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2013 Commencement Speaker: Nate Berkus '90

Cushing Academy was honored to have designer and New York Times best-selling author Nate Berkus '90 as this year's commencement speaker. Nate was also presented with the Distinguished Alumni Award.

You may read his commencement speech below, or click here for a PDF.

To view the video, please click here.


"Thank you very much, Dr. Tracy. What a beautiful introduction. I don’t recognize the person he was talking about, but I guess I did do all of that and I did have the incredible opportunity to do the things that Dr. Tracy mentioned in the year that I spent here at Cushing Academy.

I graduated Cushing twenty-three years ago this month, so I have been where you are. Literally. It’s very good to be back. And I want to thank everyone for welcoming me and having me back to my school. Our school.

That summer, the summer of 1990 to be exact, Saddam Hussein's military took over Kuwait and it set off what CNN branded "The Showdown in the Gulf." 1990 was also the year that East and West Germany got back together, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman got married, Nelson Mandela got out of prison, The Gardner Museum got robbed of $200 million dollars’ worth of art, Mikhail Gorbachev got the Nobel Peace Prize, Mike Tyson got knocked out, and Macaulay Culkin got left Home Alone. That was also the year that George Bush's whole "Read my lips" promise not to raise taxes got thrown out the window—and I didn't actually know what to make of any of it. I sat right about there in my cap and gown, just like you are now, not understanding very much about the world or my particular place in it. I had a few really bad haircuts from town and a few really good friends. I wore duck shoes, I lived on pizza, I listened to music in my dorm room. I guess I was sort of a rough draft of the person I’ve become today. But the good news is, that's allowed!

I'm here to tell you that it's really okay, if even in the midst all of the hard earned celebration and much deserved excitement, the fancy family dinner tonight, the serious partying after your parents head for bed, the congratulatory check from your great Aunt Whomever, the big plans for your summer, the even bigger plans for your fall—even with the tremendous sense of joy and relief and accomplishment that comes from finally completing this leg of the journey, not only is it okay to still be trying to figure everything out, it's as natural as the night following the day. So if you're feeling a little bit lost when this day finally comes to a close, I promise you that being a little bit lost makes coming home that much sweeter. And I want you to know that if you're smart and you're mindful and you're lucky, and you're honest—especially with yourself—sooner or later, pretty much everybody does find their way. You get to your core beliefs, you develop astonishing relationships, you settle into a place of your own choosing, you will build a life of your own design. You come to terms, if not with the world, then at least with your little corner of it.

I've made a career out of helping people create a space for themselves. I show clients how to determine what's beautiful to them. I guide them in recognizing what's important to keep and what they should probably think about letting go of, what's a passing trend and what will stand the test of time, what will elevate them, what will anchor them, and what, when all is said and done, will bring them peace. I try to be their witness as they sort through the stuff that tells their story and I work with them on figuring out the things that matter most.

I did a book last year called The Things That Matter. The writing process was not that big a deal, I worked with an old friend and it took maybe 18 months off and on, of Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. The research, on the other hand, ran me approximately 41 years. There are a few things that I now realize don't matter much and a few things that I've come to believe are absolutely essential. And while I'm pretty confident you're going to discover all of this for yourself at some point, I also know that when I was sitting where you are now, I'd have really appreciated a heads up—so, here it goes:

You have to know the enemy—and I'm sorry to say there are quite a few out there—but my top three, in no particular order are: apathy, cynicism, and resignation. These are quiet monsters, and they're sneaky. They cloak themselves in complacency and sarcasm and fear. They tiptoe in, lower your standards, compromise your values, and corrode your heart—if left untreated; they've even been known to cause paralysis. I want you to be vigilant against these things, I want you to see through their disguise and fight them with everything you've got. You do this by integrating your most sacred beliefs into every single aspect of your life. Take your integrity to college or to work or to wherever you go next, because being an honorable person really matters.

And while we're at it, I hope that you'll never be afraid to hope. I am a gay man in the United States of America and let me tell you, there have been times when that fact has made living with a sense of optimism quite a challenge. Optimism may not be an option for you but hope is an entirely different animal. Hope is having the guts to, as they say in church, "step out on nothing, and land on something." There will be times when you'll feel bone tired, when you'll have major doubts about what's going on out there, and chances are pretty good that those doubts will be legitimate. But when you feel that hope is lost; when you look around and realize that the guy in the next cubicle is being paid 20% more for doing the same job as you because he's a man and you're a woman, when it dawns on you that African Americans are being stopped and frisked for no other reason than the color of their skin, when the official message to gays and lesbians is: You are not entitled to the same rights as every other citizen of this country, when you see first-hand the stunning ability that American Society has to resist change, my hope is that you'll draw energy from the idea that history is still being written and that what you do or what you fail to do, will have an influence on everybody's future. And that keeping your hope, not just alive, but in excellent working order, is vital. Hope is an act of faith in faithless times—and hope matters.

