A few years ago, Annika started attacking her younger siblings and running away from home. I have never felt more devastated and helpless. In
December of 2016, having exhausted all other options, we enrolled Annika at
Latham Centers, an amazing residential school for PWS students in Brewster,
Massachusetts. Now she is safe and thriving, as are her siblings.
But here’s the thing about Annika: she is only 10 years old. I miss her so much.
It hurts a lot. I get to go see her next week for the first time since April.
From these three events, I’ve learned just how much our lives are influenced
by luck. And I’ve learned that privilege is not just something born into at the
expense of those less fortunate. Privilege also is an insidious force that can turn
on the privileged themselves.
To those of you who do not come from privilege, I will not patronize you
about how lucky you are to have the chance to truly succeed on your own.
Poverty is imposed upon our children with greater ferocity every day, an inexcusable trend in a supposedly modern, egalitarian country.
To those of you who share my privilege: be vigilant. It is hard to know just
how lucky we are. But there are opportunities to listen to people from different circumstances — these people know things that we don’t. And there may
be moments when you have a tingling sensation that you are about to take that
privileged path of least resistance just because it’s there.
Instead of taking that path … parents — earmuffs — please cover your
Instead, don’t major in what they want you to major in. Major in what you
want to major in. Don’t go to the college or take the job that will look cool on social
media. Transfer! Quit! Take the job that’s harder and pays less but actually makes
people’s lives better. Live life on the edge! Volunteer! Become a journalist! Work
with kids! Drive a used car with no extended warranty! You know, crazy stuff!
With or without your parents’ blessing, if you fail to weigh your options,
if you instead blindly take the privileged path, you may find one day that you
have lucked into a shiny life that you thought would make you happy but that,
in fact, makes you miserable. This can happen to anyone. Even the president
of the United States.
Finally, whether you’re privileged or not, don’t shy away from adversity
when it hits.
The last year has been the most difficult of my life. I have days when I cry
thinking about my daughter. But my love for my wife and my children has never
been stronger. And I have never felt more fulfilled in my professional life. It
sounds crazy, but I am happier right now than I have ever been.
I leave you with a quote from Lama Zopa Rinpoche:
“Instead of seeing all the problems you experience … as problems, you need
to develop the habit of recognizing them all as beneficial conditions support-
ing happiness, and in fact being causes for happiness … Stop the thought of
complete aversion to suffering … generate the thought of welcoming problems.
When you have accomplished this and actually feel happy rather than unhappy
to have problems, problems no longer become obstacles …”
May you have ample problems and the grit to push through them. That is
what a true success story looks like in the 21st century.
Congratulations, Class of 2017!
Jonah Steinhart is a teacher, writer and film producer. He runs the journalism
program at Tamalpais High School and currently is writing and producing a
feature documentary on Prader-Willi syndrome with actor/director/producer
Charles Haid ( Hill Street Blues, Breaking Bad).
When it comes to supporting individuals with PWS,
California is a third-world
country compared to a
state like Massachusetts. I
recently joined the board of
the Richard de Lone Special
Housing Project, devoted
to housing and services for
adults with PWS and getting
California where it needs to
be. To donate: rdshp.org.
The weakest part of the speech:
at worst, I’m a self-absorbed,
privileged white guy failing to
address the percentage of the
senior class who do not come
from privilege. I try for the save
in the final paragraphs. But this
speech may do absolutely nothing for a Marin City student. I
have to own that.
Yup, I went political in a high
school grad speech. But this
line killed — huge, extended
applause. Plus, let’s be honest. Whether you voted for
the guy or not, have you ever
heard him laugh? Sad!
It’s amazing what we’re
capable of enduring when
we stop feeling sorry for
ourselves and fight one hour
at a time.
A joy-inducing aspect
shaped by parenting, teaching, writing and charity:
collaborating with people to
build something beautiful.
A teenager’s greatest fear is
being embarrassed. A parent’s
greatest fear is seeing his/
her child suffer. If we can minimize these fears we will raise
healthier, more empathetic
citizens. And teachers will get
a lot fewer unnecessary emails
from helicopter parents.