A Letter From a Dad to Some Grads


EJP
EJP

I don’t remember a thing from my high school commencement speech.

No sprig of advice, hint of knowledge, gem of insight as I embarked on the world with the rest of the class of 1990. (Holy hell that was a long time ago.) I’m pretty sure it wasn’t George H.W. Bush or Shock G from Digital Underground or Melissa Joan Hart.

Kerry Rivera at Breadwinning Mama wrote last week about commencement speeches from middle America. Her post is awesome. It got me thinking. What if they did want middle America? And what if they asked me?

Kerry is middle America. So am I. This is where we end up, between the ivory tower and soup kitchen. We declare our intent to rule the world and we barbecue with family and accept college offers or report to the shop for work the next Monday. Life begins.

If you join us in Middle America, it isn’t because you failed. It’s not a consolation prize. It’s the destination you have trouble seeing. Especially when well-meaning speakers and family members implore you to reach for the stars and rise to the top.

The top of what?

photo credit: paterjt via photopin cc
photo credit: paterjt via photopin cc

There’s angst sometimes in the ivory tower. And joy in the soup kitchen. It’s the middle. It’s where I live, and so many people I know live. We’re not astronauts or instant millionaires. We’re dads and moms and coaches. We’re cookie eaters.

We’re loyalists and flip-floppers, sun-seekers and reclusive types.

Life here is often a splendid balance of work and family, of talent and passion.

We triumph. We diet and fail. We change our lives. Again. We begin to run or stop drinking. We regret and we learn to live with our choices. For most of us, there are no magic words in a commencement. Not even on a Pinterest board.

Our struggles are unique and sometimes beautiful.

Sometimes, the beauty is in the struggle to juggle. The wins and losses, and figuring it all out. Or, pretending to. And showing our kids not perfection, but dedication.

It’s not measured in degrees earned, or zeroes on a paycheck. Not by acquisitions and deals and discoveries and start-ups sold. It’s survival from one day to the next.

I can’t give you a gameplan for it. I can’t slip you a cheat sheet, or life-changing insight. Insight to what? I’m not in position to give myself insight on … myself.

But this isn’t a warning to give up your dreams.

Dreams keep our eyes up.

commencement2Dreams set a course for the horizon.

And dreams change. Dreams are born of places you’d never expect. Dreams die sometimes. Sometimes slowly, sometimes so abruptly you can’t change directions right away no matter how hard you try.

And that’s OK.

Today, you might feel certain about your future. Your spot in the next class at your dad’s alma mater. As an apprentice for your mother’s business.

It’s better to have goals than it is to have your sights set on something. Sights set means all or nothing.

Your sights set on a target mean you might miss everything between you and your target.

commencement quote 1

Often, that’s where the best things in life live.

You’ll know moments of uncertainty and loss of religion and loss of innocence. You’ll know moments of unbridled bliss and unexpected riches. Blessings so incredible you won’t know who to thank. And few will have to do with any single goal.

Instead, it’ll be about who you are and where you are. Which direction you’re headed, and how content you are to live in that space, and in that moment.

I want to let go a little. Accept myself for who I am, and not worry so much about who I want to be. Not to say I won’t try. I will look to challenges fatherhood and soccer coaching and writing give me, because they exercise me within and without.

But I am not going to try and back away from all else that I am.

I am a bit tortured. I am a bit pensive. But I am also quick wit and smartassery. I’m love and I am solitude. I hurt and I hope. And sometimes, that looks pretty gray. But that’s OK.

photo credit: paterjt via photopin cc
photo credit: paterjt via photopin cc

I need to proofread my work and drink my water, and accept that certain things in life are not on my horizon right now.

I need to stay open to all the possibilities the universe presents to me, if only I’ll listen.

I wish I came here after 42 years with a well-worn notebook filled with the wisdom and knowledge only life can give us.

But it exists only in my heart, and in a language only I can understand. That’s how yours will read too – exclusive to you.

Some trendy speakers will come in with strangely specific tidbits of light such as “live for a year in New York.” Well, I never have. Nor do I want to. Strangely specific, some advice.

Beware such strangely specific advice you get along the way. I realize that advice is also strangely specific.

I will tell you that if you have a chance to reach back and help someone, you should. That doesn’t matter where you are. I haven’t mastered it. I’m proud of myself when I do, but I still get perturbed at opportunities to help someone when I wish I could just embrace them.

We’re all in motion. Some of us need more room. Some of us need more to eat. Some of us could use a sandwich and a kiss on the mouth. But most of us sat the way you do today, ready to toss your hat, ditch the robe and devour life.

