Thad Williamson is a professor, writer and civic activist teaching at the University of Richmond. His work focuses on the connection between theories of democracy and social justice and the practice of public policy and public administration.

Graduation Speech, John B. Cary Elementary 2019: Do the Right Thing, Do the Hard Thing, Do the Kind Thing!

Graduation Speech, John B. Cary Elementary 2019: Do the Right Thing, Do the Hard Thing, Do the Kind Thing!

June 13, 2019

Good morning!!!!

This is an exciting day! It’s a day you have been working toward not only this current school year, but for six whole years. And this is a day you will remember, even when you get to be my age, even when you get to be much older.

I have three simple messages for the students:

·       Do the right thing

·       Do the hard thing

·       Do the kind thing

And we are going to start by doing a kind thing!

 I would like the students to all stand up, turn around, and look at your family members here. And when I say three, I want you to all say with a loud voice, “Thank you family!”

And then I want you to take a look at all the John B Cary teachers and staff who have nurtured and taught you, not only this year but all the years you have been here. And on the count of three I want you to all say with a loud voice, “Thank you teachers!!!”

Great! You can sit down now.

Do the Right Thing

Let’s talk about doing the right thing.

You all are finishing 5th grade. I remember 5th grade well. That was the year I had the best teacher of my school years, Mrs. Dixie Wier!

Let me tell you about Mrs. Wier. She was tall! She absolutely commanded the classroom. The first day I met her, I was so scared of her that I had a hard time sleeping that night.

And I never stopped being scared of her. But as time went on, I appreciated her.

She taught us to do the right thing, in the right way, whether it was as simple as lining up for lunch or recess or as complicated as learning how to write a paper.

She drilled us in American history, and made us memorize tons of dates from world history and American history. She made us all write long research papers about an American state (I wrote about Massachusetts). But she also taught us about Mexico and Mexican culture.

She made us read books and give book reports. She drilled us in math.

And she even taught us music and songs, lots of songs. In addition to being the 5th grade teacher, she was also the choir director, and she would come lean over while we were singing to find out if we could carry a tune.

There was never an easy day with Mrs. Wier in the classroom. She made us work. She taught us how to study. She taught us how to break down a book or an essay and outline it, so we could understand the argument and how the evidence supported the argument.

We had homework every night, and I lived in fear of not getting it all done or somehow forgetting it or leaving it at home. I didn’t want to be embarrassed, and I didn’t want to let her down.

What I learned from Mrs. Wier is that there is a right way to study, and a right way to do anything. And if you want to be successful at anything, whatever it is, you have learn what the right way to do it is, and then you have to practice it over and over until it becomes second nature.

I know this is what has been going on this year and all your years at Cary, because I know these teachers and I know this school. Our daughter Sahara was here last year, moving on! She was lucky to have Ms. Manning for two years.

And Ms. Manning taught her the right way, because she has had a great first year in middle school. And that’s one thing I want you all to remember when you start the sixth grade. This school right here has given you a firm foundation. You have the preparation you need to be successful in middle school. You just need to keep doing the right things.

In fact, you all have the preparation and ability you need to be just about anything you want to be. All you need to do is to set goals, and work toward them every day. Your actions make you who you are!

And that leads me to my second point:

Do the Hard Thing

I already told you my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wier, that she worked us. And I’m glad for it, because ever since whenever I have had to work hard, to buckle down and focus to get something done, I have always been able to do it, even if it I didn’t feel like it.

“I don’t feel like it.” Those five words are your enemy if you want to reach your potential, and reach the big goals you set for yourself.

Because reaching the goals means doing your homework when you don’t feel like it, practicing your sport or musical instrument when you don’t feel like it, doing your chores when you don’t feel like it.

Everybody likes to relax, to chill. Believe me, I do too.

But chilling is not how you get things done. It’s your reward for after you’ve worked hard to get things done.

Anything I have accomplished of significance in life is because I chose to do the hard thing, not the easy thing. It would be easy for me as a teacher out at the University of Richmond to say I just need to focus on my teaching and research, I don’t need to worry about the City of Richmond and its problems, I don’t need to get too involved. The hard thing is to stand up and say, no, I have a responsibility to do what I can about those problems.

