2015 Commencement Speaker Address

May 24, 2015

Robert Redford

May 24, 2015

Thank you, president, faculty, staff, board.

So I guess, some of you are probably saying, “Why is he here?” Well, I’ll tell you. I’m here because of my respect for this school and for what it’s accomplished, what it represents, and also because it has such a diversity about its makeup. So I’m here to celebrate the school and also, you know, full disclosure, I have a grandson who’s graduating with you all.

He is, isn’t he?

Commencement May 24, 2015So basically, as well as being here because I’ve been honored, I want to celebrate the value of education and the value of teachers. I learned that in kind of a hard way when I was growing up as a kid in Los Angeles. I didn’t know it then, but the school system was pretty poor, because we had substitute teachers. It was the end of the Second World War, and so I didn’t know that the teachers were substitute teachers. It left me uninspired, it left me more interested in what was out the window and sketching underneath the table, things like that, because I didn’t realize that the real teachers weren’t coming back yet. So I was not a good student, but I learned a valuable lesson about what a really good teacher can do. It only takes maybe two or three in your academic lifetime to make a difference, and I had one in the third grade. I’ll share that story with you.

I was not paying attention. I was doing something that I felt was more interesting to me. I loved to draw, and I loved to draw stories for myself and entertain myself. It was kind of like having a companion. So I was caught, by the teacher in the third grade, underneath the table. She said, “What’s so important there? What’s more important than our lesson here today to you? Do you want to come up and show the class what’s more important than what we’re trying to talk about here?” And I thought, “Oh, God. I’m toast. She’s going to burn me, and it’s going to work, and the kids are going to laugh, and I’m going to feel like hell, and I will shrink.” Instead, when I came up, I held up the drawing. She said, “Do you want to talk about it?” I said, “Well, yeah. What this is? This is some cowboys chasing some Indians over a cliff. Cowboys are shooting bullets at the Indians, and the Indians are shooting arrows back at the cowboys. And B-51 bombers are bombing the cowboys.” So what happened was, the class responded to it. They liked it, and the teacher saw that. And at that moment, rather than burning me she said, “I tell you what. What we’re going to do is we’re going to put an easel up here every Wednesday and give you fifteen minutes and some newsprint paper and let you come up and draw a story for us. But then you have to promise to pay attention the rest of the time.” Had she not made that move, my life could have gone in a different direction. But that’s just an example of how a teacher can maybe affect your life, and it certainly changed mine and certainly for the better.

So obviously I’m here to celebrate the value of teachers, but I’m also not going to tell you what to do. I mean, I’m not qualified for that, but what I can do is maybe put the focus on the word hope. Hope: they say it springs eternal in every human breast, but does it? When we look around, and we think about what you’re going to be stepping into, using that word hope, after you leave the school where you’ve had the security and the comfort of the school itself, of friends—when you step out of that, you’re stepping into a world that’s, well, pretty rough. It’s pretty chaotic, pretty divisive. You’ve got climate change, you’ve got debt, you’ve got wars, you’ve got political paralysis. But that story—it’s kind of a grim story—but the story, I think, can be retold, and I really believe that you’re the ones to do it. You’re the ones to retell the story. God knows it is a story that needs to be retold. If we’re going to have any kind of future at all, it has to be retold. So here we are at a junction, and I see it for you all in a very positive way, because you have the tools. This school has provided you with the tools, and it’s provided you with the history. The history of this school and the tools it’s provided you with certainly enable you to go out in the world and make a difference.

What we’re needing also is another word that’s missing, and that’s collaboration. Collaboration that connects you not only to each other but also to the planet. So it’s the collaboration between you and the planet—it connects you to the planet rather than plans to slowly destroy the planet through unwanted development, out-of-control development, short-term thinking, short-term narrow-minded political thinking. All this can change. It’s in your hands. So instead of divisiveness, instead of chaos and so forth, instead of the ideology that some people are stuck with—there’s no ability right now it seems for opposing sides to come together—they’re sticking to their own stubborn ideology about what’s right, and it’s the only right, the only right is the right that they proclaim. Rather than opening up and listening to the other side and saying, “Let’s see what they have to say, let’s talk about this, let’s kind of come together.” You know, there is a word called compromise, and that’s supposed to be the definition of politics. It’s supposed to be the definition of our political leaders, the art of compromise. Well, we don’t see it. So obviously something has to change, and I think that you’re the ones to do it. And I think, when you have that kind of stalemate, there is an inherent loss of opportunity—opportunity to take social issues and take the social fabric of this country and move it forward and have it be forward-thinking rather than slow thinking, rather than narrow thinking. So you have that ability—this school has, I think, garnered that ability for you.

But talking about coming together, let me just share with you quickly a story about coming together and how valuable it can be and the fact that we don’t appear to have it right now, this coming together. Years ago I had made this film, back in 1974 or 5, about the Watergate situation. Years later a television channel came to me, about thirty years later, and said we’d like to look back and have you maybe do a revisit of Watergate. I said, no. No, some things you leave alone. You don’t sit on them, you move on. That was then. Times have changed. Times have changed so much since. That was a time when I was feeling like I was making a contribution to the celebration of the value of journalism, but it seemed that with all the changes that have occurred with the Internet and so forth, and sound bites … people talking their brains out and you’re not hearing anything, that what was the point? And then I thought, wait a minute, maybe it can be looked at like a museum piece, like a moment in time that’s gone. Maybe we can look back on it and reflect on it and think about it. Well, while I was looking at the footage to edit the film, there was a moment that kind of stunned me. In the archival footage we have John Dean testifying before the Watergate hearing committee, and the committee was made up of both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats. What really stunned me was how this panel was working together to get to the truth. I thought, “Wow, there was a time. So it’s still possible. It can be revived. Again, I think I’m putting it in your hands—sorry about that, but I think I’m putting it in your hands.

So having said that, I think finally I would only share the following things with you. As you go forward, think about some words to carry with you. One is “Be bold.” Don’t fear failure, because a lot of people think failure’s the end of the road, but for me it’s not. It’s a step along the road. Don’t be afraid to take risks, because that’s what moves you forward. You may have some heartaches, things may not go right, but you have to be using methods to keep moving you forward. I think taking a risk is one. I think not taking a risk in fact is a risk. So don’t be afraid to take a risk. Don’t be afraid of failure. Be bold. … I wish you all the best. Thank you.

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