My HTLA 2014 Graduation Speech

I’ve been meaning to post a copy of this at some point, because I think it turned out well. Since High Tech LA just had their 2016 Graduation, and the class of 2016 was the last one that I taught directly there, this is as good a time as any. I left California for Texas about a month after giving this speech. I’m not currently teaching here, but enjoying the intricacies of professional web development. In any case, I hope that my advice here is still valid for the present (the X-Men movie and Street Fighter references actually still are), and congrats to the class of 2016. It was nice to come back and see you all reach a proud milestone.

Today is a good day.

The Stanley Cup finals are happening. The NBA finals are starting. The World Cup is next week. Raise your hand if you’re a sports lover. (Come on, don’t be shy. It’s not every day I get to stand in front of a captive audience that will listen to my every word. [looks at the Seniors])

There are also some really good movies out right now: Godzilla, X-men, another Tom-Cruise-gets-attacked-by-aliens movie. How many of you are movie lovers?

There are new Mario Kart and Street Fighter games. Oh, and I hear Flappy Bird is coming back to the iPhone! I’m totally stoked! How many of you love video games?

Also, I got some cool intro music. Guns ‘n Roses. Welcome to the Jungle. I tried to do the Imperial March, but that got shot down. Music lovers?

Yes, today is a good day. [dramatic sigh and pause] Oh right, and you’re graduating from high school. I guess that’s cool, too. So, I decided to make this speech a continuation of an answer to a question posed to me by some of my Senior advisees, who are sitting on the stage today. They asked me: “How did you know you wanted to become a teacher?”

Twenty years ago exactly, I sat on a stage like this one, received my high school diploma, and pondered a similar question. Now I know that was a long time ago (in teenager years that’s what, like a bajillion years ago?), but I still remember three things:
1. Hugging a lot of people. I even hugged people that previously thought they were too cool for me because they had a Hypercolor t-shirt on top of their Guess jeans, and I didn’t.
2. Going to non-stop sequential graduation parties, and giving out completely random gifts from the 99¢ store because (a) I had no money and (b) I thought it would be funny. It totally was. I mean: nothing says “congratulations” like a jar of generically-branded turkey gravy, right?
3. Most of all, after it was all over, and I was standing halfway down the jetway to board the plane to come to college in California, I remember looking back at the lighted opening and seeing my grandmother standing there . . . crying.

Thinking about that image as the plane took off, I realized: this is a time of transition. [addressing the students] Your parents’ job is just about done; your teachers’ jobs are just about done. Your job is just beginning.

Speaking of jobs, I’ll assume that you’ll eventually want one, but remember that the job is not really the goal. It’s just a means to an end. The goal is happiness. (to all the parents out there that don’t want their kids to become starving artists, just wait . . . I’m not done yet). Well, you should know a few things about this goal.

Every event can have two kinds of happiness. One is happiness of the moment. Doing your Senior POLs probably did not make you very happy at the time. The other is the happiness of memory. Passing your Senior POLs probably made you very happy. Know this: it is that happiness of memory that is more important.

When you look back at your life, will you remember it as a happy one? To some, this means money and having bought everything you ever wanted. To others, this means you gave everything you possible could. You have to decide for yourself, but research actually shows that most of us are happier when we give than when we spend.

But to be able to give, you have to first earn, and you are not going to earn money doing something that makes you happy without being able to offer something rare and valuable in return. Or, in the immortal words of Axl Rose: “You can taste the bright lights, but you won’t get them for free. In the jungle, welcome to the jungle.” At this point, you may be thinking: “Great, I’m awesome at the ukulele. Happiness, here I come!” or perhaps you are thinking: “Who the heck is Axl Rose?” Regardless, let me say something you may not agree with: “Follow your passion” is kind of bad advice.

It’s not that we don’t know what our passions are; it’s just that they do not easily translate into a career for the majority of people. Let’s consider the things that we are passionate about, as evidenced by the show of hands earlier: sports, music, movies, video games. To make a healthy living from these passions is rare.

So, what are we to do, then, Mr. Chiou? You can build a collection of skills that are valued, skills that, in their entirety, do translate into a career. High Tech LA has gotten you started down that path, and I urge you to continue with every Joule of energy in your body.

So, how did I know I wanted to become a teacher? (Sorry, I got sidetracked talking about you guys. Back to me.) The truth is: I didn’t.
• 20 years ago, I sat on a stage like this one.
• 16 years ago, I made myself valuable by graduating from college with knowledge and skills that were useful.
• 10 years ago, that value and my experiences as a TA led me to education and to a job at High Tech LA.
• 4 years ago, I began advising and teaching a group of tiny Freshmen.
• 1 year ago, those tiny Freshmen became not-so-tiny Seniors.

and finally today: the memory of giving to the growth of those on stage has made me happy. Because when you earn your value, you will earn your happiness, and your passion will have found you.

I would like to wish the class of 2014 the best of luck in their continuing struggle to find their own value. We have grown together, and I hope you remember: today is a good day. Thank you.