This morning I am happy. My senior students graduated yesterday; I was the MC for the ceremony, which meant I was nervous and uncomfortable all day leading up to it — because regardless of how much time I spend in front of a classroom full of students, it doesn’t take away my stage fright or my introversion. And also, a classroom full of students is quite different from a gymnasium filled with probably 500 people, including parents and grandparents and all of my fellow teachers and my administrators and my wife. Much more nerve-wracking.
But it went well, my speech was well-received, I made my former students cry. Here, for the sake of those who did hear it and want to remember, is my speech; it won’t mean a whole lot to people who don’t know these kids, but these kids aren’t the only ones who suit these words, so feel free to substitute your own children or students for the ones I was talking to and about.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends and family, students, teachers, administrators – and, of course, graduates.
Welcome to the Graduation Ceremony for the Class of 2019!
(to the grads) I bet some of you thought you wouldn’t make it here today. But you did it. All of you: you did it.
You had help – parents, siblings, relatives; teachers, and friends – and all your online friends, YouTube, Khan Academy, Quizlet, Yahoo answers, Wikipedia, Sparknotes, Slader, 123HelpMe.com.
But the point is: you did the real work. You spent the late nights, and the all-nights; the early mornings, the lunchtimes and the passing periods, cramming and studying and reviewing and furiously finishing assignments. You’ve gone through thousands of sheets of paper, hundreds of pencils and pens, gallons of energy drinks, an average of fourteen Hydroflasks each, and a literal ton of hot Cheetos. You sweated through the tests, the essays, the labs, the presentations. You fought through the despair, and stress, anxiety and depression, fear and anger and sadness and happiness – because honestly, nothing makes it harder to sit down to a test than when you’re having a really good day.
You did all of that. All of it. Make no mistake: if anyone tries to minimize this accomplishment, to tell you that this was easy, that it is not impressive – don’t listen. This is impressive. You are impressive. You made it. High school – all school – is rough. And you’ve made it.
And I only have one thing to say to you: don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.
Seriously – and I say it with love – get out. Go away and don’t come back. We’re all as tired of you as you are of us, and we’re all going to breathe a huge sigh of relief when you all have left. This is one of the most – let’s say “challenging” – classes I think this school has ever seen.
Want to know why?
You’re one of the smartest classes this school has ever seen.
You’re so smart, all of you, that it has been impossible to keep up with you. Impossible to consistently challenge you. Impossible to control you. Speaking from my experience, trying to run a discussion with all of you was insane: too many of you had things to say, and if you didn’t get to say them to the class, you would say them to each other, all at once. It was chaos.
You all burn so brightly that you draw all the air from the room – and because this school, these rooms, are so small, there wasn’t that much air to begin with. I honestly think that’s why you fought so much with each other: too many lions in too small a cage. It was a daily struggle to be on top, to stand out, to show how good you are individually, among all these other amazing people.
So. Now’s your chance.
You’ve been held in this small space, like a flower in a too-small pot, for too. Long. Now – you are free. Free to grow as tall and as grand and as glorious as you can. You will overshadow this place. You will tower over us, spread far beyond us.
I cannot wait to see what you all become.
So get out.
There was a keynote speaker, of course, a NASA scientist and actor who happens to be related to one of our newest alumni. I thought he did a great job with his speech — but I couldn’t help noticing that he leaned pretty heavily on clichés. He was actually quite up front about it: part of his theme was using Google (or technology in general) to find what you need, which was fine since he was talking to a STEM school; but the Commencement Speeches he Googled were apparently pretty generic. It was good and useful advice, but — generic.
So I thought I would write some of my own advice. Here, then, is something like what I would say if I were to be the keynote speaker at a graduation. This is what I would tell a group of students who were about to leave high school and embark on the adult part of their lives — also known as “the good part.”
