A High School Commencement
Address       tom walsh

  

The following commencement address was delivered at Glenns Ferry High School, in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, in May of 2016, to a wonderful group of young people.

     Your invitation to me to come to speak to you is quite an honor, and I very much appreciate it.  When I received it, my first thought was simply that—that it was a great honor and an important responsibility.  Then, when I sat down to come up with an outline, I realized something more—you guys had just given me a writing assignment.  And not only that, but you’ve turned the assignment into a presentation as well, which of course makes it a speech assignment with a much larger audience than a classroom.  I guess the only thing that I can say to that is:  very well played.
     A very special evening of your life is here.  In this room during the course of less than 100 minutes, you’re in the process of writing the final words of a very important chapter of your lives. As you walk out of this place very soon, you’ll be starting to write a completely new chapter and to play a completely different role in your life. You’ve reached a point at which you’re going to start contributing to the world—or taking from it, if you so choose—on your own terms, and your contribution is going to be what will make you and your life special over the next few years.

     You won’t notice any changes immediately. You’ll wake up tomorrow morning and things will feel the same. You’ll have the same bowl of cereal and listen to the same songs and say good morning to your family just as you’ve been doing for years, but there will be absolutely no doubt—and no denying—that your high school years are over and that you have an opportunity now to move on with your life and use your new situations to start becoming the person that you’ve been put on this planet to become.
     And let me warn you—very few people actually become the persons that they were meant to be. Most of us become something else, not following our dreams or our passions or our skills or our talents. You have the chance right now to decide that you will become the person whom you were made to be. You’ll have that same chance tomorrow and the next day, you’ll have it next year, and you’ll even have it thirty years from now if you still haven’t become that person, but the sooner that you make the decision to work towards that goal, the more likely you’ll be to actually reach it one day.
     This is a huge responsibility, but only if you choose to consider it such.  Nobody can force you to take on such a responsibility. You’ve seen plenty of films and heard songs and read stories about making the most of your life and making your life special, but now that you’re going to have not just the opportunity but the requirement to make more of your own choices in life, your decisions are going to be consistently more involved with long-term effects on your life. So far, much of the direction of your life has been determined by decisions made by others—by parents, teachers, coaches, and a whole slew of other people who have hopefully had your best interests in mind.
     But the next few chapters of your lives are going to be written by the decisions that you’ll be making increasingly on your own. And while the chapters until now might have been simple prose, you have the choice now of making your life a stunning piece of poetry, an amazing piece of visual art, or a play to put Shakespeare to shame—it’s going to be your choice.
     And this is where a speech like this gets tricky. Because no matter how much I might want to give you advice on how to make your lives happy and fulfilling, I simply do not know your world well enough to give advice on how to live your lives in it. Your generation has grown up in a time during which life is significantly different than life was when I was your age, and your future will take place in a world that’s very different than our world of today. Many of the jobs that you’ll make your careers haven’t even been invented yet. Many of the companies for which you’ll be working do not yet exist. Many of the technologies that you’ll be using every single day do not yet exist, or are in such early stages of development that they aren’t used regularly yet by anyone.
     It used to be that advice from an elder—and yes, I am an elder now, I must admit—to a younger person meant a great deal because that younger person was bound by circumstance to lead a life that was very similar to that of his or her predecessors. That is no longer the case for the vast majority of us.
     I would love to tell you exactly how to write the next chapter of your life so that you’ll become happier and more fulfilled human beings, but how can I do so when my own experiences are so far removed from yours? Yes, I know about the Internet and I know about 3D printing and virtual realities and I’ve been using the Internet for almost 20 years now, but I’m experiencing these things as an adult who was already well into my career as an educator when they came along. They’re side roads that provide me with useful and helpful and entertaining information, but they’re not the main road that has helped to define my life.
