Commencement Speech 2015

I am lucky that as a teacher the structure of my year demands a time of reflection each June and a time of reinvention each September.  This year, commencement speeches became part of that process.  All of my seniors had to deliver ten minute long commencement speeches as their final assessment.  What they came up with was amazing; they spoke eloquently about experiences they have had and the lessons we all can learn from them.  Here is the speech I delivered to them at the conclusion of that project.    

I graduated from high school twenty-one years ago.  That is longer than all of you have been alive in this world.  Still, I remember that heady mix of emotions that comes from leaving the life you have known behind and taking a big bold step out into the world.  On graduation day, I sat in the sun with thoughts of a brilliant career ahead of me -- as a Broadway star.  A lot has changed over the two decades since I sat on my high school’s football field in that silly square hat.

There are so many things I have learned in those twenty years.  I have learned that play is at least as important as work.  I have learned that being outside is better than being in.  I have learned that running hard works much better than drinking hard to relieve that pressure that builds inside your chest.  I have learned that I like small get-togethers better than big parties, produce better than processed foods, and silence better than social media.  I have learned that people don’t care about what I do or what I wear nearly as much as I thought they did.  I have learned that clothes don’t define people, and they are a whole lot cheaper second hand. I have learned that if you tell the truth all the time you can’t really lose your way.  I have learned that people past a certain age who make racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes are assholes.  I have learned not to laugh politely at their jokes.  I have learned to be kinder.  I have learned to show my love more.  I have learned that caring is not weakness, and neither is asking for help.  Twenty years of learning.  The list could go on for days. 

But, we don’t have days.  So, I want to express to you just a few of the things I wish I had known that June day in 1994.  These are the things I would tell my eighteen-year-old self if I saw him today.  And, I do.  I see bits of him in every single one of you.  So here it is. 

The first is the simplest; it may also be the most important.  You are human.  If you try to be super-human you will fail.  You won’t get perfect grades.  You can’t be the perfect friend, and child, and sibling, and student, and athlete, and partner all at once.  Sometimes you have to prioritize and choose.  You will let people down.  Humans are not invincible, we are not perfect.  We are guided not only by our brains, our ideals, and our sense of justice, but also by our emotions, our biases, and our fears.  My wish for you on graduation day is that you realize that, and cut yourself a little slack.   Shake off the unreasonable expectations of your teachers and coaches, and yes, even parents.  Accept your flaws and shortcomings as part of life, and don’t waste time trying to hide them.  Talk about them, and watch all the heads nodding along in recognition and understanding. 

Second, I want to present a slightly different take on my normal Friday speech: Don't drink to excess.  Don't do drugs.  Don't hang out with people who do those things.  You will notice all that has changed is the addition of "to excess."  I enjoy sharing a beer with a friend, or a drinking glass of wine with dinner.  But, nothing good comes out of getting wasted.  When you drink, you need to have clear limits for yourself.  College will really test your ability to hold to those limits.

Hear me when I say waking early with a clear head, going for a run, and studying is far more rewarding than sleeping a restless boozy sleep until mid-day and skipping class.  Drinking too much clouds your judgement, and often exaggerates the worst parts of your personality.  Rather than interacting with friends as yourself, you do so with a wall between you, an unspoken acknowledgement that drinking makes you more fun, more interesting, more likable.  It doesn't.  It makes you more obnoxious, more dangerous, more thoughtless and selfish.  Drinking too much leads to bad decisions and an erosion of self-worth.  There is nothing wrong with sharing a couple of beers with your friends.  But know this: people who push you to drink to excess are using you.  Maybe they are using you as entertainment, maybe they hope to use you for sex, maybe they are using you in order to feel better about themselves: insecure and lost.

I didn’t drink in high school and when I got to college it was everywhere.  I thought it was everyone.  I used it to seem cool.  I used it to hide my insecurities.  I used it to fit in where I didn’t belong in the first place, getting obliterated in sticky frat house basements.  I used it all the time, and it almost derailed me. 

Somewhere on campus there will be interesting people doing interesting things.  Maybe they will be having a couple of beers in the process, maybe nothing at all.  Maybe they are planning a protest, or working on the school paper.  Maybe they are reading poetry, or looking at art, or watching live music.  Maybe they are planning a road trip, or yes studying.  These people are filled with interesting ideas, confidence, and self-worth.  Find them.  Be one of them. 

Elsewhere on campus will be largely unhappy insecure people shot-gunning beers, and drinking with a vengeance.  You will know them because they talk about beer pong with greater enthusiasm than literature or love.  The guys generally act like stooges.  The girls all hate themselves.  Stay away from those people.  People who drink that hard haven't found anything to care about yet.  They are emotionally undeveloped.  They are sad and weak.  

Don’t waste your time on them, because time passes too quickly.  I see that now that I am thirty-nine.  I have watched the eight years since my first son was born rocket by in a flash like some sci-fi time warp or wormhole.  One minute he was sleeping in the bend of my elbow and the next he is riding his bike alone to his friend’s house, already loosed from my grip.  It seems each cycle of the seasons passes faster than the last.  I have watched close friends bury their parents, and watched my own parents age.  I have looked at my wife as she sleeps and felt awash in my inability to ever convey how much I love her in one short lifetime.  I have listened to the laughter of my sons and longed to linger there in that moment forever, to stop time from passing.  

