My Remarks to the 2019 Graduating Class of the Tatnall School

Over the weekend I was invited to deliver remarks at the school I attended for fourteen years before college. It was super surreal, and quite humbling and a very big deal for me. One doesn’t spend fourteen years at a school without aquiring a few battle scars. And certainly if you’re me, you don’t expect that anything you’ve ever done in your life would warrant an invitation to return. when you look at the distinguished alumni who have come out of this place. Athletes, artists, politicians… anyway, it went over pretty well, and a few people were asking about a transcript, so here it is below. Unfortunately [or fortunately?] I didn’t script the big group selfie moment at the top but maybe that’s for the best.

Dr Burns, Mr. Shluter, Mr. Marvin, faculty, distinguished alumni, thank you so much for having me…

Graduating class of 2019… Woohooo!  You guys!  You did it.  Congratulations!  You’re like, SO done.  Not just like, “done,” but actually, effectively, you are “SOOOOO done.”  And I get the magnitude of that.  I started here in Pre Kindergarten.  Fourteen years from there to there, all told.  Even if you weren’t like me, and did not start here in Pre-K, like that last year?  NOT EASY.  I stand up for you.  I’m saying this because I want you to understand that I know somewhat of what you’ve been through, and that I see you.  I don’t want you to lose heart.  Because I’m about to get real:  You are not done.  Not nearly done.  Not remotely done.  You are, in fact, only getting started.

Now, I’ve been thinking a lot about why someone like me, a guy you barely know, (who prior to meeting him, you had literally never heard of before,) would be invited to come speak at your graduation.  And the only reason I could fashion aside from the alumni connection, was that at forty four years old, I’m finally starting to live my best life and I suspect as a parting gift for you, Tatnall would wish that you started living yours way earlier.  That you do is so important.  It’s bigger-than-the-individual important.  I’ll tell you why I say that in just a minute, but right now…

Right now I want to tell you, whether you like it or not, your generation has already been and will continue to be defined by Unprecedented Wackadoo Circumstances: I’ll give you some examples.  The company that created Mickey Mouse now controls what comes out of the mouths of Homer Simpson, Darth Vader and Deadpool.  Someone with no experience or formal education used Instagram to defraud the public to the tune of $100 million by hosting a fake music festival on an island with zero infrastructure.  Also, our government is like, going through some stuff right now.  Point being:  Unprecedented.  Wackadoo.  Circumstances.  Unfortunately, most of that’s completely out of your hands.  In the age of the twenty hour news cycle, hashtag activism and callout culture you take fire on all sides every hour of every day in mostly metaphorical but often very literal ways.  I have no idea what that feels like, and I imagine it sucks.  But I can’t be too disappointed by it because as a result, you all are super woke, you are driven to speak your truths loudly and are prepared to know and defend your convictions from the word “go.”  And that’s beyond impressive, that’s admirable.  It’s as unprecedented as the times in which you live.  But conviction is only half the distance.

Maybe not soon, (but also maybe not soon enough) yours will be the generation that puts into the White House the first woman or LGBTQ President! (or both!).  I’m using this as a literary example, not a political one, but history suggests this is  inevitable.  And with that unprecedented circumstance, and the myriad others like it to come, you’ll find yourselves frequently at odds with rule makers and each other as to the value of that and what the next steps should be.  And what you’ll need to have when you are in those conversations more than conviction, are curiosity and kindness.  Because no satisfying co-operation ever came by being unkind, and no long-term solution to any new-world problem ever came by being un-curious.

And that’s what’s at stake here.  Long-term solutions to new-world problems.  Problems that my generation either failed to predict or succeeded to perpetuate.  (Really sorry about that, by the way.)  You and I might not have anything of substance in common, but graduates, your generation and mine are more the same than not: From the moment we were born, we were Othered.  We grew up in a world that was obsessed with the generation before us.  They were the ones who were marketed to, they were the ones whose opinions were solicited.   In subtext and in plain text we were told we were an afterthought.  A generational post-script.  And like my generation, yours will have no choice but to adapt to a landscape that shifts in twelve months the amount it used to shift in twelve years.  The difference is you won’t gaze at your navel as you rage against the machine.  You have the wherewithal to do it elegantly and fearlessly and with tremendous kindness and curiosity.  I can’t even tell you how proud of you I am for that.

