One of the dreams I have is to give the commencement address at a major college or university. I couldn’t care less about the attention or honors that typically accompany such an address. My main goal is one of self-preservation. Considering all my years in college and as a teacher, I’ve heard enough carbon-copy speeches about all the great lessons you learned in high school and how wonderful life will be beyond the hallowed halls of said institution to bore me almost senseless. And, if I’m bored, you can only imagine what the graduates are thinking. With that in mind, I would like to give an address that might have a lasting impact on people. It would be well-written, but it would not be coddling and rose-colored, as so much of what is shared each May and June is. It might sound something like this:
As I look out upon the rows and rows of caps and gowns, I am honored to be in the midst of a sea of such great potential. The people sitting next to you have begun an educational journey that may lead to a cure for the diseases that ravage our world today or creating a habitat explorers will use they colonize Mars. Perhaps someone in your row will start a company that will revolutionize our daily live. Maybe another person will decide to dedicate his or her life fighting human sex trafficking or providing clean water to a rural village you’ve never heard of. You could even have a future senator or president sitting nearby.
While these are all lofty goals, and I wish you all the best as you strive for whatever passion will provide success for you and those around you, that’s not the purpose of my comments today. The reason I mentioned the great jobs people in your seats always fantasize about is because I know that’s what you expect to hear at events like this. And, if you were listening instead of being glued to your social media right now (or is there another reason you are looking down at your lap with such intensity? If so, please keep it to yourself), you would expect me to tell you how to reach for those dreams.
So, let’s take a couple minutes away from the totally awesome affects you are adding to your mug that you’re about to share with 500 of your closest friends to be honest with each other. Don’t worry. You’ll get a chance to add that cute animal nose and tongue to your goofy smile soon enough.
Your classmates might be here because they plan to take over the world, but some of you made it out of bed today because Mom and Dad have mortgaged the house grew up in so you could achieve the dream of a better life they have for you. Your grades were OK, but nothing to brag about. You spent more time partying than studying and the sunglasses you’re wearing are not there to block out the sunlight, just to make the hangover from last night’s festivities just a little less painful. College was fun all right, but you’re not sure whether the degree you’re about to earn will help you in any way other than to get you a job you don’t like to pay for bills you didn’t want. You care about the degree you will receive about as much as a hamburger wrapper. It won’t make you happy inside or fill you with a sense of purpose for the next 50 years.
You have a whole host of reasons why things are so bad and you filled to the brim with angst, pain and suffering. And, while those things are important to you, the rest of the world really doesn’t care to hear you bellyache about how you have it so bad. If most of the world lives on less money each day than you spend on your favorite iced coffee, then the only real message of value I have for you is pretty much as follows:
Suck it up, buttercup.
What, I didn’t stroke that precious ego of your or tell you how special you were? No, I did not. Neither will the world. If you believe you are owed something, then you are in for a rather rude awakening, because the world around you does not share your sense of entitlement.
If you look a couple rows in front of you, maybe you can see a young woman you had in a couple of your classes. She’s the daughter of immigrants who is the first in her family to go to college in America. Her parents gave up important jobs in their home country to chase the American Dream and she works in her family’s restaurant every night to help pay the bills to go to this institution of higher learning. You live on campus, but she takes two buses to get here and the only reason she misses class is when one of those mass transit vehicles breaks down. She’s going to be a pediatric nurse because she remembers how caring and compassionate one was when her younger brother was diagnosed with cancer.
You might accuse me of concocting clichéd generalizations engineered to make you feel bad. Well, I’ve been teaching, and living, long enough to know, that in any graduating class, there are more stories that would blow your mind than you can possibly imagine. People working jobs all hours of the day and night just to make a life that will have some meaning.
Now, others would tell you to go out and change the world, but I’m not going to do that, because I know most of you won’t. Most of us don’t cure cancer or lead the free world. Most of us have jobs nobody would ever talk about on the news. Most of us get by making our difference, not on the whole world, but on our portion of it. We work hard, love our friends and family and help the next generation be better than the one before. That’s what it means to be human.
That’s not to say that you won’t change the world. That’s the best part about starting a new chapter of your life. You have the chance to write your own future. As a writer, I can tell you how easy it is to tell a story where the hero slays the dragon and saves the girl, but if you don’t hit a couple of obstacles along the way, nobody will want to read your story because it lacks reality. Victories are all the sweeter when they have been tarnished by struggle and strife.
Now, while the alumni office might not be so keen about the idea, I have no problem if you find yourself in a decade working as an assistant manager at a big-box store, so long as you have a good reason for it. Maybe you discovered that you want to work your way up the corporate ladder because you believe in the vision of the company. Maybe you’re working a job you don’t love to help put a spouse through school or pay the medical bills of a parent.
But, so help me, if you’re in a job you don’t like and you start to whine about how life is unfair and that you had so much potential, but that the world has it out for you, so help me I’ll ball up my fist and… do absolutely nothing about it. Why, first off because I’d rather not be arrested for assault and battery. I’m short, sarcastic and haven’t been in a fight since 4th grade. I wouldn’t last long in prison.
But seriously, the main reason why I wouldn’t resort to violence is because that’s not what I want the next chapter of my life to be about. I want to make people laugh while they learn, tell a story or two and love the people who have been placed in my life.
You have the opportunity, starting today, to have the best life imaginable, to have one filled with self-absorption and misery or something between.
The beauty of this life is that while you don’t always get to control what happens, you can control how you respond to it. That’s the part of the tale you get to compose.
The question remains: for the next chapter of your life, what kind of story will you write?
I am quite sure I would be banished from said campus for life, but it would be so worth it.