Telling your story through the years

Editor’s note: The Colorado Academy Upper School Principal Max Delgado delivered this address to Seniors and their families at the Commencement Reception which is held on the evening before Commencement.

Seniors, as your teachers know, all transitions are important, but Commencement holds a special place in the soul of a school.

Commencement is the most aspirational expression of our mission—where we open the gates, so our graduates can go out into the world and apply the values we’ve tried to instill in them.

And Seniors, over the course of your life, you’ll have many significant transitions, but you’ll rarely have a transition that you get to share with 99 friends. On behalf of the faculty, we urge you to enjoy this moment—this special articulation of what you’ve accomplished, the legacy you’ve built, and your departure from this place that has loved you.

The story you will start

By this time tomorrow, you’ll have officially started the story of your life after high school.

We know for certain that your story will start with photographs, hugs, smiles, and a wave of graduation parties. But after that, your stories will take different directions and be a unique expression of your individual talents, decisions, and passions.

The story of your life after high school will be written through your actions, and, we hope, feature themes of self-discovery, generosity, and love.

And like the start of any new story, things will be different.

When you’re sitting on that Commencement stage tomorrow, you’ll recognize the face of everyone sitting with you.

But make no mistake—at some point next year, you’ll find yourself standing in a crowd of strangers. Maybe it’ll be at your new student orientation. Or the first day of your new job. Or the home of a new friend, who has suddenly stepped away and left you standing there in all your newness, forced to make awkward small talk.

Someone you’ve never met before will introduce themselves to you. They’ll ask you about high school.

Pay attention.

This person might become an important player in the next chapter of your life—a classmate who becomes a lifelong friend, a teacher who will shape the next decade of studies, or a person who has traveled all over the world but has never set foot in Colorado, until you invite them home for Thanksgiving.

It’s also just as likely that you’ll never see this person again.

It’s only in looking back that we get clarity on which moments were significant, and which were passing.

The story you will tell

At first, when someone asks you about high school, the story that you’ll tell them will likely be told in paragraphs or maybe pages—if it’s a good conversation.

Your teachers hope that the story you tell includes some of the wonderful things that they’ve learned about you.

You can talk about how, as a grade, you were known for your warmth and energy; your teachers saw you as playful and passionate.

You cared deeply about discourse and modeled it better than most adults. You disagreed without destroying and engaged each other with open hearts, respect, and thoughtfulness.

You rocked every area of competition that CA engages in—from consistently advancing to State every athletic season, to dominating in speech and debate, and Mock Trial, to creating Portfolio Shows that made us think about the world differently, to performing on a brand-new stage with such ease that it made us believe you’d always been there.

You can tell people that you’ve contributed immensely to our culture of learning, that you deepened our reputation for academic excellence and, in doing so, earned the admiration of your teachers.

You can tell them you navigated the pandemic with grace and poise and took on every challenge your teachers threw at you over Zoom. During distance learning, you engaged in scavenger hunts, 1960s costume shows, and World War II LEGO competitions with joy and heart.

You were the class that went on Spring Break when you were Sophomores and had the world change while you were gone.

At the start of your Junior year, you returned under a canopy of frameworks that none of us had faced before: distance learning, hybrid learning, asynchronous, and synchronous instruction. There isn’t a teacher in this tent that doesn’t cringe when they hear those words, but we know they land differently for you. These modalities are not part of the story we tell about our high school years—but they are yours.

We also hope you talk about how, because of the timing of the pandemic, you had access to a vital and unexpected asset.

You were the only grade at the start of this year who knew what a full year of uninterrupted in-person learning looked like at the Upper School.

This means you were the class most responsible for reawakening the traditions that went dormant during the worst of the pandemic, and which no one else remembered.

You showed the Ninth Graders what the first day of school should look like. You reminded us how to do those things we used to take for granted: dances, Town Halls, class meetings. You showed the younger grades what it meant to be high school students—you modeled kindness in the hallways, reminding us how infinitely valuable the unplanned, unchoreographed human interactions between students are to a school.

You did this beautifully.

Maybe there’s a universe where you weren’t asked to do these things, where the pandemic didn’t hit us, where lives weren’t lost, where you followed the well-established footpath of the grades that came before you.

But, make no mistake, in that universe we’d be measuring your impact in centimeters instead of yards. Your teachers will always remember you as the class that helped us rebuild. And for that, we will always be grateful.

The story you will change

Over the years, as you tell your story about high school, there is something you’ll notice. The story you tell will change.

Your teachers want you to know this is not because your past will have changed, but because you will have changed. As you become the person you are meant to be, you will sift through your past and look for moments that affirm your adult understanding of your teenage self.

As you seek to tell a story of high school that is material, you will naturally select those moments that allow you to draw the cleanest arc from who you were, to who you became. This means that you will drop some things and add others.

But as you do this, we encourage you to tell the most authentic story possible. As educators, we know that humans tend to either hyperfocus on the losses—ignoring  the countless moments of uplift or joy that we encounter—or we hyperfocus on the victories—rejecting the profound lessons that came from managing disappointment.

A healthy adult is able to do both, and doing both consistently in the stories you tell is what enables you to make peace with whatever hardships you might have faced during high school and expands your capacity for recognizing joy in the future.

The story becomes shorter

In about ten or fifteen years, you’ll notice something else, too. The story you tell about high school will get shorter. Instead of paragraphs, or pages, you’ll reduce your experience to sentences, or a few words.

This isn’t because these years weren’t meaningful to you or because the ripples of the things you’ve done here won’t continue to reverberate throughout your life. It’s because your high school story will get right-sized when compared to all the other wonderful things that you’ll accomplish and all the other amazing things you encounter, starting the day after tomorrow.

This is not a bad thing.

Having your story about high school blend into the story of your life is wholly appropriate, and in fact, it’s a signal to your teachers that they did their job right. When you can’t distinguish as easily between what your teachers asked of you and the person you’ve become, then it means you’ve internalized the heart of our mission.

At the core, Commencement is about launching students into the world who recognize that, if they want to change the world, they must be curious about it first. They must know how to learn, and play, and love.  They must be able to create conditions where others can do great things, and they must be just as good at managing the hard times as they are at savoring the good ones.

Your teachers believe in you, and they believe that you can do these things.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time up here talking about the stories that you’ll tell.

This is because your teachers believe that stories matter.

How you tell the story of yourself, how you process the raw material of your life to build a narrative of what happened, and how it informs who you are, is a profound emotional exercise with real stakes, rewards, and consequences.

The authentic story

Stories build identity. They build the lenses by which we understand ourselves and others. Telling an authentic story is a habit of mind that must be rehearsed and nurtured, and for you, this work starts the day after tomorrow.

The final thing your teachers want you to know is that whatever stories you tell, they won’t just belong to you. They will belong to all of us.

I can’t tell you how common it is for teachers to tell loving stories about the kids who’ve graduated before you. Your names will be added to those names now. Memories of you will be added to those memories.

The stories that humans tell are important. And tomorrow we will tell the story of you—a class that did extraordinary things while living in extraordinary times. And we know it’s just the beginning.