Speeches like this are always full of clichés. Now, I don’t dislike clichés; I think most of them are true, and have genuinely useful things to say. Clever sayings don’t become clichés if they aren’t true, and truth isn’t talked about unless it is cleverly worded; so pay attention to clichés. At the same time, though, be aware of when the overuse of clichés clouds the message: because it’s a rarely known biological fact that people’s ears go deaf while that person is rolling their eyes. Think of them like memes: they are great, they make you laugh and make you think; then you get tired of them; then they’re dead. Clichés are like your favorite food: you can fall back on them when you have nothing new that sounds good; but you can also get tired of even your very favorite food, and that is a sad day.
I think one of the best things we can do is examine clichés, and reimagine them. Deconstruct them. Critique them. Because then we’re actually thinking about things we normally just swallow whole, without any consideration’ and that is no way to live, nor any good way to eat. You’ve got to chew your food: and your clichés, as well.
Ready? Here we go.
“All you need is love.” One of my favorite songs, and one of my favorite cliches. Also true — kinda. It’s not true that love is ALL you need; but it is true that love is one of the most important things you can have.
The first piece of advice I want to give you is this: find love. True love, if you can; genuine and lasting love, at the least. I did, and there is not a day that goes by that I am not shaken to my core by gratitude and happiness because of it. And though I think I am extraordinarily lucky in love, I am entirely sure that all of you can find love, too. Make it a priority: make time for it, time for the looking and then time for the love once you find it. It doesn’t have to be romantic love, if that’s not what you’re after; it can certainly be love for family, for a parent, for a sibling, for a child; it can definitely be love for your best friend, or for a beloved pet — although, as much as I love my pets, I would recommend finding a human person to love. Because human persons talk back to you, and because pet persons die too soon. But it doesn’t have to be a spouse-type person, and it doesn’t have to be only one person. But in all the years I have spent with my wife, nothing has mattered to me as much as going home to her, as having her support and her companionship, as loving her and being loved by her. Don’t settle for something less than that: keep looking until you find it, because a half-measure of happiness will keep you from the full measure, and it isn’t worth it. If you think you’ve found it, and then you turn out to be wrong, don’t stay: divorce that person, leave that person, kill that person and stuff them in a sack.
Okay, don’t do that last one. But definitely leave the relationship and look for something better. Don’t give up on love. Not ever. And if you lose love, unless the memories of that love are enough for you, go out and find more love, find new love. Always. Life is better with love than without: and I truly believe everyone can find someone to love.
Next: “Never give up on your dreams. Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
Okay, once again, there’s truth to this. You should have some kind of ambition in life, and it is better if it is grand; but if it is grand, it will also be, for the vast majority of us, unachievable. Which means you will have two options: give up, or keep working for something you may never accomplish. (Whatever you do, don’t look at the affirmational quotations for this one. As someone who has tried for twenty years to be a published author, and who is still a high school teacher, it both amuses and disturbs me to hear celebrities who caught their lucky break telling people to never give up. Sure, if I had been handed my dreams when I was 17, I’d believe that anyone could accomplish anything they wanted to do — if I was arrogant enough to think that luck came to me because of my talent. I’m not bitter.)
Personally, I would recommend not giving up. Not because of this landing among the stars nonsense; that’s neither true nor meaningful — I mean, if my “moon shot” is to be a published author, what does it mean to land among the stars? I can certainly imagine a second-level success — say, I sell some pleasing number of books which I self-publish, or I get to a pleasing number of followers on this blog, both of which are secondary goals I’m working towards and would be happy to achieve — but how does that fit the metaphor? The moon is infinitesimal compared to the stars, which are infinitely farther away; so what does that mean? Nothing, that’s what. But that’s okay: the point is really that working towards your dreams is a good thing to do regardless of whether or not you achieve the original dream. I really prefer this quote to the cliché, because I think this captures my experience and a lot of other people’s, as well. (Makes sense that it came from an actress whose best-known role came when she was 36.)
“As long as you keep going, you’ll keep getting better. And as you get better, you gain more confidence. That alone is success.” –Tamara Taylor
That’s why I say it is worthwhile to have a grand ambition, even if it is one you will never achieve.
But that takes me, in a roundabout way, to what may be the most important advice I have to give you; though it is also probably the most vague. It is this: there are two kinds of people in this world, and two kinds of experiences.
