I was flattered, humbled and a little bit incredulous when several people approached me after the National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony to ask for a copy of my speech. I thought this forum might be a good one to share it with others, so I pasted it below.
Membership in National Junior Honor Society is dependent upon outstanding performance in Scholarship, Service, Leadership, Character and Citizenship. I’d like to focus my brief comments tonight on the first of these areas.
Scholarship is the very first requirement for entry into the NJHS, and only those with all A’s and B’s are eligible. That means that the students on the stage are among the best students in what is arguably the best middle school in the State of Indiana. Though your parents and I are proud of you all, I hope that you take your induction into this Honor Society not as an accomplishment, but as a challenge. I ask you to please take this event this evening as a recognition of your potential – as ZMS’s statement that you have the ability to become something great if you so choose.
I recently came across a quote from Mark Twain which read, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” In other words, if you don’t use the tools that you have been blessed with, you might as well not have them. I would go even further to state that just using these gifts is not enough – using them to the best of your ability is what it takes to not cheat yourself.
I was reminded of Twain’s quote when I watched a documentary entitled “Two Million Minutes” in which the lives of students from the United States were compared to those from India and China. All of the students were top students in their respective countries. The two American students were from central Indiana just like you. One was top ten in her class, and the other was a National Merit Semifinalist. Both of these, of course, are significant honors to take pride in. I had to cringe, however, when I heard these students say things like, “I got an ‘A’ on that test and I didn’t even read the book,” and “I got a scholarship because of my PSAT score, and I didn’t even prepare for it.” Both of these students appeared to be looking for the maximum achievement out of minimum effort. They believed that they were beating the system. I believe they were cheating themselves. When your teachers and parents encourage you to take on an academic endeavor, they do so in order that you will invest in yourself and come out a better person. Getting an “A” is much less important than knowing something that you didn’t know before. Succeeding is less important than learning and growing.
John F. Kennedy once defined happiness as “the full use of your powers along the lines of excellence.” This definition explains to us that an investment of one’s self is a necessary and meaningful component of being happy. It means that it is important for you to raise the bar to your highest possible level, not to simply clear a bar that someone else has established for you. By virtue of the fact that you are here tonight, we have established that you are clearing the bar that we have set for you. I encourage you to ask yourself, “Is that bar high enough?”
I will leave you to struggle with this rhetorical question, and I hope that you will keep it in the forefront as you make decisions in the future. I offer you my congratulations for your induction into this prestigious group. I’ll let you decide whether it is an achievement, or a sign of better things to come.