Reading is fundamental. I know that sounds kind of basic, but we live in a time of tweets and texts, sound bites and Cliffs Notes. My wish for each of you is that you'll go out and get yourself a big, fat, juicy novel, a collection of poetry, some mind-blowing short stories and a few epic memoirs. I want you to take genuine pleasure in history and mystery, fiction and biographies, extraordinary language and insights and experiences. Allow yourself to be not only nourished, but transported by everyone from Jane Austen to David Foster Wallace. And when you find a book that you really love, I hope you'll pay it forward. Lend that book to someone who might see what you saw or might show you something that you missed. Because books lead to conversation and conversation leads to connection and two human beings connecting—especially when it's not on Facebook—is everything. Books and art and eye contact matter.

Don't be jaded. Don't assume you know how the movie ends. It turns out that sometimes the crabby cashier is working two jobs to take care of a sick child. Sometimes the doorman is fluent in four languages and was a top engineer in Kosovo. People have stories to tell. They grow, they change, they screw up, they try again—and sometimes they learn from their mistakes and sometimes they don't. Sometimes, somebody you're counting on lets you down but sometimes somebody you barely know steps up to the plate. People are amazing. Don't ever make yourself into somebody who can't be surprised. Allowing for new ideas, new possibilities—living an open hearted life – that matters.

Most everyone here today is rooting for your success. I've become fairly successful and let me tell you, I'm all for it. But the thing about success is that it can disappear in the blink of an eye. Wall Street wipes out, jobs are downsized, and, it is my sad duty to report, that television shows have been known to get cancelled from time to time. You see, success—like failure—is frequently beyond our control. But you know what's always entirely up to us? You know what's permanent? Excellence! And that's what I want for each of you and what I want each of you to want for yourselves. Whether you know it or not, every single person here has the potential for excellence. It could be that you excel in calculus; it could be that you can rally people to a cause, maybe you have a talent for friendship, or a way of calming the cranky, or organizing the chronically discombobulated; maybe you've got a gift for writing or carpentry or you play piano or you bake unbelievable banana bread. Whatever your particular skill, I hope that you take pride in it. Because believe me, there are plenty of people who will be all too happy to dismiss what you can do, plenty of people who will never place a premium on a brilliant banana bread—I swear to you those people don't matter. It is debilitating to see your self-worth through somebody else’s eyes. You have to value what you have to offer. If somebody else wants to join the cheering section, that's terrific but you have to be your biggest fan. When your head hits the pillow at night, you have to know that you did your best at whatever that thing is that you're best at doing, because knowing that you swung for the fences matters.

Don't ever confuse what's legal with what's moral. Don't ever confuse wealth and fame with achievement and character. Don't ever give yourself or anybody else a free pass. Expect the best and the most from the people you choose to surround yourself with and give them the same in return. Money and celebrity means getting a really good seat in a really hot restaurant—it does not determine worth and let me assure you that it doesn't matter. What matters is that you spend some time with your grandparents if you're blessed enough to still have them around. What matters is that you remember birthdays, you send valentines, you're around for the occasional family mini-crisis and you acknowledge the love and time that's been spent on you. What matters is that you're there on the other end of the phone when your friend needs you. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do well but I hope you'll also try to do some good. Showing up for the people in your life—that's what matters.

And showing up for the folks you don't really know matters too. There are an awful lot of people out there who haven't been graced with the same opportunities, the same good fortune, the same education as you've been granted. There are people who are struggling, people who are hungry, people who are lonely, people who are sick, people who could use a kind word every now and then. I don't know if you can change the universe, but I'm pretty sure you can turn somebody's day around. I've actually been on the receiving end of incredible goodness in my life and I know for a fact that listening, reaching for a hand, giving something back matters.

I once read this great quote from Albert Einstein, he said, "Education is what remains after we forget what we're taught." I can still do pretty well with my French but really, what remains for me, the thing that I've never forgotten, is how Madame Storm encouraged me to become a citizen of the world in class. Mme. Storm made me want to chart new territory when I was here at Cushing, to have an adventure, and to be comfortable enough to be who I am, even while immersed in another culture. After you no longer remember the square root of Everest, or the calorie content of an earthworm's diet, or whether the law of the excluded middle applies west of the Rockies— after all the information that has been carefully taught to you begins to fall away, my hope is that what remains is the ability to analyze, and make distinctions, and live life creatively. I hope that when you go, you go all in, and that your education inspires you to navigate the world with confidence and curiosity. And more than anything, I hope that you never stop learning and that you relish each new lesson, because having a passion that goes the distance – that matters most.

And that about covers it. I wish you ethics and imagination. I wish you wit, and courage. I hope you rock the boat. I hope you make some noise. And I hope you always remember how proud and happy you've made everybody today, just by getting this far.

Congratulations Class of 2013."
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Cushing Academy

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Ashburnham, Massachusetts 01430
978-827-7000
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Cushing Academy

Cushing Academy exists for students and develops curious, creative, and confident learners and leaders. Founded in 1865, Cushing is a co-ed, college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9-12 and PG. Our students, who come from over 30 states and 30 countries, excel in our outstanding academic, art, and athletic offerings. We welcome you to visit our community and beautiful 162-acre campus in Ashburnham, Mass., just one hour from Boston, to experience all that Cushing has to offer.

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