One-hundred-eighty-five seniors received their Milton Academy diplomas during the School’s graduation exercises on Friday, June 6, 2008. A longstanding tradition of the ceremony is the election of student valedictorian speakers to assure seniors that they will, at their last Milton gathering, hear from classmates they have chosen. This year’s student body elected Samuel Panarese and Elizabeth Bloom. Delivering the commencement address was alumna Jehane Noujaim, Milton Academy Class of 1992. Jehane is not only a successful, young, provocative documentary producer and filmmaker; she is an international activist who believes passionately in the power of film to help move people toward global acceptance of diversity.
Speech by Sam Panarese
Thank you Ms. Samson and anyone I’ve forgotten.
Hello, I’m Sam Panarese and I was elected graduation speaker. Pretty big honor. Thanks. (Begin to walk away from podium)
So, I was thinking about what I was going to talk about for my speech. And I was like… I’m just going to talk… about… my speech…that I wrote…because I was elected.
So Milton Academy… good school. I’ve been here since Kindergarten and what have I taken from my experience? Multiplication… vocabulary… a book. But, I’m not here to talk about my education or my teachers other than to say…they were good. I’m here to talk about the impact the college process has had on me.
In one of the most competitive years in college applicant history, we all have gotten caught in a swirl of academic, parental and peer pressures.
I remember when my mom used to wave a staple gun in my face and say, “Sam, if you don’t get into a good school, you’re dead.” This didn’t make a lot of sense when I was in second grade. But, in my experience at Milton, especially the past year, I’ve learned you need to ask the questions: What are my goals? And am I defining them myself, or letting others define them for me?
America is a consumer culture; we like the name brands not because they necessarily guarantee better quality, but because other people say they do. Similarly, there’s a certain list of colleges that people assume, rightly or wrongly, provide a better education and experience for basically anyone. I was seduced by the hype and the glamour around these name brands…but not in a sexual way. I applied early decision to Cornell’s art school. And, before I opened my letter of passionate rejection, I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, Sam: you’re applying to art school and you don’t want to do a lot of art in school. Ha. You’re an idiot.” I had a whole plan for after I was admitted to Cornell, where people would come up to me and say, “So where are you going next year?” And, I’d say “Cornell.” But, I realize now that I was really missing the bigger picture. The truth is, all of the hype around college rankings and the Ivy League logo made me forget what was really important to me: a well-rounded education.
Now, I’m not dismissing Cornell, Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Princeton, Penn, Harvard or Yale as marketing hype, although…I heard a secret: they’re not all accredited. But, when it comes to college, you need to create a perspective that’s your own, not some composite of other people’s perspectives. Successful Milton alumnus T.S. Eliot wasn’t told, “Hey, you should write chapter books for a living.” Successful alumnus Richard Wigglesworth wasn’t told, “Hey, you should serve as legal adviser to the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in charge of foreign loans and railway payments, and secretary of the World War Debt Commission, from 1922 to 1924… for a living.” Similarly, successful graduate Stephen King’s daughter wasn’t told, “Hey, you should be the daughter of a famous author.” True success comes to the independent-minded: those who weed out outside influences and form their own goals.
Another example: after years of wearing Lacoste polo shirts, I recently realized that the sleeves on these shirts are too short. I then recognized that my Old Navy polos had normal sleeves and a more comfortable fit. Most people assume that Lacoste makes better polos than Old Navy. Why? Well, one guy with weird arms starts liking Lacoste, and then his buddy starts liking it because his friend says it’s good. And he’s like, “Yeah, the sleeves are a little short. But, I’m told they’re comfortable. “And, before you know it, everybody’s wearing bad polos. A year ago I probably would have kept wearing Lacoste polos; but, now, I realize that my goal shouldn’t be to look and feel good in theory, but to look and feel good actually. So I stick with Old Navy. And I look phenomenal.
