To All Graduates: Maxims for Life and Living
Very little stirs me more than going to graduation seeing the graduates march in as we stand and watch them, feel the joy they are feeling, and knowing they have worked hard. For the past two years, we have been out of the country, and I have missed attending graduation and speaking. Thus, I have decided to give a graduation speech to any of who are graduating.
I still remember Pomp and Circumstance and walking with Ricky Hall, two by two, toward our seats in the Rigby High School gymnasium. I remember walking across the portable stage and receiving my diploma from Mr. Wright, our high school principal. I remember Reid Later singing the song he had written for this special occasion. I have attended many of my high school reunions. Many of have changed; some have not. Yes, we don’t have as much hair as we used to.
What will matter most from now until the day you die is how you have risen from your initial obscurity to your status in the world–whatever that might be. What I have personally discovered is my yearbook did not, thankfully, define my ultimate destiny. It may define the ephemeral and the now but not the eternal and future.
When I was in high school, I was not the best basketball player– although I wanted to be–I didn’t ever hold any class office. I was not elected "Most Likely" to do anything. I was one of those students who went to class, got pretty good grades, did okay on the ACT, made people laugh, had a date to all of the proms, performed service, worked part time, and tried to do what I needed to do. My counselor did not encourage me to go to college, and if I did, I should stay away from language arts (English).
Do you know what I discovered along the way: I am doing pretty well, despite high school. During those last few months of high school and subsequent post-high school days, I figured if I set some good goals, focused on achieving them, and actually accomplished some of them, I could probably make something of myself.
Your graduation is a time of reflection, a time of reminiscing, a time of goal setting, a time of tears and saying good bye, a time of looking a far off and seeing yourself better than you were when you started this educational journey back in kindergarten.
Over the past several years, I have developed a few maxims that I wish to share with you. Take the ones you want and use them and discard the rest or make up some of your own like I did. Whatever you do, make sure you do it well.
Maxim 1: Being a pioneer instills in you leadership skills
Many of your parents and grandparents were pioneers in this country. They were the first to set a plow or build a house or build irrigation ditches or build roads. In essence, they were the first to do anything and somehow survived. I suspect, though, they did not think much of being pioneers. They knew they had a job to do, and they did it just to survive. We revere them. But the real question is this: What are people fifty to seventy years or even ten years from now going to say about you as leaders?
Over the past couple of years, maybe longer, you have heard this phrase numerous times: “Young people, you are the leaders of tomorrow.” Many of you, perhaps, are sitting there saying, “I’m no leader, and I doubt I will ever be a leader.”
Sorry, my young friends, it is true. All you have to do is look at the demographics and the trends for the past fifty years and the trends for the next twenty years. At some point in time, sooner for some and later for others, you will have to step up and don the mantle of America’s future leaders. America is graying, meaning the bulk of people currently in the workplace will be leaving soon, and someone will have to step up and take the reins of the future. Guess what: You are the ones who will have to do that. Are you ready? Probably not, but you will have to begin now, developing the appropriate skills so you can take over. You need to obtain more education, more experience, a better attitude, and definitely the ability to learn and adapt quickly and be flexible in today’s ever-changing marketplace.
Maxim 2: Lifelong learning will enhance and perhaps save your life.
Several years ago, a mature woman of 78 years old decided to return to our college to earn her GED, her high school equivalency. Because of family and financial challenges early in her life, she was not able to graduate from high school. Instead, she had to work to help her family. When I asked her why she was returning to school at such an age, her reply was simple, yet profound: “I have waited 60 years to earn my high school diploma. I want to earn it so that my grandchildren will understand the importance of education.” Her husband was wonderful. He was 84. Each morning, he drove her to the college, dropped her off, and then went to coffee with his friends. He loved having his wife go back to school. He quipped, “I tell all my friends I am dating a high school chick.”
Like many of you, she understood the importance of education and the acquisition of knowledge. She felt her responsibility was to pass the torch to her grandchildren. And she did.
Maxim 3: Read and study from the best books because learning begets knowledge and knowledge begets understanding and understanding begets a better view of the present and the future
Some of you are thinking right now, “Man, I don’t like to read. And I definitely don’t like to study. After today, I am done with this nonsense.” If this is the case, how in the world are you going to participate successfully in this ever-changing world? I suspect, though, that all of you love to read and you love to study and you can’t wait to get home to re-read some of your school notes and the rest of the Shakespeare tragedies and comedies you didn’t quite finish this semester.
Many of you remember the movie Stand and Deliver, the story of Jaime Escalante, the little Boliviano who taught math at a high school in East Los Angeles, played by James Edward Olmos. Mr. Escalante taught a group of young people who really didn’t think they were ever going to amount to much. They came from the barrio where people didn’t expect them to amount to anything. Then, Mr. Escalante began to work with the burros to help them pass the Advanced Placement math test. They worked hard. They stayed after school. They came on Saturdays. They sat in a hot room with no air conditioning. To the dismay of the many of the “look-down-my-nose-at-you people, they passed. But before they could celebrate their success, they were confronted by the C word: Cheating. The people who gave the test said everyone cheated so they would have to take the test again. After feeling sorry for themselves, they took the test once more but this time under great scrutiny. Guess what: They passed.
I was able to sit in a conference, almost on the front row, when Jaime Escalante stood as the keynote speaker. He was marvelous. What marveled me most was his discussion about a poster that he had in the back of his room in LA. It read: “Free, free, free–knowledge. Bring your own containers.”
Knowledge is freer today than it ever has been. With one little, maybe two, clicks you can access vast resources of data, information, more information than the world has ever seen to this point. And new knowledge is still growing faster and faster each and day.
