This time of year is filled with platitudes and pats on the back. Many scholarship dollars have been awarded, certificates of achievement handed out, and now that June is here, cute little embossed diplomas in little padded booklets are being divvied out all across the nation to folks in awkward gowns and cardboard hats. Kids who no one thought would make it will, and scores of teenagers will be the first in their entire genealogy to accomplish the feat of completing a high school education.
We high school teachers will always say that graduation is a bittersweet time. It is a familiar rite of passage wrought with (of course) pomp and ceremony. Each ceremony across the nation likely follows a similar pattern: a few songs from young musicians, a few words from the top scholars, a guest keynote speaker who reminds the robed young'uns just how very very special they are before they march proudly across the stage, shake a few hands, and cross that critical threshold into adulthood.
I have a few wishes for the class of 2010, some typical, others perhaps not so.
Class of 2010, I wish you a firm foothold in your next step. For some of you, college comes next. For others, you're stepping into a job with a real paycheck...and I hope that the job market welcomes you despite the struggles we all face right now. Others still will be stepping aboard an armored vehicle to throw your bodies in front of my own children to protect our country and for that I give you extra thanks. I wish for all of you that whatever steps you take next are confident, secure, and steady as you stride out into your own life.
When you trip over your own feet and fall on your face because of your own actions, I hope that no one helps you up. I'm not trying to be mean, I'm trying to be real. When you were young, your parents, your teachers, your coaches, we'd be there to help you to your feet, but what we were really doing was trying to help you learn how to stand up on your own. Maybe sometimes we didn't do a very good job teaching that lesson, and now you think that when you screw up, break the rules, or make mistakes, that other people will just fix it all for you and you'll be shielded from real consequences or suffering. Well, suffering is important, so I hope you experience some. I sincerely hope that the next time you crash and burn, you take ownership of that crash, and that you are the one who puts the fires out and puts the pieces back together. On your own. That is the first sign you are really an adult. Having support is nice, but if you can't stand up yourself or solve your own problems, you'll have an awful hard time helping others up.
I wish you comfort and success and that the world sees you for how special you are. The world can be a cruel place sometimes, but each of us has something special we can contribute to our world--and just because you are young does not mean that you cannot make a difference. In fact, you have the capacity to make a profound difference now as you embark into the world, whether that difference be in small or great ways. What you've accomplished by achieving your high school diploma is commendable, and it is just the beginning of the great things in store for you.
I wish that you realize that, actually, you're not special. Sorry folks. Here we've done you another disservice. For your whole education you've probably heard how special you are. How unique you are. How wonderful you are. Our intention was to help you understand that regardless of whether you placed first or fifty-first, you still possessed value as a human being. However, we didn't make clear that in your specialness, you are not actually more special than anyone else. What ended up happening was that by making you feel special, many of you somehow began to expect that the rest of the world had an obligation to treat you like you are special. It is quite possible that our dedication to informing you of your specialness has led you to the incorrect conclusion that you are the center of the universe about which all other people should bend their will. Oops. What we really meant to do was give you confidence, not entitlement. Sorry, but you're not as special as you might think. There are hundreds of thousands--maybe millions--of teenagers experiencing the same thing you're experiencing right now...maybe even tonight. But, now, you're an adult and the slate is clean. You have to make yourself special now. Kid-special doesn't carry over. That was in the fine-print, another lesson adults have to learn: always check the fine print. Luckily, if you worked hard and lived with integrity up until now, you've got a foot in the adulthood specialness door already.
I wish that you carry the lessons you learned in high school everywhere you go in your life. I know your teachers--they are profoundly intelligent, caring, and dedicated professionals. As you move through life, build upon those things they taught you. While you may not think you'll ever use X, Y, or Z, hopefully now you can realize that those classes actually were not just about learning to use X, Y, or Z out there in the real world. It was about learning thinking. It was about learning how to handle a challenge and overcome frustration. It was about unraveling a problem or rotating it in your mind. It was exercise to prepare your mind for the big game: life.
I hope you leave high school behind. Memories are fun. Friendships may continue. But now's the time to realize what that high school building was: just a foundation, not a monument. Do not live a life where you stand there in adulthood and look back at your high school years as the most monumental of your life. Do not treat your experience with undue reverence. Close the door on it and turn your back--not out of disrespect, but simply because you are embarking on the real life you've spent the last four years readying yourself for. Use high school as the hidden foundation of the rest of your life, upon which you build something greater, more fulfilling, more beautiful.
In closing, I hope your life is easy but not too much so, prosperous but not too much so, and happy. Congratulations, class of 2010 on passing this milestone just as millions have before you and just as millions will after you. You are now initiated into the challenging world of grown-ups. Accept that title willingly and with pride, and realize that you must start tomorrow building your life brick by brick.
And in the words of Valedictorians at every graduation at every school in every town across the nation: "Congratulations class of 2010: We made it!"