(There are a bunch of these memes…
But this one’s my favorite:)
Here are my two kinds: One is the kind of person, and the kind of experience, that limits your future choices, your freedom, your ability to control your life; the other is the kind that expands those choices, that freedom, that ability to make up your own mind and to control your own life. Look always for the second kind of person, the second kind of experience. There will be many choices you will make in life, and many of them will limit your future freedom: and those are the choices you have to be most careful of. You have to make them at the right time, and for the right reason. Choices like what to study in college — after you decide whether or not to go to college. Like what job to take. Where to live. When, and if, you will marry; when, and if, you will have children. These are the defining choices in life, and if you are not yet ready to be defined, don’t make them.
More importantly, don’t EVER let someone else make those choices for you. Don’t let someone pick you for marriage unless you pick them, too. Don’t let someone pick your time to have children, or with whom. Don’t let anyone push you into a career path, and don’t push yourself into one unless you want that career to define you. Until you are ready to make that choice, and lose the freedom to choose again later. (Though here’s a secret, and another cliché I won’t deconstruct: it is never too late to change your mind. Though it does get harder as time passes and you get more settled in your place in the world.)
Let me say one more thing about work: this one?
Complete bullshit. (You can tell by the background. What the hell kind of job does this image represent? Forest ranger? Have fun chasing poachers and meth cooks all over those mountains, in between rescuing dumbass dayhikers who thought they could just take a jaunt through those woods without equipment because they were in the Brownies. Also have fun getting furloughed when the government shuts down the next time.) Jobs are work. There is always work, or else nobody pays you for it; and the aspects that are work are not going to be fun. Jobs are always difficult, even if you love them, because you can’t possibly love every aspect of them (unless you’re on a whooooooole lotta drugs, and that has its own drawbacks.). I love some things about teaching, I really do — but I HATE the paperwork, and the grades, and indifferent students and overbearing parents, and a few other things as well. I love writing — but I HATE promoting myself. Even if I achieve my dreams of being a professional published author, I will need to write to very strict deadlines, and I will have to worry about my next book being a failure and sending me into the oblivion of Used-To-Be’s. I will have to travel, and speak publically, and participate in conventions and panel discussions and incessant insipid interviews, and I’ll have to be positive ALL THE TIME. I will hate that.
Honestly, I think the best way to view a job is to refuse to let it define you, unless you choose to define yourself that way. Back to the idea of limiting or expanding your freedom: if somebody wants to tell you that you are a teacher, and therefore you can’t be, say, a stripper on the weekends, don’t listen to them; you can be a stripper who teaches during the week. If you don’t care what you do for money because your passion is elsewhere, is in your avocation or your craft or your art or your family, then good: somebody asks what you do, you tell them that you make kayaks in your garage. They don’t need to know — they probably don’t really care — that you deliver pizzas for money; the kayak-building is FAR more interesting and important. So the point is, define yourself by your passion, not by your job; don’t expect your job to BE your passion, though it is certainly nice when they coincide. As much as I hate parts of teaching, I love, so much, that I get to spend all day every day with words, with literature, with reading and writing.
There are some other, smaller pieces of advice I would like to give, but they don’t come from clichés and they don’t have their own memes (Advice from a writer and a teacher: stick with a theme only as long as it makes sense; when it’s not working any more, drop it.). One is to take advantage of opportunities when they come up. Saving things for a later day is too often saving them for never; freedom to choose in life hits an early peak and then steadily decreases — until the very end, when you gain the freedom that comes with loss. That is, once you have a house and pets and a family and a career you want to keep, it becomes much harder to travel the world — until you lose all of those things. So if you have the chance to travel, do it.
Another is to pay attention: look around you. Take your time: you actually have quite a lot of it, and it will feel like more if you pay attention. I recommend walking, often, with your eyes and ears open to your surroundings.
Another is to read, and to keep learning. Doesn’t matter what you read, doesn’t matter what you learn; if you read the conspiracy theory websites that show how the Rothschilds are behind the measles outbreak, at least you’ll learn how crazy people are — and if you believe what you read, then the rest of us can learn to avoid talking to you, which is really for the best.
