Commencement addresses typically urge graduates to look to the future, and contain bland, predictable nuggets of inspiration such as “reach for the stars,” “change the world,” and these days, “#Resist Trump!” But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. upended expectations when he delivered the commencement address for an elite boarding school last month; instead, he wished the graduates failures and setbacks, and emphasized a couple of virtues that have fallen out of style in American culture: humility and gratitude.
Roberts’ address at the Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, New Hampshire, for boys grades six through nine, didn’t attract much attention at the time, but it has been gaining traction since being uploaded to YouTube. Even The Washington Post, no ideological ally of the conservative Chief Justice, recently published an admiring article about the speech.
What many are finding noteworthy about the twelve-minute talk is that Roberts touched on neither politics nor the law in it, although each of the graduates did receive an autographed, pocket-size Constitution along with his certificate, according to the Post. “Instead,” wrote the newspaper, “the address was personal, understated and popular probably because it touched on universal themes, such as a parent’s worry about whether he or she is making the right decisions for their child.”
He began by inviting the students to rise from their seats and applaud the parents for their sacrifice. He painted a touching picture of those parents dropping off their young boys at the beginning of their time at the school and returning home on a “trail of tears” to an “emptier and lonelier house.” That image was all the more poignant because Roberts’ own son was among the graduates that day, and that personal element is what gives this speech its moving, bittersweet edge.