Learning and gaining knowledge to me means relevancy: knowing something that I learn will be beneficial to me because it has some relevancy in the real world. Knowledge, then, is learning to pick up bales of hay and understanding why it is imperative to stack them so tightly together so that the stack won't fall down during a strong wind storm; learning is becoming acquainted with giving sick cats or dogs or calves the proper dosage of medicine so they won't die; learning is understanding why you have to obey your parents when you think going to the party would be a whole lot more fun than staying at home and taking care of your sick sister because your mother needs a break; learning is understanding why your mother makes your make your bed and clean your room and mow the lawn and weed the garden and take social dance and take keyboarding, chemistry, physics, home economics in the same year; knowledge is learning how to pound a nail straight or packing peaches just so in a bottle; knowledge is understanding, finally, that fractions are really a part of real life, especially when you only need ½ of a 1/4 teaspoon of something; knowledge is coming to the realization that Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is a model citizen and a good father; knowledge is learning a trade or skill or obtaining a degree so that you will be able to function in an ever-changing global society; knowledge is learning that any subject we learn can be tied to another subject; wisdom is finally understanding that we are responsible for our own learning.
Maxim 4: Giving back to your community will increase your capacity to appreciate others plus help you grow and develop into a conscientious human being
One of the things I hear today from young people is this: I am bored to tears. Coming from a farming community of 596, I have an extremely difficult time with this phraseology. It seemed I had plenty to do. If I didn’t my dad made sure that I had very little discretionary time. So, what can you do to become “unbored”?
Become a part of your community–no matter where you live. All of you in this room possess one of the most fundamental abilities: You have the ability to give of yourself. I suspect most of you rush home after school, do your chores, complete your homework, and ask for more to do–just because you are great young people who want to make a difference.
As you leave these hallowed halls this afternoon, make a pact with yourself: “I....(your name) promise that I will give back to my community, no matter where I live, by giving what I have to give: my time, my energy, myself.” Historically, it has always been easy to write out a check or hand someone some money. What is most difficult is giving service time.
Maxim 5: Remember who you are and from whence you came (Remember your roots)
As some of you reflect today, I suspect many of you have your parents, grandparents, maybe even great grandparents in the audience this afternoon. Do you know from whence they came? Do you appreciate what they have done for you? A nuclear scientist once said, “If want to make things hard for your children, make it easy for them.”
Whether you believe it or not, your ancestors want you to do well. Your posterity wants you to do well so that they will have a place to live, an equally free place.
Maxim 6: Be honest in your dealings with your fellow compadres
Some years ago, a good friend of mine told me a story that illustrates this point. She had been mistaken for someone and she had to call the airlines to take care of the problem. She said that “the airlines were fairly up front. A representative explained the bureaucratic, corporate mentality.
“We make mistakes, Mrs. Thomas, he told her, “and when we do...we lie. Most of our mistakes are with baggage. The worst case we ever had was on a flight from New Orleans to Miami. A fully loaded baggage cart fell over. At the bottom of the pile of suitcases, we found a smashed dog carrier with a dead dog inside.
“We couldn’t tell the passenger we killed her dog, so we said, ‘We’re sorry. We lost your dog but don’t worry. We’ll find him.”
“We called every dog store and breeder in the Miami area until we found a dog of the same size and color. We bought a new carrier, transferred the dog’s tags and delivered him to the owner. She was happy when we called to tell her we had her dog, but when she came to the door she began to scream hysterically.
“What’s the matter?” our man asked.
“That’s not my dog!” the woman yelled.
“What do you mean, that’s not your dog,” the man said indignantly.
“My dog was dead. I was bringing him home to be buried” (Johnnie Thomas’ graduation speech to MCC students May 3, 2003).
Maxim 7: Be grateful for everything you have and show that appreciation at all times, in all places, and in all things.
Please look behind you. Your parents, families, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, teachers, and others are in attendance because they support you. I suspect many of them have been your biggest cheerleaders during your growing up years. Others are here because they, perhaps, didn’t think you were ever going to get through and wanted to be here to personally witness this auspicious event and collect on their long-standing bets. Yes, these are your fans, and they are cheering for you. As life continues on, more people will become your cheerleaders: your supervisors, your co-workers, your administrative assistant, your spouse, your children, and a host of others. Be sure to show them gratitude for what they have done to help you, no matter how large or how small. And do not disappoint them.
Maxim 8: Just do the do!
The bottom line is this: Just do what needs to be done, don’t complain about it, and do it well. I suspect many of you have heard your parents say, sometimes in tones not flattering to the English language: “How many times have I told you to clean your room, take out the garbage, put your dirty clothes in the laundry room, be nice to your sister or brother, wash your hands before coming to the dinner table, and host of others.” Just do the do.
May you remember this day, the last step and the first step.
May you remember the years you spent in getting through high school and college. Unfortunately, the learning process is not over–yet–and never will be. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to encourage and keep alive the questioning spirit, to learn and continue to learn everything possible about ourselves, our fellowmen, our universe, and our God” (Hugh B. Brown, in Conference Report, April 1968, p. 101; or Improvement Era, June 1968, p. 34).
May you take with you along this your educational journey huge containers and fill them up along the way with those things that will help you grow and progress and help you become everything you set out to do.
Remember that “[you] are the final generation of an old civilization and the first generation of a new one” (Heidi and Alvin Toffler (1994) in Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave, p. 21).
May you remember: For those who say it cannot be done, need to get out of the way for those of us who are already doing it.”
Thus, go out and get the job done and do it well. Happy learning! And good luck!