Commencement Speaker Julianne Puente
Parents, colleagues, students, and my dearest Class of 2020,
I am here. You are there. And we are all alone together.
I am here alone at the podium overlooking Commencement Lawn picturing a most glorious site — an extraordinary mosaic of sound and color, feel and emotion that is our graduation day. Red and white class banners add color to our sacred space with the Class of 2020 pendant proudly overlooking the sea of white and gold chairs lined with precision across our freshly cut green grass. The traditional ruby red carpeted pathway through the center of the lawn lies waiting for the arrival of the faculty and graduates. Thousands of parents, grandparents, friends and alums fill the lawn joined in the shared purpose of celebrating you. The sight of twin Black Hawk helicopters and the sound of oncoming bagpipers signal to those anxiously awaiting the big event that the time is now upon us! The crowd ignites with energy as people catch the first glimpse of the easily recognizable, but distinct blue caps and gowns emerging in two lines from behind the clocktower. At the same time, the risers on the berm begin to fill with underclassmen dressed in school uniform awaiting their turn to one day take center stage. Your mentors, advisors, and teachers lead the procession making their way to the coveted shaded area just to my left. It is a proud day for them, too. And, perhaps most of all, I clearly see you, my 149 seniors, set high upon the risers to my right — draped in your deep blue gowns replete with red trim and accented by the gold tassels on your caps. Your faces beaming with nervous excitement as you take it all in — (perhaps you are able to because I collected your phones before we lined up. Who knows?) But, what I do know is that everything is perfect! The long shadows of the Middle School building afford us protection from the Jordanian sun as she begins to set. We are all comfortable, basking in 25 degree temperatures with a refreshing breeze coming from the West. The underclassmen are sitting quietly on the metal bleachers perfectly focused on the event at hand. No uncles or cousins disturb anyone as they capture a myriad of pictures of their beloved graduate. Miraculously, everyone remains seated at the end of the ceremony allowing the faculty and graduates to make their way unobstructed to Refectory Square.
Our graduation is perfect — our best one yet — at least in my mind, except for one thing: I am here and you are there, and we are all alone together.
I suspect some of you might be disappointed that a successful CEO, powerful head of state or a famous performer isn’t giving your Commencement address. I mean with all King’s Academy’s “connections” couldn't the school have come up with someone more distinguished than the dean of students? I guess not. Actually, while I am talking about how not important I am, let me take this opportunity to clear up a few rumors about me that have been circulating around West Amman that are completely untrue.
- I have never served in the army
- I did not graduate from West Point
- I have never worked as a prison guard
- I am not a member of the Jordanian special forces and do not work undercover for the makhabarat (wink)
I am simply a lifelong teacher who fell in love with Jordan and dedicated herself unreservedly to building a school in which she believes deeply. While I am far more ordinary than extraordinary when it comes to graduation speakers, I do know every single member of the graduating class of 2020. I have known you from the very first moment you set foot on this campus. I have watched you grow up, and I have been part of your journey at King’s every step of the way! I know your names, grades, advisors, houses, room numbers, likes, dislikes, siblings, pets, stories, and families. I can probably recall what courses you took your sophomore year! I watched you play, act, debate, create, stretch, orate, design, build, write, think, challenge, confront, protest, compete, laugh and cry. I witnessed your many triumphs and I helped you up when you stumbled. I know how incredibly thoughtful, intelligent and special you are. And, I also know about some of the dumb things you have done. Honestly, I know about most of the dumb things you have done but I will save those stories for our 20th reunion! I do, however, want to take this moment to give a special shout out to the senior class admins of the SPC (Senior Pranks Committee) WhatsApp group who have no idea how helpful they were to us in foiling their own pranks! Mr. Ryuji and I thank you.
Basically, this is all to say that I know you collectively and individually in ways few others can or ever will, and it has been an absolute honor and privilege to be part of your lives. I also happen to be graduating with you, although unlike you, it has taken me 11 years. So, given the context, I might be an appropriate choice to speak at our “Not Graduation” after all. Besides, there is nobody here to pull me off the stage!
So, since this is not a normal graduation, I will not spend the next few minutes offering you advice about how you need to be true to yourself — which can either be good or bad advice depending on who you think you are. Nor will I tell you that you are prepared to lead humanity through these unprecedented times using the 5 Guiding Principles as your collective moral compass. Our times, while strange and unfamiliar, are not unprecedented. Humanity has found its way out of floods, wars, plagues, meteor strikes, economic depressions and other kinds of general self-inflicted mayhem for thousands of years. We will find our way out of this one too. Besides, most of you are just 17 or 18 years old! There is much more stuff for you to learn, experience and process before you have to take on solving problems you did not create.
Instead, I will simply share with you what my time in Jordan has taught me.
To the parents of the graduates: you have taught me fundamentally what it means to be brave. You chose King’s Academy because you wanted something unique for your sons and daughters. You found the courage to withstand the social and cultural pressures that must have confronted you regarding your decision to send your son or daughter to a co-ed boarding school run by a group of ajaanib. You trusted in a mission and a vision, and ultimately in a group of strangers to provide your son or daughter with a different kind of education. You are, and have always been, King’s Academy’s greatest believers.
