Cascade Commencement Speech

“Some of you may think you have troubled children. We don’t see it that way.
We see them as children with a deeper question.
They are looking for a higher purpose, an altruistic meaning to their lives.”

August 1992
Last time I spoke at a graduation I was in the ninth grade. I wore a yellow dress and an intensely serious expression that masked nervousness and delight. Today is no different, so no matter what you see on my face, I’m turning cartwheels inside. It’s great to return to Cascade, and because I so respect this school, being asked to speak here is a great honor. Michael and Gayle, let me add one more of many thank you’s to you both.

Commencement speeches typically address the graduating class, either offering helpful advice about how to enter the real world or exhorting the graduates to improve this world.

But this speech will be a little different, because Cascade is, in the best sense, no ordinary school. So although I will speak to the graduates, I will also speak parent to parent, to those of us who have not had the privilege of attending Cascade.

A year ago, I sat where you are now. I remember being overwhelmed with feelings of joy, gratitude, and pride in my son. He and his fellow graduates proved what I had always hoped: that human beings have the capacity to choose and change, and when the change includes altruism, we come to love ourselves.

One year ago, with candor and eloquence, student after student spoke of their two-year journey that led them to self-respect and a purpose in life. That day I learned just as we once taught our children, now they have much to teach us. And, just as we once needed them to change, they need us to change.

While I listened and dabbed my eyes, I flashed back to my first workshop here. I remembered my mixed feelings as I heard other parents explain why their child was at Cascade. On the one hand, I felt less alone, less guilty–I wasn’t the worst mother in the world and I didn’t have the worst child. My son sounded like many of these kids, bright, manipulative, hurt. But–I wondered how safe a place this could be if every kid up here had gotten into some kind of trouble.

Then I visited the campus and met students who had been here a while. They looked fine, more than fine. Their eyes possessed an openness and clarity rare in anyone, especially a teenager in this society. These kids at Cascade knew something. They knew themselves, had forgiven themselves, and had begun to forgive others in their lives. They showed a special strength that only comes from self reflection and from making the decision to change.

After my campus visit, Annie Zenier asked me if I could imagine my son like that a year from now. I smiled but inwardly shook my head. It had nothing to do with my son, only my lack of faith, that made it impossible for me to believe her. Yet, I wondered, how did the transformation happen?

When Michael Allgood spoke to us later, I began to understand. He said, “Some of you may think you have troubled children. We don’t see it that way. We see them as children with a deeper question. They are looking for a higher purpose, an altruistic meaning to their lives.”

Not in a million years did I expect to find a connection between what was going on with my son and the work I happened to be doing at that time. I was writing a book about people who had found altruistic meaning to their lives. These were a remarkable group, non-Jews who had risked their lives to rescue Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Rescuers ranged from those who saved a single life to well-known heroes such as Raoul Wallenberg, who saved as many as 100,000 Jews.

This was the kind of altruism Michael was talking about, and I had just met people whose lives had been fulfilled by service to others. Many rescuers had not only risked their lives, but their children’s lives, as well, to save people who were often strangers. If the world contains unjustified evil, I discovered that it also contains unjustified good.

We interviewed over 100 rescuers who represented the tens of thousands of people who remained human in a barbaric time. We wanted to acknowledge their deeds and add a little known chapter in the story of the Holocaust. Mostly, however, I think we simply wanted to meet someone, like a Dutch rescuer, for example, who hid 36 people in his attic outside Amsterdam for four years. We wanted to know what such a person looks like. Is their goodness visible? Do they possess surreal serenity?

My first book was about Tom Seaver, the baseball pitcher. When I met him I frankly stared at this powerful right arm. But the rescuers had nothing to show. If you saw one walking down the street, you’d walk by, never knowing you’d passed an Olympian altruist.

