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Valedictory Speech: Mr. John Leistler

I could talk about your class all night...

I am not allowed to do so, but I could talk about your class all night!

Many of us here tonight were here when the school opened, and we celebrate our first four-year class at King's Academy. Before the school opened, the faculty were here for four weeks, and during that time, we wondered, what were you going to be like?? Finally, in the third week here, on a random trip to the Administration building, I bumped into a King's Academy student, twice in the same day. I met Leen. I met Reed. I finally had met one of you. They smiled. I smiled. We talked. They were nice. I thought —this is going to be okay.

They were my first two! Eventually over these four years, I would teach 2/3 of this class. I got a list the other day of your class and I counted up the number of you I would eventually teach. 2/3 of this class-you see why I could talk about your class all night! And then I would teach 31 of you twice, 12 of you three times, and there is a special place in heaven for those 7 students I have taught every day the school has been open.

In your 9th grade year, I taught 37 of you, but it was not easy at first. I don't know if you remember, but you couldn't sit still! I brought in a camera to experiment if you could sit still long enough for me to snap your picture. And then there was the problem that almost none of you brought paper and pen to class! Remember? I called a friend of mine and asked what I should do! She said, "Give them candy if they bring pen and paper!" Within a few days, Karim al Zeine brought pen and paper!

I love to remember the candy story because one year later, I taught 10 of you in the first AP history class here and you earned some of the best scores in the world.

In that first year I remember the day, the class, the lesson about ancient India, when you finally thought in class-the day you rose above just filling in answers and thought deeply and sophisticatedly. I remember walking by one of your rooms at night, and one of you was reading Shakespeare for the first time and you said, "This Shakespeare is amazing!" I remember the end of that first year, when we gathered in the courtyard, and many of you spoke so emotionally about how that first year here had affected you. Some of you cried. I remember who cried. For some, I don't think school had been very meaningful before. I have watched you find meaning in your work, in your school, in each other, over these four years.

I remember in your sophomore year, the night four boys came to my apartment late, and told me I needed to make up a new exam for the following morning. They explained that some of the juniors in AP history had told them what was on the exam that they had taken that day. Those four guys said they wanted an honest chance to see if they knew the material. Really knew what they were doing.

I could talk about your class all night!

As these stories tumble out of my mouth and out of the scrapbook in my brain, there is a common theme here: I have seen you at your best, I have seen you grow, improve, evolve. All these stories are about your best selves.

But your class is not just about me watching-your class is linked to my life's path. I have stayed in Jordan because of your class. When I came at the beginning, I think I planned to stay about two years. But during your sophomore year, Jude Dajani, the wonderful Jude Dajani, said, "You couldn't possibly leave until we graduated!" Jude is persuasive! She was right. Jude offered me a verbal contract that has been binding-I have stayed because I love your class. And you know, I am staying past your graduation because of your class as well. You are what King's Academy can cultivate. I want to see another class match you. I am staying in large part because of the standard you have set. Thank you, Jude Dajani.

At Graduation time, as you are finding out, no doubt, well-meaning adults like to offer advice. Oh, my. They want to tell you what to do, how to do it, and often how to avoid mistakes that they have made. I don't have advice, per se, but I have two stories to share about when I was your age.

In the fall of my senior year, I attended a conference, and one of the things we had to do, was take a piece of paper with a word on it, and define that word to our small group, and explain how we might apply that word to our lives. Okay... how very Dr. Phil. I open the piece of paper, and on it is written the word, risk. I think about it. I know what it is, but how do you define it, explain it, tear it apart, apply it...So I defined the word to my group: Risk is when you sacrifice who you are for what you might become. There are a few words in there that are loaded. Sacrifice? No one wants sacrifice something, to give something up. But I suggested that we embrace "risk" and sacrifice who we are for what we might become. That word ‘become' is a beautiful word-transformative, evolving, graduating. But I didn't guarantee success in my definition of risk. I sneaked in that word "might." What you might become...

I don't have tell any of us here tonight about the power of taking a risk. Each of us here shares one risk in common. Each of us came to an infant school, sacrificing where we were, our comfort zone, for what this school, for what we might become. We know the power of risk-taking.

My other story comes from a few months into my senior year. I had an appointment to meet with my college guidance counselor. It was different in my class of 800-you met maybe once, and they asked if you were thinking about college, and then they gave you a thumbs up and said, "Good luck with that!" So I went in to meet Albert Bross. I sit down, he had my file in his hand, that file with everything important about me in it. Albert Bross asked my plans. I said, "I want to go on to college." Sure enough, he smiled and said, "Good luck with that!" Then he asked if I knew what I wanted to do. I had thought about it for, maybe, days. I said, "I want to be a history teacher." His reaction was not what I expected-I am not sure if I thought he would applaud, but I thought it might earn a smile and a thumbs up and a "Good luck with that!" No, he looked perplexed, dug through the file, and said, "Um, John, that is not a good idea. In your file it says you have this speech problem, and as a teacher, you have to talk every day. It would be very unwise to be a teacher." Then he smiled, and said, "But I see you have good grades. You could be a lawyer who researches and then you don't have to talk."

I absorbed his well-meaning advice. He must be right. I mean, if you have talked with me, for a half hour or more, it is clear, that I have a speech problem. He was an adult, he was being helpful and sensible. I should follow that advice.

About a year later in college, I thought about his advice again. I really wanted to be a history teacher. So against that expert advice I pursued that. I remember driving to school on my first day to teach, and it's as if a ghost of Albert Bross appeared in my car warning me, "Don't do it John. It would be unwise!" Well, I survived that first day, and I have been doing this now since long before you graduates were born.

My advice is, don't let someone's "No," determine your path. And I don't mean rules and laws as ‘no's' but someone's roadblock from what you feel you are meant to do. Sacrifice who you are for what you might become.

My hope for all of you is that you find a path, a course, a road, on which you find as much joy as I have known, and especially known in teaching you.

Last updated
May 2, 2017