International College Hong Kong
May 23, 2022

Graduation Speech: Class of 2022

Class of 2022, I am genuinely delighted to be able to join you for this occasion. What a pleasure to be asking myself once again - what message can I deliver, in the space of just five or six minutes, that is deserving of your time and attention - and a part of which might yet return to haunt you as worthy of remembrance in years to come. 

The classes of 2020 and 2021, poor things, were left with no choice but to forego this occasion. They had no opportunity to mark their graduation with food and drink in exalted company, which was a great pity. Food and drink in exalted company is a quintessentially human benefaction. A real blessing; it’s most encouraging to have it back. On which note, let’s give great credit of the Year 12 Graduation committee, who have managed to pick their way through the ever-changing regulatory minefield that associates with COVID in Hong Kong, so that we are able to gather here this evening. They have earned themselves a sustained round of applause …

Now, then – to the point. As senior students at ICHK, you will have picked up that I am a great believer in the humble quotation as a highly effective teaching tool. In my experience, if what you intend is to provoke thought and shape minds, including, of course, your own, few things are better placed than a well-judged quotation – one that somehow sums it up, whatever it may be; that unsettles, punctures and punctuates thought; that conjures up an “aha!” moment; or that shines light on a new dimension previously unseen. Harvesting a manageable stock of apt and pertinent quotes, to deploy as navigational markers as you chart your course through life, is a habit well worth cultivating.

“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”, Samuel Beckett.

“Every hero becomes a bore at last”, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you'll be criticized anyway”, Eleanor Roosevelt.

But I gave that speech three or four years ago, so this evening I thought I’d turn to one of the other human technologies that do a similarly profound job in a similarly abbreviated fashion. I’m talking, of course, about cartoons.

Cartoons are brilliant because they can combine words and images in provocative ways, which is a great trick to pull off. Or they can contrast words and images to similar effect, an even better trick. Or they can ignore language altogether, and just hijack the mind’s eye. Sometimes, strange though it may seem, ignoring language is the best thing you can do with a nascent idea or a hunch. Not all insights can be expressed via the technologies that we call words. Sometimes inspiration demands something more – or less – than words. You have to experiment with your unconscious to find out.

To specifics. I was introduced to the work of cartoonist Will McPhail by ICHK’s own Ben Blain about four or five years ago. I’ve been a believer ever since. McPhail’s cartoons appear in the New Yorker and in Private Eye. Pressed for a description, I’d say that they are humane, insightful, and wry. I’m hoping that, as the best graduation speeches tend towards the humane, insightful, wry, riding on Will McPhail’s shoulders will carry me in the right direction.

First off, then, and by way of introduction – congratulations on your graduation, and welcome to the next phase of your young lives. You’ll find it has its challenges. I’m sure you’ll find them intriguing.

My first piece of advice to you – or, perhaps, Will McPhail’s first piece of advice – is to warn you against hubris. Hubris, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, comes from ancient Greek. It means overweening human pride; the kind of excessive, self-satisfied, arrogant pride that comes before a fall. I do hope this piece of advice will stick; it can save you much embarrassment, even mortification.

You’ve just graduated and, as I say, well done. But don’t lose sight of the limits of what it is that you’ve been engaged in, so as to engineer that achievement.

School, even ICHK, which tries to be an unusual sort of school, can be accused of having a rather narrow vision of what it is to be “smart”. The exams you’ve just sat demanded that you brood in silence, on your own, cudgeling your memory to dredge up facts that, in most cases, you will largely have forgotten in a couple of months or so. Is that the best definition of “smart”? Hmmm, perhaps not – or not exclusively so. Thank goodness, then, that you also did CAS, that many of you are Outdoor Leaders, that you represented the school at sport and took roles in drama productions, that you served on the SRC, that you’ve chalked off MTC credits, that you’ve supported each other through hard times, through thick and thin, and that you’ve made an impression on the younger students around campus through your excellent example. Don’t for a moment forget the “smarts” that correlate with all those accomplishments – because, truth be told, as you’ll discover more and more, the further you go, it really is those qualities that make you a person other people want to be around, to rely on, to trust in a pinch, to have their back in an emergency. People who can do all that really are gold dust.

Second piece of advice.

Even with all those wonderful qualities, never forget quite how tough it is to be a good, dependable, and decent person. Tough for you, and tough for others. And given the level of challenge in just being a likeable human being, there’s every reason to be charitable, to be forgiving and forbearing, to be compassionate, if what you’re after is for people to be at something approaching their best. If people at their best is what you want, be ready to laugh with people and not at them, to lubricate life’s gear changes, not to throw grit in the works. Don’t pick fights and don’t pick at faults. If you haven’t noticed yet, there’s a performative component to being human that can become extremely tiring. Sometimes the performance is definitely worth it.

And sometimes, it’s not.

Third piece of advice. Learn to recognise the difference between the two, the occasions on which the rewards match the effort and the occasions on which they don’t – and know when to cut your losses. Saying ‘yes’ when genuine opportunity knocks, that’s an important life skill; even when – sometimes especially when – the opportunity is scary. Saying ‘yes’ whenever any opportunity knocks isn’t. Sometimes you need to say ‘no’ to opportunity, even when saying ‘no’ is scary. In both instances, it’s a test of character. 

In the end, you’ll tend to get what you bargain for. And every day is a bargain – a bargain between you and the life you lead. Fourth piece of advice: watch that relationship carefully.

There are some bargains worth making and others that aren’t. Generally speaking, you should be able to manage from day to day without resorting to anything, unless it’s your choice to do so and it’s a choice willingly made. When the daily round routinely involves resorting to performances, devices, substances, and/or people that make you uncomfortable or unhappy, anxious or despondent, weary or fretful, then it’s probably time to change the daily round.

Final piece of advice. The ultimate, the sine qua non. And my favourite cartoon of all time.

I don’t want an eel, you say.

And yet, it’s so hard to walk away. So hard to stop pulling the levers. To stop jiggling the controls. So hard to stop playing other people’s games. To let go.

Ask yourself: What do you want? Of all the promises life holds, of all the opportunities it dangles, of all the adventures it offers, of all the doors it might open, which truly matter to you? I say again, what do you want? How will you track it down? How will you bring it to bay?

Good luck in the hunt. Leavers of 2022, today and every day, the hunt continues.


Credit: Will McPhail, Cartoonist

Copyright © 2022 ICHK, All Rights Reserved