For the past few months, I've inexplicably been thinking of what I would say in the, not just unlikely, but impossible event that I would ever be asked to give a Commencement address. And then out of nowhere, I found out that an old friend of mine from 9th grade, Becky Leuchak, not only will be giving a commencement address, but will be giving it our school's graduation this year, and thanks to Ev's graduating, I'll be there!
So, very typically thoughtful of her, she asked her old classmates for any advice they had to share. I spent the better part of 2-3 weeks thinking about it, and this is what I posted on our OJR Class of 1974 facebook page:
OK, Becky, I’ve given this a lot of thought over the past week or two and since you asked for advice, here’s my 3 cents, even though you may have already finished it and even though you may not use any of these suggestions. This is not as polished as I’d try to make it if I were giving the actual speech but hopefully it kind of gets some of the point across.
The first thing I’d do is ask for a show of hands of how many people in attendance, friends and relatives included, can calculate the slope of a curve? And how many can solve a quadratic equation? And how many know when the Spanish-American War ended? (Etc – might be fun to talk with a few grads in advance to see if there was some common point of frustration or dumb fact they had to learn – I can ask my stepdaughter if you’d like).
Then ask for a show of hands of how many people think they know what it takes to be a good friend? And how many people have learned that they’d rather hear someone say something nice to them, than to make fun of them? (maybe too simplistic) And how many people have gone out of their way to help someone less fortunate than they or commit a random act of kindness?
(Assuming more people are raising their hands for the second group of q’s than the first):
Then you have learned the most important lessons of all in your 13 years going all the way back to kindergarten when you were taught to share and play well with others and you’ve learned that what you need to succeed in life is not just what your teachers taught you out of textbooks but how to be a friend, how to contribute in positive ways and how to love the people around you. That we are all interconnected and that when you are down, it brings the people around you down, and when you are doing positive things, it makes other people want to do the same. You get back what you give out.
My advice for all of you once you leave here, and after all, that’s what the commencement speaker is contractually obligated to do – give some kind of important life lesson - is this: think of the person or people you admire most in the world – not an athlete, or an entertainment figure – someone you know personally – a friend, someone you’ve met at church or summer camp, or if it’s possible – your parents (!), and figure out what it is you like best about them. It probably has something to do with the way they make people around them feel – they are affirming, they make you feel important or they are a really good listener. Spend some time, maybe not right now, or at your parties tonight and during Senior Week, but next time you’re alone and have some time to think, spend some time thinking about what it is you like best about that person/those people and think about how you can do it too – for your friends, and maybe think of someone younger than you for whom you can exemplify these important things you’ve learned, not out of a textbook, but form trying to be a more positive, uplifting, affirming person.
And conversely, now think about someone who really annoys you, someone who really gets on your nerves – someone in your class, maybe, or someone else from church or summer camp, or if it’s possible…your parents(!). and think about what they have done to upset you and study them similarly to think about things you don’t want to do and ways you don’t want to be, as a friend, or a co-worker or as a PARENT!
And don’t make this a one-time exercise- if you continue to apply this approach throughout your life in all settings, at college, and eventually even at work, in how someone handles themselves professionally, you’ll continue to grow and you’ll continue to learn the most important things in life, in how to make not just your world but the entire world a better place than when you entered it.
And Becky – if none of that is any good – I have one more two-word piece of advice, that if every graduate applies this to every facet of their lives – personal, academic, athletic, artistic professional, and whatever else, they will always succeed, and that is this: Exceed Expectations.
Now, having asked for advice, Becky, I hope you don’t feel any obligation to use any of it in your actual speech. As I mentioned, I will be there listening and will not feel the slightest bit of letdown if you don’t use anything we’ve suggested here, because I know that what you do say will be awesome. BTW, I saw on the wall at OJR this week, that you were in the OJR hall of fame – so cool – you make us all so proud to know you, Becky, my fellow long-ago hippie and Quaker!
And the response as pretty much the same as the reaction I used to get from the cute girls in 9th grade...none at all. :-)