     Your generation is the first to live your entire lives in a world that offers constant access to almost unlimited information and constant exposure to screens of different sizes attached to processors that are growing increasingly stronger, faster, and more reliable. Yours is the first generation to be tracked mercilessly by marketers, followed and analyzed not necessarily by human beings, but by computer applications that have no way of caring for you or about you at all—they track you solely so that other human beings can sell you more goods more effectively and make more profit from you.
     Your world is different than mine was. And because of that difference, I decided to ask the students of a seminar that I taught at MSU this past semester, students who were finishing their first year of college, what advice they would have liked to have heard—and to have heeded—at their own commencement ceremonies just one year ago. You would really like these people. They’re very much like you—intelligent and caring and full of hopes and dreams and fears, just like you. And they’re speaking to you one year after their own commencement ceremonies, sharing with you what they consider to be the best advice they can give you.
     The first thing they wanted you to know is that there’s no reason at all for you to have to know what you’re going to do with your life right now. You have a lot of learning ahead of you, much of which will involve learning about your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, your passions and your dreams. Some of the dreams that you’ll have in your future haven’t entered your mind yet simply because you haven’t taken a certain class or worked at a certain job or visited a certain place yet, but I can guarantee you that your entire world will open up in different directions once you do.
     If you had told me at my own high school graduation that I would one day be in the Army, I probably would have laughed. After growing up in a military family and not being particularly fond of it, I had no idea that nine years later I would join the Army for four years and learning an amazing amount from the experience. At my high school graduation I had no idea that I would end up living in Europe for five years.
     I never even considered teaching as a career until after my first master’s degree, and now I’ve spent 25 years doing a job that I love dearly. So don’t hurry with your decisions, and once you make them, keep yourself open to the possibility of change. You may start college as a nursing major, yet end up doing medical research because you find that you’re really good at it and you love doing it. You may start working on car engines and move on to working on airplane engines later because the technology involved fascinates you. Our daughter worked in banks for seven years after high school, a job that allowed her to explore many different things that she loved to do, and now she’s studying to become a professional photographer.
     Which leads to another piece of advice that they would give you—explore ways to follow your passions in life. You have been created as a completely unique individual with a completely unique set of likes and dislikes, skills and weaknesses. If you spend your life working in a field that you don’t care about or at a job that caters to your weaknesses, then guess what? Take the time necessary to find out what your true skills and strengths are, and then use them to make a living for yourself and for the families that you may have one day.
     And as you search for your skills and passions, they also want you to remember to trust yourself—not just your knowledge and your logic, but your heart and your intuition. You’ve been given an amazing brain that is capable not just of receiving and interpreting information, but that’s also capable of relating what you know to your own life, your own wants and needs, your own fears and dreams and capabilities and limitations, and you have a heart that adds in the extremely important elements of love and intuition, which very often are much more trustworthy than anything that your brain can come up with.
     We live in a society that tends not to value the power of the heart. We want everything to be quantified and scored and compared against the means and the standard deviations. We want support for every claim, and we don’t want to hear anything that hasn’t been “proved” by science. I made my decision to become a teacher because it felt right—I certainly didn’t do a lot of research that showed me just how rich I would become as a teacher.  We’re growing farther and farther away from our natural state, the state in which we understood more about nature and more about life. As we use and trust our intuition less, it grows weaker—but you’re still young, so I would encourage you not to let your intuition die, but to use it as much as you can and trust it like the faithful friend that it is. Some of the most important decisions that you’ll ever make will be made with your heart, and they’ll tend to be the decisions that you can most rely on to be the best decisions for you and for the people you love.

