It was a weird year, to say the least. I was honored to be chosen by the graduating class, back in December of 2019, well before most had heard of Covid, to be the commencement speaker.
Well, it finally happened, in person, for real, in our little community. There were far fewer people than normal, but we gave these graduates what they wanted, and it was beautiful.
Here’s the text of my speech (the video, linked below, has terrible sound; sorry):
Commencement Speech 2020
Graduates, students and staff, parents and other family members, community members, and that guy over there, welcome! A lot of us were wondering, have been wondering, if this ceremony would happen. And here we are. We made it. Usually it’s just the graduates who get to say, “We made it,” and we go, “Yeah, congratulations,” but I think we all need to congratulate ourselves that we all made it here safely. So pat yourselves on the back and then feel free to break out the hand sanitizer…
I’ll try to keep this brief, but those of you who know me know I’ll fail miserably at that. It was pretty hard to write this speech because there’s so much going on. There’s a lot of stuff still up in the air, and so this might seem a bit rambling. But I hope by the end you’ll at least still be awake enough to say, “Thank goodness that’s over!” Anyway, here goes.
The most important thing to me when I was a kid, when it came to trusting people, was that they didn’t talk to me like I was a kid (even though I was). There was something about respect and honesty in that. An adult who spoke to me as though I was intelligent and capable of having a conversation, and that I might have something interesting to say, an idea that might be my own, made me want to engage. As a teacher, I try to be that guy. I don’t always get it right, but I believe all kids have something interesting to say if they want to engage, if they trust me. So, I try to keep it real.
That’s why I can’t stand up here in front of you today, in front of these graduates – some of whom have been keeping it real with me for the last six years – and pretend that the world they’re about to be released into is something it isn’t. It would be dishonest and disrespectful not to say something about the nature of things here. This November, these young citizens will have the huge new responsibility of voting in their first general election, after they’ve entered the workforce and/or started a college career in a society that’s as unstable and scary as any I’ve seen in my lifetime.
First, the pandemic: I think we’ve all learned a lot of things from it so far. Among many other things, I’ve learned that there really should be a limit on how many Doritos one eats in one day. More importantly, I think we’ve all learned that the common good isn’t as common as we’d like to think, and that good is much, much better when it’s common. We’re having this graduation because of the community, which shares its Latin root with the word “common.” These graduates – to their great credit — insisted that the community participate in this ritual because of the good it’s provided them their whole lives here. I’ve lived in lots of different communities and can honestly say that this is a unique, and uniquely good community. It’s common here to see and feel goodness. The fact that this is unique makes me sad for places where it’s not so common to see good, and – increasingly – that’s truer in more places now than not.
I worry for these kids that they’ll encounter a little more reality than they’re expecting when they set out on their journeys. When I went to college, my mom dropped me at the bus station in the small town I grew up in, and she drove away, leaving me and my suitcase sitting on the bench waiting for the bus. After it rolled in, I got on the Greyhound, and about 24 hours later I arrived in the big city where the college was. I’d never been there. I didn’t know where the college actually was and didn’t feel I had enough money for a taxi, so I had to figure out which bus went to the school, which meant I had to figure out where the school was. I tried looking at maps in the station but couldn’t find it. So I had to ask a station attendant, who was pretty rude and unhelpful, but eventually my suitcase and I found the right bus and finally got to campus. It was a lot farther from the city center than I’d expected. I was scared and confused but determined to appear cool. If you know me, you’ll realize how impossible this was, and I’m sure it showed, especially to my east coast roommate whose accent automatically made him much cooler than I. In all of this super intense experience of leaving home and finding my way to college, I never once worried I’d get a virus and die. I never once worried how my mom felt about me leaving home, even though she’d been acting pretty weird my last month there. I never even worried I’d run out of money and have to drop out, or that I couldn’t cut it academically and have to drop out. I never worried someone would betray me on Snapchat or sabotage my Tik Tok (I’m not sure that’s even a thing, but like how it sounds; once again, trying to be cool and probably failing – the curse of adulthood). All I worried about was myself. Many of today’s graduates might be thinking, “He was his own single story, and I sense some danger coming.”
