New Trier High School alumnus actor Rainn Wilson, known as Dwight K. Schrute from ‘The Office,’ gave a commencement address to the graduating Class of 2018 Sunday.
Wilson graduated from New Trier in 1984 and 34 years later, returned to his alma mater in Illinois—reminiscing on the school’s influence and the lingering words of advice he held on to from teachers he says gravely impacted his career path.
Here’s the full transcript of Rainn Wilson’s commencement speech at New Trier High School on June 4, 2018:
“We are Warriors! Oh forget it. Thank you so much principal Denise for having me and hello fellow Trevians umm and it’s fun fact for those of you who don’t know, a Trevian is a person from Trier Germany who was given a BMW on his 16th birthday…someone drank from this water already, I’m going to drink from it anyway. It’s how I roll. I find it ironic that I’m speaking, that we’re gathering here, in the Sears Center, considering probably not a single person in this room has ever set foot inside of the Sears. Ok good, we got the jokes out of the way. It’s really my privilege to be speaking to you today, thank you so much again for having me. Thirty-four years ago, which is an insane amount of time, I sat in my white tux, just like you’re sitting right now. I was about 40 pounds skinnier and several dozen pimples pimplier, but when I look out at all of you in your white gowns and suits, I truly get choked up. Not with any kind of general sentimentality but with just a deep reservoir of gratitude. I would not be where I am today, I would not be who I am today without New trier.
When my hippie bohemian Baha’i parents moved with me, their only son from a blue-collar working class Seattle to work at the Baha’i National Center and live in the only apartment building within the boundaries of New Trier school district, you know the building it’s right across the street from the Linden L station, I had no idea what I was getting into, I mean this was a school with a dance wing, a full orchestra, eight theatre productions a year and even a radio station! You’ve got to be kidding me. But my life was changed by this school. Not because of the facilities, although they are state of the art, not by the philosophy of this school, as comprehensive as it is, but because New Trier attracted some fierce, wonderful teachers that pushed us all to be our very best and to think and feel as deeply as possible. Let’s give it up for the amazing teachers at this school!
I had two incredible teachers at New Trier and I want to fill you in a little bit on what I learned from them. The first was Raissa Landor, she was my Great Books teacher, who coaxed and urged and inspired us to look at the profound questions of philosophy and spirituality. She spoke with inspiration as we read Plato, Rousseau, Kant and the Bible, examining all of them for the ongoing human conversation that has been happening since we lived in caves: ‘Why are we here? Is there a God? How do we find the truth? Is there fate or free will?’ And finally, ‘What’s love got to do, got to do with it?’
And this is your charge to continue what Raissa Landor inspired and instilled in us, to dig in to these questions, to continue this conversation that’s started when we were cavemen and moved to the ancient Greeks and then into the cafes in Europe and now to the college campuses all across America: ‘Why are we here and what is our purpose.’ Without her inspiration I probably never would have found at SoulPancake—the digital media company we created to tackle life’s big questions. Thank you Ms. Landor and thank you New Trier High School.
Another great teacher was my drama teacher, I had several here who were wonderful, Michael Routenberg being one of them, but Ms. Suzanne Adams was a true inspiration for me and as an aspiring young artist I started doing plays at New Trier and I found I was pretty good at it and I could make people laugh. I was incredibly insecure and I had never met anyone in my life that had ever received a paycheck for creating a work of art. I knew that there were people who probably got checks or money for writing a poem or painting a beautiful picture or you know, being paid to act on the stage or the screen, but I had never met anyone. So it was a tremendous act of courage on my part as a skinny, pimply 17-year-old to go into Ms. Adams’ office and say to her, ‘Ms. Adams,’ to ask her, to implore her, ‘do you think maybe one day, possibly, I could potentially, maybe, be an actor?’ And Ms. Adams’ reply was “oh yes! Absolutely you must try! But first you must travel the world and you must fall in love and read lots of books and go to college and study everything you could possibly study and you must live a rich, wild and luscious beautiful life!’
So I went to community college and…I’m just kidding, I didn’t go to community college. So I would probably not be an actor had she not given me those words of inspiration. Words of inspiration I carried in my heart for a good 10 years after that conversation. And it would’ve been so easy for her as a teacher, as a mentor to give me a more realistic point of view and say ‘well, good luck with that…you know, that’s a tough row to hoe. Plenty try, very few make it.’ But she said exactly what I needed to hear. And I’m sure many of you here today have heard exactly what you needed to hear from your teachers and mentors at New Trier.
I’m so grateful. It’s such a privileged place to get an education. In fact, next year the graduation is going to be at Soldier Field, is that right? And we're a privileged bunch in many ways.
Most of us have come from money, have some money. Most of us are white-skinned, come from families where there's been a tremendous amount of success. Most of us are going to get an amazing secondary education. And for most of us the doors to the business world, or the art world, or political world or science world will be wide open for us.
But I want to say something about this privilege. This is not something I ever want you to feel bad about. What privilege means is that we have an opportunity. We come from a life of abundance and our entitlement is not to be entitled, not to be superior, but to acknowledge our privilege and do whatever we can to help those who don't have it.
We come from abundance and we can use this abundance to help the poor to help the subjugated, to make the world a better place, we have an opportunity to create jobs, to create non-profits, to help fund arts organizations, to help science make tremendous strides forward and to use our education for the greater good rather than merely seeking personal comfort and personal status.
So as you continue your educational journeys, your emotional journeys, your social and spiritual journeys, carry this mission with you: I am going to use what I have been given to help relieve suffering, to fight injustice, to bring light to a dark world.
And not so long ago it seemed like enough to just simply want a comfortable life, a nice family, a house on the North Shore, to make a living doing something in a career you could at least tolerate, to take care of your immediate family and have a nice life. The mantra for a very long time in America was like, 'be a good person and just don't hurt anyone else.'
But it's really not this way anymore, unfortunately. The world is hurting from disunity and from injustice. And we need to do more. As you grow on your journey, I beg of you to seek to move beyond comfort, status, material wealth and care of your immediate family, but to see the world as your immediate family and yourself as a change agent. It is our privilege to be change agents in this world, to be of maximum love in this world, of maximum service, to make every school on this planet as great as the incredible New Trier High School.
My family were members of the Baha’i faith and one of my first jobs was being a security guard at the Baha’i temple there, on Sheridan Road and Wilmette. I was not terribly intimidating as you can imagine, but the son of the founder of the Baha’i faith actually laid the cornerstone in that temple and it’s a beautiful place if you haven’t been able to visit. But he had a quote I wanted to share with you on this very theme. His name was Abdu’l Bahá and he said: Be ye loving fathers to the orphan, and a refuge to the helpless, and a treasury for the poor, and a cure for the ailing. Be ye the helpers of every victim of oppression, the patrons of the disadvantaged. Think ye at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race. Do some good to every person whose path he crosseth and be of some benefit to him. For love is light, no matter in what abode it dwelleth; and hate is darkness, no matter where it may make its nest.’
So I’ll leave you with a few other quotes to remind you of Suzanne Adams charged to me at age 17, skinny and pimply in her office: ‘see the world, read lots of books, fall in love, go to college study everything you can.’ And Raissa Landor’s charge to dig in to the life’s big questions ‘cause it is those questions that make us human. And finally, to quote Dwight Kurt Schrute: ‘If an idiot would do a thing, do not do that thing.’ Trevians, do not be idiots. I love you. Thank you very much."