Dear Members of the Class of 2016,
Your big day is almost here. Very soon, you will enter auditoriums to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” and then sit for about two hours in graduation caps and gowns. You will listen to speakers who will try really hard to be interesting. What can be said about graduating from high school that hasn’t already been said a million times before? If you are chosen to be one of those honorees, here’s my advice. Keep it short. Short is good. People like short. Trust me on this.
You will cross stages to receive your diplomas and then toss your caps into the air and start Real Life. By the end of June (and after attending the graduation open houses of 200 of your close personal friends) you will not even want to think about sloppy joes, or tacos in bags, or white sheet cake. As much as you may think you like white sheet cake right now, this is gonna happen. It just will.
You think you’re going to remember everything about graduation, but you don’t. At 17 or 18, you’re built for looking ahead, not back. Unless the honored speaker shows up on stage with the back of her dress tucked into her pantyhose or someone you know does a triple back flip on his way up to the podium, you won’t remember much at all. By the time the leaves change again in September, you and your classmates will have moved on.
I have attended many commencements. I remember just one. A theater major known on campus for his pranks did the whole fake tripping/falling down thing as he walked across the stage. He thought he’d get a good laugh out of it. Unfortunately, he miscalculated the length of the stage and nearly knocked a very dignified, elderly college benefactor off the edge of the stage into the floral arrangement of blue and yellow carnations ten feet below. If you have never heard 500 people in an auditorium gasp simultaneously, I have to tell you that this event caused a vacuum that sucked most of the air out of the room for several minutes. My ears felt like they were going to pop. Although this made the evening memorable, I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t the shining moment his parents had envisioned for their son. The lesson here? Don’t be a Doofus on graduation night. It almost always ends badly.
You’ve learned a lot since your mom left you at the kindergarten classroom door.The diploma you will receive proves it. Of course, some of you are smarter about some things than others, and none of you are good at everything. That’s okay. If you’re lucky, the things you’re good at and the things you actually enjoy doing are the same things. A lot of what you’ve learned in school matters and a lot doesn’t, depending upon what you decide to do for the rest of your life. However, there are ten things I think every high school graduate does need to know. Here goes:
1. When the Walmart greeter says hello, say hello back. These poor, patient people stand for eight hours a day with smiles on their faces while customers look right through them. Be polite. Tell them to have a nice day. Mean it. And return your own cart to the store in the winter. Nice matters.
2. When you say you’re going to do your laundry, don’t leave wet clothes in the washing machine for someone else to take out and stick in the dryer. This drives the people you live with NUTS. Finishing what you start matters.
3. Get a goldfish, or parakeet, or puppy and take good care of it. Learn to nurture something or someone besides yourself. This will matter if you ever have a child. Practice on a goldfish. Start small. Work up. Taking care of others matters.
4. Pay with cash. Credit card companies are not your friends. They are literally banking on the fact that you will not pay your bills. And when you don’t, they are going to charge you a heck of a lot of interest. I know it sucks to wait for the things you want. If you screw up your credit score, waiting until it gets better so you can buy a car or a house will suck even more. Learning to delay gratification matters.
5. Plant something every year. If you don’t have anywhere to plant a tree, plant a flower. Connect to nature. It was here before we all were, and it will be here after we’re gone. Honor the earth. Watch a sunrise. Stand in the rain. Sit in the sunshine. Nature matters.
6. Write a letter once a month. We live in the world of emails, texting, and social networking, I know. But find a reason to sit down with a pen and piece of paper and write a note to someone and mail it. And save any letters you receive from the people you love. Especially your grandparents. Connecting to other human beings matters.
7. Take your retainer with you to college. Wear it. Your parents spent a ton of money on orthodontia and the children of your generation have the straightest, whitest teeth in the history of civilization. If you don’t take care of your teeth at 20, you’ll be wearing dentures by the time you’re 70. And floss. Flossing matters.
8. Read something of substance to become a thinker of substance. I’m not talking about surfing the internet or reading the gazillion text messages you receive daily. I’m talking books…great books…by great authors. Fitzgerald, Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Erdrich, Walker, Thoreau. You will be changed. We read to you a lot when you were young, and then we thought you’d keep reading because we’d done that. And then we bought you all a lot of electronic crap and you quit. Start reading again. Get a library card and use it. Reading matters.
9. Learn to tell the difference between love and lust. Here’s a hint…..you will stop lusting after someone once you’ve scratched that…um…itch. But if you truly love someone, you will love them even if they forget to put the toilet seat back down…. or forget your 10th wedding anniversary. And as long as I’m on the subject, be very, very careful with your body and what you do with it. You can lose a lot more than your self respect if you hook up with the wrong person. So, be careful. Really, really careful. Careful matters.
10. Finally, and most important of all…..choose to be happy. Things will not make you happy. Degrees will not make you happy. Relationships will not make you happy. Cars will not make you happy. Beer Pong will not make you happy. If you have people in your life who love you, and your health, and enough to eat, and goals to accomplish, and the financial means to meet those goals, you have a lot to be happy about. Happy is a choice. Choose happy.
Every possible time…..choose happy.