Here is a high school commencement speech with a difference — a great difference, in both senses of the word. Asked to address the Class of 2011 at Providence Academy, Minneapolis, Dr Jennifer Roback Morse encouraged the graduates to think of themselves not just as individuals about to carve out a path for themselves in society, but as parents.
Every one of them, said the Ruth Institute founder, was called to be a person who takes responsibility for others:
It is customary for commencement speakers to talk about what you are
going to do with your lives. But you are all going to go in different
directions. I can think of just two things that truly apply to all of
The first thing I know about you is that each of you is called to
become a mother or a father. How can I say that with such assurance?
Each and every one of us is called to give of ourselves and to be a gift
to other people. Giving birth and taking lifelong responsibility for
the care of children is only the most obvious way in which people make
gifts of themselves to others. And some of you no doubt will do exactly
this: get married and have children. But even those of you who never
give birth to or father a single child, have the opportunity to act as
spiritual parents to those around you.
By spiritual parents, I mean people who care for the young, as well
as the helpless and the needy of any age or station of life. Your
teachers are the most obvious examples of people who have acted as
spiritual parents to you. They have done much more than just deliver
knowledge to you. They have provided you with guidance, direction,
limits and dreams. They have given their hearts to you.
You may have already acted as spiritual parents to your younger
siblings, to friends in distress, to teammates trying to master a skill.
If so, you know that giving of yourself in this way is one of the most
satisfying things you can do. Teaching the lesson to a struggling
classmate can be more rewarding than mastering the lesson yourself. If
you have had experiences like these, then you have already experienced
Actually, I shouldn’t use the generic, gender-neutral word,
“parents.” There is no such thing as a generic parent, any more than
there is such a thing as a generic person. There are only men and
women, mothers and fathers. You are not a gender-neutral, generic person
and you won’t become a gender-neutral, generic parent either. Male and
female are two different and complementary ways of being human. And
mothers and fathers are two different and complementary ways of caring
for the young, and the needy of whatever age…
Far-fetched? Not at all:
Thinking of physical parenthood allows us to see some of the
differences between spiritual mothers and spiritual fathers. Our mothers
give us life. Our mothers are our first connections to the rest of the
human race. They nurture us, feed us, comfort us, and encourage us.
Our mothers let us know that we are loved. When we women do this for
others, no matter who they may be, we are acting as spiritual mothers.
Our fathers protect the life they have planted within our mothers.
At times, it may seem as if they are more distant than our mothers. But
they have stepped back, to allow our growth. They protect us, both
physically and spiritually. Our fathers hold us accountable for our
behavior and performance. When men do these things for us, no matter
how old they are in comparison with us, they are acting as spiritual
We can think of some of the iconic figures of manliness in our
culture: the Marines storming the beach; the sheriffs in the Old West;
the firefighters running into the crumbling Twin Towers on Nine Eleven.
These men are not just performing random acts of aggression and
violence. They are heroes because they are standing up for what is
right, keeping order in the community and defending the weak. I think
every young man, in his heart, wants to be a sheriff in this spiritual
sense, courageously standing up against evil and protecting the
You can read the whole speech here.