I mentioned earlier that I’m finally living my best life at forty four.  If you’ll allow, I’d like to tell you a little about why and what that is.  Let’s start here: I acted professionally for a few years after college, and did a couple of films and TV shows but mostly nowadays people know me because I write theater that is thought provoking and well-considered.  Usually that involves writing for characters that look like me, and share my experiences as a second generation immigrant American.  A bi-product of that is on social media, I look kind of amazing.  It would appear from my profiles that I spend a lot of time on red carpets taking selfies with Pulitzer, and EGOT winners.  Wanna see a picture of me holding the Best Song Oscar from Frozen or the Grammy Award for From A Distance? Or sitting at the right hand of Steven Sondheim? Maybe you’re more curious about that footage of me on The Sopranos or why Lin-Manuel Miranda drew the Terminator robot on a legal pad and slid it over to me during a meeting despite not even knowing my name.

If I’m being honest, my hope is that you don’t care about any of these things.  But let’s allow that you do.  All of these things are sort of real?  But also completely artificial.  The realest thing about them is that they are evidence that people far more influential than me are attracted to where my curiosity and kindness has led me.  And they want to go there too.  I spent most of my 20s trying to fit into a system that was not designed for a person who looked like me, and certainly not prepared to adapt for one by any measure.  No one was ever saying to me in college  “do you know what a great role for you would be?” Because there were none.  For me.  Then I spent my 30s punching back because there should have been.  That was my conviction.  That there should have been.  Theater self-identifies as the place for misfits.  As the place where there’s something for everyone.  So when there wasn’t, I punched back.  I wasn’t even trying to be antagonistic. I was just trying to carve out a space for myself in a community that evidently didn’t think I had anything to offer it.  In any event, something really curious happened.  I tried so hard to convince “The Establishment” that I was actually a human person with a heart and a brain and courage, that I forgot that I was talking to human people with hearts and brains and courage. 

So in my forties, something even more curious started to happen.  I stopped seeing The Establishment as a wall and started seeing them as people.  The world I was and am so deeply entrenched in wasn’t intentionally trying to keep me from the things I wanted to achieve, it just didn’t have the language or context to understand why what I wanted to achieve was so important.

I’ll give you one quick example.  In 2008 I was working on a theater piece called Death and Lucky about a Chinese mother and her American-born daughter who were forced to move back in with each other after the father dies.  It was inspired by a nonsense rhyme my mom used to sing to me in Mandarin about two racing tigers.  “One has no eyes, one has no ears, isn’t that strange?” 

They both have to take care of the adult brother, LUCKY, who is non-verbal and communicates only through the piano, but they both have very different ideas of what care-giving is.  The mom character in particular showed little compassion and cared more about how her kids made her look than how her kids felt.  She was, in fact, a classic Tiger Mom.  Unfortunately for me the book that coined that phrase “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” didn’t come out until 2011.  So this piece I had been writing for three-plus years that would have cast a bright light on non-verbal Autism went the way of the dodo.  No one knew.  Right?  Back then anyone looking to take a risk on a new musical wasn’t looking at intersectionality, or the importance of representation. 

I’m skipping a couple of beats here, and it hasn’t always been a straight line, obviously, but I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you that the reason people are now suddenly interested in this piece I shelved nine years ago is because I found a way to get other people to nerd out over the things that I nerded out over.  And you know how I pulled that off?  Curiosity and kindness.  It wasn’t conviction.  I wish it had been, but it was curiosity and kindness.  Curiosity of their journey of their experience, and kindness when recognizing their fear.  Which is something we all share.  And then suddenly, I was The Establishment.

I’m really reluctant to end this speech here, but I’m going to now share with you the obligatory 10 lessons I wish I knew at your age that I didn’t.  Some of these will probably already sound familiar to you.

  1. When at your job or in class, if you take a moment to invest in your supervisor or professor, you’ll pretty much automatically get a passing grade.  Do with that what you will.

  2. Reinventing yourself is a myth.  Allow for the possibility that you just didn’t know yourself as well as you thought.  Allow also for the possibility that you have always been enough.

  3. Never ask the question you think you know the answer to- you’ll always be disappointed.  Ask the question you don’t know the answer to- it’s just underneath that first one.

  4. At least once in your life, make a New Year’s Resolution to sleep better at night.  You’d be amazed at what that allows you to do and shook by what it disallows you from doing.

  5. A propos of number four, put your name on everything you say and write publicly. If you can’t, give yourself two days to think about why before you do anything.

  6. At some point you’ll say no to school.  That’s okay.  But please always say yes to learning.

  7. Keep every single promise you make.  Make none you can’t keep.

  8. If you listen as ferociously as you speak, you will find the truth far more quickly than if you do either one without the other.

  9. Power multiplies when you are generous with it, not when you are selfish with it.  And finally,

  10. Empathy is even more valuable than time.  And time is super valuable.

I have to confess, graduates, I lied earlier.  You were never an afterthought generation.  We don’t have that in common.  You are the architects.  You get to reframe national conversations.  You are not done.  You are not nearly done.  Not remotely done.  You are, in fact, only just getting started. Thank YOU.