I am asked to speak all the time, and it’s something I love to do. Women’s groups. Teacher’s groups. Groups of managers in various companies and government agencies. A few weeks ago I spoke to the Utah School Nutrition Association, also known as the “lunch ladies,” and they were wonderful.
But a college commencement address? Never before last Saturday. President David Tietjen, shown here with me, asked me to speak to the graduation of the class of 2012 of Argosy University, and I was genuinely nervous.
Although it did comfort me somewhat to know that it was highly likely no one in the audience, neither graduates nor proud family and friends, would remember a single word I said. Think back to your graduation. Can you remember who spoke? Can you remember a word that was spoken? I didn’t think so. That helped me breathe a little easier.
As the day grew closer, I do what I always do, ask for help from my listeners and friends. (Thank you, by the way.) I received a lot of wisdom. “Tell them hard work will never go out of style,” Scott encouraged me. He’s right, of course. “Focus on kindness and relationships,” Lisa encouraged, “not material success.” She is so right. At least if true happiness is your goal. “Take chances and learn from your mistakes,” Promontory said on Facebook. I think I’ve been following her advice for 30 years.
On the day of the commencement, I realized that these graduates, many of them, were my age. Many of the graduates had had their families, some large families, and come back to get their degrees. They were non-traditional students. This day meant as much, or possibly more, to them than graduation days meant to the average college student, if there is such a thing. I could feel what it meant to them from the way several of them whispered to me as they shook my hand, “I did it!” The “finally” seemed to be a given.
So, when it was time to speak, I felt humbled by their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families. I shared the story with them of a relative who told me I was not “college material.” I told them they were not what people said about them. I asked them not to self-censor, told them the world needed the gifts they thought weren’t good enough. We laughed together, the graduates and me. I encouraged them to say “yes” over and over and over, to everything and everyone (except when it’s marriage and the man doesn’t love you. That’s called settling, and it never leads to good.)
These rites of passage like graduations take us back to the moment when we stood there, when we were asked to take the tassle and move it from the right to the left, when we considered (or did more than consider) throwing our hats in the air. I remembered my graduations. The first one, where I actually was blessed with the chance to say a few words, my high school graduation. The second one, which I did not attend. (I think I picked up an extra shift at Western Sizzlin’ Steak House that day.) And then law school. My parents came. I wore a lei.
The lei helped me to not take myself too seriously. That was one of the bits of advice from my friend Karyn, “Tell them to laugh a lot and not take themselves too seriously.” Good advice. But I think my favorite was Robert’s. “In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘Be excellent to each other and PARTY ON DUDES!'”