Penkava: Grads, you’re now ready for kindergarten

Here is my commencement speech for the classes of 2018.

Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your earbuds.

I come to bury iTunes, not to praise it.

For those of you familiar with the speech of Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” you may find that updated version of his words mildly amusing.

For those otherwise inclined, you simply will be impressed that an old guy actually has heard of earbuds and iTunes.

But I am not here today to quote Shakespeare or to flaunt my trendy worldliness. I have come here to tell you about the greatest two years of my life: kindergarten.

Despite the inordinate time I spent there, I really don’t remember learning much of anything. We mostly sang songs and played games and chanted rhymes. Halfway through the morning we got hungry and ate some Graham crackers and washed them down with a carton of lukewarm milk. Then we took a nap on the floor, rode the bus home and ran into the loving arms of our mothers.

Kindergarten wasn’t like being at school. It was more like a field trip from home. The curriculum was pretty much learning your ABCs and knowing how to count. It was a bonus if you could hold a book right side up.

However, it was the invisible curriculum of kindergarten that had the most profound effect upon me.

I learned how good it felt to share my blue crayon with the little boy who rarely talked. I learned to clean up my mess because the teacher wasn’t my mother. I learned that holding hands made you not feel so alone.

I learned that beauty can include coloring outside the lines. I learned that listening was as important as speaking.

I learned that love was a good thing to give and a nap was a good thing to take.

I learned that my imagination was a safe place to go, and happiness was as simple as a smile.

That’s the kindergarten I went to. But something happened to your kindergarten. It has become the new first grade. Maybe even the new second grade or even third.

Instead of friends, you had academic standards. Assessment replaced conversations. Recess and play time were sacrificed to prepare you for standardized testing.

My kindergarten morning turned into your all day. The all-purpose comfy floor was replaced with desks and tables. Picture books were sidelined in favor of early literacy texts, and coloring has been usurped by math worksheets.

“Kindergarten” used to mean “children’s garden,” a place of growth and discovery and wonder. For you, it became “kinderklassezimmer,” the “children’s classroom,” a place of nose to the grindstone.

What I’m trying to say is that, although you are graduating from high school, you somehow missed kindergarten.

Somewhere between the SATs and the GPAs and the ACTs, the simplicity of kindergarten slipped through the cracks of your modern, sophisticated education.

Now that you have graduated, although the world now is your sandbox, you may not have learned how to play in it. And that’s our fault. We made you smart. Now, it’s up to you to make yourself human.

• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. In kindergarten he learned not to cry over spilt milk rather than how to spell it. He can be reached at

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