Saturday, May 17, 2014

Professor-of-the-Year Convocation speech: "The Everything Box"

I was just honored as Professor of the Year at the Spring Convocation (May 16) at Seton Hill University.  Because of this award, I gave the keynote speech after the students received their commendations for their achievements.  It went quite well, and I thoroughly enjoyed giving it, so I also present it here.  Words like “speech,” “convocation” and “honored” seem stuffy at first, but most of the talk was straight story-telling, and I had much fun with it. So I hope all of you enjoy it too.

Good afternoon.  To all of you here today—President Boerio, Dean Gawelek, other administrators, the faculty, our guests, and of course the students—what I want to do is read you a story.  It’s brief.  In fact it’s a children’s picture book.  I wrote it many years ago after my niece had her first child, whose name, Abby, I used in the story.  (She’s actually here, by the way, though she’s a bit older now.)
The story celebrates education, and though I used names and details from one person’s life, the story can be applied to anyone, especially to students.  And after I read it, I will make a direct connection to you.
So, for the next few minutes, I want you to pretend to gather round, get comfortable, relax, and let “Uncle Al” tell you a story.  It’s called “The Everything Box” .  .  .

*     *     *
            The best gift that Abby ever received came in a small, plain, unwrapped box.
            Her uncle gave it to her. He said he wanted to give her a special gift, one that she could keep forever. 
But when he gave her the box, he surprised her by saying, “You know what's in here.”  
            Abby wondered. “Is it a small doll with blue jacket and pink shoes?” She had seen such a doll in a store the other day.
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby grew curious. “Are there other dolls in there, a brother and sister doll, with their friends too? And a little toy dog?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby was confused. That many things would take up all the room in the box. So she asked about something too large to fit in. “Is there a dollhouse too, with three floors and stained-glass windows, a Christmas tree in the living room, little newspapers by a chair, toy fruit in a bowl, and a fence outside?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby felt challenged now. So she said things even larger. “Is our house in there, our car, the front porch, the trees in the yard and the hedges around it, the lamp-post that doesn't work, the other houses on the street, everyone who lives in them, all my friends and their toys—and even their pets?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby now stretched her mind further. “Is the city in there, the bridges, the river we cross, the buildings and all the different people, the boats on the water, the taxi-cabs and buses, the traffic lights, the candy store, the bookstore, the big store with escalators, even the train-tracks where we put pennies to have them run over and flattened?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby let her imagination fly. “Are animals in there, squirrels, the deer in the woods, clouds and rainbows—and even rain? Is there baseball and swimming? Is the beach in there, Mommy and Daddy and Grammy and Aunt Carol, Isabelle and Will and Grace and Lexie and Lilly, all walking up the sand dunes together? Is every trip we’ve ever taken in there, the lakes, the woods, every place we’ve been?”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            Abby then thought as large as she could. “Are other countries in there, other oceans, and dreams, all the things I imagine, dragons and wizards? The past and the future, all the stories I’ve read, the adventures and the places I've heard about? Are there other planets, what I see through your telescope, the moon, Saturn and Jupiter, other stars, and spaceships, and galaxies, and . . . and . . .”
            “That's in there,” her uncle said. “And more.”
            But Abby was exhausted. “I don't understand! How could so much be inside that little box?"
            Her uncle said, “Open it.”  
Abby lifted the lid, and she saw . . .
The box held only a small mirror.
            Her uncle explained, “All that you said came from you. All you described . . . it's already in you. The best gift I can give you, Abby, is to remind you how much you already are.”
            Abby was silent.  Then she asked, “It’s all in me?  Everything I talked about?”
            Her uncle nodded, and he pointed at her forehead. “That’s in there. . . . And more.”
            Abby stared into the box.
            But then she said, “You’re wrong!  Not everything’s in here. In fact, something I like very much isn’t here.”
            Her uncle was shocked. “What!?” he exclaimed.
            Abby turned to him, and smiled, and said, “You.”
            And so, for a long time afterward, they argued and laughed over who had really given the best gift. 

*     *     *
            Now, the point I want to make with all this? 
            Education is not the gift of knowledge.  Education is the gift of self. 
            It’s not what you learn.  It’s what you become. 
If education were only about knowledge, then everyone would learn the exact same things.  No, it’s how you interact with the data, the activities, the skills—how you make them yours.  
The child in this story didn’t learn any thing she didn’t know already.  What she gained was self-awareness—and a pride in being able to respond to the gift she received with one that she herself gave back.
The result of your education is not your diploma, your job, your income.  All of that’s very important, but it’s not as important as the development of you. This is why, in your senior year, we often ask you to review the work you did in your first year when you came to Seton Hill, not just to show what you’ve learned, but to see how much you have changed.
So, the next time you wonder, “What was all my education for?” Well, just look in a mirror.  The result of all your time, your work, your investment, you will see right there.
And more. 


  1. Absolutely beautiful. I'm going to read The Everything Box to my preschool son.


    1. And I hope he loves it, Trish. It intentionally has a built-in rhythm that makes it perfect for reading aloud. Do enjoy. And I thank you for your comment--on a piece of writing that has meant a lot to me over the years.

  2. An amazing speech by an amazing teacher. Congratulations on your award. All the best wishes...and MORE!

    1. Thanks, Mike, and a hearty and even bigger thanks for all your support as a teacher, a mentor, an experienced pro, and as a good friend. Whoever thought that two people with such bizarre outlooks on the world would find their offices so close to each other? Very best!