They’d be right: the danger of my single story was that I really upset my mom by leaving but I had no clue (out of spite, I’m sure, she turned my bedroom into her quilting room). So right now, I want to take a second and acknowledge the probably hidden emotional sacrifices that parents are making when sending their kids away to school. As if that’s not hard enough on them, you guys [look at graduates], they’re worried you’re going to get sick. They’re worried you might get caught up in a protest and arrested. They’re worried about your screen time. They’re worried that when you come home for breaks you might not be the same loveable kid because you took some class a little too much like mine and they thought you were past all that nonsense. They’re worried you might find God or lose God. They’re worried you’ll get in a wreck. Let’s face it: they’re just worried. So remember that: this is hard on them. Raising you – and I can say this because I’ve gotten to know you fairly well by now – cannot have been easy, but this is probably harder than even they expected. So right now, I’d like all parents of graduates to stand up and everyone give them a huge thank you and say, “We know this is hard, but it’ll be okay!” [John and Nicole DeVries; Tom and Cindy Wood; Crystal Cisco; Darlene Jordan; Melinda & Matt Harvey; Nick & Sarah Deines]
Lots of commencement speeches focus on words of wisdom for the graduates, things intended to help them succeed in the great wide world. I’m missing the mark on that, if you haven’t noticed, and here’s another miss: besides your parents, your teachers are going to miss you and worry about you. We have cared about you for a long time. “Mrs” who goes by “Missus” has been in this game longer than Methuselah and I’ve seen her care for you in the way she interacts and jokes around with you but calls you on your stuff. Mrs. Nichols and Mrs. Midgley have both clearly been touched by the heart you’ve brought to FFA, student government, and the positive culture you’ve built together for our school. And Mrs. Mink, who was voted “Most Likely To Be Everyone’s Mother” this year – an honor that didn’t surprise me so much until after coming home from a tough day at school I found her in my bedroom folding my socks – has been more than a mother to most of you. And I’ve lost 4,317 hours of sleep and 5.9 gallons of tears over you. So don’t you dare think watching you move on is easy on any of us, either.
If we didn’t madly want the best for all of you, it would be easy to see you go. Yes, we’ll miss you. And I know this community feels the same way about you. After all, as I said earlier, we are all here together today because of this community, and because you made it clear you wouldn’t do this without its presence.
So now I do have some advice for you: remember the things that make this community uniquely good, remember its focus on the common part of the expression “common good,” and see if you can spread that idea in places where it’s not as visible, where good isn’t as common as it might be. Share and promote the wealth of decency, compassion, fairness, dignity, honesty, and hope. Each of you has proven leadership ability: use it to build communities that model these things wherever you find yourself. If you see something that’s not right, speak up, do something, help someone who might not even be asking. Or, even harder for some (remember A River Runs Through It?), let someone help you. This spring, when our school world fell apart, most of you were moved by the idea I referred to earlier, from the two Nigerian writers, that there is no single story. It did not surprise me to read your thoughts about this idea because it is embedded in the culture of this and all good communities: no matter the story – and there are lots of different stories about the same thing – they’re all valid. Everyone’s story matters and deserves to be heard. Communities that exclude and discriminate don’t share that idea. It might not be your story, but it’s someone’s and it’s how they see the world. This community has shown me, and I know it’s shown you, that it believes this. Keep it alive and spread it, make this good more common, because it’s more your world now than it is old farts’ like mine.
Now I want to tell this wonderful community my stories about these graduates, about how and why they matter to me, and hopefully I’ll speak for more than just myself here. I’ve been privileged to spend at least an hour a day, 9 months of the year with them for at least four years; one endured me for five, and three of ‘em – by some unprecedented act of God – made it through six straight years. Looking at them, you wouldn’t know. Anyway…
Destry: not here, but in the one year I got to know him I really liked him and appreciated his passion for something he loved. It didn’t happen to be school, but it was something I’m deeply smitten with, too, so I respected his story and how he saw his life. I wish him well.
Kayden: Most of you probably have no idea that Kayden set several Longpin records. First, his 34.5 essays on motocross shattered the previous Longpin record of 3. Second, but under protest because of a potential rule violation for parental influence, Kayden set a new Longpin record of 57 hairdos over his high school career. Seriously, Kayden has always been clearly driven (get it?) by his passions, and I know he’ll go far (as long as he has sufficient no-ethanol fuel).
Anna: this girl’s also driven, and always up to something ambitious. She sets and meets or exceeds goals, gives me crap on Instagram, and – through her incessant and sometimes annoying questioning — taught me stuff about grammar that I really didn’t want to know but am glad she did.
