Class of 2013: Remember What You Learned in Fifth Grade

Chester Elton

What author hasn’t dreamed about getting “the call”—to deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of one of the nation’s finest educational institutions, speaking from the rostrum graced by presidents and captains of industry. Perhaps my comments would become a YouTube phenomenon. Could I dare to hope for an honorary doctorate?

But when the call finally came, I was unprepared for the experience.

It wasn’t Harvard, Stanford or Princeton on the phone, but an institution of slightly less renown. The call was coming from OCEE Alpharetta, an elementary school in a small Georgia town where Chase Whitney, the son of a friend, was about to graduate the fifth grade.

“How long do you want me speak for,” I asked.

“Oh, for as long as they seem interested. Is that okay?” Okay.

When I arrived from New Jersey there was no limo, but my friend Jeff was there to pick me up in his mini-van. He pushed aside a pile of soccer gear on the passenger seat and whisked me to the school gymnasium where 90 fifth graders sat cross-legged, their parents in rapt attention on the bleachers. It was soon apparent that this was the most important event in all their lives—that day at least—and I’d better not blow it.

Something else quickly became clear to this guy who’s used to speaking with business executives: There is something refreshing about speaking to children. They were so darn attentive and supportive; they really wanted me to do well. There were no politics or agendas in the room as I spoke about the “Rule of Three” a concept we had introduced in our book about building breakout teams.

Here’s what I told them:

First, “wow.” If you do something in this life, whether in school or sports or music or work, for goodness sakes try and be great at it. If you can, even be world-class, so that people will say “wow” when they think about you. You’ll not only be more proud of your accomplishments, but you’ll actually make a difference in the world.

Second, live so that are no surprises in your life. That means: do what you say you will do; be honest with your friends, parents and teachers; and treat everyone around you with kindness. You will be more successful in all your relationships if people can trust you.

Third, cheer for others and yourself. When you see someone else do something great, don’t be jealous. Encourage them; say, “You rock.” When you do something great, enjoy it. Let yourself be happy. And remember to say "thank you" to your families and teachers.

As they answered questions, I rewarded the students with our fuzzy carrot mascots, wristbands and Frisbees. I noticed that President Obama spoke at Ohio State earlier this month and didn’t take a single giveaway. Big mistake. Mine went over like gangbusters. You should have seen the kids eyes light up as they were recognized and rewarded for their good ideas.

So, I didn’t get an honorary doctorate or any YouTube hits, but I did get an honorary sweatshirt (that I still wear to mow my lawn) and a nice write up in the OCEE school newsletter. I can’t say that they will remember what I said 20 years from now, but I won’t forget them. Go Otters!

Chestor Elton, is the founder of The Culture Works.
Copyright 2013. Author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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