And just like that, it is graduation season! My Facebook pages are brimming with pictures of young people, small and tall, cloaked in the traditional garb of commencement as they anticipate the next step – be it kindergarten, a paid job with benefits, or somewhere between. Former student Shelby Faulkner Brown has received a master’s degree as has my longtime international tutee Natalia Khomutova, now studying in California. And the University of Dayton Class of 2020 last week reconvened on campus for their in-person commencement exercises postponed by the pandemic!
Even as graduates of all ages lean into their particular futures, moms and dads dab at tear-filled eyes, bewildered by the warp speed at which their newborns have sailed through yet another stage of youngsterhood, unbelievably poised as they are to reach for the next rung of life’s ladder.
And so we celebrate with pomp and parties and circumstance. Part of each ceremony – along with diploma distribution, tassel turning, and cap tossing – are the speeches. In fifty years of commencement attendance, I heard almost two hundred graduation orations – including my own, on the stage in what is now the old GHS gym. Each institution follows longstanding traditions of speakers and speeches: some invite noted public figures to deliver inspirational messages while others depend on school superintendents or university presidents to provide parting words of encouragement. I like it best when class members, designated by academic achievement or class selection, address classmates and other assembled audience members.
Being as opinionated and obstinate at 18 as I still am at 74, I vaguely recall my graduation speech based on the clearly-impactful book about American race relations we read in Richard Snarr’s senior government class: Crisis in Black and White by Charles Silberman. Other more traditional speakers before and since often chose topics such as setting goals, facing adversity, dreams, journeys, gratitude – the list of themes is lengthy.
But I am now on the other side of my time on this planet, perhaps a wiser and certainly a more experienced hearer of speeches. With one more chance at the podium, I would discuss the topic of success: how success does not necessarily involve such nouns as celebrity and achievement or the adjectives of wealthy and influential. I would explain that the more verb-related concept of succeeding – credited variously to historical essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bessie A. Stanley – remains equally applicable to the often-turbulent times in which we live.
To laugh often and much: Used in proper measure with appropriate timing, laughter is a natural way to relate to others, providing possibilities for agreement – in place of our current judgmental tendencies precluding any hope of mutual understanding.
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children: I prefer to surround myself with knowledgeable individuals willing to think for themselves after considering a range of viewpoints. And the innocence of children with their directness and truthfulness remains for me an anchor of calm and hope. When in doubt, ask a four-year-old!
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends: The former are absolutely necessary to our lives, the latter an unfortunate reality of life. Accepting both groups for what they are helps us grow into the people we ourselves strive to be.
To appreciate beauty: It is not difficult to find a plethora of ugly situations in our modern world, but I contend beauty is more accessible, more plentiful, more abundant than all malice, nastiness, and repugnance combined. Focusing regularly on the resplendence of nature, sharing a special moment with an intimate friend, creating something by one’s own hand, reviving and reliving a delicious memory…beauty surrounds us, just waiting to be acknowledged and treasured.
To find the best in others: is the best way to find the best in ourselves. And we should never stop looking.
To leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, a redeemed social condition: This section of the essay is my favorite. Any young person in our lives is our gift to society and the future – let us always do our best for them and with them. A garden patch, regular visits with a lonely friend, groceries donated to the local food bank, random acts of kindness – it takes so little time to make such a big difference. And by simply smiling at those around us just because they are fellow human beings, we take the first step in redeeming our shared social condition.
To know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here: What an accomplishment, not only available to the rich, the famous, the well-positioned, the fortunate. Every single person in any situation can in some measure lessen the burden of life for a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend, a relative. What a world to imagine – and to occupy: where each person is looking to improve life for someone else!
This is to have succeeded: This old English teacher considers “success” something to have and “successful” a way to feel. I would much rather “succeed” by my actions, as small or insignificant as they may seem at the time…
Congratulations to the Class of 2022, regardless of age or grade in school. But congratulations also to all preceding classes. All of us can resolve for ourselves, others, and our world to succeed by action and deed. Let’s try!