You’ll see this more and more as you get older. You’ll be tempted by short cuts, to do things the easy and convenient way. But if you want to really grow and get something done, do the hard thing.

What do I mean by the hard thing? I mean the thing that takes more effort, that takes more risk, that requires you to expose yourself. It means the thing that might lead others to say you have failed or to laugh at you. It’s the thing that might expose you to rejection or disappointment.

And it’s the thing that will allow you to stretch yourself and to grow.  And it’s the thing that requires courage, whether that’s introducing yourself to a brand new person or apologizing to an old friend.

Now to be clear, I want you to take care of yourselves too. This is nothing wrong with relaxing or having a good time. But if you really want to reach your potential, you have to learn how to choose, and then do the hard thing.

Do the Kind thing

I already told you that my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Wier was tough. She definitely taught us the right way to do things, and coached us up to do the hard thing too.

But she also, so many times, did the kind thing.

In fifth grade, I was actually a new student at my school because my family had moved neighborhoods into a different school zone.

I hardly knew anyone when the school year started.

A few weeks into the school year, we had our parent-teacher conference with Mrs. Wier. Mrs. Wier told my mom she had a great idea for helping me adjust to the new school: that I should become friends with another boy, Tom Williams. She said she thought we had a lot in common and would enjoy each other’s company.

She was right. Tom became my best friend at the school and one of my best friends for many years after. Mrs. Wier’s thoughtfulness and kindness in connecting us made my life at the new school much better than it would have been otherwise.

She was kind in other ways too. I told you I was petrified of not getting my homework done, a trait my daughter shares. One time I did actually leave some of my work at home, by accident. I was terrified! But Mrs. Wier calmed down and said, “it’s okay,” and that I could bring it in the next day. She could have legitimately let me have it, but she chose not to.

I remember other occasions too where we all thought we would get in bad trouble for breaking a class rule, but she chose to let it pass, because she saw no harm was intended.

Doing the kind thing seems easy. But it’s not. A lot of times it means going against the grain. It means looking out for those who are being left out, and bringing them into the fold. It means sticking up for people who are being picked on rather than joining the crowd to pile on.

When you get to middle school, you might find that some of your fellow students seem to think it’s not cool to be kind, it’s cool to be mean. Many middle school students everywhere somehow believe this.

It’s a lie, and not only is it a lie, it’s a hurtful lie. I’m here today to remind you of what you already know, the truth. It’s always cool to be kind.

Let me go back one last time to Mrs. Wier and my fifth grade class. Here’s the end result of that year we had of doing the right thing, the hard thing, and the kind thing. We had so much fun. We had so much community and camaraderie. And we have had so many of us who have gone on to do great things.

I expect the same of all of you. So do your teachers and staff, so do your families.

Everything I’ve said today, you already know, because your teachers, Ms. Manning, Ms. Terry and Mr. Thompson, and your families have been teaching it to you and showing it to you.

But let me boil it down one more time, so you never forget.

You always want to do the right thing, in the right way, because the right way is the best way.

If you aren’t sure what the right thing is, remember this: if it mainly concerns you and your own actions, the hard thing to do is almost always better than the easy thing to do. Push yourself to excellence rather than settling for just okay.

If it mainly concerns how you are treating other people, however, remember this: the kind thing is almost always the right thing. You can choose to look out for those who have been left out, you can choose to forgive rather than rush to fight if you have been slighted, you can choose to support people who are struggling with a problem rather than make fun of them or ignore them.

If it concerns yourself, do the hard thing. If it concerns other people, do the kind thing. Practice those habits and you will end up doing the truly right thing, almost all the time, and you will find yourself growing into the excellent person you were meant to be.

And you are excellent—that’s what John B Cary Elementary School stands for. Don’t ever forget that!

Thank you for listening and congratulations to you all. I wish you all the best for this summer, for your middle school years, and on to high school, college and beyond. This city and this country needs you to be great. And I know you will be.

Go Cougars!!!

Making the Circle Bigger: Remarks at The Giving Wall event, 5/11/19

Making the Circle Bigger: Remarks at The Giving Wall event, 5/11/19

Confronting Gun Violence in Richmond