Cleansing Fire

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The Graduation Speech Not Given

August 23rd, 2013, Promulgated by DanielKane

It was my pleasure last June to attend the commencement exercises of Tyburn Academy of Mary Immaculate, an independent Catholic School in Auburn, New York. It was a splendid day. The new alumni boasted a 100% acceptance rate from colleges that they desired to attend and scholarships averaging over $40,000 per student.

The oratory was superb. Of course, this is something one would expect from a rising, top-flight Catholic college prep school that is classically focused. The graduation speaker was Dr. William Fahey, President of Thomas More College (a gem of a Catholic College) who delivered one for the ages. It was tight, on point, timely, connected the history of Tyburn Hill, the school and the current era; it was funny and provocative, and best of all roughly 1000 words.

He also remarked that graduation speeches are the hardest to write.

Which got me thinking – with three teens of my own, plus another six nieces and nephews in college; what would I say to their class? What is my “final say”? The likelihood is nearly zero that such an invitation is forthcoming, to me. But the exercist is worthwhile.  

I know that two months in the internet are equivalent of a century in real time. But I hope this same advice can be recycled in August when most students leave home for college and the military.

So here goes the graduation speech that was never given –

Good evening and congratulations to the Class of 2013!

I graduated high school almost thirty years ago (which sounds like a much longer span of time than it actually feels) so naturally when I started to write this address I thought back to my own high school commencement ceremony, or what little I remember of it. Particularly I tried to recall the invited speaker we had that year and what pearls of wisdom he imparted, so that I could frankly plagiarize them and pass his pithy truths off as my own.

The problem is, I can’t remember anything he told us and he died about five years ago.

Commencement addresses should follow the advice I received for a good Confession – be brutal, be brief and be done. Especially on the second point – because the last thing I want is you cooking in your polyester gowns like some boil in the bag meal.

I can’t convey to you what an honor it is to be invited to share this day with you all, which, with the possible exception of this address, is likely one of the most important and memorable days of your life.  So when I sat down to write this speech, I had only two goals in mind.  First is to give you real advice that you can actually carry with you for the long road ahead and second goal is to keep it short.

Now, as a high school Senior, you probably already know that the world is teeming with people all too eager to give you advice. Much of the advice from adults seems to be strangely centered on how proud we are of you (and we are proud, very proud) and where you should go from here – and by extension where you should go from there. Clearly people of good will have strong feelings about such things.

But the idea of giving you all advice outside the realm of the purely practical does feel a little presumptuous. After all, who am I but a near do well blogger, a marginal catechist and an itinerant physicist – qualifications that actually qualify one for a very narrow scope.   The world is constantly changing—maybe now more than ever before—and I can’t pretend that I know the future.  Therefore, I only have one piece of advice and it is brutal, brief and blunt:

Remember who you are in this moment.

And who, exactly is that? At this moment you are a senior, just moments away from your first degree. You are proud, and you should be. You are excited; and you should be. You are a little apprehensive about what comes next – and you should be. Such feelings are totally just and totally normal. Finally, and most importantly, you are idealistic and believe that you can do anything and change the world.

Remember who you are in this moment.

So where do we go from here? Soon, we will all depart in dozens of directions and the intersections of our lives going forward will be different.   I’m sure there are a host of reasons, phrased in a number of different ways—but I think, and I hope, that it all boils down to this: you are idealistic because you want to help make the world a better place.  This seems like the most obvious thing and is the source of the motivation that will power you through years of military hardship and long hours of work and study. You want to change the world for the better by placing your unique mark on it.

Remember who you are in this moment.

Adults, particularly the more cynical ones, will speak of idealism as though it’s a bad thing, some sort of marker for naiveté and immaturity.  But I’m going to tell you this idealism is never a bad thing.  And this idealism seasoned with a lively faith, education and experience maybe one of the very best characteristics a Christian can have and our only hope so you must –

Remember who you are in this moment.  

You are a on the cusp of doing great things.  A few of these great things will be large acts, the majority of them will be small, but all of them will stem from who you are in this moment, someone with the faith, energy, idealism and work ethic to make the world a better place. With all the pomp and circumstance of this particular day and all those days that precede and proceed from this place, it seems like the concept of idealism and service would be difficult to forget.  But believe me when I tell you that forgetting is the easiest thing in the world.  I have forgotten it many times myself.

