Tag Archives: Phantom Tollbooth

The Greatest Valedictorian Speech Ever

In 2000, Staples High School senior Evan Tschirhart gave the traditional valedictorian address at graduation. It was perhaps the cleverest, most memorable in Staples history – or any other high school, for that matter.

The Harvard-bound student tossed aside every traditional cliché. The standing ovation after his thought-provoking oration was well deserved.

As graduation approaches, it’s worth remembering Evan’s words. There’s another reason for posting it now though: He referenced the year 2030 throughout that 2000 speech. Hard to believe, but we’re already more than halfway there.

Wearing a wig of gray hair and glasses, Evan said:

Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen of the Staples Class of 2000, it is an honor to speak to you at this reunion marking the 30th anniversary of our high school graduation. But let’s be honest: As much as it’s an honor, it’s also a reminder of the fact that the year is now 2030, and 3 decades have gone by since we were teenagers. I’m sort of having trouble figuring out why, after enduring my ramblings 30 years ago, you’ve decided to bring me back to the podium.  Gluttons for punishment, I guess.

The Staples High School 2000 yearbook.

The Staples High School 2000 yearbook.

Gosh, what changes we’ve seen in 30 years! Just think of all the things that exist today that we never would have dreamed of all those years ago: the airtubes that have replaced the escalators and elevators of our youth, the intelligent robotic maids we have at home, even the hovering pod that takes me to and from work each day.

Locally, I know a lot of things have changed as well. Gosh, I remember when Westport wasn’t the ugly, commercial town it is today. Coming here today I couldn’t help but notice that Westport’s entire downtown stretch is but one long, endless Megalomart. What happened to the days when you could bring the whole family to good, small-town stores like Starbucks, the Gap, and Banana Republic? But wow! I guess I’m beginning to sound like a real old-timer!…

In preparation for this reunion, I couldn’t help but think about that graduation day 30 years ago. I’ve been trying to recall what was going through my mind at the time.  One always remembers the most important things: the heat in that fieldhouse, the seemingly endless lineup of speeches, even the girl who was hit in the head by a flying graduation cap. I remember, I think, having a genuine sense of sentimentality for the end of what had been a really great high school experience.

Evan Tschirhart and Pam McDade. (Photo/Staples High School 2000 yearbook)

Evan Tschirhart and Pam McDade. (Photo/Staples High School 2000 yearbook)

More importantly, though, I know there was an element of zeal, as trite as it may have been, for what the future was to bring. After all, I was 18, heading off to college in the fall, and yes, I was a romantic. Years of meeting people and going places and learning new things stood before me.

It’s funny to think back on some of my aspirations. I know I wanted desperately to become a proficient guitar player — probably so I could serenade girlfriends at beaches. I know I yearned to travel. I’d done New England and some of Europe, but the rest of the world – from Asia to Africa to the Western United States – beckoned me.

One of the books Evan Tschirhart hoped he'd read.

One of the books Evan Tschirhart hoped he’d read.

I dreamed of joining the Peace Corps after graduating from college. Already in my senior year of high school I’d studied their “How to Become a Competitive Peace Corps Candidate” checklist. And then there was so much I planned on reading, just for the hell of it — from Shakespeare’s lesser-knowns to the 4th and 5th books of the “Dune” series, from the Dialogues of Plato to the Bible, cover to cover. And I remember being convinced that somewhere along the line I’d find myself a junked car and learn everything there was to know about its insides.

Well, now I’m 48 and all the literature I was to have read, all the places to which I envisioned myself traveling, all the languages I was to have learned, and all the hobbies and community work I imagined myself taking up, well…a lot of that just didn’t happen.

And I guess it’s at a reunion like this that I question with even greater conviction: “What happened along the way?” Hey, look, I smile about it — so don’t think I mean this with a sense of tragedy or even a sense of real sorrow.  And I came out all right in the end – as we all did. I just think it’s noteworthy that as time went on, I seemed to lose aspirations a lot more quickly than I gained them.

Phantom TollboothYou know, when I was a child — probably about 5 years old — I used to fall asleep to the same audiocassette every night: The Phantom Tollbooth, narrated by Pat Carroll. I loved listening to that thing — night after night after night. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a young boy named Milo who never knows what to do with himself. He’s bored with the world around him; he regards “the process of seeking knowledge” as “the greatest waste of time.”

