Monday, June 6, 2011

Commencement: Conquering a Fear

Board members, faculty, staff, parents, friends and family, graduates. It is a great honor to be standing before you on this special day.

I know it is said that time flies as you get older, and I always thought that was just a sneaky way less youthful people covered themselves after forgetting something, but in my advanced age (my birthday was yesterday) and wisdom, I have found it to be true. I blinked one day, and my daughter sprouted from a preschool student to a high school student, and the same thing has happened with you, graduates.

It truly does seem like yesterday that I met some of you for the first time, as you walked into my classroom on your first day of high school. Some of you were my STAR [homeroom] students, and some were World History or Creative Writing students. I remember how large your eyes were, how some of you stared around the classroom in awe, and how attentively you listened to me explain the rules of my classroom. It didn't take long for that shine of newness to wear off and soon you showed me who you truly were: not scared, shy freshmen, but young people who were (for the most part) ready to learn and ready to become a part of Napoleon history.

Time passed, and you grew older. Some of you went on to win praise from teachers for academic achievements. Some went on to win cheers on the field or the court or the track. Some won accolades for your art. Some of you kept your brilliance to yourself, but all of you cast a glow on your four years with us, and it is with a mixture of both pride and sadness that we watch you leave.

I look out at your faces, graduates, and I see the future sitting before me. And you are just as brilliant, just as eager for that future as you were four years ago—maybe more so. I look out at you and see tomorrow's lawyers and businessmen who are very very good at persuasion, some computer engineers, a baker or two, a professional golfer who really should trust me and buy some plaid pants, a couple of guys who will make tons of money playing video games if only they can figure out how, teachers, musicians, artists, movie critics. I see cosmetologists and machinists, construction engineers and nurses. You are our future, graduates, and we are so proud of you.

For some reason, I was afforded the great honor of giving the commencement address today. In a tiny part of my heart, I can't help but wonder if you graduates are sadistic people who enjoy torture. I am pretty sure I was quite clear last year when I said, looking certain of you straight in the eye: "I do not want to give the commencement address. I do not like speaking in public." Despite that, you asked, and I could not say no.

But then another part--a larger and wiser piece of my heart--told that whimpering tiny part of me that maybe you didn't ask me out of sadism but out of something else. Maybe you asked me to speak because you liked being in my class and you wanted to hear, one more time, what I have to say to you.

So this is what I have to say: I have discovered the key to happiness, and I am here to share it with you today.

Now I am not a millionaire and I will probably never be one. And when I googled myself , I only got 192 hits (which is actually not bad! I was pretty impressed!), so I'm not really famous outside of Jackson County. Or even in it, probably.

But even though I'm not on a list in Time or People or Forbes magazines, I have found a measure of success and the secret to living a happy life. Here it is: love one another.

You probably thought it was going to be more flashy, but I really think it is that simple. Here's why: when you walked into my classroom, I showed you that I care about you. I listened to you, I helped you fix your essays and figure out your relationships, I hugged you when you needed a hug. That's love, people, the kind of love I'm talking about. And in return, most of you probably found that the vibe in room 132 was a happy one, a safe and comfortable one, where learning could happen.

Loving others makes me happy, and I have found that that sort of happiness is contagious. So, here is my advice: when you talk with people—new friends or old, family or co-workers, find a way to love them. Look for the good in others and open your arms and your minds to the possibility that learning about people and sharing in their lives is more important than talking about yourself.

When you leave this place today, if you take that philosophy with you, you'll be on the road to happiness. Because when you love others, they usually love you back, and soon you'll find that your heart is overflowing with goodwill and you can't stop smiling.

I can't share any reputable journal articles with you proving my theory about the key to happiness, and I don't have scientific data to back this up. I'm just telling you what I have found to be true. When you meet new people, listen to them. Show them you care by shutting up about yourself and letting them talk. Give lots of hugs. Smile often. Appreciate what you have and stop wishing for more. Enjoy each moment. This is how I live my life, and it has brought me great joy and the success of being content with who I am. I pray it will work for you.

Now I can't sit down before I mention a few other words of advice and encouragement. I'm a happy person, but I'm also an observant person, and aside from watching for the bake sale carts, I like to watch people. I notice things. And I've noticed a few things about you that you might want to take into consideration.

Some of you would do well to find a hobby. It is so easy to waste time, to let yourself get distracted by your phone, your facebook, your games, your whatever. But haven't you ever found yourself blinking away the haze that settles when you've lost yourself in these mindless pursuits and thought, where has the time gone? Has it really been four hours? What have I accomplished? I'm telling you, it will be a very sad day if one day you blink and it is not just four hours that have passed but four years—or more. So find something constructive to do with your time, like a job. Study for your college classes. Read a book or play an instrument. Spend time with loved ones.

Some of you would do well to take more pride in who you are. Some of you have already figured this out, but I'm talking to those of you who haven't. You have talent, you have worth, you have gifts. I have seen them. Discover what they are and be proud of them. Don't worry about what other people think of you; celebrate yourself.

Some of you would do well to stop worrying about things you can't fix. There will always be troubles in the world, and there will always be tasks that are overwhelming or people who are too demanding. There will be days when your future looks bleak and hopeless, when you go to bed at night and wonder how you can possibly please everyone and accomplish everything you need to do the next day. But you can't worry about that. Worrying accomplishes nothing positive—it only makes you feel less capable and less confident. Instead, try to set your fears aside, breathe deeply, and meet the task as best you can. Sacrifice what is impossible for what is possible and do your best with that.

As I close today, I want you to know that we all have high hopes for you. As I said earlier, from the first day I met you, I knew that you were special. That you were destined for greatness. And you have fulfilled that early promise.

But in the four years you've spent in high school, as you've learned tough lessons and faced challenges that have brought you crying to your knees, some of you may have lost a little bit of that eagerness, that bright-eyed enthusiasm you had four years ago. I challenge you to find it again. Be shining examples in the world, showing them what it means to be a graduate of Napoleon High School. Your senior year is over, and your life is before you.

Reach for it, grasp it firmly, open your heart and your eyes to love, and follow that bright vision. I can't wait to see where it takes you.

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