بين منطوق لم يقصد ومقصود لم ينطق تضيع الكثير من المحبة.
Between what is said and not meant and what is meant and not said, most love is lost.
So, dear parents, let me say what I have always meant. I have the deepest respect for you, you taught me what it means to love big, to have faith, and to never lose hope. I will always remain humbled by your faith and trust in the school and in me. Shukran min albi.
To my colleagues, my brothers and sisters: your stories, friendship, generosity, grace, and unwavering sense of purpose have been a consistent inspiration to me. Your intellect, kindness, curiosity and resolve have kept me grounded and focused. There is no question that King’s Academy as an idea and as a practice is something that is really, really hard. Who thought that taking people from around the world who speak different languages, practice different religions, hold different political beliefs and requiring them to all live together would be a good idea? Oh, and let’s not forget to throw 600 teenagers into that mix! Who proposed this idea you ask? The most visionary leader of all, His Majesty King Abdullah II, of course! Since the school’s conception until today, we have all worked to create a common vocabulary, a shared vision, a collective understanding, and we have created a unique culture that is King’s Academy. For us, no matter the difficulties, failure is never an option. Over 10,000 cups of tea, you have taught me how to listen and how to speak in a language that does not require words. You also taught me the best way to deflect a difficult question. Just ask whose village or farm produces the best olive oil. This always quickly changes the subject engaging people in a debate that has no right answer! Also, invariably after asking it, I would find bottles of that liquid gold on my desk the next morning. As Gibran wrote,
.ما أنبل القلب الحزين الذي لا يمنعه حزنه من أن ينشد أغنية مع القلوب الفرحة
I hope my sad heart will be noble enough to sing with the happy hearts soon.
To my beloved Jordan: your lands possess a raw mystical beauty that cannot be adequately described, only experienced. With your golden sunrises, purple sunsets and star-studded skies on moonless nights in Wadi Rum, you are always breathtakingly beautiful. I have cherished floating in the Dead Sea, exploring your wadis, hiking in Petra and looking at Lake Tiberias from the rocks of Um Qais. From the Thursday night energy of Amman to the Saturday morning frenetic pace of Al Balad, you always made me feel alive and never disappointed. You have taught me patience, fortitude and resolve. You have humbled me in more ways than I can describe. The only thing more beautiful than your lands are your people with their innate warmth and, uh, shall we say aggressive hospitality. Have you ever noticed when Jordanians invite you to their house for dinner they always ask what you don't like to eat? They actually will insist on you telling them what dishes you do not enjoy! As soon as you relent and name your least favorite dish, they immediately respond: “You must try ours.” Like I said, aggressive hospitality!
الضيافة هي أن تجعل الضيوف يشعرون أنه بيتك بيتهم. مع أنه مرات بتقول يا ريتهم ببيتهم.
Hospitality is making your guests feel at home even if you wished they were.
And to my dearest students. You have helped me remain forever young, inquisitive and driven. You have made me laugh until my sides hurt, and there are times you have made me cry, too, though often from joy. In your wonderful docu-series, you asked me what advice I have for the Class of 2020, and I said don’t just follow your dreams but understand that they may change as you learn, experience and expand your horizons.
As a young child, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said a blacksmith. I didn’t mean someone like the cool metal working blacksmiths of today’s modern art scene, but an actual farrier — someone who shoes horses. While most kids wanted to be firemen, or astronauts, or doctors, as a six year old in 1979, I aspired to a career somewhat obsolete. I actually remember my mom telling me to stop asking people standing near me to bend their knees so I could lift their foot and pretend to “shoe” them.
Obviously, I did not become a blacksmith, but the drive to work with my hands, to build, to create and even to protect has always been a part of me. Instead of molding metal and forging steel, I have spent my life building teams and shaping schools.
So maybe, King’s Academy has made me a blacksmith after all. I have been allowed to forge, shape, and burnish a school I absolutely love — I also have had to learn how to take the heat! As the saying goes, “Out of the hottest fire, comes the strongest steel.” I am so grateful that under the heat of the Jordanian sun and within the cauldron that is King’s Academy, like you, I have been made stronger, grittier and more durable than when I first arrived. We are told to follow our dreams, but I encourage you to be flexible with them and allow them to change and grow with you, and remember, too, you just may have to wait a bit to see how they come true. And remember, a small act of kindness is worth more than the greatest intention. We have all been given a gift. So act.
Mabruk parents, graduates, faculty and staff. I know this is a poignant day filled with happiness and tears of joy for accomplishment, though not without some tears of sadness for the inevitable goodbyes. I know we all think that how we are feeling today is different from other years, but I will let you in on a little secret that I have learned as a veteran of 25 high school graduations — all graduations feel like this.
So, Class of 2020, go forth and spread beauty and light and until we meet again…
الحب لا يعرف عمقه إلا ساعة الفراق.
Ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.
Go Lions, Go!