Dear Class of 2017,
On a sunny June day, some 22 years ago I stood in your shoes. I was the valedictorian of my high school class and about to deliver a speech packed with what I thought were words of meaningful reflection and nuggets of worldly wisdom. I have since come to realize that graduation speeches tend to be fairly similar regardless of who delivers them…cliché life lesson or challenging moment, a joke or self-effacing thought to engage the audience, Pollyanna advice about the future finessed with more cliché for the big finish as we send you off into the world.
Graduation speeches are a great tradition. We share the “best” ones on social media and try to grasp onto their fleeting bits of inspiration, but they are just that…fleeting bits of inspiration. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to serve up some honest thoughts along with my corny, adult plate of cliché.
You have probably heard your parents and other adults tell you that you are growing up in a more difficult time than we did. While that may be true, let’s take the conversation away from difficult and talk about why it is different for you. Media and information literally bombard you everywhere you turn. And while your thumbs may be stronger than mine from all that texting you do, I had to read a newspaper or wait for the evening news to get my information. Stories took time to develop and verify and information was not instantaneous.
I grew up studying—from textbooks (gasp!)—figures like JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. You doubtless learned about them too, but here is the big difference—our contemporary leaders used to hearken back to those revered historical voices in an effort to bring us hope about our future. They endeavored to embody strength of character, tolerance, service to our nation and its citizens and non-violence. Our leaders didn’t Tweet or have any social media presence. In fact, they had to take their time, choose their words wisely and wait to deliver them during set speeches and press conferences. We hear some of the aforementioned values today, but they are not truly part of our actions nearly enough.
For myriad reasons, our country is deeply divided. Such a rift is not a new thing, but under our recent stewardship we have allowed the message of RESISTANCE to be king. We have told you that if you don’t like something, the best way to handle it is to #RESIST. I think we meant well, but we have done an immense disservice by encouraging this to be your call to action.
If my senior year AP Physics course taught me anything, I recall resistance to be a fundamentally negative force. Resistance is friction, it slows forces down, it causes things to come to a halt. By it’s very definition, Mr. Webster tells us resistance is defiance, intransigence. Regardless of political affiliations, we can disagree, we can speak our minds, we can fight for the underdogs and against injustice, but when did we begin to believe that resistance would usher in progress? Where is the civility in resistance? Where is the kindness? And how does resistance help you cope when you don’t get your way?
It’s not your fault, dear Class of 2017; we adults have given you this notion of resistance when we should have been teaching you about RESILIENCE. Heck, we have forgotten to be leaders who guide not only youth, but also ourselves to recover from adversity with grace and hope. We have wasted time pointing fingers and complaining when we should have modeled perseverance.
In this amazing country we live in—and it is amazing—we are so focused on achievement that we forgot to teach you that you learn very little from successful outcomes. We have rarely shown you how to value disappointment and that progress does not start with achievement. I’m not saying you shouldn’t bask in your moment of glory when you ace a big test or when you win in a championship game. Those may feel like big moments, but they should not define you. You are more than the sum of those bullet points on the resumes you neatly sent off to college admissions offices. And by the way, if your sum of positive outcomes feels low right now, please don’t assume that you peak at 17 or 18-years-old. Learn how to make mistakes, stumble or even fall completely, rise to a challenge and #BERESILIENT.
It does not matter where you are off to on your next life adventure. What matters is how you engage people and the little things you do. So the mother in me must say, “Put down your cell phone and look people in the eyes.” Have verbal conversations and connect with people offline. I promise you can text emojis and incomplete sentences to your friends at a later point. Take the time out of your crazy busy, over-scheduled lives to smile at someone, even if they don’t smile back. Smile even harder at those who look sad.
If you haven’t made up your mind about what you want to do with the rest of your life, this adult gives you permission to go easy on yourself. Having goals is great, but figuring out your next move should be tough. There are some situations that Google just can’t fix or that your parents can’t solve for you. My Ivy League degree sits in the bottom of my basement closet collecting dust. It turns out that along with $3, my fancy degree gets me a single subway ride in New York City. Hence, even with an expensive credential, I am no more special than anyone else. And for the record, I have yet to figure out what I want to do with myself when I grow up.
In closing (and here is the flourish cliché), I know you feel invincible. I did too when I stood in your shoes. In some ways, that feeling will help you bravely conquer the world and to take on new challenges. But you are not immortal. You have heard it before, but I hope you really pause to hear this: Make. Good. Choices. Treat your life and the lives of others preciously. To this end, make sure your choices are the right ones for you. Don’t make yourself into a one-size-fits-all type. You are far more unique than that. And although you may have been coddled a bit too much, you are far more resilient than that.
I am proud of you, Class of 2017, but not because of your accomplishments. I brim with pride at your possibility. Don’t go forth and prosper though. Figure out how to meet a challenge head on, get knocked down in the process and rise even stronger to try again. Then, rinse and repeat.