Because there will come a night when you’re going to feel beaten down and tired and regretful of having ever gone to college, work or service in the first place. Suffering will visit you. And right when you manage to finally sit down, for the first time you had a chance to sit down all day, some jerk yell at you for taking “their” seat, a roommate will drink your last Coke, someone else will criticize your best efforts and yet another mock your faith, heritage or roots – maybe all at the same time.

And right then, you will forget who you are in this moment.

Or you will have a boss, sergeant, co-worker or professor who will push all of your buttons and play you like a fiddle.  They will be loud and belligerent and unappreciative. You may be bullied. They will say things that make you feel inadequate ignoring the hours and hours of work you’ve put in trying to please them. They will make you cold, angry and unsympathetic; and when that happens, you will forget who you are in this moment and run the risk of becoming a cynic.

Cynicism is a deformity.  It is a shell that certain adults build around themselves after they feel that they’ve worked too hard, seen too much, been burned too many times.  It’s a way for some to loudly broadcast to their colleagues and to the world at large that they’re so expert in the human condition that nothing surprises them anymore.

This is a perfectly human response and it is the fruit of concupiscence.

Don’t be that person.  You are not that person. You were not baptized, confirmed and religiously educated to become that person. Don’t be the cynic.  Be for the rest of your life as you are today, someone who doesn’t tuck their idealism – or stated differently their mission received through Faith and Reason – away like some relic of your years of primary formation, but authentically wears it front and center.

All I ask of you is this –

Remember who you are in this moment.  

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4 Responses to “The Graduation Speech Not Given”

  1. avatar DanielKane says:

    August 23 1:20 PM – The links are correct but it seems that the Thomas More College server is down. This is the Thomas More College in New Hampshire, not Kentucky.

  2. avatar Dominick Anthony Zarcone says:

    I love reading DanielKane posts.

    Rembering who I Was at that moment years ago
    does help me live today.

    Thank you, DK, for sharing your talents.

  3. avatar flowerchild says:

    The long forgotten graduation speaker at my HS, now some 50 years ago, said something I’ve always remembered.
    ‘You can live another 70 years, or you can live one year 70 times.’

    That simple statement has led me to some incredibly wonderful adventures; the memories of which I’ll cherish forever.

  4. avatar christian says:

    EXCELLENT!!! I am copying your words, and of course, giving you credit. You are so right. My high school graduation was memorable! Remembering who I was in that moment has helped me immensely through the years.
    I was hit by a car (a speeding, distracted motorist running late to work) while on a bicycle. I survived and endured much to make it to graduation on time. It was a great challenge! I gave it my all and I won – I made it! I completed a program of 4 years of Regents Study, with sequence in everything, in a 3 year period. I was also on multiple sports teams and in various clubs.

    I had been behind a grade for most of my school years due to severe illness, which left me hospitalized for a significant length of time. I had lost my hearing and my ability to speak. I worked hard to speak again and my the grace of God, and my mother’s excellent care for my ears, I regained my hearing. Although I had a rough start, I progressed to being an honor roll student.

    I was successful in making up a year of study by completing 4 years of Regents in 3 years and accomplishing all the sequences and requirements for graduation (no study hall and additionally, no lunchtime my senior year. Senior English taken ahead in Summer School and College-Level English in my Senior year) and graduated with the original class that i had started out with in kindergarten and first grade.

    I graduated in a wheelchair. I looked beaten up, but I felt great! I will never forget the feeling I had as I heard “Pomp and Circumstance” as I was wheeled into the gymnasium and met with V for Victory signs. I received special words from my high school principal when I graduated, followed by a standing ovation. Members of my graduation class made it over to where I was sitting, (after they had crossed the stage and graduated), to shake my hand. Many of them also gave me words of affirmation and congratulations. My parents were teary-eyed, sentimental, and proud. I would not have had the same experience had I not had struggles to overcome. I had the sense of satisfaction from a race well run, and a battle fought and won. I had prayed continually for that moment of graduation with my class since I was flunked out of first grade. I was very grateful to God for that moment.

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