It has become an annual tradition for my seniors to end their year by writing and delivering ten-minute commencement speeches. Each year, I write one as well. Here is my speech for 2017.
Most commencement speeches focus on what the speaker has done. It is from the things we do that we gain valuable life lessons, and it is these lessons that are sometimes worth sharing.
I contemplated talking to you about wiping out and breaking my wrist this winter trying to learn how to snowboard as a forty-year-old. I could emphasize the importance of taking risks, I thought, or bouncing back from failures, or how that whole experience only solidified my desire to try new and challenging things. If you never get broken your aren’t risking enough - that sort of thing.
I thought about explaining how my wife and I bought a house in Vermont in October; I could emphasize important lessons about not listening to the advice of those who tell you your dreams are impractical, about how we just took a deep breath and did it, about how wonderful it has been so far. Leap and the net will appear sort of stuff.
I could tell you about how I have managed to find a career I really love, where I feel like I am doing something meaningful on most days. The clear and resounding message being that doing what you love is more important than doing what makes the most money.
Like I said, most commencement speeches focus on what the speaker has done. But today I don’t want to talk to you about things I have done. I want to talk to you about a few things I have never done.
I have never officially announced to the world that I am straight, or explained to someone why I am attracted to women. I have never been asked when I realized I was straight, or if I was sure. I have never been told that the reason I “think” I am straight is because I played Little League as a kid, or because I can throw a football. I have never glanced around to see who was looking before kissing my wife, and I have never had my abilities as a father called into question because of the gender of my partner.
I have never focused all my energy on keeping my hands in plain view, eyes forward while waiting for a police officer to approach my car. I have never worried that reaching for my wallet would be mistaken as reaching for a gun, a mistake that could lead to my funeral. Balanced against the color of my skin, the hoodies I wear have never be the cause for me being followed by a neighborhood watchman. I have never had to point out that my life matters.
I have never texted my friends to let them know I got home safely after a party or a night out. I have never looked over my shoulder at the person walking behind me and wondered if I might be raped, just as I have never reached into my pocket for pepper spray. I have never had someone I didn’t know tell me I had a nice ass, or press up against me in an elevator, or grab my crotch as the President of the United States is wont to do.
I have been protected from these gross injustices because I was born straight, and I was born white, and I was born male. Those are just the beginnings; I have other advantages too. I was born relatively intelligent. I was born free of any disabilities. I was not born into poverty, or into war. I was born in a place with consistent electricity and unlimited potable water. But for the sake of illustration let’s focus on those three: straight, white, male.
While so many others will walk around with targets on their backs - targets for degenerates out to bash gays, or store clerks who trail black kids around the candy aisle assuming they are going to steal, or frat boys hoping a girl will pass out - I have had the benefit of wearing a cloak of invincibility because I am a straight white male. It’s like winning life’s biggest lottery.
But here is the thing about winning the lottery: you have to figure out what you are going to do with all of that money.
I have been given tremendous wealth to spend in this life, and I am not talking about actual dollars and cents. I am talking about the wealth of power and influence. I am talking about the wealth that grows each time my thoughts are not interrupted by a need to focus on self-preservation. I am talking about the capital that was loaded into my account at birth simply because I was born straight, white, and male in a society that ranks those qualities above so many others.
I am not a fervently religious guy, but I often think of the the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” In other words, if not for the grace of God, that could be me. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not. Luck, circumstance, whatever. The concept is simply that when I see someone relegated to the margins of society, I don’t immediately think I am better and that is why I have been spared those difficult circumstances. Instead, I think that with the smallest alteration I could be right there in their place.
There but for my geography, go I. There, but for my skin color, go I. There but for my gender/sexual orientation/religious beliefs/economic status/educational opportunities/family dynamics...you get the idea.
The other day my wife asked a student of her’s what’s the biggest problem facing the world? “The fact that we are all the same,” he answered, “but we just don’t realize it.” He went on to explain that we are all human beings and in that there lies an inherent sameness. Geography, religious beliefs, cultural differences, a myriad of other factors all conspire to convince us that isn’t so, that instead we are inherently different.
If we could all just focus on our humanity and the things we have in common, we might be able to bridge many of the gaps that lead to everything from high school cliques to the war on terror.
Yet somehow there are still people who have to make something as simple as their sexuality a declaration to the world, because the world is still demanding that they explain their difference. There are still men my age vastly more likely to be pulled over, and vastly more likely to have any interaction with the police go sideways simply because their skin color is different than mine. There are still people being sexually objectified and assaulted because they are of a different gender. The progress is undeniable, but equal we are not.
These inequalities are a problem you all must work to change, and all of you have won enough in this lottery of power and influence to make a difference. Every one of you sitting here today is about to graduate from a good high school in a country filled with opportunity. That alone gives you more in your accounts than the overwhelming majority of the rest of the humans on earth. I want you to consider that for a moment. No matter how bad your gym class was, or how pointless you thought your homework assignments were, you have been given advantages and your accounts are filled with winnings, money you must now choose how to spend.
You have to spend a pocketful of those winnings every time you hear someone make a racist, sexist, or homophobic joke. There will be times, when the joke is tossed out by a business associate or boss, when speaking out will cost you a bit extra, times when speaking out may alienate people who could otherwise offer you access to greater power or greater wealth. Remember how much you started with, and pay the fee willingly.
When people who have not benefited from your level of education are used en masse as a scapegoat for the ills of society, you must cash in a bit of your relative power to stand beside them and help them find their voice. When you are on campus next year and someone passes out, you must use the money in that account to purchase them protection. Anytime you see someone with inadequate funds, people marginalized and forgotten about by society, you must make a withdrawal from your own plentiful accounts.
This is not about money. It’s about influence. This is not an option; it is your obligation.
I want my sons to live in a world where coming out isn’t a thing. I hope that if one of my boys is gay he never has to explain that to anyone, but can simply fall in love and date people who interest him just as I did growing up. I hope someday there is no need to chant the slogan “Black Lives Matter” because the equitable treatment of black people will simply makes it too obvious to bear repeating. I hope I am still teaching when the girls in my classes can go out on a weekend and feel just as safe as the boys.
So before you head out there tomorrow, give yourself a big pat on the back. You deserve it for the hard work and determination that has gotten you here. But don’t get carried away. You deserve a pat on the back, but you did not pull this off all on your own. It is not only your hard work and merits that got you here. You were also handed a great deal.
At a minimum, you were given a quality school and one of the best public educations available. Each of you has won varying amounts in the lottery of power and influence. Some have won more than others, but no one sitting here is going home empty handed. Now that you have won, figure out how you want to spend that money.
I am excited for all of you, and for your developing futures. I hope to hear from you again along the way. I wish you all confidence and happiness.