What I’m trying to say, really, is that we should all just be looking for our own unique “fit.” That’s a reference back to the polos. I urge each of you to reevaluate your goals and make sure they’re really your own… that they represent who you are, not who people tell you you should be. Don’t get a new car because Steve and Hal say it’s cool. I mean why the hell would you listen to Steve and Hal?! Let’s be honest. I mean, I made them up. They don’t even exist! Think about it. After all, it’s never been about anything more than you. So don’t take advice from anyone. That’s my advice… to you…
So where do you go from here? Class of 2008, you’re like, Well I’m already into college, so what are you trying to do, Sam!? What I’m saying applies to much more than the college process. Choose classes that truly interest you: not simply the easiest or the most popular. For middle-aged workers, quit your jobs now. Do it. Find something better. Be a veterinarian! Help animals if that’s your thing. It’s not mine, but it’s cool if it’s yours. And, for old people… it’s not too late to do something new and daring. Go rollerblading or get naked. Go for it. But give us a head’s up first.
To sum up everything I’m trying to say, I’ll bring you back to the swirl of opinions that surrounds you… like a giant… metaphor. Though these outside influences will never die down, you do have the choice to ignore them. Be an electrician after business school. Be a businessman after… electrician… school. Whatever. It’s never too late to do what you’re truly passionate about.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success. And, everything else is B.S.” End quote.
Thank you. I’m done.
Speech by Elizabeth Bloom
Thank you, Mr. Edgar. And thank you Ms. Noujaim, Mr. Hobbs and members of the board of trustees, Mr. Hardy and members of the administration, faculty, staff, family and friends, students and members of the Class of 2008 (I love that power).
People often talk about “The Milton Bubble.” This not-so-subtle metaphor addresses the idea that Milton students are sheltered from and have little contact with or awareness of the outside or “real” world. This may be partially true; how can students at a suburban prep school fully understand the realities of the world around them? Nonetheless, I would like to present an alternative way to describe Milton students’ relationship with the outside: bunk beds. Cozy, warm, comforting, and, of course, sheltering, bunk beds provide a limited view of the bedroom, one not as full, or even as real, as that from a single bed.
When I was about seven, I got my very own bunk bed after moving out of the room I was sleeping in with my brother, Ross. While I had no one to share it with, I still felt pretty cool with my new bunk. And this thing wasn’t your mother’s bunk bed. The bottom bunk was a full-sized bed with a shelf behind it, and it lay perpendicular to the top twin bunk. It had a black base and turquoise and purple accents to complement my purple rug and walls, and it was AWESOME. Over the next nine years or so, I slept on the bottom bunk, and the top bunk became the place for me to rest my legs when I couldn’t sleep, tape my goals for track season so they’d always be there above me, and hit my head as I sat up some mornings. Thus, ironically, as I got older—and taller—I apparently didn’t get any wiser, because it became more likely that I would hit my head on the top bunk. So, last spring, my family and I removed the top bunk, and that first night without it, I felt exposed and alone. For the first time, I could see all of the dark depths of my bedroom, a 360-degree perspective of my own world. Years before, I had put glow-in-the-dark stars only on the part of the ceiling that wasn’t blocked by the top bunk. So now, above me, in this bunk-less galaxy, there was an intimidating black hole among the stars. No track goals loomed above me anymore, no bed frame where I could put my legs to ease myself to sleep—or bang my head in the morning.
This daunting removal into a top bunk-less world is upon us seniors. Milton has acted like a protective bed frame for us, often shielding us from the darkness of the bedroom—the outside world. So, we must ask ourselves: how do we avoid the shock of entering a world without it? I think first, we should remember what has made the bunk, Milton, so special in the first place—such as the lessons it’s taught us about cleaning our rooms (or improving the world).
Earlier this year, in my Senior Transitions class, we had a discussion about how students at Milton feel that they should use their education to better the world. If we can envision this goal with the top bunk above us, then we must do it without it there. Milton has always tried to instill a sense of social conscientiousness in us. Community Service Days, Wednesday assembly speakers, and even a head monitor-inspired subscription to The New York Times in the Student Center all speak to this goal. In some ways, moving into the real world should make this ambition easier—a world without blue cards, lights-out, 7 a.m. bus stops, and required sit-down dinners will give us the freedom to fulfill our social conscience. Then again, it is a Darwinist world out there, and it is also just as likely that we’ll lose sight of our obligations to the world, if doing so could result in personal advancement. This is the easy way out. Please don’t take it. For the past two to thirteen years, we’ve learned to work hard to achieve the best results, academically, artistically, athletically, and beyond. This isn’t the time to stop. We have some of the smartest people in the world at this school, and I would feel much more comfortable with you all fixing the world’s problems than just about anybody else. I think many of us believe that satisfying our social calling will lead us to fulfilling lives, so we should remember that when the top bunk is removed.