I’ll botch this, but I want to end with a story.

photo credit: polapix via photopin cc
photo credit: polapix via photopin cc

A man told a group of hungry kids that there was a box of fruit next to the trunk of a tree. The child who could get there first could have it all.

At once, the kids moved toward the tree – together.

“Why did you do that?” the man asked. “Any one of you might have had everything, had he just run faster than the rest.”

“But this way,” a child said, “everyone can eat.”

This isn’t a mixed message of socialism from a lifelong Republican voter. Instead, it’s a plea to see yourself where you are, and look for what you can do. Sometimes, life’s a competition. And sometimes, life’s a compromise.

There’s an awful lot of us, here in the middle. All looking out for ourselves. And for each other. All at once. It’s that beautiful struggle in the juggle.

Welcome to our world.

grad quote

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49 thoughts on “A Letter From a Dad to Some Grads

  1. We don’t do ‘graduation’ in Oz, the way you guys do. The celebration has no tradition or gravitas, You dress in semi-formal clothes, no hats, no gowns, no bits of paper to collect (at least not at my school) but the rest…Welcome to middle Australia. Our ivory towers are full of red dust and soup kitchens don’t exist due to bureaucratic red tape. But that’s okay. Our dreams and hopes are similar. Life strikes us, and gives us twists and turns exactly the same way. I think it’s called being human.
    Thanks for your post. There are some good insights in here.

    1. Thanks for the insight, TP. Being human is really not all that bad, is it? I hope I projected it in the right light. I rather be a human in middle America than just about anything else.

  2. I think you made a pretty good ‘life commencement ‘ speech here brother. Very good indeed. You’re definitely speaking to the masses, the ordinary everyday folk who are the backbone of any country.

    1. Thanks mate. All my Ozzie friends get here early.

      It’s good to be the backbone. Some of us are dangerously close to the butt bone. But you just can’t think about it.

      1. You have to love the time zones. Sometimes when you’ve been the backbone all your life you tend to feel like you’ve been kicked in said butt bone.

  3. Nice speech and good advice…. It’s not sexy… But heh, life in the middle is not sexy. Life is a grind. There are good days, and there are bad days. If you choose well, the good days will outnumber the bad days. If the bad days become so great, you’ll know it is time to move on. I’m the class of 1980 and I can remember where I sat and who sat beside me – Stephanie and Joe. I don’t remember much of that weekend except an incredibly awful hangover with little sleep. You are right, it was a long time ago and that kid would recognize me in a heart beat – it’s the values, it’s what I stand for and who I really am. Thanks for taking me back.

    1. It can be, though, depending on how you look at it. Sometimes the same situation can feel awful and glorious n the same 24-hour shift, but I’ll definitely take it.

      I remember that I blew through my money from graduation and should’ve saved some.

      I’d say that kid would be proud to see where he ends up, Clay.

  4. We do have graduation around here, just not with the gown, tassel and hymn (which is a shame, because I love “pomp and circumstance”!) At every graduation some chosen person spoke to us, but you know what? There’s not a single word I can remember. Probably wasn’t interested in hearing the good advice cause I had my own hopes and dreams.

    One of my secret subject swap buddies wrote about impossible things and included “perfect impossible”, the lyrics to her own song, and it’s a great one!
    http://elleroywashere.com/2014/06/06/secret-subject-swap-perfect-impossible/
    Maybe they should play it at a graduation some time.

    Dedication it is!

    1. There is some good to the occasion, and the tradition. I’m all about the food, mostly. The words do tend to lose their way. Maybe it has something to do with hundreds of kids who don’t have to pay attention anymore!

      Can you believe her blog is blocked at work? I don’t know why.

  5. I didn’t go to my graduation ceremony… If I had, I would have wanted you to say this up on that stage (even though it was two years ago and in a completely different part of the country).

      1. My last year of high school, I unenrolled and became “homeschooled” so I could go to college full-time.

        Thanks! It’s more than perfect! 😀 Actually, you managed to assuage some of my more recent fears, which was really a pleasant surprise.

      2. Definitely sounds like it was worth the trade!

        And see, you didn’t even have to sit for three hours to get this message. The pleasant surprise? Just a bonus. I’m honored something in that spoke to you.

  6. It is clear, I wish you could have given our commencement speech when we graduated, because to this day I still don’t remember the advice I got on that day and that it was just long winded and not very convincing. Great speech Eli, but then again I knew it wouldn’t be anything less coming from you!!! 🙂

    1. Well, I did feel a little pressure when you talked me up – I hope I delivered! Honestly, I didn’t want it to seem too dark, because the middle isn’t a dark place to be.

