In lieu of superintendent Kathie Foster’s monthly article, the following is an excerpt from RHS Teacher of the Year Tom Brettell’s graduation remarks June 20. Brettell’s full speech can be found on the RHS website.
Good evening parents, friends, esteemed guests, members of our Board of Education, administrators, colleagues, and most importantly the graduates of the Class of 2018.
When thinking about the message today, my thoughts brought me back to specific times in my own life where experiences shaped my path. I would like to share one of those moments that I feel has brought us together today.
It was Saturday January 29th, 2005. I’m sitting in a chair in Kingston & Kemp Funeral Home at about 9:30 in the morning. I’m not quite sure how to act or feel. Funerals and viewings are awkward for me. I’m quietly fidgeting with my hands trying not to catch anyone’s attention. I have no idea what to really talk about or how I am supposed to feel. I’m surrounded by former classmates, former teachers that are now colleagues, and some of my current students. It is not easy dodging all of these conversations in such a small area. So I just continue to avoid eye contact with everyone. All of a sudden it gets quiet. Someone in the front of the room addresses everyone, I couldn’t really hear what they were saying nor did I care at the time…I was still concentrating on avoiding all contact with anyone. They turn on a song. “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. As the song played, I started to cry. I hadn’t cried until this point but for some reason this song got to me as it got louder and more powerful. The louder it got, the harder I cried. I started to reflect on the impact Mr. Orlowski had on me. Gary O, as he was known to all of his students and colleagues.
He was first my teacher who went to great lengths to show that he cared about me as a person and later my colleague and mentor who taught me my first lessons to surviving as young teacher in a not so forgiving environment called the classroom where my failures far outnumbered my successes. Most importantly, he was my friend who would invite me to a nice dinner on a Friday night, pick up the tab, and we would talk about anything but school. As I reflected on the impact of one of the most influential people in my life, it became very clear to me why I was now crying. He was teaching me three very important things in only the way that he could…HIS WAY. His life lessons were all genuine which is why they were so powerful and still timeless to this day. So, I continued to sit there crying but the uncomfortable awkwardness was now gone and replaced with a sense of calm and meaning and even a small smile. It was like he was talking to me through the song.
‘It took me a long time to realize that failure was an opportunity.’
My teacher taught me about human compassion. Human compassion might be the greatest gift ever given to us. Human compassion brings out the best in us but it is not something that most of us are comfortable showing. However, when we decide to share this with someone it can be such an intimate and inspiring moment that it can change one’s path. My experience with my 10th grade Algebra 2 teacher changed my path. To know that someone cares about you far and above what they have too is more important than any identity, function, or theorem that I learned in that class. This man inspired me to work harder and dream bigger just with a few simple actions. Not even words. Every one of us has the power to use our innate ability to show compassion. This compassion can spread from one person to another and make a random person’s day that much more enjoyable or tolerable. Imagine that, “Making Someone’s Day!” Sounds very familiar doesn’t it? The effect that we can have on someone else with a few simple words, a smile, a small note, or how us odd baseball coaches show compassion…with a pat on the butt. I don’t recommend you use this one with strangers, though.
We should all show compassion because everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. The bottom line is that we can motivate each other by being compassionate to one another. Gary O showed me this type of compassion as my teacher and it had a lasting effect on my life. Show someone you care. It could be all they need.
My colleague and mentor taught me to turn failure into success. We all get knocked down through our journey in life. We all have to endure some tough blows. It’s not about whether you get knocked down but more about what happens after. We all experience the highs of success and the lows of failure. My colleague and mentor always talked about the true test of one’s character. How do we react in times that test us? How do we react to failure?
‘Don’t live a life with regrets. Live life your way.’
Failure. What a bad word. So bad that it could pose as a 4-letter word around here. It took me a long time to realize that failure was an opportunity. An opportunity to reflect. An opportunity to learn. An opportunity to grow. Failure is the open door to success. Do not be afraid to fail. It happens to all of us. It’s the person that embraces that failure and does not hide from it or shelter themselves in embarrassment that comes out in front. Use these experiences to be prepared for your next opportunity.
My friend taught me the power of relationships. One cannot live a full life without being able to share and experience it with others. Life is about relationships. It’s about people. Anything in this life that is worth a damn is about people. No one taught me that more than my friend, Gary O. This man went out of his way to build strong relationships with his students, their parents, his colleagues, and his friends. We should all take time to strengthen the ties we have with people around us and throw out lines to connect to strangers. These relationships will bring you to wherever you would like to go. No one gets there alone. Wherever you end up, it’s about people. If we spent as much time in our lives building relationships as we do transcripts, resumes, portfolios and bank accounts, we would find a life that might be without most of the troubles that we have in this world. Spend time getting to know people and most importantly understanding them. Listening to them. Engaging them. Keep building bridges with people, and you will surely reach all of the goals that you set out to achieve.
As a teacher, he taught me a lesson on human compassion. As a colleague and mentor, he taught me how to turn failure into success. And as a friend, he taught me the power of relationships. Gary O, look down on these graduates and look out for them like you looked out for me. And the graduates of 2018, take the time to look out for someone else in the same way. Pay it forward. If we all do that, we will all be OK. Remember Sinatra is still playing, “Regrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.”
Don’t live a life with regrets. Live life your way.