This weekend is my high school reunion. I have never attended one before, but this year is different. Not only is it the 25th year, but I was also invited back as a co-recipient of my alma mater's Distinguished Alumni Award along with Robb Armstrong, the nationally-syndicated cartoonist of Jump Start, sought-after public speaker, and author who graduated 10 years before I did.
I remember when he came to give a talk when I was still in high school and I had the opportunity to meet him. This photograph was recently uncovered and posted on Facebook. Even though we had never crossed paths before then, we shared something important - an art teacher.
Our high school, Shipley, was and continues to be known for having a strong art program. Much of this reputation was due to the efforts of an amazing teacher named Chris Wagner. She was a strong personality who held her students to an extremely high standard, especially those who displayed a modicum of talent or interest. She pushed, prodded, and inspired them to do better, like getting me to do more than draw dragons. Generations of students benefited from her presence in their lives, Robb and I among them.
Upon her retirement just last year, the school's newly-built commons building had its arts wing dedicated to her; generous donors chose to honor her because of the impact she had on their lives. I and many of her students proudly attended the commemoration ceremony where we were able to show our appreciation in person.
To be honest, I still don't really quite know why the school chose me for the honor, especially after hearing that Robb was going to be the co-recipient. Regardless, I chose to come back for alumni weekend to accept the award which also meant that I had to give a short speech.
The ceremony was this morning whereupon alumni & guests gathered with the student body. A few others were there to accept various awards giving speeches exhorting community service, overcoming adversity, gratitude, and freedom of thought. Robb spoke before me, and his charisma, humor, and outsized personality was tremendous, as always. It was humbling to be there.
After a very nice introduction given by a member of the graduating class, I took the podium. My wife, parents, eldest brother, and great-aunt were all sitting in the front row, a couple of my dearest old friends a few rows back, while a nephew and niece were sitting with their classmates.
Good morning! It’s surreal to be here for my 25-year high school reunion, with family in the student body, to be honored as one of the first two men* receiving the Distinguished Alumni award.
(* Shipley used to be an all-girls boarding school which later became co-ed.)
I am delighted to be here with Robb Armstrong. I first met Robb when he visited Shipley when I was a student, and I have greatly admired him since. He and I both pursued non-traditional creative careers and, despite the odds, have received some success in a society that is still trying to find a measure of equality in how it treats racial, religious, cultural, and gender minorities. I don’t take this recognition lightly, so thank you.
As a recent Filipino immigrant, I had a difficult time at Shipley’s Upper School. My imperfect English, socioeconomic status, lack of athleticism, and insecurities made me feel completely out of place. I remember trying out for cross country; on the first day I fell behind the group and promptly got lost; the coach had to drive around looking for me all over Bryn Mawr. The wrestling team recruited me for the 103 lb. weight class which many other schools simply forfeited due to not having someone small enough.
Despite the fact that Shipley gave me great financial support and a great educational environment, I still became an unusually angry teenager and railed against the “smart Asian immigrant” stereotype by not doing as well as I could in school. By senior year I realized how counterproductive my attitude was but had trouble doing much about it, and I continued to spend countless hours drawing, reading, and playing video games.
A small group of dedicated friends and great teachers, particularly the “tough love” art program with Ms. Wagner and Mr. Baris, saved me from myself while Ms. McEvoy, my college guidance counselor, helped me find and get into a great university that fit me well.
College was my opportunity to start fresh. There I pursued a full academic, creative, work, and social life in the pursuit of discovering who I could become. My passion for art became the seed for a career whose potential I am still discovering.
Today I’m far from done, and it still pains me when I screw up, but I continue to work on becoming a better designer, leader, manager, teacher, friend, family member, and husband. I am, and will continue to be, a work-in-progress.
I want to leave you with three ideas that have helped me over the years.
First, who you are and how you feel about yourself can and will, inexorably, change. Most people don’t notice nor care about your faults and insecurities. Don’t get stuck in an outdated idea of who you may have been as it prevents you from becoming who you could be. Forgive, forget, and move on.
Second, you can learn anything. The human brain is the most amazing learning machine there is, and we all have one whether you choose to use it or not. Unless you’re a true prodigy, all the rest of us need is time and practice to become proficient at anything.
Third, be grateful. Acknowledge your many advantages. Savor those that come your way either through luck or hard work, and honor what others have done for you to get you where you are, wherever that may be.
Should you choose to do these things and develop this attitude, you will grow to become a better version of yourself. It may not be easy but the effort is worth it.
Thanks to The Shipley School for giving me a challenging environment with fantastic counselors, administrators, and teachers who helped prepare me for my personal & professional journey. I’m a better man for it.
It’s a privilege to be here with you all today. Thank you.