Lauren: I was excited when Lauren and her twin sister Anna decided to come to our school four years ago because I’d watched them play junior high basketball and could tell they were serious, passionate, high-quality kids. I had no idea. They immediately raised the level of discourse in my classes, and set an example of thoughtful fearlessness in discussions and projects that helped everyone, especially me. Lauren is just one of those rare people whose mere presence elevates the mood of any situation. And she’s as real as it gets. Next year’s seniors pay attention: it might be impossible to fill Lauren’s shoes, but I know you know what I’m talking about when I say she set a standard of kindness and compassion and good humor that we all need and want to continue here.
These next three have been my students for six years. Think about that. It’s cruel (to them more than me), very unusual, fantastic, bizarre, miraculous, and has been one of the choice blessings of my life.
Morgan: When Morgan was a 7th-grader, she was obsessed with her grades. Don’t get me wrong, she was an excellent student, then as she is now. But it took a little while for her to trust the broken record of my mantra: focus on the quality of your work and your grade will follow. It has been one of the greatest joys for me as a teacher – at the university or here – to see Morgan develop into the bona fide scholar she is. She notices the little things and makes them big. She hears nuances in expression and can explain what they mean, and connect them to a wide range of unexpected things. And she can recite poetry as meaningfully as anyone I know (and my dad’s a poet). She is a beautiful person I’m proud to have taught what little I could, and know she’ll go very far indeed. Like the rest of the 2020 graduates, she will make the world a better place. One of the worst things for me about the shutdown this spring was that I didn’t get to help coach Morgan during her final track season. We can’t get that time back. I wish we could.
Brielle: From day one in my class, Brielle always homed in on the realest of the real. Her perception is as incisive as any student, hell – any person — I’ve known, with a depth of thought that is hard to match. I will miss the intensity of her enthusiastic gaze as she raises her hand to be called on (something she’s also done from day one until this year; the only student I can say that about): her contribution to the quality of discussion will be hard for anyone to match, and I will miss her presence at school and in my classroom immensely. I will even miss our sometimes strenuous disagreements over important and strange ideas because she brings life to the table and insists others do, too if they want to engage. I always do, and will miss this aspect of Brielle a lot because I’m proud of her for standing her ground when she feels it’s right. And I’m particularly proud of Brielle for planning to follow her passion and major in art; very few students are brave enough in today’s world to pursue the humanities in higher education, and the world needs more forces like Brielle’s. More than anyone knows, she’s gracefully navigated a complex world in ways that will inspire me for years to come, and I expect to see her do big things sooner than later. But no pressure, Brielle!
Carly: Earlier, I talked about keeping it real. I owe Carly my biggest debt of gratitude as a teacher because she taught me the importance of this idea almost single-handedly. I probably wouldn’t have been able to continue as a teacher without this gift from her. So I’m grateful to her for that because this is without a doubt the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. How did she teach me this wonderful lesson, you might be asking yourself? Simple. From day one as a 7th-grader, she rolled her eyes any time she sensed BS coming from my direction. She still does it, but I doubt she’s doing it now. But I’m not just grateful to Carly, I’m off-the-charts proud of what she did in school (and elsewhere) this year. She’ll be the first to admit that until this year she didn’t have the greatest work ethic, but for some reason (I’m still not sure what) she made the incredibly brave decision to challenge herself academically. And she succeeded wildly. Her personal growth this year, not just in school, but as a reasonable, smart, reliable, person is staggering. I don’t mean to suggest I’m surprised by her intelligence; that was always there. It’s her work ethic that she developed and learned to control and employ to her advantage, and I know it’ll pay off hugely in college. I also want to mention that Carly funded her own scholarship, which I’m proud to present to her now. I call it the Carly Jordan Comma Splice Memorial Scholarship (that’s a memorial to comma splices, not Carly…). Basically, the way it worked is this: for more than five years, I never could figure out how to get Carly to stop writing run-ons and comma-splices. I tried lots of things, but nothing really worked. So I decided to start charging her $1 for each one in her papers. There was an initial influx of cash in my desk drawer, but by the end of the shortened school year, that revenue stream dried up like the Little Weiser in October. Still, she invested in herself, stopped writing annoying comma-splices, I added some interest, and am proud to give her this self-funded scholarship. Don’t spend it all at once!
I’m grateful to all of you for what you taught me, for your patience with and forgiveness of my many faults, for your spirit, for your kindness and honesty, and for the beauty you’ve bestowed on our school and community. Bless you, and may you achieve dreams you’re not even aware of yet.
So that’s it. That’s all I got. Thanks for listening, and thanks for letting me annoy your kids (and probably you) all these years. It’s meant the world to me.