Kennebunk High School social studies teacher Greg Smith was the guest speaker for Sunday’s Kennebunk High School commencement ceremony. He has taught at Kennebunk High School since 2018 and this school year marked his 11th year in education.

Courtesy photo/Jennifer Galipeau

Here are Smith’s remarks to the class of 2023:

Thank you Dr. Cooper, Mr. Sirois, families, and class of 2023.

It is an honor to be asked to share a few words with you today. That simple idea, the sharing of words, means so much. Words have such incredible power in our lives. Words are how we name the experiences of our lives. They are the tools we use to understand, to connect, and to build. Naming something allows us to recognize its existence as a separate entity, feeling, or behavior. Giving something a word makes it real.

As Betty Friedan explained in “The Feminist Mystique,” a problem without a name causes real harm, but can not be addressed. When we have no word for our difficulties, we can not begin the search for remedies. Words reveal truth and create opportunity.

For the last eighteen or so years, the people in your lives, especially the adults, have been gifting you words. They have unloaded their hearts and minds for you, pouring out the words that they hoped would help you name your world.


Courtesy photo/Jennifer Galipeau

Your parents and guardians have given you remarkably powerful words such as: love, family, and responsibility. Day after day, week after week, year after year, they have helped you find the words you need to express your joy, your anger, and yourself.

Of course, for the last twelve years, your teachers have been allies in this mission. In the short, intense bursts of the classroom, teachers strive to pass on as many words as they can to help you define your world. Sure, there are the subject matter terms. Your science teachers have taught you hypothesis, experiment, observe, and record. Math teachers presented you with solve, variable, equal and unequal, prove, and the always valuable compound phrase, “Show your work!” English teachers filled your vocabulary with meaning, view, structure, tone, and empathy. Language teachers not only gave you words, but they gave you portals into entire realms of language that would allow you to share your words with a wider variety of humanity. Art teachers gave you the words to see, hear, feel, and critique – even the power to create words for others. Your STEM teachers gave you the words to investigate, reason, create, and improve. And, of course, we history teachers gave you the vocabulary to contextualize, consider, defend, argue, and perceive.

Courtesy photo/Jennifer Galipeau

Yet, beyond all of these classroom words, your teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, administrators, and classmates tried to give you bigger words. Words with real power. Mr. Roddy wants you to add “initiative” to your working vocabulary. Ms. Carlson gifts you “aware,” Ms. Vaughan gifts you “compromise,” and Mr. Putnam wants you to take “openness.” When I asked your teachers, quite a few wanted to gift you “grit,” others gave “perseverance,” still others gave “hope.” Members of the junior class want you to consider “investment,” the freshmen wish for you to take “tomfoolery” to heart.

All of these people around you have been giving you their words and all of them will remain willing to do so throughout your life. However, we have reached a turning point. The day has come when the challenge shifts from collecting words others press upon you to seeking out your own words. Perhaps this is the first stage of adulthood – the need to define the world for yourself, to build upon your foundation.

With that in mind, I must give you a warning. Words are tricky little buggers. They seem so solid, so simple, at first glance. However, time and culture have ways of shifting definitions so that what you once knew, you no longer do. Did you know that in the 1300s, naughty meant someone who had naught – nothing? It was a term to refer to a person in poverty. At the same time, nice, derived from a Latin word meaning “ignorant,” generally referred to someone silly or foolish. This certainly would redefine Santa Claus’ naughty and nice lists, wouldn’t it?

The words we choose to define our world shift, and we must be constantly attentive to those shifts. Put simply, we cannot settle on a definition for a word and then assume we fully understand the concept.


This can even happen with the words we use to define ourselves. When I was your age, I was preparing to head to the U.S. Naval Academy to begin plebe summer and continue the long journey to becoming an officer in the Navy I had embarked upon at age 11. At that tender age, I had found my dream and began to define myself as a warrior. After several years in the Sea Cadets, I convinced my parents to send me to military school in rural Wisconsin – 14 year olds make bad decisions.

During the fall of my senior year in high school, terrorists turned civilian jets into bombs and the world changed. Shortly thereafter I signed my commitment letter to the Naval Academy and felt more justified than ever as my identity as a warrior neared fruition. Now, I would not be entering a peacetime military – I would immediately be needed to defend my country, our values, and the free world. What more noble cause could I seek?

When the Navy doctors told me that I would need to leave the academy – that I was no longer medically qualified to be a warrior, my identity collapsed. My world collapsed. How could I be me, if the word that had defined me could now only define others?

In the years that followed, I tried on many other words like a first-time shopper in a thrift store. I slipped on words such as: employee, academic, angry, goofball, depressed, recruiter, linguist, and many more. Some itched, some were too heavy, some just didn’t fit, and some fit far too comfortably. Through good years and bad, healthy relationships and toxic, I searched for the words to define myself. Eventually, I found some good fits: husband, father, teacher, friend, troublemaker.

Yet, I stand here today not because I found new words, but because I redefined my original. What am I today? I am a warrior. My battlefield is my classroom and my mission is you. Every day I fight to help each of you grow and to build a better world, as best I know how. It was only when I realized that I could bring the passion and commitment that I had shown the Navy to everything else in my life that it all began to click. My lost years came not because I did not have the words, but because I did not understand the words that I had.

And so, that is what I choose to gift you on this last gasp of high school. Take all of the words that you have been given. Gather with them all of the words that you can find on your own. But in the end, you must be open to relearning each word along the way. Leaving yourself open to change, willing to accept others’ definitions, and being able to shift meaning, will give you everything you need.

Then, you can move to that next phase of adulthood: helping others build their worlds with your words.

Thank you, and congratulations.