All the rescuers were old and many lived modestly. Perhaps the characteristics of an altruistic personality don’t lead to prosperity. But no matter what their means, they welcomed us warmly, served us refreshments, and told us stories which we knew would reawaken their nightmares. Even more, they were deeply grateful for our interest in their deeds. Every story, every rescuer, inspired me, because just as a school like Cascade gives me hope, so did they in their demonstration of the highest expression of the human spirit.

Not everyone possesses the gift of courage. Not everyone can live with the tension and fear for years. But the rescuers shared another characteristic essential to altruism besides courage. They had compassion. When horror goes on near us, the impulse is to ignore it. But the rescuers didn’t ignore what was happening around them. They noticed when a Jewish family suddenly moved or when Jewish children stopped coming to school. And when they were asked to keep a suitcase, give shelter, or find hiding places, they said yes.

Many rescuers came from families where caring for others was natural, not extraordinary. During childhood, most of the rescuers had been treated with kindness and respect, so treating others in this way came naturally. One rescuer told us: “If you want to raise an altruistic generation, a generation of people who will care about one another and be willing to make some sacrifice–to use that dirty word–for one another, then the first people who should sacrifice are parents. They may have to sacrifice a career for a few years and stay home with their child so that the child knows he or she is important enough to stay home for.” When a child learns this, the child can then understand the importance of someone else’s life.

In a time when the rational thing to do was simply to survive, they did more than that–they helped others doomed for death to survive. Why did they? This is the question we asked over and over. They shrugged and said they had to. Their hearts made them. When I asked those with children during the war how they could put themselves and their children at such risk, they answered, “We did it because we had children, so they would know, even if it was the last thing we did, we didn’t give in to the evil around us.”

Which leads us back to Cascade and today’s graduating class. Like the rescuers, you’ve made hard choices. Some of you came here against your will and you were challenged as you’d never been before, especially emotionally. Honesty and kindness were prerequisites for staying here, and there were no fences–you could have left. But despite dishes, bans, and homesickness, you chose to stay. If Michael is right, and I think he is, everyone graduating today has wrestled with the deeper question of the purpose of life. Your presence here is your answer: you’ve chosen to be altruists, people who care about others as they care about themselves.

Look at the goals here. Sincerity, compassion, service. The discipline required for this path is developed through academics, physical exercise, and self-examination. If you work hard and achieve these goals, you can be a star at Cascade. As far as I know, there is no curve to this. Everyone of you can be a star.

Now compare this to what our society rewards. We anoint the bright child who studies hard and gets the highest grade. Not so much for what has been learned, but for working the hardest at it and beating the competition. We reward hard work and winning. But is it worth anything by itself? The brightest child goes on to the best school, becomes Phi Beta Kappa, valedictorian. We doubly anoint and stand in awe of such achievement. But for what purpose is all this study? To get a great job and make lots of money? To be thought of as smart, an achiever, better than others?

Why do we think this is so praiseworthy? Why don’t we reward children for giving half a sandwich to a hungry friend? Maybe we do, but getting good grades is first, giving comes second. We want our children to be number one–this is the priority. But Cascade graduates know this is wrong. Leather jackets, cars, or CD players, are not who a person is and that these things will not give the most satisfaction.

In a few hours, those of you graduating are about to have a powerful experience. You’re going to leave here, ecstatic to be free. But I suspect leaving here will not be so easy. After a while, you might find yourself feeling lonely, perhaps angry, because you’ll be in a world that doesn’t speak your language.

At Cascade the principle is not every man and woman for him or herself first. People care about you here and you’ve learned to care about others. You’ve discovered your best self and that part of you hungers for higher purpose. What you do touches others–you have the power to lift the fallen. You’ve helped younger classmates as you were helped by those who preceded you.

The rescuers were the smallest minority you can imagine. Those of you who have chosen an altruistic path may find yourselves in a tiny minority, too. In fact, you may find that altruists make a lot of people uncomfortable.