Real bunk beds, however, have also been an important part of my time here. When I first walked into Hallowell House my freshman year as a day student staying late on a Friday night, a bunk bed was the first thing I saw. And it represented my first real opportunity to befriend schoolmates from somewhere other than Greater Boston. Likewise, during spring break of my freshman year, I went to Belize with the Milton Outdoor Program. On the first night, we stayed at a zoo in cabins with none other than bunk beds. Earlier that day, I had held a monkey for the first (and probably, the last) time. I also had come to grips with the fact that I would not be able to shower for a week. These two realities were connected in a rather unfortunate way; nonetheless, this experience was, for me, a window into a different part of the world. A year and a half later, during my semester away at The Mountain School, I lived in rural Vermont in a bottom bunk. I was able to experience the challenges of living in a small, isolated community through this limited window. It was because of the security blanket I had in the (figurative) Mountain School bunk bed that I was able to take risks, like go on a three-night solo camping trip. Even after going into the real world, I doubt I’ll ever have a similar opportunity to experience “the wild” under such protectiveness. Later that year, I went on a spring break trip to Katrina-ravaged Mississippi. I also viewed this situation from the bottom bunk, at a Methodist church camp; even under the protection of the top bunk, this experience was a revealing peek into the real situation on the Gulf Coast.Before this trip, the media had always acted as a barrier between me and the emotional realities of these people’s pain. Now, I was presented with the difficult responsibility of understanding their suffering face to face. Is it worth it to gain perspective on the world, even if the Milton Bunk Bed limits or perhaps even skews this perspective? I think so. I wouldn’t have had these experiences otherwise. Even though I went through these situations under a protective bunk, both real and figurative, I still learned a lot and grew significantly from them. It was safe to try new things and gain new knowledge with the top bunk above me. Just because the experiences may have been a less raw approach to discovering the world, I don’t believe they were any less valuable.
To those students not graduating today, then, I’d say that you should welcome the one time in your life when you can explore the world under this wonderful protection. It may mean going on that ice-climbing trip with the Milton Outdoor Program to see the natural beauty of the world for the first time. That could mean playing a sport you’ve never tried with your math teacher as a coach. It may mean learning about dramatic literature by performing on the set of one of Milton’s plays. To friends and family here today, just think about whyyou sent your child to Milton—the great education, the meaningful activities, the connections with lifelong friends—and consider doing yourself a favor by pursuing that reasoning in your own lives. Interesting, fresh goals and risks keep life fun and learning always fascinating. And to the Class of 2008, the perhaps incomplete perspective we’ve gained here is still so valuable. We’ve acquired an inspiring social conscience, a family in all of the incredible friends we’ve made, and maybe even a desire to develop our current understandings of the world. If we can bring these qualities with us to our future destinations, then we’ll certainly lead fulfilling lives. And believe me, if we do so, we’ll rest easy, no matter what type of bed we sleep in.
Speech by Jehane Noujaim '92
Thank you Rick and thank you Class of 2008!
I must say that I am a little surprised to be here. And I was a little worried to come because I had a few overdue library fines that have definitely accumulated interest. But, in my few hours here, no one has asked me to pay up. In fact, it’s incredible to be back.
I love this place. I wasn’t originally thrilled to go to boarding school, because I was coming from Egypt where I already liked my friends. I wrote an application essay about my sister’s bad taste in music and a dog that drooled on my head on long car trips. I thought the essay was pretty good, and if the school liked it, that was a good sign. My parents read it and thought it was the most inappropriate thing I had ever written and a protest against leaving. A brave soul on the admissions committee—Jane Brewer, I think—disagreed and gave me the magic pass to Milton. It was a first lesson for me in the wisdom of ignoring conventional wisdom.