One day Milo finds a strange package has been left in his room. Inside are the materials and directions for assembling a tollbooth. He builds the structure, and in the small electric car he hasn’t played with in years, Milo drives past the tollbooth into a world of fantasy. Milo’s travels — from the Doldrums, a land inhabited by small Lethargarians who make a point of wasting time, to Dictionopolis, a city in which words are bought and sold at an open marketplace — convince Milo that the world isn’t the dull place he thought it was.

In fact, when he finally makes it back to his room, Milo is ecstatic about the possibilities. He thinks, “Why, there is so much to see, and hear and touch…there are books that can take you anywhere, and things to invent and make and build and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything one didn’t know — music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real. Everything looked…worth trying.”

Well, a few years ago I found that tape, and because I knew my brother had held on to a cassette player (God only knows why) I gave it to my nephew, who was 5 at the time. We listened to the tape together, and I couldn’t help thinking that Milo’s story is cut off a little too soon.

Phantom Tollbooth 2It’s missing that lost chapter in which the young Milo grows up, and discovers that all these things he’s dreamed of doing — well, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in which to do them. In this last chapter Milo goes off to college. The books he planned to read — well, with all the literature to be read for classroom assignments, they’re quickly put on the back burner.

Milo gets his first job, as a marketing executive, and suddenly realizes he just doesn’t have enough energy at the end of the day to keep up the saxophone; he might as well sell the instrument and take the money. Milo spends more time at the office. Suddenly a year goes by, and he realizes he’s been to but one of his daughter’s dance recitals. Milo isn’t prepared for the fact that the world he finds so very enticing is also so very demanding.

You see, I wasn’t prepared for it either. Or maybe none of us were – if I’m to assume that what’s happened in my life may have happened in yours. Our generation grew up and went to school and got jobs during one of history’s most unique chapters. It was — and continues to be –a fabulously exciting time. The “human progress” of the past 30 years has no historical parallel.

This is the cell phone Evan Tschirhart talked about in 2000.

This is the cell phone Evan Tschirhart talked about (and on) in 2000.

But I think it was tough for us. With the world of excitement came a world of such great pressure. To make it in society we needed to specialize — to serve as that one component along the assembly line that keeps running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’ve needed to compromise to maintain demanding lifestyles. We’ve lived in a culture dominated by cell phones and computers and ubiquitous coffee shops that wait, like little gas stations, to fuel our incessant activities.

Looking back sometimes, I get the sense that the breadth of person I once aspired to be may have ended up as an actual “narrowing” of character. Society put me in a funnel I just couldn’t get out of. I had only so much time, and the majority of it was pre-budgeted by the demands of the things around me. So out the window went many of those “non-vital” things that once so earnestly occupied my mind. It seemed time wasn’t mine to control. In fact, it probably controlled me.

But look, I don’t mean for this to be morose. I look back 30 years with the greatest sense of fondness. I feel I’ve had some accomplishments — and I know from what I’ve read and heard that all of you have achieved beyond wildest dreams. And we all have a lot we will still accomplish, for we’re young — getting old, but still young. I just find it interesting — and it’s probably true for all of us — that with the passage of time we may not have ended up where we anticipated.

What if you could go back, though? I think about it sometimes. What if, somehow, we were all sitting back there in that fieldhouse?

[Evan takes off his gray wig and glasses, and is once again youthful.] It’s June 21st, 2000, and those 30 years we’ve gone through have yet to be lived. Would we be a little more wary of letting dreams escape our grasp? Would we look a little more skeptically at the demands of a “successful” life, and turn more to the basics of a truly satisfying one — one that develops our God-given gifts and shares them with others?

Well, it’s crazy to live the past, isn’t it? But if for some wild reason you go back home and see that the calendar has stuck on the year 2000, just don’t ask questions.  Just go out there and seize that breadth of person that you aspire for. Know there’s so much ahead, if you want it to be. Because those 30 years are yours…and they’re yours to be used in the most fantastic of ways.

So what about Evan? Where has his journey taken him, these past 16 years?

After graduating from Harvard University in 2004, he worked as a consultant with Bain & Company, then Dalberg Global Development Advisors.

In 2011 Evan made a career change. Last year, he graduated from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. This year he interned at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. He specializes in internal medicine.

If you didn’t see that coming — well, he probably didn’t either.

And isn’t that the whole point?

Dr. Evan Tschirhart today.

Dr. Evan Tschirhart today.