I’m a teacher.
I should be at graduation tonight, but of course the ceremony has been cancelled like most similar events these days. I will miss seeing my students cross the stage. I usually volunteer as an usher so all of the graduates have to pass by me, giving me an extra moment for a quick congratulatory hug or handshake with the ones I know best. I will miss that. I will miss trying to keep the aisle clear of the proud parent or spouse that wants to kneel and block the aisle to get an extra photo of their loved one. I will miss the graduate who decided to wear shorts and flip flops under his gown, making us all question if we’re about to get flashed like in that 1980s teen comedy. I will miss the graduate who decided to wear the 5 inch stiletto heels, making her journey across the stage much longer and more entertaining than her classmates. I will miss the candy I hide in the sleeves of my gown for snacking and sharing. I will miss seeing a colleague present a diploma to their child who happens to be graduating tonight. I will miss the awkward politically correct “non-prayer” early in the ceremony that always includes something about a deer and a lake or mountains and always ends with a long silence until someone’s uncle in the crowd questions in a southern drawl loud enough for all to hear, “ Uh…AMEN?” I will miss seeing a parent and child graduate together. I’ll miss seeing the face of an embarrassed grad whose family cheers for a full minute after their name is read. I will miss a small voice in the back of the crowd that brings a collective tear of joy to the room with a perfectly timed “I LOVE YOU MOMMY!” That’s good stuff. I really hate that my students and their families will miss out on that tonight.
I teach at a two year college. Most of those that would have walked the stage tonight are no strangers to adversity. Those that began their college career in the Fall of 2018 had their first semester of college interrupted by a devastating category 5 hurricane that ravaged our community. In fact, if we had held graduation today there would have been two ceremonies held in a ballroom in a conference center, since the only venue in the area large enough to hold graduation was destroyed by the hurricane. Now, in their final semester, these students find themselves once again in uncharted territory, and like the rest of the world, in the midst of a global pandemic. To say these students have been through a lot in the last 18 months would be an understatement.
I wonder what the commencement speaker planned to say to tonight’s graduates. Maybe some clever puns about 2020 vision or hindsight. Maybe a couple well placed quotes. Maybe even recite some song lyrics or show some memes on the screen about toilet paper.
What would I say if they asked me to address my graduating students? To be clear, I was not asked, but if I was, I guess I would say some of these things:
(Insert generic required thank yous to important people in attendance)
(Check for typos before putting online, consider changing the order of some of the following):
Be kind to yourself and others. Most people are doing the best they know how to do. Some people around you are fighting invisible battles you’ve never dreamed of. Some of you are fighting those battles right now, but you are here anyway. That is to be commended.
In your future, the people in charge won’t always know more than you. This comes as no surprise to those of you that have returned to college later in life. But for some of you, this will come as a bit of a shock because up until this point, your teachers and parents generally have known more than you about most things, but you will quickly find yourself saying “How is that person in charge of anything?” It’s okay to feel that way. The truth is most of us are faking it. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others, but we all have moments of self-doubt. The trick is to keep going anyway, but be open to advice and counsel. Truth be told, I often feel like a kid in my dad’s shoes and out of my league working with people that are smarter and wiser and more talented than I am. That’s actually a good thing. You want to try and surround yourself with people that will raise the bar for you. If you are a runner and want to get faster, you have to run with people that are faster than you. It does nobody any good to be the best at what they do. If you find yourself in that situation, find people that will challenge you and help you grow personally and professionally.
Don’t wait for it to get easier before you start something important. It may never get easier. Some of you already know that all too well. I know some of you are lacking confidence, but confidence comes from experience and the only way to get experience is to get out there and do it. Show up. Do the work. Put in the time.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing can make you better, but only if you choose to learn from the times you miss the mark. (Insert cliche about Michael Jordan being cut from his high school team or some other tired inspirational analogy.) Also, don’t be afraid to admit when you mess up. You will mess up. A lot.