When I first got here, there seemed to be some unconventional boarding school rules. One I remember was if you have a visitor of the opposite sex in your room, you must keep three feet on the floor and the door ajar. I didn’t know about other people, but I didn’t have three feet to keep on the floor. As you graduate today, I want to talk a bit about the fun in keeping your feet off the floor—in another sense.
I graduated from this wonderful place in 1992. You all were about six years old. I graduated from Milton with an Apple laptop that probably looks more like a desktop to all of you. We didn’t have cell phones, so we had to speak quietly into the public pay phone in the dorm basement in order to not be heard. I never imagined the day I would be back here, never imagined the day when my college roommate’s cousin’s mother would be able to “poke” me on Facebook, and certainly never imagined I would be asked to stand before you today. It is a great honor.
Like most honors in my life, I feel both lucky and a little bit like they invited the wrong person, that I managed to fool the system, that the person responsible for the invitation hadn’t really done his or her homework. But Rick Hardy extended the invitation, and he was my dorm parent. As many of you boarders are well aware, this meant that he knew me very well. He had done his homework.
To further investigate this surprise, I read the letter of invitation which read: “We would like for you to speak, for approximately 10-15 minutes, to the experience of stepping into the world or of making the transition from one environment to another.” And then I got it! That is why I am here! As a filmmaker, I am almost constantly in a state of transition—from picking a project, to shooting a project, to editing that project, to finding the next project, to paying for the bills of the previous project, to looking for money for the next project—I constantly live in transition.
Much of my life has been like the moment I stood here 16 years ago, where you are standing now. Though that place of transition may be confusing, I have chosen a career that puts me in that place time and time again. There is a certain excitement to that openness to change and transition.
My last project was called Pangea. It involved asking filmmakers across the world what they would show if they had five minutes of the entire world’s attention. We condensed those responses into four hours and showed these same four hours of film at the same time in over 100 countries of the world in an effort to create a global dialogue and bringing the world a little closer together. Hence the name Pangea—the name of the landmass that, 250 million years ago, consisted of all the continents stuck together. It involved two years of preparation, and it happened this year on May 10—and then it was over. On May 11, I looked at the piles of letters I had written to filmmakers all over the world and wondered where to go next. Where do you go after trying to pull continents together? Over and over, I find myself in a great moment of transition and possibility and excitement and fear—so, yes, I have a little experience with transitions.
When it comes to making a successful transition, most people will tell you that it is important to have a good plan, and mostly, they are right. To the extent that this is true, I am probably the worst possible commencement speaker you could have, because most of my career has been founded on chance. My first film began one day while I was eating cereal, when I thought that I should film my roommate as he started an internet company. A few months later, as I followed him around with a camera at his Harvard reunion, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my ex-boyfriend who said, “So, your new job is to follow Kaleil around with a video camera?” This might have been one of the strongest pushes for me to make a successful film. And I am happy to tell you, it was. I wish I could tell you that when I was your age, I sat at my graduation and told myself, “Self, one day there will be an internet boom and you will find a roommate who will try to start an internet company and you will film him and capture the internet boom and then you will be a filmmaker.” That’s not the way it happened. But, I was open to chance, and curiosity, and when something came along that looked like a good chance, I immersed myself in it with persistence. For my second film,Control Room, I was again in a moment of transition with no place to live. Jobless and between apartments, I was staying with my college roommate who was living back home. We were both sleeping on her parents’ couches, both of us feeling like real winners. Her mom was a FOX news devotee. So, every morning I would turn on the television and watch why we should be scared to death of anthrax, chemical weapons, how we should be duct taping our doors and preparing for an attack from Iraq. I knew a different story was being told on the other side of the world where my parents were, and I felt the pull to get on a plane and make a film about the other side of the story. There was no plan, but I was open to possibility and a healthy dose of optimism—that if I got on a plane and flew to Al Jazeera’s office, they would let me film and I would be able to show that other perspective. Openness and optimism is going to sound great to some of you, but any conventional person is going to ask, How is this openness going to help me make my car payments or pay for insurance?—and the truth is, it won’t. That’s the thing about chance: It’s exciting when it offers you opportunities, and terrifying when you’re not sure what you’re going to do next. That’s why it is so important to ask yourself how you are going to create a state of mind for yourself, so that you can thrive on the good decisions and weather the bad ones.
