Monday, May 17, 2010

Pomp And Circumstance

It's that time of year.

Both the best thing and the worst thing about working in education is its cyclical nature. My work calendar is an annual progression of events--getting the library opened, establishing a rhythm, anticipaing snow days, making up snow days, then before I know it, closing the library down and saying goodbye to yet another group of senior library aides.

And every year, there's graduation. Another group of young men and women get their caps and gown and tassels, listen to some speeches, walk across the stage, and think they've become adults. It's bittersweet; I get close to some of these kids, and it's sad to watch them go. But I am (usually) proud of them and confident that they will find some form of success and happiness out there in the wide, wide world.

This year, I will be attending two graduations; one for my "kids" here at the school where I work, and one for my only nephew who is graduating from college. I have a hard time believing that the little boy I used to babysit, the child who used to snuggle next to me and watch Rugrats, is going to be a college graduate and go out and try to make a living for himself. It's enough to make me lie awake at night. He wants to do something with law enforcement and work for the government--children can't do that! It's not safe! He's just a boy!

Then I remember he's not, and I lie awake simply feeling old.

This time of year we all hear of celebrities giving clever commencement addresses at some of our nation's finest institutions of higher learning (or their own alma maters, which may or may not make any "best of" lists.) It's a fanciful dream of mine to someday become well-known for something or other (preferably for writing something that more than tens of people read) and be invited back to my own alma mater to give a commencement address.

But let's get real here--my alma mater can get real class acts in to do their commencement addresses (past speakers include Tim Russert, Sandra Day O'Connor, Lynn Redgrave, and Barbara Kingsolver) so I'd be delusional to seriously think I'd ever be asked back even if I do someday get something or other published. The best graduation gig an ordinary mom like me can hope for is to give the keynote address when my daughter plays "graduation" with her Barbies and stuffed animals. And even then I'd probably lose out to the girl up the street who can do a front walk-over and has her own motor scooter.

So, in honor of my nephew, here's some advice I would give to graduates. It's not exactly a speech, but it's the best I've got until I become almost-rich and semi-famous and the local community college decides it has to settle for me after George Clooney's second-cousin declines the offer.

Dear graduates:

You are unique. And special. But so is everybody else.

Your parents probably tell you all the time how wonderful and talented you are. Good for you! But you're probably not nearly as wonderful as they (and you) think you are. All parents worth their salt make their kids feel good about themselves while they're growing up. This does not mean that you are the best at everything you do. They're just telling you that to give you confidence and see what you can do with it. Now that you're an adult, it's up to you to learn what your true strengths are and face up to the things you maybe suck at. If you're honest with yourself, you'll be able to deal with your own shortcomings by the time you're 30. You'll accept them. If you don't, and you continue to believe that you're the best, the most special, the most talented human on the'll be like those tragic souls Simon rips to shreds in early American Idol auditions. Get over yourself now, and don't have your "I'm really only average" epiphany on national television.

Technology is a great thing. But it can also be an addiction, like most great things. Don't get so plugged in to your phone, your computer, your iPad, your flat-screen, your Facebook page that you forget that there are real-live flesh-and-blood people in this world. And for pity's sakes, don't think that you're such an incredible driver and multi-tasker that you can text and drive at the same time. You may think you have cat-like reflexes, but cats also have cat-like reflexes and they still get run over by cars.

You're not invincible. But you won't take my word for this. The day will come all too soon when you attend the funeral for someone your age who died too young, someone you possibly partied with right here on this very campus, and you will realize that it could have been you. And you will wonder why it wasn't you. And what you're here for. And your world will be well and thoroughly rocked. I wish I could tell you this is easier to deal with than it sounds, but it isn't. No one your age really understands the meaning of life; no one at all really understands the meaning of death. The best you can do is realize that you, too, are mortal, and to live life to the fullest while also doing everything you can to keep from making a stupid mistake that would take you out of the game before you're ready to go.

People may be telling you that these years you spent in school were the best of your life. Don't believe them. They may have been the most care-free, and the rest of your life you will have to worry about taking care of yourself, but the best isn't behind you. Good times don't end with your teens and early twenties. Soon you will be starting a career. If you haven't already found your significant other, that will probably happen soon, too. Your first apartment, your first house, your wedding, the birth of your children, should you want them...that is all still ahead. Those can all be the best times of your life if you let them. Being an adult is stressful...but it can also be joyous.

The job of your dreams might be out there...or it might not. Regardless, you'll probably have a dozen really, really bad jobs before you find the one you like enough to stick with until you retire. Never underestimate how long you can tolerate (and enjoy, despite yourself) a "bad" job that isn't what you dreamed of doing so long as your boss appreciates you and tells you so, and so long as the people who work with you can make you laugh when the going gets tough. And know that any day that starts with a few boxes of doughnuts in the breakroom can be a good day. It's the little things.

Some of the people you're friends with now will be your friend until the day you die and be there for you like a spouse: for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health. Some of your friends now will disappear from your life as soon as they have that diploma and you may or may not run into them years later on Facebook or at the reunion. You may even find that someone in this very hall with you now, who you love like a sibling, will end up disappointing you and breaking your heart. As you get older, your circle of good friends will get smaller. But those people who loved you when you were the life of the party and yet can still put up with your crap when your kids and spouse and job are wearing you out--now that's a friend. They may be fewer, but they're dearer.

And finally--and this can't be said enough, even though it is trite and cliched--try to leave this world a little better than you found it. You don't have to do something huge like cure lung cancer or emergency-land an airplane on the Hudson to leave the world a better place. Just...plant a tree. Or recycle. Adopt a shelter animal. Say a kind word to a child who has heard nothing today but insults. Pick up trash. Give to the church or charity of your choice whenever you can. Make sure the important people in your life, those who may still be on this earth after you leave it, have good things to say about you after you're gone and know how much you love them.

Congratulations, Kyle. I look forward to seeing what you do with your talents and smarts, even though to me you will always be the little tow-headed boy fascinated by grasshoppers and Nickelodeon. Best of luck to you, and go out there and make us all proud.

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