Saturday, May 30, 2009


Commencement: An act, instance or time of making a beginning

When one thinks of commencement and commencement speeches, very rarely does anyone remember the minute instances and details of this important occasion, only the blur that occurs inside the mind when it is obvious your life will change in a permanent way. I remember little of mine, except that I wore short shorts, which garnered criticism from my grandfather and compliments from girls. I have no recollection of who gave the commencement address or what it was about. Those of you who have sat through a handful of these events, be it high school or college, probably have a good idea. The speaker talks about the future, how it is what you make it, that it is important that each and every one of you make a positive mark on society. It seems every commencement speaker has the same playbook of clich├ęs, analogies, and contrite optimism.

Politicians and celebrity speakers are especially guilty of this, considering they rarely touch on the subjects most knowledgeable to them. Oprah shouldn’t be talking about the future, she should be giving tips on how to best use the never-ending pasta bar at Olive Garden. Billy Joel should only be giving tips on how to avoid writer’s block and car crashes. Bill Clinton has no inspirational thoughts on the future, unless they involve expensive speaking engagements during which he spends over an hour discussing and elaborating on essentially nothing. President Barack Obama’s advice for graduates should not include how anything is possible, but if you screw up your life to the extent where you are too big to fail, he will happily bail you out. Why are these people asked to give motivational speeches when someone from the local community students actually know would have a far greater impact?

A good friend of mine recently gave a commencement address to a local class of high school seniors. For three years, he had been their teacher, inspiring and engaging students in English, a subject considered quite hard to connect with kids especially in the age of texting, social networking and general disinterest. A man who does not accept failure easily, he gained students’ admiration and respect, going above and beyond to help students with their work. His reward for such outstanding work was termination due to budget cuts. His dedicated students started a Facebook group and presented the school board with a petition filled with hundreds of signatures to no avail. What’s done is done. Rules are rules and there is very little people can do to change them. On that night, many students received their first dose of adult reality: there is indeed a limit to things you can do and accomplish. A harsh lesson but one that needs to be learned, sooner or later. This moment may have been in my friend’s thoughts as he addressed his group of seniors. What followed was not only the best commencement speech I’ve heard, but the only one which addressed students on their level.

He began his speech with the frank statement that he considered declining the speaking invitation due to the upcoming change in his life. He decided to accept on the reasoning both the Class of 2009 and he were facing an uncertain future. This is especially true this year for both high school and college graduates. The job market is dim, if nonexistent for many students. There are millions of experienced, qualified candidates for every job right now. The quality of worker seen at the average Wal-Mart and McDonald’s has risen to the point where the average employee is overqualified for their menial tasks. The economic collapse (people should really stop using “downturn:” it is an insult to intelligence) has affected thousands of teachers like my friend. For the first time in many years, there are few, if any openings for even the most exceptional educators, a description that still does a disservice to my friend’s ability. The odds in winning the lottery look better than landing a good job. This fact is not lost on the class of 2009. Always a realist, my friend chose to address the ups and downs of this most uncertain future.

Personal uncertainty, he stated, is a time “when you learn who you are.” Friendships may become distant, changes may be unexpected and drastic, but how you choose to deal with these events will be what makes or breaks you as a person. “You will become different, you will become an individual and have responsibilities…you will have to make decisions.” Most graduates in high school or college will witness their snowglobe world become much larger and hazier. They will soon find themselves in different surroundings and with new people, whose lives and experiences may not mirror their own. They most likely will not be impressed with athletic accomplishments or delinquent endeavors. They may not care for your favorite music or if they do, they may know far more about it than you do. It becomes difficult to impress people with stories. What remains is the individual’s personality. Are you caring or callous? Do you go out of your way to help others in need or do you “phone it in”? Are you your own person or do you follow the crowd, adapting their behaviors, likes and dislikes to avoid scrutiny? These decisions define what an individual is. If you are willing to be yourself, make logical decisions and back them up, the rewards are far-reaching and permanent. Become what you are, not what someone else wants you to be.

My friend’s speech turned to the subject of love and friendship. “Keep the ones you love near and dear to you…receive love and show love.” He stated that when times are hard, those you love will get you through. It is important to not lose these people as your lives change, but stay in contact with them as best you can. They are the people who will be by your side as you go through the good times and bad. They are the friends and family who will celebrate your marriage or comfort you during a divorce. They are the people who hold your newborn child and help you cope when that child becomes a teenager and totals your car. It is vital not to lose these connections or let them become distant. In our Web 2.0 era of Facebook and Twitter, it is still all too easy to not return phone calls or emails. You will get caught up in your lives; the day-to-day tasks that drain the energy once used to stay up until the crack of dawn discussing life, the universe and everything. It is important that you keep making the time, even if it is just a text or a quick shout-out. If you are there for them, they will be there for you. Great friendships last a lifetime. What began as copying a worksheet or playing a videogame turns into car repair, home remodeling or just reminiscing over a few select beverages. The next time you see a group of elderly guys chatting away over a pot of coffee at the local diner or a group of older ladies making a quilt, think of how friendship and love can be with you throughout your lifetime.

Never one to display overt emotion, my friend exhibited it at the end of his speech. It occurred to me and possibly to him as well, that his speech was not just for graduates, but for all of us listening. At different times we all go through commencements and face the task of making our beginning. Sometimes the occasion is a happy one, sometimes not so much. As the Class of 2009 and my friend begin a new phase of life, there are many others who face an unknown future. It is up to us as individuals if we choose to celebrate change or lament it. We all need to have faith and love inside, regardless of the obstacles before us. I have known my friend for twenty-five years, a friendship I cannot come close to stating how much it means to me. Both of us are gamers at heart, always looking for the inside edge in Mario Kart as well as life. If there is one thing I have learned from our friendship, it is to never give up; an attribute I hope to pass to my young children as they grow. The future is always bright if you chose to make it so.

Begin the beginning
Eyes to the future
Still fighting
Still winning

Copyright 2009 Adam Koeppe

Commencement definition derived from Miriam Webster

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