An important habit related to both of those is to always question. Question yourself, question your world, question your assumptions. You have to be careful not to take this to the point of permanent uncertainty and anxiety, but that has more to do with knowing when to trust the answers you get or the answers you make, and to move on to a different question; you can always come back to this question later. (Example: should I have written this blog? Is this too long? Is it a terrible topic, that everyone will find boring? Do I seem too arrogant, giving everyone advice? Well, I’ve written this much, and I don’t have a better idea, so — here it is. If I lose readers because of it, so be it. I’ll write something short and pleasant tomorrow. Also, I’ll hopefully get some feedback on this, which will help me know if it was the right thing to do. Also, please comment and Like content you enjoy, always. One of the best things to happen to me in the last few months was when someone read my book and sent me a comment telling me how much they liked it. I’m still floating from that one.)
Actually, that’s a real piece of advice: speak up. Do it in writing, do it anonymously if you are uncomfortable with direct conversation and confrontation; I certainly do, and I do almost all of my talking through a computer keyboard. I even write letters to my students when I want to chew them out, and you know what? INCREDIBLY effective. Feels much more formal and serious when I tell them in a letter that I’m sick of their bad behavior. Highly recommend it. But: speak. Up. Always. Positive and negative. When you are grateful that someone did something nice, say it — not just “Thank you,” but “I appreciate the way you gave me that/helped out with that/did that nice thing.” Tell your loved ones not only that you love them, but also what you love about them. As often as you think of it, say it. When someone angers you or upsets you, say something. When someone makes you uncomfortable, say something. Don’t suffer in silence: say it. Always. The worst case scenario is that you’ll be a pathetic whiny sniveler, and this way, the rest of us will know that and avoid you: so then everyone wins.
Well, except you.
But that’s what you get for being a whiny sniveler.
Last thing, and it’s not cheerful, but it’s true, and it’s important: people love telling younger people that life gets harder, that high school is nothing compared to college, and that college is nothing compared to the real world. I heard that all through school — “When you get to high school, it’s going to be MUCH harder . . . When you get to college, that’s when school/professors/assignments/grades get REALLY hard . . . When you get out into “the real world,” you’ll see how much better you had it while you were still a student!” — and I’m sure you’ve heard it too.
Well, here’s your last truth from me: it’s all bullshit.
Every stage of life is hard. And every stage of life has rewards that make it bearable. College is harder than high school academically; but the freedom you gain, the agency and control over your own life, makes it worthwhile. Also, you get to meet much better people. That same combined difficulty and reward comes with moving out of school and into the world of jobs and such — whether you make that transition after high school or after college doesn’t matter, it’s always the same — you gain more responsibilities, but also more power. The power gives you more freedom and more agency — you earn your own money and you can spend it how you want, for instance — but the responsibilities reduce that freedom, as well.
It’s always like that. When you are older you will probably have more financial security, but your health will probably be worse, and you’ll be aware of your dwindling years to enjoy your life. When you are young, you have all the time in the world — and too much of it has to be spent struggling.
I’m not saying this to depress you, just to let you know: it doesn’t get worse. In most ways, it gets better, because even though there are troubles to weigh down your joys, there is something else that happens as you go through life: you get stronger. Whatever does not kill you, right? It’s true: you get stronger every single day you are alive. It doesn’t make the troubles you face less — but it means you have an easier time handling them. And as long as you keep your eyes open, and take the time to recognize what you have, your happinesses will seem greater. I am happier now than I have been at any time in my past. Last year I would have said the same thing. Ten years ago I would have said the same thing. (Not nine years ago, though. That was a shitty year. But you can’t avoid those, so don’t worry about them. Try to get through them, that’s the best you can do.)
I’m going to end this with my attempt to make my own cliché — but because I thought of it, I actually find it much too annoying to just say; so I’m going to say it with memes. (Another piece of writer’s and teacher’s advice: know your audience.)
They tell us to never give up — but sometimes, giving up means you can walk away, and go find something better to try. So the best way to look at this is:
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.