expect that you will be an advocate and an ally for those who are being marginalized and who are on the fringes of our culture. And you can be kind simultaneously – they’re not mutually exclusive.
And let’s be honest – you already know how to be kind and decent; you all know how to shine; you are a graduating class of East Greenwich Public Schools. I have seen you all shine in a variety of ways while you showed us your talents – on stage and off, in the classroom, athletically, and through fine arts; I’ve been awed by your Senior Projects, I’ve been proud of your athletic accomplishments, and marveled while you earned academic awards. You already know how to be kind and decent, and you already know how to shine.
You’ve baked cookies for friends in need; you stop in and see your teachers regularly, preserving these critical relationships; you use your artistic talents to make cards for people who are down or for teammates; there are members of this class who have been leaders in our school, our town, and our state.
Look around our world, locally, nationally, and internationally. We need you! We need kindness. We need decency. And as someone who loves data, I am proud to tell you that there is research out there to validate this. Social and emotional skills, including kindness and decency, can be taught and learned, and there are direct benefits from the lessons. According to a review of 213 programs designed to teach children of all ages social and emotional skills in school, those who took part in the initiatives improved their outlook and behavior toward others. They also had better academic performance and showed enhanced social-emotional awareness.
You, the class of 2023, have been an example to us of shine and how to be kind, and while you’ve had your ups and downs, EG is a better school community, and EG is a better town because of your example. You have taught us well, and we are grateful to you for that.
So, based on the fact that you have completed all the requirements set forth by the State of Rhode Island and the East Greenwich Public Schools School Committee, you earn a diploma and will leave this arena not as students but as alumni of East Greenwich High School. We wish you well in how you choose to celebrate your life.
On behalf of our School Committee, the faculty & staff of Frenchtown, Meadowbrook Farms, Eldredge, Hanaford, Cole Middle School, and, of course, those in this room from East Greenwich High School, I congratulate you for this accomplishment and, I genuinely look forward to seeing how you will answer this question: How do you live meaningfully in a world where there are so many claims to what is true and good?
Brian G. Ricca, Ed.D., is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.