      Thanks Janine! You’re too good to me.

  7. Especially love the last quote! I remember my high school commencement speech only because I gave it, and I only remember my opening which was something about having hated school for the last four years. But they let me say it… I have gone on to be comfortably middles America for 40+ years since then (don’t you talk about being old).

    1. Thanks! And what an opening you gave … I’m sure that got everyone’s attention! We’re in a good spot now, aren’t we Shirley? And I don’t feel too old – only when I type my birth year (or have to scroll on a pull-down menu *forever* to find it) or I try to get out of bed.

  8. I was voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school. It was such an honor then. But then I became embarrassed to share it. I look at my life and don’t see success. I see existence, and a failure to reach all those dreams I had as a 17 year old.

    I was talking with a friend recently about this and he floored me with his response. He asked me, “Whose dreams were you trying to fulfill? Yours? Your parents’? Society’s?”

    Some were my own – the dream of a family. But a lot of them were dreams that I was told I should want. I was shocked to realize that. So now it’s time to figure out my own dreams. And that’s hard!!!

    1. I was voted Mostly Likely to Write a Post About Being Ordinary as it Pertains to High School Graduation Commencement Speeches. (It was in the back of the yearbook, check it out).

      I think your friend is profound. And we do fill our kids’ heads with an expectation of perfect life at the very pinnacle of existence. Yet so many of us find paradise right here in middle America.

      It’s not easy to find our own dreams, at any age. I will always believe it starts right from where you stand.

  9. I do remember my high school commencement speech. Because I gave it. Having lived a little more life now (15 years! WTF?!), I would write it a differently today. But that’s the thing. You gotta live life, make mistakes, break hearts & feel your heart break, succeed, fail and everything in between.

    1. Wait – they have one for the valedictorian, and a guest, right? I think the student speeches are much more relevant – although, I don’t remember the one for my graduation.

      Yes, you live life, break hearts, get yours broken, win and lose … the point is, that’s the point. It’s not about choosing one point on the plane and aiming for that or nothing. It’s about loving the life we have on the way. Enjoy the trail without destroying it. And keeping your mind and heart open to the things that are around you in the journey.

  10. This is great! I think we all look to famous people who have money and status and everything we THINK will make our lives better. That makes us feel like failures – at least to some degree. Your speech, however, is the truth. Of all the teenagers in the world currently aspiring to be famous professional athletes, or singers, or actors, or whatever – a minuscule percentage of them will actually achieve it. The rest will, if they are lucky, end up right here int he middle with all of us – and, that’s o.k.

    1. Thanks Lisa! There’s more than one way to live. We want our kids to aim high, right? But they should know there’s beauty in the almost, too. There’s more than one way. I just don’t want them to consider the road less traveled a consolation prize. There are plenty of winners here.

  11. My high school graduation speech was all about the show Felicity… I didn’t even really get it because I’ve never watched the show. This would have been better 🙂

  12. If this had been my commencement speech, I would have remembered it. I would have stood up and shouted, “YES! I am a cookie eater! And I need a sandwich and a kiss on the mouth!” I probably would have considered the rest deeply, but still figured out that I’d be a star, no two ways about it.
    Maybe I still will, however, I sure as heck like being a mother/Middle American/cookie eater more.
    Hope you get to give a speech sometime, somehow. I think you have a knack.

    1. I wonder if I’d have accidentally said “shit” or something similar. I should have chucked cookies into the crowd. Isn’t the American dream about cookies, a sandwich and a kiss on the mouth? Pretty sure that’s what the forefathers had in mind when the went to the Alamo in 1985.

      There’s plenty of cookie-breath stars here in middle America. If anything, I can give that speech to my kids the next time there’s a snow day.

  13. I’m thinkin’ you might make a pretty good choice for a commencement speaker. My next one is 2020…keep you calendar open. I’ll see what I can do 😉
    Seriously, excellent post!

    1. Normal life rocks, and rock-star life isn’t immune to the frailty of life either, is it? Having a family makes me feel like a king in worn-out dress shoes. Thanks Betty!

  14. I don’t remember my high school graduation speech.
    which is pretty bad — since I gave it. LOL
    just shows you, I probably didn’t really know anything back then. Except one thing I have continued to live by: that thing you fear? That’s probably what you should do.

    1. So, there are two speeches at a graduation, right? Like, the valedictorian, and a guest speaker, right? Maybe you’d had a little Pabst Blue Ribbon before you took to the podium to calm your nerves, and it had an amnesial affect.

      I will pick my fear wisely – make it relate to personal and professional growth and not, for instance, wrestling a tiger.

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