A wonderful commencement speech about “uncommon” students and fallen heroes

A Decatur HIgh student presents the letter from the senior class asking retiring teacher Chris Billingsley to be the commencement speaker. (DHS)

A Decatur HIgh student presents the letter from the senior class asking retiring teacher Chris Billingsley to be the commencement speaker. (DHS)

The Decatur High commencement speaker this weekend was retiring teacher Chris Billingsley, who kindly sent me a copy of his speech. (You can read a bit about him in this story in the Decatur Patch.)

With his approval, I am sharing his speech as it is the perfect Memorial Day weekend piece.  On a personal note, I am sorry that Mr. B. will not be at Decatur High when my twins arrive in 2013.

By Chris Billingsley

My sincere thanks go to the Class of 2012 for the honor of speaking to you this evening. Seeing you all sitting here tonight reminds me of my own graduation from St. Pius X in 1971. At my advanced age, there is very little I remember from that day. However, I do recall that the ceremony took place in the Fox Theater; how cool is that.

Sitting in front of the stage in that beautiful theater, I must admit that I was not listening to the commencement speaker. Instead, I was thinking about the moment when my name would be called to receive my diploma and how important it would be to look as cool as possible walking across the stage. I anticipated hearing the crowd cheer and maybe pumping my fist in the air as I walked across the stage. Then it happened; someone called out “Christopher Billingsley.”.

No one ever told me how cool I looked crossing the stage. I don’t think anyone was cheering. I was so nervous that I forgot all about the fist pump. I shook hands with my principal, Father Richard Kieran, walked off the stage, and it was over…or so I thought.

In my excitement to get out of St. Pius, I had no idea how much my high school would mean to me in the future. Time and time again, whether it was our regular class reunions or other get-togethers with my former classmates and friends, the love and affection I have for my alma mater grows stronger and stronger.

Most of the people that I made friends with over 40 years ago are still my closest friends. The love of my life is my wife, Mary Colbert Billingsley; we spent 12 years together in the same classrooms at St. Thomas More and then at St. Pius. Graduation was not the end of my connection to my high school. It remains an important part of my life to this day.

I have been told that my 35 year career at Decatur may be the longest at a single school in the history of City Schools of Decatur. Thirty-five years here is, indeed, a long time. But the history of Decatur High School is much longer. Contrary to what some of my students may believe, I was not teaching here when, 100 years ago, Decatur High School began. The year 1912 was not only important in Decatur’s history, but also in world history.

That year, the great ship Titanic, believed to be unsinkable, set sail on its maiden voyage from England to New York. As we all know, she struck an iceberg on the night of April 14th and was at the bottom of the ocean in about two hours, with almost 1,500 lost souls. I mention this because the oldest Decatur High School graduate I ever met was born around that same year.

His name was Mr. Lawrence Medcalf, and he lived most of his 95 years here in Decatur on Ponce de Leon Place, not far from the house that I grew up in, and where Jason Barefoot lives today. After I began teaching at Decatur, Mr. Medcalf would always ask me, “How are things at Decatur High? You know, I graduated from Decatur. Had a lot of great teachers while I was there. Great to see you again.”

His comments were always the same over the years, as if his experience at Decatur High School had really shaped his entire life. When he passed away several years ago, there were so many mourners at his funeral it created a huge traffic jam in Decatur. Mr. Medcalf had many, many friends and associates from a long career in Decatur. I don’t doubt that Decatur High School was an important part of his life.

One of the great privileges I had this year was meeting George H. Carley, associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, and soon to be sworn in as Chief Justice. This year’s Georgia Close-Up team met with Justice Carley and Justice David Nahmias while visiting the state Capital in March.

Justice Carley told the students that he was inspired to study law because of a teacher he had in the 10th grade here at Decatur High School. Her name is Miss Emily Norton, and because of her exceptional teaching, George Carley graduated from DHS and later the University of Georgia, where he received a law degree and started on a 50 year career that will culminate later this month when he is sworn in as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Miss Norton was still teaching here at Decatur when I began my career, and I remember her as an outstanding educator. Even today, when I meet her former students, they use terms like “brilliant” “inspiring” and “terrific sense of humor” to describe her and fondly recall her as their greatest teacher.

As a social studies teacher, I must confess, that I love local history. As I said earlier, Decatur High School has a long and interesting history, and it has been my privilege to pass some of this on to my students. Edward Ravenel, Charles Jackson and Gene Blough graduated from Decatur in the 1940s but were tragically killed while fighting during the Korean War.

This year’s Close-Up students were able to place a wreath at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in honor of these graduates. The previous year, the Close-Up team placed a wreath at the Vietnam Memorial in honor of Harry Edwards, a 1960 graduate who died when his jet crashed while on a mission over North Vietnam. Harry was so loved by his friends in the Class of 1960 that they created a scholarship, which was awarded to one of you earlier this week.