For some of you, completing your degree is one of the hardest things you have ever done. Maybe you are the first person in your family to go to college. Maybe you are working full time and supporting a family. Maybe you were 20 years older than everyone else in your classes. Nothing wrong with that. My first two years teaching here, we had a couple in their 70s that went through the program. What a fantastic experience for all of us involved. Diversity is a gift.
For some of you college was actually pretty easy so far. You didn’t have to study that much or have the added challenge of balancing work, school and family. Don’t worry, your time is coming. Actually, we have been lying to you. I hate to admit that, but it’s true. Remember in elementary school when they said, “When you get to middle school, they aren’t going to hold your hand.”? They did. Then in middle school they said, “When you get to high school they aren’t going to hold your hand.” They did. Then in high school they said, “When you get to college they aren’t going to hold your hand.” Well, we have sometimes held your hand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as you know the next part. When WE say “When you get into the real world they aren’t going to hold your hand” we really mean it. It’s the one time we are not lying. Be prepared for that one.
Travel. See the world. Spend time with people that see the world differently than you. Most of us are guilty of living in carefully curated bubbles and delete the voices that don’t speak a truth we already believe and understand. If money and circumstances won’t allow you to physically travel, you can travel and experience the world through books, film, art and music. Hopefully you’ve been exposed to some of that during your time here.
Work at being present. Too often we get so caught up in what’s next that we miss the journey. Or we get so stuck in the past that we can’t experience the now. Being present. It’s a constant struggle. I have an 11 year old son. All he really wants is for me to be with him and when I’m with him to actually be present. Not just physically, but mentally. Hopefully you’ve had some time to reflect during this forced worldwide slowdown. I’ve enjoyed reading for pleasure and gardening. Never thought I’d enjoy growing things, but it’s been a real joy. What have you been doing? Know that in the future you may have to create those times for yourself. Time to pause and reflect and recharge. It will be essential.
After you graduate, people are going to constantly ask you what you are doing next. It’s okay not to know. It’s also okay if you discover in the near future that the thing you always thought you wanted, you don’t want any more. Life is full of choices and you can always make a new one.
If there is one thing that’s become abundantly clear lately, it’s that we are not in charge. Mother nature has certainly made that clear in the recent past and present. For all our planning, life throws some major curve balls our way. Right now, it’s easy to feel like our curve ball is more dangerous than ones thrown to others, but there is no temperature check on grief and loss. Your loss is not less significant just because someone else has lost more.
You’re not going to know all the answers. That’s okay. We’ve done our best to prepare you for the next step, but the truth is none of us know what will come next. We hope the lessons you’ve learned in our time together will serve you well. I know that you have taught me as much as I have taught you. Maybe more. Secret: That’s why I became a teacher.
Oh yes! I almost forgot. For my theatre students: if I teach you nothing else, please remember that the past tense of “cast” is “cast”, not “casted”. I lose sleep over that one and if anyone ever asks you to do “a little skit” run away. Run far, far, away.
In conclusion, (that’s always the best part of any speech, I can’t believe you are still reading this) It must be tremendously intimidating to be graduating at a time of such massive unemployment, but a wise man who has proven to be an exceptional leader in my life, especially over the past 18 months, once said “Your job is what you do, not who you are. Work on the parts of you that are not the job” Education is vital and jobs are important, but don’t get so wrapped up in getting the job and doing the job that you become the job. Don’t neglect your mental and physical and spiritual health. I’m still working on this one. I bet I’m not alone.
In the end, I think most things in life come down to choosing between two things. Love or Fear. I know the future is uncertain. It always is. But, when in doubt, choose Love.
Congratulations on this important milestone. I am honored to have been one of your teachers and I think I can safely say on behalf of my colleagues that we have been honored to share this part of your journey with you. We are so excited for what the future has in store for you. Keep in touch. We love that.
Be well. Hope to see you soon.
P.S. Our college hopes to hold a rescheduled graduation ceremony in August.