June 2018: Tom Brettell's Commencement Address

In lieu of Dr. Foster's monthly Reflection's column, we are proud to share Tom Brettell's Commencement Address. Mr. Brettell was the RHS 2018 Educator of the Year. Good evening parents, friends, esteemed guests, members of our Board of Education, administrators, colleagues, and most importantly the graduates of the class of 2018.   

Your life experiences determine your evolution, your growth, your advancement.  These experiences can happen at any moment. You may be ready for them or completely blind-sided.  These experiences can be a happy moment, extremely painful, or somewhere in between. It is important that we are able to identify them at some point whether during the moment or well after.  And when we become aware of them, we take time to reflect on them from the perspective of how they can help us develop in our own journeys.

When thinking about the message today, my thoughts would bring me back to specific times in my own life where experiences shaped my path.  I would like to share one of those moments that I feel has brought us together today. So here we go:

It was Saturday January 29th, 2005.  I’m sitting in a chair in Kingston & Kemp Funeral Home at about 9:30 in the morning.  I’m not quite sure how to act or feel. Funerals and viewings are so awkward for me. I’m just quietly fidgeting with my hands trying not to catch anyone’s attention.  Simply because I have no idea what to really talk about or how I am supposed to feel. I’m surrounded by former classmates, former teachers that are now colleagues of mine, and also some of my current students. It is not easy dodging all of these conversations in such a small area. So I just continue to avoid eye contact with everyone.  All of a sudden the low pitch buzz of many people talking slowly goes away and it gets quiet. Someone in the front of the room addresses everyone, I couldn’t really hear what they were saying nor did I care at the time….. I was still concentrating on avoiding all contact with anyone. They turn on a song. “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. As the song played, I started to cry.  I hadn’t cried up until this point but for some reason this song got to me as it got louder and more powerful. The louder it got, the harder I cried. I started to reflect on the impact Mr. Orlowski had on me. GARY O, as he was known to all of his students and colleagues. Didn’t matter. He was Gary O to all of us.

He was first my teacher who went to great lengths to show that he cared about me as a person not because I was just a name on his roster …….. and later my colleague and mentor who taught me my first lessons to surviving as young teacher in a not so forgiving environment called the classroom where my failures far outnumbered my successes…….. and most importantly my friend who would invite me to a nice dinner at the Blue Danube in Chambersburg on a Friday night, pick up the tab, and we would  talk about anything but school. As I reflected on the impact of one of the most influential people in my life, it became very clear to me why I was now crying. He was teaching me three very important things in only the way that he could……. HIS WAY.   His life lessons were all genuine which is why they were so powerful and still timeless to this day.  So, I continued to sit there crying but the uncomfortable awkwardness was now gone and replaced with a sense of calm and meaning and even a small smile.  It was like he was talking to me through the song. Then Frank sang out, “And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing.”          

My teacher taught me about Human Compassion.  Human Compassion might be the greatest gift ever given to us.    Human compassion brings out the best in us but it is not something that most of us are comfortable showing.  However, when we decide to share this with someone it can be such an intimate and inspiring moment that it can change one’s path.  My experience with my 10th grade Algebra 2 teacher changed my path. To know that someone cares about you far and above what they have too is more important than any identity, function, or theorem that I learned in that class.  This man inspired me to work harder and dream bigger just with a few simple actions. Not even words. Each and every one of us has the power to use our innate ability to show compassion. This compassion can spread from one person to another and make a random person’s day that much more enjoyable or tolerable.  Imagine that, “Making Someone’s Day!” Sounds very familiar doesn’t it. The effect that we can have on someone else with a few simple words, a smile, a small note, or how us odd baseball coaches show compassion…….. with a pat on the butt…….. I don’t recommend you use this one with strangers though. We should all show compassion because everyone you meet is fighting a battle that you know nothing about.   The bottom line is that we can motivate each other by being compassionate to one another. Gary O showed me this type of compassion as my teacher and it had a lasting affect on my life. Show someone you care. It could be all they need.

