“If I Were Delivering a High School Commencement Address”
I was invited to a high school graduation this year, and getting the invitation brought back memories of my own graduation — which was so long ago that many of the parents of the class of 2016 had not even been born.
I don’t remember who gave the commencement address when I graduated from high school. I’m sure the speaker mentioned something about it being a new beginning — that’s why they call it a commencement — and I bet he said something about values and ethical responsibility while in pursuit of the American Dream.
The last high school graduation I attended was a year ago. There is no way I can compare that graduation to my own orderly, sedate ceremony. Last year I was struck by the lack of respect the graduates showed for anyone who had the misfortune to stand on the podium and try to give an address — including their classmates. While waiting for their names to be called, the graduates punched at beach balls or blew up and released balloons, unless they were busy texting.
Friends and family members in the audience hooted, hollered, beat drums, tooted horns, danced, and waved banners as if their graduate has just been named Time’s “Person of the Year.”
No one has ever asked me, but I am picturing myself giving the commencement address to this year’s high school graduates.
Dear Class of 2016,
Get over yourselves. You haven’t accomplished anything, unless your relatives in the stands are partying because they never expected you to make it this far. Today, you are one of the Campbell soup cans in Andy Warhol’s 1962 painting. Warhol was trying to show the repetition and uniformity in our society — a phenomenon that is probably truer in high school than anywhere else. If you think having the right hall pass is restrictive, wait until you run into the tyranny of a time clock.
This is not to say that some of you haven’t distinguished yourselves. Congratulations to those who have. You deserve whatever recognition you’ve received. The rest of you — well, you may not be the best and the brightest, but you can be, if you start to recognize that the world is bigger than the screen on your cell phone.
Think of your diploma as a sculptor’s hammer. Your job is to chip away at injustice, poverty, prejudice, corruption and dishonesty. Many Americans mistrust our major institutions, such as government, banks, big corporations, and even religion. There is nothing basically wrong with our institutions. The problem is the people running them. So you have to be better than they are. Better than we were. Because, you see, we didn’t fulfill our potential. It’s gone. Yours is still ahead of you.
Recognize that there is evil in the world. There is good, too. More importantly, there is good in you. You have to dig deep within yourself to find it. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn said, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart.” Read books. That’s where you’ll find all the great quotes like the one from Solzhenitsyn.
Every generation thinks it will be the one to save the world. The difference between your generation and mine is that yours can still do it. So hold fast to the hope for a better world.
The toughest, meanest teacher you think you had will seem like Mother Teresa compared to some of the bosses you will have. Let me be the first to tell you that a dead-end job is not a career.
Be prepared to face deceit, compromise, and cowardliness, not only in others, but also in yourself. Be kind to others before you take care of yourself. Make whomever you are with feel as if they matter. Sometimes it takes a long time to learn that.
If I were addressing today’s graduates I would say: Speak one true thing every day. Savor friends. Above all, learn to forgive. The poet said, “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” See, another great quote from a book.
Be prepared to be disappointed by people, and be prepared to be a disappointment to others. Plato, the philosopher, not Mickey’s dog, said that, “In everyone’s life, no matter how good their intent, there are people they made suffer.”
To you young women: Walk straighter. Stand taller. Listen to little ones. Revel in the gentle strength of your gender. To you young men: Treat women well. Treat them with tenderness. Honor their compassion. Recognize and respond to their graceful endurance. To all of you: If you are fortunate enough to have your mother in the stands, wave to her, for you may never again enjoy the depth and breadth of the unconditional love that you receive from her.
Congratulations Class of 2016. May all your dreams come true.
by Jerry Gervase