I’ll confess that I first thought of Cascade as utopia, which translates as nowhere. This opinion let me off the hook about the world my son was coming home to. If I saw Cascade as unreal, I didn’t have to try to replicate it on any level. But, fellow parents, we sent our children to Cascade not just to get them out of trouble, but to learn a new way to be. If we’ve sent them here only to straighten out and fly right so they can be glittering prizes that we can brag about, we’re going to be surprised. If anything, they’ve learned how little one needs to be content and fulfilled. What they’ve learned is to value their lives and believe in the power of their goodness. This is what we can and must learn from our children.

So how comfortable are we with these changes in our children? When my son first came home, I was afraid. At first afraid he hadn’t changed, was still the same. Before he went to Cascade I told him, “There are two things I want you to have, survival skills and a good heart.” He looked at me long and hard. “You’re asking for a lot, mom,” he said.

So–I was braced for the scam and toughness. Then I calmed down and I saw it. He had changed. He had those quiet, clear eyes I’d seen in other children the first time I was here. He wasn’t conniving, he was watching. Me. I felt his unguarded gaze as an invitation to meet him. And still I was afraid. Why? Because–did I really want him to know me? Was I worthy of his open heart? And…did I like having a kid around who knew something I didn’t?

Well, here’s the best news. Change is contagious. I responded to my son’s best self, and by god, my best self woke up, too. His openness encouraged mine, it demanded mine. And I found myself slowing down, becoming more honest and willing to learn from him.

Love is contagious, too. My son’s love spread and we all felt good around him. He has a good sense of humor, can laugh at himself when appropriate, yet knows his power. Whether he falls or rises, he knows he touches others. If a difficult member of the family can derail everyone, then the opposite is true: an enlightened member can transform a family.

Is this the point at which I tell the graduates to go home and make the world a better place? Something in me hesitates. It’s so beautiful here this morning I don’t want to think about where I came from to get here. L.A. Many of you will be going home to places like L.A. Where greed is reaping its harvest and where indifference to others is destroying everyone’s future. After my generation had handed you this world, who am I to tell you what to do? I think here about the proverbial drop in the ocean. Can one person make a difference? The rescuers didn’t ask that, but the medal of honor they received says: Whoever saves a single life is as one who saved an entire world.

When I worked on the rescuer book, one question haunted me. Could I have done what they did? Would I have risked my children to save a stranger’s child? Could I even stand to have strangers in my house? I don’t think so. But I take heart in what the rescuers answered: You don’t know what you can do until the moment requires it. Now this commencement day is not only a beginning for the graduates, but for the parents, too. Our moment has arrived.

Here is the question I ask myself today. What am I doing to repair the world? Am I living in a way that helps my children to understand that life is more than survival? Am I living a life that has a deeper meaning? It’s one thing to send my son to a school with such values. That’s not too hard. But am I showing him that it’s possible to behave that way outside Cascade?

Not all of us are equipped to perform radical acts of altruism. But we could let it start right here between us, parents and children. We as parents can have faith in our children’s transformation. They deserve our respect and admiration for their courage and determination. We must be open to learning from them! We sent them to Cascade to awaken something–now we have to help that seed grow.

We will also need courage to face the stress these changes may bring, but I believe it’s a creative tension that will lead to profound relationship with our children. Those of you coming home, try to have patience with your parents. They haven’t had the lesson’s you’ve had.

As we work to know one another again, maybe our new relationships won’t solve everything. I’m not suggesting happy families will cure the country’s problems. But it can make a start. Relationships built on honesty and trust make us strong, and with that strength we can better serve others.

The rescuers showed me how satisfying it was to live an altruistic life, but I wondered if this was still possible in our fiercely competitive time, me-first society. You who are graduating today demonstrate that, indeed, it is possible. More than that, it is a human imperative, not only for individual well-being but for the repair of the world.

And if we parents want a better world, we need to do more than tell our children to fix it. We need to pick up the hammer and nails, too. We need to work toward becoming the people we want our children to be. If we succeed, then we, like our children, will be a blessing to ourselves, to one another, and to the world.

The Story of One Student’s Journey