     More than likely, you’re going to think that the next piece of advice comes from me, but I promise you, it comes from the students. And you’re going to love it:  Leave your cell phones home.  A lot.  What impressed me the most about the discussion we had about this advice was that it didn’t focus on the negative aspects of being addicted to the cell phone, but the positive aspects of not having it with you. They said that they were able to focus much better on their studies and that they were able to have much better conversations with their friends when there was no chance of feeling a need to answer a phone or to send a text message or to check social media to see what’s going on there.  In short, when they don’t have their phones with them, they’re able to pay much more attention to the world around them—and they seemed surprised to have learned that the world around them is a beautiful, magical, fascinating place that they simply hadn’t given a chance in the years since they got their phones.  Give the world and the people around you a chance, and leave that phone home.

     A lot.
     They had more for you, but our time is growing shorter.
     Finally, I’d like to leave you with a couple of important ideas that I hope can prove to be helpful to you.  All the advice in the world can be completely useless if we don’t have any practical strategies for putting it into practice.
     Most of life basically comes down to making decisions.  And the decisions that we make basically fall into two categories:  actions and reactions.  In my life, I’ve found three strategies for making decisions that have proved to be extremely useful.  And if you have useful strategies for decision-making, much of your life’s story will flow much more smoothly than it would if you were to have to spend tons of time and energy agonizing over the options that life presents to you.
     My personal strategies have been developed by studying the strategies of many other people who are much wiser than I, and they consist of three simple questions that can be modified to fit almost any situation in my life.
     The first one has to do with my contribution to the world.  In any given situation, we’re helping something to grow, and we’re keeping something else from growing.  Interestingly enough, most of what we think are actions are really reactions.  This question addresses my possible reactions.
     When someone does something that upsets me, or when they do something that annoys me, I have to keep in mind that my decision of how to react is my choice.  So when someone cuts me off in traffic, do I flip them off and swear at them, or do I let it go?
     The question that I ask myself is, “Am I contributing to the peace in the world or to the anger?”  In my mind, there’s already enough anger in the world, and I don’t have to give it any more.  I want to contribute to the peace.  So I don’t flip them off.  I let it go.
     If someone does something mean or rude to me and I have to decide whether or not to forgive that person, I ask myself, “Am I contributing to the resentment in the world, or am I contributing to the love?”
     Somehow our society has taught us that to contribute to the love and peace by deciding not to “get even” is a sign of weakness.  Never believe that.  Strength and character allow us to turn away from anger and revenge, no matter what other people may think of us.  I’m sure you all remember what Atticus told Scout about courage:  I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting an idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
     The second question has to do with looking at life in retrospect.  I ask myself, when I look back on this situation tomorrow or next week or ten years from now, will I be proud of the decision that I made, or will I regret the decision I’ve made or the actions I’ve taken?”  Will I have faced risks and moved on with my life, or allowed my fear to control me and keep me from doing things that I’ve really wanted to do?
     When I got my bachelor’s degree in Spanish many years ago, I knew that my language skills would never reach the level I wanted them to reach unless I lived in a country where Spanish is spoken all the time.  So I bought a one-way ticket to Spain and ended up living in Europe for three years.  There was only one problem with the plan—I didn’t have any money.  There were several times when I went at least a week living on nothing but a loaf of bread and a block of cheese, but I was able to find work teaching English because of my B.A.  It was easily one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken, but it was also one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, one that has benefited me in innumerable ways.
     When I grow old one day—and no, I’m not quite there yet—I’ll look back on that decision as an extremely important aspect of my life, and I’ll have no regrets about not taking risks.
     My third question is an either/or question.  It’s similar to the first question, but this one focuses on me as a person rather than on the situation or the decision.  It’s quite simple:
     Will I be the person who shows love or the person who shows anger?
     Will I be the person who knows my job well, or the person who just gets by and who makes excuses for my performance?
     Will I be the person who respects myself or the person who allows other people to abuse me?
     Will I be the person who gives a decent-lengthed commencement address, or the person who goes on and on and on without stop?

     These three questions allow me to contribute to the world in positive ways, and help me to become the person that I truly feel I was created to be.
     So let’s get back to you, and how these questions might help you.  The truth is that you are a magnificent creation, but unless you truly believe this fact and decide to respect the being that you are, your magnificence will be lost on the world.
     And make no mistake about it—you can be magnificent as a doctor, as an electrician, as a dental assistant, as a server in a restaurant or as a housewife or househusband.  You can be magnificent as a private in the Army or an Airman, as a police officer or a cashier.  Your magnificence depends mainly upon one thing:  how you treat, and how you contribute to the other human beings who share this planet with us.  It depends on how you share the wonderful gifts that are an essential part of who you are—and each of you has a completely unique combination of gifts with which to work.
     Your magnificence depends, in short, upon how you love the people in your life and how you love this amazing planet that we’ve been given to live on.
     You will be afraid.  Face your fears and move on anyway.
     You will have doubts.  Acknowledge them, accept them, and move past them.
     You will feel lonely and isolated.  Realize that it’s a feeling, though, and not a reality, and accept that feeling as a part of your life.
     People will let you down and betray you.  Accept that fact and keep in mind that the problem is theirs and not yours.  As a result of their actions, you’ve simply learned something more about whom you can place your trust in.

     As you write the rest of your life story, there will be times when you feel discouraged and weak, lonely and afraid, anything but strong and brave.  When that happens, I challenge you to recall this moment, right here and right now.  When you need strength and courage, I challenge you to remember that you are loved.
     This room is full of people who love you dearly and unconditionally.  Some of them have a hard time showing it or ways of showing it that are difficult to understand, but the truth is still quite simple:
     All of the people on this stage love you.
     The other 23 people wearing those robes love you.
     The human beings in the chairs behind you and in the stand to your left and right love you.
     Take that love.  Accept it and allow it to be an integral part of who you are.  When you need strength, when you feel alone, when your courage is waning and your doubts are trying to overwhelm you and keep you down, tap into that love and allow it to hold you high and dry above the floods that are threatening to drown you.
     One of my favorite authors, Rainer Maria Rilke, called those challenges “dragons” when he wrote in a letter, “How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses, who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”
     You are loved, deeply and fully and unconditionally.  That love can help you not just to face the dragons of your life, but to convert them into the princesses that they truly are.
     As you go from this place, take the love that permeates every square inch of this entire town—take it with you and spread it generously in the form of help, of encouragement, of sincere compliments, in the form of understanding and compassion, and what you spread cannot help but come back to you.
     As you leave this place you are commencing a new chapter in your life.  In this new chapter and in all the coming chapters of your future, please, be beautiful and be brave.

  
   


 
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