Graduation Speech: Nathan Scott On Embracing Change

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Nathan Scott, a chemistry teacher at Verona High School, gave the faculty speech at the graduation of the Class of 2020:

Thank you very much. It’s truly an honor to be here today speaking to all of you. Truth be told, the hardest part of this speech was figuring out how to say thank you. There are so many people that all have helped, supported, and loved me through the years that to thank everyone individually would take way too much time. So, to everyone personally and professionally that has been there for and with me, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Know that you are why I am here today. And thank you Jenn, my wife and partner forever. Without you I never would have made it this far, and even if I had it would have lacked meaning.

I’ll be honest, ever since becoming a teacher I’ve wondered if I would ever get the chance to speak at a graduation and have thought about what it would look like. I never imagined it would be like this – somehow no matter how much I plan, life has a way of not turning out like I expected. But in all my experience, two things boil to the top: life is about embracing change, and it’s empathy and people that really matter.

I have been fortunate over the years to get to hear some amazing speeches from teachers at graduation, from Mr. Wertz’s Hamilton throw-down to Dr. Meyer’s poeticism, from Mr. Lynch’s passion to Mr. White’s eloquence. Today, I’m going to do what I do best, I am going to open up to you and speak from my heart. This is a bit scary, what I am about to tell you is something I have only ever told to my closest friends and family, but I think it’s a message that you all need to here. It requires some backstory, though.

As many of you know, in high school I was an exceptionally driven student, earning A’s and A+’s on everything en route to going to MIT for my undergraduate degree in chemistry. That’s the part of the story that I share, here is the rest.

MIT was hard, really hard. I grew more in those four years than at any other time in my life. But it came at a price. I pushed myself incredibly hard at MIT, striving for straight A’s, and through the first semester of my senior year, I had a straight-A average. The shiny veneer was what everyone saw. However, I was burning out. I was doing undergraduate research starting my sophomore year, and it was taking a toll on me. My advisor was constantly putting me down, asking me questions in front of all of his graduate students, and when I answered something wrong he would tell me in front of everyone that I needed to go back and repeat classes if I didn’t know whatever it was he was asking. While earning straight A’s, my self-confidence was shot. I hated chemistry, and by the time I graduated, I wanted a PhD in chemistry so that I could be a manager and never have to set foot in a lab again. The fire and passion had died.

So, I went on to grad school at Yale, because that was the only thing that made sense. crushed my classes, and made contributions in group meetings on par with fourth year-graduate students. But I hated working in the lab, whenever something didn’t work, I blamed myself even though 95% of reactions don’t work out the first time. I dreaded every day of going in to school, and after about two years, I was done. I talked to my wife and went to my advisor and told him that I was dropping out of the PhD program, instead leaving with a master’s degree. I vividly remember going to a diner with my dad, a PhD chemist, and breaking down in tears telling him that I had to drop out. I was so afraid of disappointing him and being a disappointment to my younger sister and brother. What kind of example was I setting for them? But I couldn’t take it anymore.

I tried to leave chemistry entirely. I applied to patent law firms to become an intellectual property lawyer, where I could use my science knowledge and debate skills together. I got waitlisted, and was about to get evicted from married graduate student housing at Yale, and I had to do the one thing that I dreaded. I had to apply for a job in chemistry; that’s all that my resume spoke to. I ended up getting a job as a research chemist at Roche with the intention of studying for law school and leaving in one to two years.

But life is about embracing change. At Roche, I was fortunate to work for two amazing supervisors. They got to know me and saw me as a person and cared about me. And through them I saw that I wasn’t as terrible of a chemist as I believed. And while I never loved my job, I realized that I was pretty good at it, earning a lot of promotions and accolades.

Applying to Roche was the last thing I wanted to do, but in the end, it was a wonderful and transformative experience. But like so many things, it couldn’t last forever. In 2012, Roche’s CEO flew in unannounced and held a meeting with the entire site, announcing that after over 100 years they were closing the site. Nobody saw it coming, it shocked and devastated everyone. But I reflected on my career and what I wanted next and realized that I really didn’t want to move to Texas, Boston, or China to chase the job. Instead I wanted to give back and become a teacher.

So, I went back to school not to learn anymore chemistry, but to learn how to teach. During student teaching, on a whim, I tried something. After a test, I wrote a positive, reinforcing note on a sticky note to every student. I was blown away by just how much it meant to them. I continued writing notes on tests, changing criteria – sometimes giving notes for top scores, other times for dramatic improvements. It meant so much to them to be seen and validated, which I understand because that was my experience with chemistry too. Not until Roche, was I seen, valued, and appreciated for what I could do. It was always just a constant litany of what I couldn’t do.

After receiving my certification, I got a five-month long-term maternity leave position in Parsippany. Again, after an early test, I wrote a note to every student. Again, I was blown away by just how much it meant to them. I saw students awaken and literally turn around after failing the first half of the year to earning an A+ with me. Come the end of May when I had to leave, it was really hard. And after I left, my biggest regret was, and still is, that I never wrote them one last goodbye letter. But I took that learning forward and made sure to make it part of what I do here at Verona.

But, why did I share all of this with you?

There are three major reasons.

First, if you are ever feeling burned out and overwhelmed by school or life. I’ve been there. If anyone ever needs to talk, I truly get it and I will always be here for you.

Second, life is about change. When I was making the decision to change careers and become a teacher, it was scary. I knew that I was throwing away a very lucrative career in pharmaceuticals with no guarantee that I would make a good teacher. Would I be able to connect with students? Would they listen to me? If so, would I be able to teach them bigger and more important things than just rote content knowledge?

While going through the throes of wrestling with the decision to change careers, an Elton John song really resonated with me called “The Bridge.” Music has always had a huge impact on me and holds a special place in my heart, but that’s another speech for another day. The refrain to “The Bridge” says:

And the bridge – it shines
Oh, cold hard iron
Saying come and risk it all
Or die trying
And every one of us has to face that day
Do you cross the bridge or do you fade away?

This has become my theme song for embracing change and helped me decide to make the transition to become a teacher rather than fading away. So, the second reason that I shared all of this with you was that in your life, when you come to your own bridge, know that your whole life has led you to this point and have the courage to take that first step.

The third and final reason is to me the most important. People matter, and how you treat people matters. would run through a brick wall for my Roche supervisors because they saw me and cared about me as a person. Many years later, I don’t remember what they asked me to do, or even the details of most of the projects that I was on, but I do remember how they made me feel appreciated and valued. My most important lesson to my students is the most subtle one, never spoken but always shown. Care about the people you work for and work with. The way you treat them will determine how they respond to you, and if you honestly love them, they will love you back.

Thank you to all my former, current, and future students. Thank you for believing in me, listening to me, and buying in. I love and am proud of each and every one of you – you are part of my family now and forever. To the entire class of 2020, this year has not turned out the way any of us thought it would. I am proud of all of you for picking yourselves up through all of this and pushing forward. Years from now, nobody will remember what you learned during these days. You will remember what you did. Let your lasting memory be that you rose up, and when the whole world was pushing you down that you stood back up and shone your brightest. You are stronger than you know.

Nathan Scott received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1999, doing undergraduate research under the direction of Rick Danheiser. He received a master’s degree in chemistry from Yale University in 2001, doing research for John Wood. After graduate school, he worked from 2001-2013 at Roche Pharmaceuticals as a synthetic medicinal chemist designing and synthesizing novel differentiated medicines to treat diseases such as cancer and type-2 diabetes. During these years, he became an inventor on eight patents and five publications. He completed a teacher certification course through William Paterson University in December 2013. He began teaching at Verona High School in September 2014.

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