Please enjoy a transcript of Mark Silver’s speech at the Graduation of the Class of 2016:
Good morning and welcome to the Hillbrook Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2016. I want to extend a special welcome this morning to our guests on stage with me, including Los Gatos Mayor Barbara Spector, Chair of the Board of Trustees Chuck Hammers, Head of Middle School Christina Pak, 8th grade level coordinator Eden Maisel, and Izzy Braham, graduate from the Class of 2012. Most importantly, it is my honor to welcome the soon to be graduated members of the Class of 2016.
The Class of 2016 has the distinction of being the first class to graduate in this beautiful new amphitheater. Sitting here – surrounded by the Village of Friendly Relations, including the newest addition to the Village – the History House, this reimagined space beautifully links our past and our present. It seems fitting that this new space was created during our 80th year, a testament to the school’s commitment to continually find ways to strengthen and improve our program and facilities while remaining true to the spirit and values of our founders. Perhaps the highest praise that we have received since we finished this project in October came from our alumni community during the 80th anniversary celebration in May, when numerous alums remarked, “It seems like it has always been here.”
The Class of 2016 is less than an hour away from becoming part of that alumni community. Since our founding in 1935, I suspect we have graduated well over 1,500 students. Whether in graduating classes of 2 or 3 – as was true in the early years – or classes of 35-40, as has been more typical in recent years, students have retained strong ties with Hillbrook long after they leave. In just the past few weeks, we had an alumna from the Class of 1946 who showed up on campus one day, and another alumna from the Class of 1952 who returned on two different occasions to look through old photographs and historical materials. Both took us on a joyful walk down memory lane, and both described a feeling like coming home. We saw that same connection last Fall when so many of our alumni returned to campus to be together following the tragic death of Loukas Angelo. In that moment of extraordinary grief and loss, this campus and this community was indeed a second home for our young alums. Thus, even as we celebrate the graduation of this impressive group of young people today, I hope they know that there will always be a place for them back on our campus.
As I thought about what I should talk about today, I found myself continually drawn back to one of the biggest “things” in American society this past six months. Not the presidential primaries, not drones or self-driving cars, not the Golden State Warriors or San Jose Sharks, not even the emergence of “the dab”. No, I’m thinking about a phenomena which, at my house, is best captured in three words, “Alexa, play Hamilton.”
That’s right, I’m talking about the most popular musical on Broadway. If you somehow missed it, “Hamilton” has become a national phenomena in the last year, winning a Grammy, earning an unprecedented 16 Tony nominations, grossing over $60 million in Broadway ticket sales and creating more conversation among people of all ages than any musical….ever. It tells the story of “the 10 dollar founding father,” Alexander Hamilton, and his unlikely rise from an immigrant orphan to”decorated war vet” and George Washington’s “right hand man”. A gifted and prolific writer “whose skill with a quill” made him the primary author of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury, battled fiercely with Secretary of State (and later President) Thomas Jefferson over the creation of the Treasury, and, ultimately, fell to an early and tragic death in a duel with longtime rival and one-time Vice President Aaron Burr.
Now, as an American historian by training and a longtime US history teacher, I can think of few topics that are more interesting than the early Republic. I get why it entrances historians and history buffs, but teenagers? That’s right, many of the biggest fans of Hamilton are sitting next to me here on stage. How do I know this? Well, at a minimum, I know that several students on stage – and in the audience – know every word to every song. So, given that Hamilton mania has struck both young and old, I thought I’d use this opportunity to share some lessons from Hamilton.
The Revolutionary Era was a time of incredible change, when the world was truly turned upside down. We live in a place and time today – Silicon Valley – that is in the midst of its own modern day revolution. The technological changes that are happening right here where we live – changes that are being led and driven in many cases by people only a few years older than each of our students on stage – are creating opportunities that seemed unimaginable 14 years ago when our soon-to-be graduates were born. Back in the late 1700s, Hamilton recognized that he was in a moment of change and he embraced that opportunity. Hamilton’s story is, in many ways, a quintessential American story – the story of an ambitious, scrappy immigrant who managed to rise up and change the world. In the musical, Hamilton sings, “I am not throwing away my shot.” I encourage all of our 8th graders to heed his words – you are living in a moment of incredible opportunity, seize that moment, don’t throw away your shot.
Second, stand for something. One of the most compelling moments of the musical is when Alexander Hamilton shocks everyone by supporting Thomas Jefferson for President in the election of 1800. Hamilton and Jefferson had disagreed on everything during their time in Washington’s cabinet. In fact, the dramatic reenactments of their debates make up some of the best songs in the musical. They did not like each other at all, and thus Jefferson’s presidential bid seemed doomed when it became clear that Hamilton’s endorsement would carry the day. In the musical, the tension builds as Hamilton notes:
“The people are asking to hear my voice, for the country is facing a difficult choice, If you were to ask me who I’d promote, Jefferson has my vote. I have never agreed with Jefferson once, We have fought on like seventy-five diff’rent fronts, But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none.”
While Hamilton disagreed with Jefferson, he at least knew that Jefferson was willing to take a stand. As Hamilton says to Burr earlier in the musical, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” Hamilton saw that the greatest danger to our country was a leader who would say anything to get elected.
Finally, there is a lesson in the success of the show’s composer, lyricist, and creator Lin Manuel Miranda. It is no accident that Miranda appeared on the cover of the most recent Fast Company magazine, earning the title most creative person in business. As the article explains, Miranda was reading an 800-page biography of Hamilton several years ago when he had an epiphany. Hamilton’s story – the rise of an immigrant with a powerful ability to use words – felt to him like the story of a Revolutionary-era hip hop star. Building on this revelation, he cast the show almost exclusively with actors of color, creating in the process a musical that both reflects and reimagines our past in powerful and compelling ways. His gift was to see connections that no one else saw. Just as importantly, in true Hillbrook style, he took a risk. He tried it. Now, to be clear, many of us have tried things and failed. I’m sure Miranda himself has had many ideas that didn’t make it past the initial draft. Yet what Miranda knows – and what I hope each of you on stage never forgets – is that the only way to succeed is to take a risk and start. In this case, he created something that has, I’m sure, gone well beyond even his wildest dreams. But don’t let the extraordinary success he is experiencing today fool you. Miranda’s accomplishments required an ability to see things that others did not see, a tireless work ethic, and a willingness to take a risk and try something completely original. It hopefully raises the question for each of you – what will be your “Hamilton” moment?
Our vision – as it has been for 80 years – is to inspire students to achieve their dreams and reach beyond themselves to make a difference in the world. As you sit here today, I hope you know how proud we are of each of you and the extraordinary growth that we see that each of you has made during your Hillbrook journey. You are ready for high school and, just as importantly, for what lies beyond. One of my favorite songs from Hamilton includes the following refrain:
“When America signs for you will they know what you overcame? Will they know you rewrote the game? The world will never be the same.” Class of 2016 I can’t wait to see what each one of you does in the years ahead, the stories you will write, the problems you will solve, the industries you will reimagine, the lives you will change. I have no doubt, the world will never be the same.