In 2010, the Close-Up team also honored another Decatur student. He did not graduate, but attended his freshmen through junior years here. He was in my civics and world history classes in 1996 and 1997. This young man transferred to another school and graduated, volunteered in the U.S. Army, and served in the War in Iraq.

Honestly, I did not really remember much about him. He was quiet and not the best student in his class. Yet, Ms. Arlethia Williams and I both remembered seeing in him the potential to become a leader. He left Decatur, and I must admit that I forgot about him until one day, during a Georgia Close-Up trip several years ago, I was strolling around the Capital rotunda in downtown Atlanta. There I saw portraits of more than 20 Georgians who have been killed in combat in Iraq. From across the room, I was strangely drawn to one portrait, which turned out to be Sergeant Jonathan Shields, my former student, who was killed during the Battle of Fallujah. I learned that he had indeed grown to be a fine leader. After graduation he joined the U.S. army, married and had a child. During the bitter fighting at Fallujah an explosion damaged his tank and several members of his team were badly injured.

He and others carried these soldiers to safety and, as it states in his battle commendation, “He quickly returned to his unit and the sound of the guns.” Sergeant Shields was killed later that day.

One of his friends later wrote: “I served with Shields in the same company for about three years. He was a great person to know, and an even better man to have on your side. Shields could always get a smile out of me no matter how mad or depressed I was. He just had that thing about him that no matter how bad things seemed, everything was actually all right. I always knew if I needed anything that I wasn’t able to get, Shields would know someone that would take care of us. That’s the type of person he was. He knew everyone and everyone like him. It was a privilege to have known him, and an honor to [serve] in combat with him. He will always be missed and never forgotten.”

I hope that sometime this Memorial Day weekend, you take the time to remember and honor the more than 50 graduates who gave their lives so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have.

All of these former students, whether they went on to a long, successful career or one cut short by tragedy, were once sitting right where you are now, at their graduation from Decatur High School. And just like you, they experienced the wonderful, and maybe the not so wonderful, aspects of school life. You have all heard the bells signal class changes, waited for lunch to begin, participated in athletic contests, school dances, field trips, gossip, lectures, and now your graduation. I would like to think that this evening is not the end of your high school experience, but instead the beginning of a new chapter in your high school story. As you grow older, you may find, just as I have, that the ties you have to your alma mater and this community will grow stronger and stronger.

Like many of us sitting here in front of you, and those behind you in the audience, I believe that you will look back on many parts of your high school years as some of the greatest moments in your lives…the pep rallies and homecoming floats, where the Class of 2012 always seemed to dominate…the class projects, especially the ones that impressed your 9th grade teachers four years ago, as well as your recent Senior Projects. All of these set a standard for excellence that your teachers will remember for many years to come.

We will remember your thrilling victories in athletics, as well as your tough defeats, knowing that in defeat you sometimes learn the virtues that will lead to success later in life. Virtues; these are the highest standards we strive for. Throughout your years in the City Schools of Decatur, your teachers have worked to teach you something about the virtues that have made the United States unique in the history of the world.

As one of your teachers, I discovered that I could talk to you day after day about the virtue of hard work and not make much of an impression, but when we spent the day at the Carter Center you learned the value and reward of hard work. You learned that Jimmy Carter was told repeatedly by his teachers and his principal that “any one of you can grow up to be president of the United States.”

You read books about courage and may have discussed it in the classroom but after a field trip to the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History and a walk across the Cheatham Hill Battlefield in Kennesaw, you learned that real courage is knowing you sometimes face overwhelming odds and yet you still fight on. Through our many service projects at Glenn Creek Nature Preserve, Dearborn Park, and the MLK Service Day, you have learned the virtue of generosity and the importance of sharing your time and talents. It is my hope that these lessons will stay with you throughout your life and shape you in becoming the next leaders of this city, state, and country.

As I said earlier, many students have shared stories with me over the years of how they were inspired by their teachers here at Decatur High School. Now that I am retiring, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I have always been inspired by my colleagues. It has been an honor to work with all of them over the past 35 years. But it is you, the students, who are my biggest inspiration.

As I have tried to teach you everything you need to know about Citizenship, U.S. History, and other subjects, you have taught me many things that cannot be found in textbooks or teaching manuals. For this, I am most grateful. You have made me a better teacher but more importantly, a better person. As I prepare for the next chapter in my life, I want to tell you some of the things we have learned together. I now understand that there is a time and place for partisanship, and we should not let it dominate our lives. We can accomplish so much more when we are willing to really listen to each other’s views and ideas, and work together to solve the many problems facing us.