The news I have for you—with 15 years of hindsight and a lot of decision-making under my belt—is that you’ll never know if you made the right decision. You’ll never know because you can’t live out the other option—we haven’t figured out the parallel universe thing yet. You are a group of smart and hard-working people. The probability is that you could make any choice work out for you. What it really comes down to is the attitude of how you are going to live with your choices. How, when you feel you have made wrong decisions, can you find the state of mind and attitude where they turn into lucky accidents?
Certain quotes, certain stories, memories of how the right path has found me, all stay with me and have helped guide me at ambiguous moments in my life. When I am flying forward in the middle of projects, I often forget there was ever a time of confusion. Now, in this raw place of limbo, I think the best thing I can do for you today is give you a bit of that wisdom that runs through my head and gives me clarity. Through the years, I have learned something about taking this moment of transition and putting yourself in a place where the right options are more likely to come your way. Many of my friends call me lucky. Certainly a lot of life hinges on luck and chance, but I would say the trick is to create a world for yourself where luck can more easily find you. The right paths I have found are actually through a series of failures, and mistakes, and getting back up again, sometimes more slowly than others. Through those bumps and bruises, it’s about finding the way that works for you. Here are some key things that play in that tape in my head:
- Follow the flutter of your heart and your dreams, not other people’s dreams. Don’t do anything that bores you.
- Surround yourself with friends that you trust and don’t allow you to take yourself too seriously.
- Always remain curious, and when you are not learning anything, move on.
- Remember to breathe, look around, and enjoy the people and places around you.
- Don’t believe everything you think. Always be open to the idea that other people and experiences can teach you something you may have been wrong about before.
By following these guidelines, I have found myself in a series of happy accidents.
I went to Harvard to be a doctor. I took the first chemistry class and soon realized that was not my first love. I then took refuge in photography classes and the dark room, and found myself there for hours on end, until I realized I had more classes there than in my concentration. My mother was the one who finally said, “Jehane, you really have to do what makes you happy, because if you are not enjoying and are not happy, you are not going to succeed.” That’s all it took. I dropped the pre-med thing. My father did a bit of grumbling that I was going to be in the poor house for the rest of my life and who in their right mind would go to Harvard to take pictures and how would I get a job that way. But, it was taking pictures that I could get obsessed with. It was taking pictures that got me summer jobs. It was taking pictures that led me to filmmaking and the rest of my career.
When I was 25 years old, I left MTV and went to work with Pennebaker and Hegedus on a project called Startup.com. I met them in the office, and Pennebaker wanted to show me his favorite film. I walked into an old town house on the upper west side of New York City and looked at his rows of famous films. He got on a chair and pulled out a little film: “This film is called Victoria, and it’s a twenty minute film about a musician. It is one of my favorite films,” he said. Thinking back, my response may have been a bit rude. I said, “But I’ve never heard of that film.” He replied, “It was never released, but most of my favorite films in this library many people have never seen.” This moment has stayed with me—it gave me the freedom to make films that I love, regardless of their commercial viability. Since then, I have found it easier to make work that I believe in, not work that others felt I should believe. This is important, because there will be failures. Your films or books or ideas may not get out there. But 50 years from now, if you believe in what you made, it won’t matter much whether it was a success or a failure. And the joy of having a success that you believe in is so much better than that of a success you don’t believe in.
