Graduation time is upon us. Six years ago I agreed to do something that I don’t anticipate ever doing again–speak at our high school graduation. I agreed to do this because the graduating class was one that I had a special relationship with. I’d forgotten how much I liked this group, and it was fun to reread this and remember those kids. Last week I happened to visit with the mother of the M I talk about in the first paragraph. She told me that he is getting married. And she mentioned fondly the turkey calls that I’d taken from him over the years. Anyway, this is what I said to the class of 2009. I still think it’s pretty good advice for a graduate.
Thank you. Hi everyone.
I’m going to speak real briefly to everyone here, and then spend the rest of my speech talking to the graduates. I thought I’d better explain who I am and why I’m here. I’ve been teaching at Adrian for 12 years, first in the junior high, and more recently in the high school. This class, the class of 2009, I first taught when they were 7th graders. Two years later they were pleasantly surprised when they walked into their freshman English class to find me there. And then again as sophomores, and then juniors. This year I haven’t had most of them in class, but as a senior class sponsor, we’ve still hung out some, and in a few days many of us are going to Chicago together. I’ve sort of followed them up the food chain. That’s 5 of the last 6 years with the same group of kids. That’s why I’m here. I’ve come to know these kids the same way that you know them. This class that’s sometimes known as Sears’s babies. Despite all of the annoying things they do, the poor decisions that they sometimes make, this is my class, and I love ’em. So when a teacher says to me, “Man, so and so from the senior class was a real jerk today,” I nod my head and say honestly, “Yeah, he or she can be that way sometimes.” And then I think to myself, “But down deep, what a great kid!” Or, “Did you hear what this kid did?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, they really need to get their stuff together.” And I’ll think, “But seriously . . . what a great kid!” So, for example, for all the times I’ve taken a turkey call away from M, and I’ve probably taken a half a dozen in as many years, it didn’t change my opinion of him. And I mean that in a good way. So I know these kids better than any group I’ve taught, and like you, I think they’re great.
Ok. Class of 2009, before I commence with the advice, let me tell you congratulations on finishing high school. You’ve worked hard, some of you have worked really hard. Some of you have had a lot of help. Some of you have not. It’s easy sometimes for teachers to forget that kids have more going on that just school. Family situations, work and money issues, personal problems, these can all make writing a research paper or solving an equation seem pretty unimportant. Many of you have had to deal junk that I wish you didn’t. But you’ve persevered. And I want to tell you that I’m impressed. I honor your commitment to succeed. Nice work.
So now for the advice part of the speech. When I started to write this I began to mentally compile a list of all of the bits of advice for college and life that I wanted to give you, on this the last time that you have to sit and listen to me talk. So I came up with things like, work hard and play hard, make good decisions, spend as many weekends at school as you do back at Adrian, keep your old friends but make new friends, get involved on the campus or in the community that you find yourself. I think those are all good ideas. But it didn’t seem like enough. So I came up with these — the last three things I want to leave you with.
First, You can do anything you want! When I was your age my mom use to tell me this all the time. “Matt,” she’d say at the most random times. “You know you can do anything you want to do.” So I’d look away from my book, or the t.v., or my lunch to nod at her before going back to what I was doing. “No,” she’d say. “Look at me. Really. You can do whatever you want to do.” So look at me now. Class of 2009, you can do whatever you want to do. I’m not talking about your failed class motto. I’ve looked over the senior edition of the paper. And I’ve been talking to you guys about what your plans are. And you have some amazing plans. You are a bunch of future engineers, nurses, police officers, fire fighters, construction workers, therapists, music producers, chefs, teachers, welders, politicians, technicians, farmers, cowboys, artists, world travelers . . . And let me tell you again. You can do it. And when you change you plans, or your major, or your career, and decide to work towards something else. You can do that too. I know you, class of 2009. I’ve spent a little bit of time with you and I know what you’re capable of. And if you don’t believe me, ask these people out here. You can do anything you want to do.
Next, be good. What do we old people want for the young people we love? We want our kids to be happy. We want them to get everything they want. A big house. A nice car. A beautiful spouse, cute kids, a good job, a pool, another nice car, long and exotic vacations. Everything it takes to make you happy. I’m no different. I want you all to be happy. But happiness is not what I want most for you. What I want most for you is for you to be good people. When I say be good, I’m not talking about not doing all of the stupid things that we all do, especially when we’re young and tend to do stupid things. (Ok, quit doing those things too.) But when I say be good, I mean be good to the people around you. When I look at you guys, what I see in addition to a bunch of future engineers, nurses, and farmers, is a bunch of future little league coaches, Sunday school teachers, and blood donors; lions, optimists, and Rotarians; men and women who mow your older neighbor’s yard, buy stuff at a bake sale that you don’t necessarily want, or, god help you, volunteer someday to help with project prom. Simply, what I mean is, love your neighbor. Use your amazing talents, do all the great things that you are going to do, with an eye toward making the world a better place to live. Be good.
Finally, don’t be afraid. During the recent Stuco blood drive I was talking to one of my classes about fear. What we’re afraid of. Why we won’t give blood, for example, even though we know it’s important, a good thing to do. Maybe it’s an irrational fear of needles. But I think it has to do with looking dumb, passing out, freaking out, throwing up, doing something that will draw attention to ourselves. It’s the same reason we don’t ask for help, or stand up for someone who needs it, or try something that’s difficult knowing we might fail. “What a jerk, right? Putting yourself out there like that. Are you crazy? Someone might see you mess up.” Well, I got you news for you. You will fail, you’ll mess up, and people will think you’re a jerk. But don’t be afraid of any of that. Over the last several years I’ve watched you guys put yourself out there. You athletes have had some great seasons and some horrible seasons. But you weren’t afraid to try. And you on the other competitive teams, the ones it seems like no ever goes to watch – quiz bowl, math team, ag judges, artists, singers, musicians, fccla, tsa, fbla, and some that I’ve probably even forgotten. You weren’t afraid. You braved the horrible labels that are given to people like you — smart, talented, professional. And in all seriousness, for some of you I know it seemed like every day, just showing up, and putting up with the junk that seemed to get piled on you every time you walked through the doors was challenge enough. Well, take a look around you. You weren’t afraid, you kept going, and you did it. Don’t be afraid.
Let me leave you a shot of reality All those family situations, work and money issues, and personal problems that I praised you for overcoming. They’re still going to be around. They may even get bigger and worse. But here’s something that I really really really believe. The world is a big and wonderful place. To paraphrase what some of you have written for me over the years, the world is full of wonderful things — the people we love, their voices, and their laughter; the out doors, the wind on the water, the stars, sitting in the tree stand as the sun comes up, sort of listening for deer, but sort of just listening to morning. I love that I know you guys well enough that I could probably point at you one by one, and name the things that I know you love. Although to be fair, that deer stand probably covers a good third of you. My point is this. Sometimes life is horrible and it seems our problems will never end. But life is also amazing.
Do not be afraid. You’re bigger than any problem you will face.
Be good. You have such power to make this world a better place.
And, look at me! You can do anything you want! Really! Anything!
Thank you for letting me be a part of this.