Having a commencement speaker has become less fashionable for high school graduations—perhaps because one too many speakers continued past the point of polite patience for the elderly grandparents, the barely restrained toddlers, and—most antsy of all—the eager graduates waiting for their turn to smile with their diploma.
But maybe it’s OK to give a commencement address that doesn’t have to be heard while sitting on hard gym bleachers. I’m going to give it a try.
Class of 2015, here’s my message to you:
Congratulations on getting to this point—seated in front of your family, your teachers, your friends, your community, wearing a cap and gown. Not everyone gets here, and it’s a measure of your ability and perseverance, yes, but also a measure of the support of people who care about you that you are here today. The fact that you are here shows that someone—probably many “someones,” actually—believes in you.
Some of you may receive a suitcase today as a gift. It’s a great gift, a symbol that it’s time to depart on a new leg of the adventure we call life. But you may also take it as a symbol that you are leaving the community—and that would be incorrect. No matter the compass direction you take departing from here today, you are not actually leaving the community.
Instead, you are becoming a full-fledged member of it.
Until this point, your family, your teachers, your community have made a lot of decisions for you. You’ve been guided. You’ve been coached. You’ve been corrected if you did wrong and cheered if you did right. If you were guided well, you followed a path that has prepared you well for what comes next—but much of that path was not of your own choosing.
From here on—maybe not immediately, but soon—you will be making those decisions for yourself.
You’ll have the right to go to college—or not. The right to go to work—or not. You can sleep all day and stay up all night, if that suits you.
But you’ll also have responsibilities. Soon you’ll have to have money for your life—where you live, what you wear and what you eat. Whether you choose more schooling or work, people will expect things from you.
And as a member of the community, you also have rights and responsibilities. You have the right to vote, but you have the responsibility to inform yourself beforehand. You have the right to complain about the potholes on local roads, the lack of shopping options for someone like yourself in the community, how there’s “nothing to do” in town, or whatever doesn’t work for you in your community. But you are a member now. You are just as responsible as your neighbor or the superintendent or the mayor to make sure the community is just as awesome as it should be. If the community is a wonderful, welcoming place, or if it’s dilapidated and dying—from here on out, you are partly responsible.
This responsibility is yours, whether you are staying to settle in right away or are leaving to pursue educational or career opportunities. This is your hometown. Whenever someone asks you, “Where did you grow up?”, this town will be your answer. Your membership in this community won’t change, no matter how long you’re gone.
And if you haven’t decided what you’re going to do next: Go. Go now, as far as you dare.
What, you thought I was going to tell you to stay here? Nope. I am all for planting your roots in one place, because that provides us with enough time to truly learn what it takes to build a successful life in a place—to see the long-term results of our decisions, and ideally work to make better ones. But there is a time—which, for you, is right now—when it’s best to get away.
The world is a big, amazing, terrifying, fascinating place. If you never see any of it, you’ll never know if there’s a better way to do things, a better way to be. So now, before tethers of work or significant others or children start to keep you in place, go. Experience as much as you dare to.
And then, when you’ve widened your view of the world with college, work or other expeditions, bring your changed, informed self back to the Dakotas. We’ll benefit from your learning and your successes (and even your failures, which will be their own education). And you will benefit from coming home to a place where your roots will sink in easily.
You’ll notice I did not tell you to pursue happiness. I think that’s terrible advice, especially for your age. In my experience, you can’t get to happy and fulfilled by pursuing happiness directly. Happiness is a side effect of living a life of meaning and purpose. Find the thing that you can do that makes the world a better place, that you can do well, that the world appreciates enough to pay you to do—and that you enjoy doing, but get the other three in place first. Pursue meaning, and happiness will find you.
And here’s the thing: There is meaningful work to be done in your hometown. How can it be better? How can you make it better? Those questions can provide a lifetime of interesting, meaningful work.
Yes, you can find meaningful work elsewhere also. And some of you will. But know that your hometown would also welcome your efforts.
Who knows—maybe someday those efforts will include supporting an eager young person, working toward his or her turn to hold a diploma as a full member of our community.