My sister graduated from high school yesterday. She wore my white gown and straightened her long hair and posed with our parents and her friends. She walked with way more elegance than I had four years ago. She graduated in the top 10% of her class and wore a sash to show her membership in the National Honors Society. She’ll be going to James Madison University to study nursing. She looked beautiful last night, in the setting sun, the slight drizzle from a single obstinate rain cloud, with a double rainbow in the background of a newly renovated football stadium. She has it way more together than I did.
As I sat in the stands, holding a program over my head to fend off the rain (having dutifully forgotten the umbrella that was sitting on the floor of the car, merely 100 yards away), I looked forward to the Commencement speeches and hearing what the students had to say about their high school experience. I’m always curious what words of wisdom an 18-year-old can come up with, having not seen much of the world from our “bubble” as we call our town. As I was sitting listening to the speeches of my sister’s classmates, I suddenly and sadly realized that I don’t remember who spoke at my own graduation. I don’t remember their words of wisdom or their hopes for the future. I don’t remember my brother’s graduation speeches two years ago either. As much as I look forward to hearing what people say, all I remember from them are words that are hopeful and happy, remembering wonderful days of high school and looking forward to making dreams come true. That’s what high school graduation speeches are always about.
But in my experience, high schools days were not always that happy. Dreams don’t come true right away. The world doesn’t change just because you go to college in a different city. I may sound slightly cynical here, but I’m only telling the truth. High school is a long, hard road with bullies and mean girls, failed grades, terrible relationships, love found and lost, a rollercoaster of emotions and milestones. I think everyone would also agree that the entire, roughly 260-person, class of 2008, or 2012 (or whichever year you graduated) was definitely not all friends. When I graduated there were a few people I had never even met. (This is not to say that I never had fun. I had plenty of good times in high school.)
So when students go to the podium and face the crowd of proud and expectant parents, they tell them what everyone wants to hear. That their time at school could not have been better. That they worked hard, played hard, had fun, but learned so much in the process. That they all grew up and became the best of friends and now that they’re parting ways, they will move on to bigger and better things, but retain their loyalty to the place where they grew up and the people that helped them along the way. This is what parents and administrators like to hear.
(As a side note, my high school no longer ranks students in terms of GPA, so instead of valedictorian and salutatorian speeches, they chose and carefully selected the “best” entries from the students’ speech submissions.)
This year, the school chose as their distinguished alumnus, a man who has worked as a cinematographer for National Geographic, BBC, the Discovery Channel, and ABC. He was not able to be at the Commencement to give his speech, so his childhood friend stepped up for him. What stood out in his speech was his continuous reference to how hard he worked and how he made the dreams in his life come true.
I disagree with his philosophy. I think that it does take a certain amount of effort to achieve your dreams. It does take hard work to get through college and earn a degree. But really, living out your dreams is largely a matter of luck. If your dream is to become a professional baseball player for example, it is luck that brings the right recruiter to the right game where you happen to play well. If you want to work at National Geographic, you can work as hard as you like, practicing photography and researching. But it is luck that brings you into contact with the editor on your vacation in Naples. Out of all the millions of people that you could meet, you must be lucky enough to meet the right person, at the right time, who will make your dreams come true.
This distinguished alumnus also acknowledged in his speech that some of the graduating seniors may not know what they want to do with their lives or what they want to be. And he told them that that’s okay. He said there is plenty of time to figure out who you are and to take the necessary steps to get there. Again, I disagree. As a senior in high school, I was one of those grads, sitting on the field, drinking in advice like this. I had no idea what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” Now four years later, I wish I had taken a little time to explore more and figure it out. If you don’t know where you want to go, then you don’t know how to proceed, and it will take you a lot longer to get there than if you had taken the time to figure it out sooner. Talk to anyone who has changed their major more than once and they will tell you. They are spending thousands of extra dollars “figuring it out,” completing their degree years behind their peers and entering the workforce with a disadvantage because they didn’t get the same internships, not to mention they have more debt. Everyone needs some kind of goal, or you will never achieve anything. So those speakers at Commencements who are telling students that it is perfectly okay to not have a clue what you want to do are lying. Have some kind of clue.
So I look at my beautiful, confident, radiant sister and I applaud her. I commend her for working so hard in high school, for discovering her talents, and already having her dreams in sight. I hope she thinks back on her high school days as mostly fun and wonderful. I hope she goes to JMU with an open mind and an open heart, and always remembers where she came from. And most of all, I hope she continues working hard, but I also wish her a little luck.