I have spoken a bit about my film Control Room, about the Iraq war. Before I got on the plane I called my agents; I had agents in Hollywood at the time who thought it was the worst idea ever. Their theory was that after 9/11, no one would be interested in watching a film about war; they said it was time to make films that people found comforting. I questioned myself, thinking I should listen to this expert advice. Yet I couldn’t sit still and watch this war unfold on television. I felt that pull to make the film—there was that flutter in my heart—so I went and made it. When I finished the film a year later, I went back to my mentors’ office in New York. It’s always good to have mentors you trust and respect, because you will go back to them time and time again. There is nothing scarier to a filmmaker than showing your film for the first time to people you respect. I told them I loved the film because I felt it got at a real truth, but I thought, as a film, it was clumsy. Pennebaker watched it, and after a few moments of silence he said, “I wouldn’t change a damn thing. So what if parts are clumsy? If Jesus had a broken leg, he would still be Jesus. It is a truth you’re getting at, and so what if it is raw? I watched Iraq being bombed and I felt my hometown of Chicago was being bombed.” I still think that the film is clumsy in places, but I knew it shared a glimpse of a world that needed to be seen. I am so thankful that I got on that plane and made what I wanted to make rather than what my agents thought the world wanted to hear. Don’t waste your time trying to succeed at other people’s dreams, or dreams that you don’t believe in. Only the real dreams will satisfy you. Those are the dreams that will give you the best chance of leaving your mark on the world. Those are the dreams that are worth failing for and taking the big risks for.
When you are out there taking the big risks, you need friends to help you when you fall, when you feel like you have made all the wrong decisions, to help you laugh at yourself and to pick you up off the floor. The friends I made at Milton and in my dorm, Faulkner, are friends I will always treasure. And I was incredibly lucky when I went to college and found a group of roommates who are the rocks in my life. As you grow together and apart and together again over the years, the bonds you build with your friends in high school, college and after are the most important bonds you will have. They are the family you get to choose. No one ever told me this, but your friends are the people you will come back to success after success and failure after failure. Treasure them.
The good news is that the more failures you have, and the more mistakes you live through, and the more times your friends laugh with you at your mistakes, the more risks you are willing to take. And as you get older, your choices become fewer—unfortunately I can no longer become a professional jockey or a rock star or a ballerina—but the decisions do get easier as the options become fewer. This means, however, that the time to take the big risks is now. Now is the time to go for the mad dreams. Which leads me to the third pearl of wisdom that sticks in my head in these moments of ambiguity.
My grandfather always used to say, “When you are not learning anything, move on.” This has served me time and again. Especially in the field of filmmaking, when you become known for making a certain type of movie, people start asking you to make the same movie over and over again. The most boring thing to do is make the same mistakes over and over again. Since you always make mistakes, make new mistakes. This is what led me to the crazy idea I put together called Pangea. I was awarded a wish for the world by an organization called TED, a community of leading thinkers around the world. You make a wish and they help you make it come true. Thinking small, I wished for world peace. I wished for a global campfire of film when everyone sat around and told their stories in an effort to get to know one another better. The look on people’s faces when I told them about this was priceless. But, two years later, we did it. I made a ton of mistakes in the last two years, but they were exciting mistakes, and I learned a great deal because they were new mistakes. You don’t regret the new mistakes—you regret making the same ones again and again.
My final piece of advice, take your time to breathe. When you are 90 years old, you will look back on your life and want to be able to tell a story you are proud of. When you are in moments of transition, think about the story you want to tell your grandkids. Time is too precious to be wasted being stressed out, running around doing things you don’t want to do, or things you are not proud of. I think the real purpose is to be happy and to make people around you happy. It’s easy to forget that. I recently went to Morocco—I was on a business trip in Spain, and decided to take a day to visit there. I met a Sufi master who offered to take my friend and I high up in the mountains to a Sufi shrine with his wife. I began to tell him how incredibly busy I was, how I had this big project coming around the corner, how I was bringing the world together through film, how I had to get back to New York and then Sundance, and I began explaining my flights. He stopped me and said, “You are about to have an experience of a lifetime. You don’t say no to an experience of a lifetime.” So I took the chance and went. There we talked for three days about God and love and taking time, and about how you have to savor time. High on that mountain, with that perspective, I was able to look at my life from a distance. The Sufi master said, “You must take your time. Drink time slowly like a delicious soup. Drink time with a spoon—like you are savoring it.” As highly motivated people, we rush ahead in pursuit of great experiences and great success. Sometimes when we run so fast in search of the best experiences, we miss the experiences we are searching for along the way. It is not a waste of time to take your time.
You are at such an incredible time in your life. Use this time to take your feet off the ground and fly, but remember to look around you as you fly. Congratulations to each and every one of you.
Jehane Noujaim ’92
Rick Hardy, Head of School
Samuel Panarese ’08
Elizabeth Bloom ’08