But I can't.  Death is coming for me, just as he is coming for every one of you.  We must work quickly and with purpose.  We must live each day urgently, and deliberately.  We must crowd our days with laughter, and vocalize our love.  Most of all we must do what we know inside we are meant to do; we must take the gift our forefathers gave us and PURSUE HAPPINESS.  

The realization that life, even when it is relatively long, is still incredibly short need not start some doomsday clock in your head taunting you with every click of every diminishing second.  Instead, it can give you permission.  If we are all racing toward death, decisions matter a fair bit less than we may think.  Major in pre-med or art.  Work long hours or don't.   Change the variables all you want, the equation still works out the same.  So, if you know inside what you want to be doing, if you have something that stirs your emotions and excites you, or when the time comes that you do, pursue it.  Fight for it.  Don’t push it down because it doesn’t make enough sense or enough money.  Ignore what everyone else says.  There is not enough time to please them all.  Remember that careers are just a part of life, and they often rest along a time/money continuum.  The more hours you are willing to work, the more money you can make.  The less you make, the more free time you have.  Figure out what you want that balance to be, make sure you leave enough time for the rest of your life.  As everyone counsels you about majors and careers, don’t forget what you want out of the rest of your days. 

In that time, travel.  Take road trips, study abroad, fill your summers with exploration and adventure.  After my first three years of teaching, I was offered tenure.  That meant security, money to pay bills, a pension, health care.  By all conventional standards, I had made it.  But, my girlfriend and I were not ready to be locked into one place.  So we quit.  We passed on the offer of tenured positions, placed our letters of resignation on our principal’s desk and told our parents we were going to move to Italy for a while. 

People told us we were nuts.  People implied we were letting them down.  People told us about how expensive it is to pay doctor’s bills without good healthcare.  People told us how difficult a job market it was.  People told us you can’t just quit a good job and move away.  But, quit we did.  We spent six months tutoring, substitute teaching, and delivering pizzas for Dominoes.  We worked any hours we could get at jobs we hated so we could fund our trip.  Then we celebrated the holidays with our families and flew to Italy for the best six months of our lives. 

We learned Italian.  We stared in awe at Michelangelo’s Pietá, and his Sistine Chapel.  We went to the opera, and became regulars at tiny corner cafes in the small towns of Lucca and Itri.  We wrote letters, took pictures, and sketched the stone bridges of Venice.  We skied in the Dolomites, climbed to the top of the Duomo in Florence, and learned how to make ravioli from scratch.  Then on a hillside in Tuscany, overlooking mountains and olive groves, we got engaged.  If, as my father kept telling me might happen, I was never gainfully employed again it would have been worth it.  But the bigger point is, I did get another job.  I knew that taking a detour did not have to mean hitting a dead end.  I did not listen to the wisdom of those around me, and instead went out and had experiences that made me wiser in my own right. 

The essence of what I want to communicate to you is best explained through my tattoo.  Where the Wild Things Are tells the story of Max, a kid filled with turmoil and inner confusion.  The book opens with him tormenting his dog, chasing him with a fork.  Behind him on the wall hangs a picture he has drawn of one of the monsters he feels inside.  But he does not run away from those monsters.  Instead, he takes a boat right to the place where they live, confronts them head on, and “tames them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.”  He faces his inner demons unflinchingly and becomes their King.  That is the hope I have for all of you.
 
The banner on my tattoo reproduces a line from the book right after Max has tamed the Wild Things; it is his command.  "Let the wild rumpus start," he says.  A rumpus is a noisy, confused, or often disruptive commotion.  It is an uproar, a disturbance.  That is life.  It is messy and confusing and at times unsettling.  It is filled with things unknown and far beyond your control.  But, that is the magic of it.  Those moments when you are forced out of your comfort zone, when you encounter something totally new and unique to your experience are the greatest moments.  They are the ones that define you and let you appreciate calmer waters and a gentle breeze.  Like Max, embrace that.

The line reads "Let the wild rumpus start," implying an invitation to the chaos.  Bring it on, the line seems to say.  I am ready.  I can handle it.  Like Max, you have within you whatever it takes to tame the Wild Things in your own life, to control them and use them to your advantage.  You are ready, and you can handle it.  Throw yourself into it with all you are, knowing that just like him you will arrive safely home at the end.

Thank you for all of the work you have done this year.  Thank you for the speeches you have given over the past two weeks, and all that they have taught me.  Thank you for reaffirming my faith in this profession with your honesty, integrity and determination.  You have made a middle-aged English teacher very happy. 

I wish you all confidence and happiness.  I wish you all success, by whatever definition you create for yourself.

Congratulations. 


Comments

  1. Brought me to tears (the paragraph "Don't waste your time on them, because time passes too quickly"). Thanks, Jeremy.

    I would like to add that my dad and I will always be there for you, whether you need it or not. Hope that is comforting.

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