While working with you, I have learned how very important it is to be friendly. It is really such an easy thing to do; a friendly “Hello,”  “How you doin?”, “Good to see you” or, when leaving, “Adios.” This takes so little effort, and the rewards are great. By greeting those around you with a friendly gesture and a smile you can make a huge difference in someone’s day.

Finally, one of the most important lessons I have learned from you is to never sell yourself short. So many times I have seen a student struggle, whether it was in the classroom, or on the athletic fields. Sometimes it was an exam, sometimes it was just trying to fit in. Whenever I worried that student couldn’t make it, I discovered I was wrong. It might require a little extra help from a caring coach, it might mean someone had to work harder after school, but, time and time again, I have seen students succeed here when few others thought they could. We should never underestimate our abilities.

In closing, I would like to share something written a few years ago, not by that entertainer most of you associate me with, but by a former president. To a group of graduates just like you, he said, “In my opinion, there has been too much talk about the Common Man. We are in danger of developing a cult of the Common Man, which means a cult of mediocrity. But there is at least one hopeful sign; I have never been able to find out who this Common Man is. In fact, most Americans will get mad if you try calling them common. This is hopeful because it shows that most people are holding fast to an essential fact in American life. We believe in equal opportunity for all, but we know that this includes the opportunity to rise to leadership — in other words, to be uncommon. Let us remember that the great human advances have not been brought about by mediocre men and women. They were brought about by distinctly uncommon people with vital sparks of leadership. I have never met a father and mother who did not want their children to grow up to be uncommon men and women. May it always be so. For the future of America rests not in mediocrity, but in the constant renewal of leadership in every phase of our national life.”

To the Class of 2012, my wish for all of you is to become “The Uncommon Graduate.”

On behalf of the teachers and staff of Decatur High School, I want to tell you how proud we are of all your accomplishments. I hope you believe that “In the heart of Old Decatur,” you have a second home and will always be welcome. I want to especially thank your parents. They have made our jobs as teachers and administrators much easier. Without their continued support, this outstanding school could disappear almost as quickly as the Titanic. And although we may not have always communicated it clearly, your teachers, administrators and I truly love you in a way that may not be clear at this moment, but will become more evident as you continue on life’s journey. May God continue to bless you and your families, the City of Decatur, the Great State of Georgia, and the United States of America. Thank you.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

11 comments Add your comment

catlady

May 27th, 2012
10:30 am

Thrilling, chilling! What a comment on a community school, as well. Thank you, Mr. B!

Post

May 27th, 2012
10:54 am

Mr. B, If I could be half the teacher you are I would be satisfied. As your former colleague and current friend, you deserve every accolade possible. Next job…..professional graduation speaker!

Road Scholar

May 27th, 2012
12:06 pm

Well said. My only wish is that he does not “retire” from society, his friends (both old and new) and from involvement at the school he has had impact on and obviously loves so much. Congratulations Mr. Billingsley and good health in beginning your new career, whatever you undertake!

TrishaDishaWarEagle

May 27th, 2012
2:14 pm

“…the future of America rests not in mediocrity..”

Isn’t that antithetical to the usual educational cultural thinking, punish the smart because we have to consider them no better than the slowest student in the class, which I saw was a prevalent thought on the fernbank blog.

Mr. Billingley does appear to be an uncommon and exceptional teacher, perhaps the exception which proves the rule, sadly.

exteacher

May 27th, 2012
8:15 pm

What a great speech! The one I heard in person at another graduation had the presenter glad handing herself (while interspersing the names of the graduates) Nothing inspiring like this one.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

May 28th, 2012
1:12 am

Mr. Billingsley,

You are an exemplar for our profession.

May we clone you?

Teacher Today

May 28th, 2012
8:26 am

Great Speech! Great Teacher! Exceptional in every way,

Nice

May 28th, 2012
8:52 am

Nice speech and great history lesson.

Beverly Fraud

May 28th, 2012
5:16 pm

Sure the guy touched lives, even left an indelible stamp on some, but can you put that into a “value added” equation?

After all, that’s what Arne Duncan is telling us REALLY matters.

Frankie

May 29th, 2012
10:46 am

@ beverly Fraud…your thoughts are not my thoughts, your ways are not my ways….
What value have you added,

Ole Guy

May 29th, 2012
5:05 pm

HERE HERE, SIR! We will always remember our brothers, across all generations, who gave all in the service of mankind.

I must, however, chuckle at your comment regarding “advanced age” and remembering little from hs graduation. I walked across the stage 7 years earlier and remember it all. In pre-air conditioned days, it was hotern hell…two weeks later, I was “enrolled” at Benning School for Boys, preping for the “adventure” of a life!

Goodspeed!