My colleague and mentor taught me to turn Failure into Success.  We all get knocked down through our journey in life.  We all have to endure some tough blows. It’s not about whether you get knocked down but more about what happens after.  We all experience the highs of success and the lows of failure. My colleague and mentor always talked about the true test of one’s character.  How do we react in times that test us? How do we react to failure? Failure….. What a bad word? So bad that it could pose as a 4 letter word around here.  It took me a long time to realize that failure was an opportunity. An opportunity to reflect. An opportunity to learn. An opportunity to grow. Failure is the open door to success.  Do not be afraid to fail. It happens to all of us. It’s the person that embraces that failure and does not hide from it or shelter themselves in embarrassment that comes out in front.  Use these experiences to be prepared for your next opportunity.

I ask all of you to not let other people define your failures or successes.  You own them both. You make the definitions. They are yours.  In order to find success, again whatever that means to you, you can not and I repeat CAN NOT be afraid to accept advice, listen to criticism, or take suggestions.  One of the best lessons that I was ever taught by my mentor was, “The kind of advice we do not like to take often turns out to be the best.” Be less of a talker and more of a listener.  Learn from your experiences no matter how joyful or painful they may be. Always reflect and take something away from every situation. You must have honest personal reflection. Be honest with yourself. Be a competitor. Compete with yourself to be the best version of yourself that you can be. These things are necessary to be the best student you can be in college, the best employee you can be in your career, the best brother or sister you can be, the best mother or father you can be.   I always ask myself, “Tom…..can you look yourself in the mirror and truthfully be satisfied with your efforts and actions? Can you look yourself in the eye and be content with who your are, what you are doing, and where you are going.?” Often the answer is no. Very few times is it yes. Use these times of self-reflection as times to grow. Listen to your critics and use it as motivation. Everything can be used to push forward. To grow. To become better.


My friend taught me the power of Relationships.  One can not live a full life without being able to share and experience it with others.  Life is about relationships. It’s about people. Anything in this life that is worth a damn is about people.  No one taught me that more than my friend, Gary O. This man went out of his way to build strong relationships with his students, their parents, his colleagues, and his friends.  We should all take time to strengthen the ties we have with people around us and throw out lines to connect to strangers. These relationships will bring you to wherever you would like to go.  No one gets there alone. Wherever you end up, it’s about people. If we spent as much time in our lives building relationships as we do transcripts, resumes, portfolios, and bank accounts, we would find a life that might be without most of the troubles that we have in this world.  Spend time getting to know people and most importantly understanding them. Listening to them. Engaging them. Keep building bridges with people and you will surely reach all of the goals that you set out to achieve.


As a teacher, he taught me a lesson on human compassion.  As a colleague and mentor, he taught me how to turn failure into success.  And as a friend, he taught me the power of relationships. Gary O look down on these graduates and look out for them like you looked out for me. And the graduates of 2018, take the time to look out for someone else in the same way. Pay it forward.  If we all do that, we will all be ok. Look forward… Not backward. Remember Sinatra is still playing, “Regrets I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.” Don’t live life with regrets. At least not too many. Live life YOUR WAY.     

To end here tonight, I just want to thank all of you sitting in front of me and let you  know what a privilege it is to be able to do what we do. To be able to teach, coach, and mentor is rewarding, always challenging, sometimes frustrating, but always worth it.  We should never take it for granted. Not many people get to experience the light bulb go on for the first time, the absolute genuine thrill of victory, to watch young kids’ dreams come true.  A smart man, Jimmy Valvano, once said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.” That is a lot of what a school day is like. No two days are the same, they are always exciting, and those days build lifetimes of memories and relationships.


I have to give a shout out to my first AP Physics 2 class from 2016-2017.  I know some of you are out there. I made a promise to you guys. You should always keep your promises.  


Last thing that I would like to leave you with is a little selfish if I’m honestly reflecting on myself right now but I have to say it. There are three dreams of mine that I never thought would come true in my life that I have lived out this school year.  First, I never thought that I would have the honor of standing in front of you and delivering this message as your teacher of the year. Second, I never thought that I would ever be the RHS “Minute to Win It” Champion. And last, I thought I would never live to see my Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl.  I am sorry but I have to do this for you…. E-A-G-L-E-S……. EAGLES!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you and may all your dreams come true!!!!


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