Speech to Edison High School NHS Induction Banquet, 26 May 2010

The four core values: Service, Scholarship, Leadership and Character.
    Of these, I think I came to scholarship the soonest. Early on, though not in high school, I took pride in being smart and knowing more than other people. I wasn’t very smart though; most of what I knew more than other people wasn’t very useful to know, and I didn’t catch on that knowing more than someone else didn’t mean much anyway. As I look back now, I realize that I had kept right on learning because learning felt pretty good. I enjoy the ah-ha! And I like how knowledge leads to more knowledge and understanding to more understanding. Scholarship is about life long learning, and intellectual humility – understanding that the more you know, the more your will realize how little you know. I know I still have a lot to learn. Like Faust, I want to know everything. I just hope I don’t end up like Faust.

    In the second half of my life, I realized that I could lead. My leadership didn’t come from a role as a leader, or any fame or celebrity, or any strength or power that could compel people to follow. I discovered that leading was just believing that a thing could be done and then setting about doing it. When I did that, people followed and helped. Leaders inspire others, and leaders listen. Leading is serving. Leadership is helping others get where they need to go; it’s building the bridges so that others can cross. If you lead for yourself, you go alone and all your accomplishments with fade when you leave them to move on. When you lead for others, you get support and fellowship, and your work lasts against time.

    These days, as I listen to you talking about the service projects you do, I think I’m not doing enough to serve other, to meet needs, to fill the gaps in life. I should be serving, volunteering, helping. Service builds community. It is not the work of an individual, but of the whole, and it is a kindness. Kindness of itself is a reward. But it increases because as each one contributes, we all win. I see now that I have lived a life of service as a teacher. I understand now why teaching has been so satisfying to me. I could not have been more fortunate. My life has been so rich because I have made a few lives a little better.

    I hope that my life as been lived with character, yet I know how hard it was to come to a place where I could say that I try always to act with integrity and honesty to others and to myself, understanding and accepting everyone for who they are and accepting myself for who I am too. Of all the values, character is the hardest to come to. It must come from within. It must be the core value that shapes all the other values. It is the standard by which we judge even our thoughts. There is probably no greater praise than to hear that one has been a woman or man of character.

    A friend once said to me that he believed that everyone else was his responsibility. I thought about that for some time, and I too came to see that all of us, now or ever, have this one chance here on Earth. All of us now, all of us who have gone before and all of us who come after.  All of us together, one humanity, one big, interconnected life. All of us must take responsibility for one another. We all depend on one another. We are just many parts of one being—humanity.

    I have given a lot of thought – over the fifty or so years that I have given thought to anything much worth thinking about – to this idea of being responsible. And what has it meant?

   • It has meant out with the in’s – injustice, inequity, insensitivity.
   • It has meant teaching, because teaching is giving, and giving makes this a richer world for everyone, including me.
   • It has meant taking care of myself, forgiving myself for failures and caring about myself enough to try again, so that there is always something there to give.

And this is my advice for you as you participate in the National Honor Society, and in your life in the world beyond.

   • When you serve, you serve yourself. When you leave someone in need, you have abandoned a part of yourself.
   • When you learn, you learn more about yourself. Failing to learn, thinking you already know enough, you abandon yourself to ignorance, to fear and too often to hatred.
   • When you lead, we all go together. When you try to get ahead of the others, you just isolate yourself from some of the best parts of our greater self.
   • You are most yourself when you stand with others. You are at your best when you are part of the whole.

    More and more we are moving into an era of One World. Will it be the story of globalizing a society of greed and need, haves and have-nots? Or will it be the story of understanding that we all live in this world, together, not alone among the billions. We will make it in this world all together, or we will have lived for nothing.

    The story of humanity depends on all of us together. And so many will depend on you to know that, and teach that understanding, and lead them to a better life, through Service, Scholarship, Leadership and Character.

Thank you.

About Jay C Ritterson
The only failure is the failure to try.

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