Most of you will not remember my name so I’m reluctant to give it. However, convention dictates I introduce myself. I am Richard Bryant, professional student, Methodist Minister, and veteran of three graduation exercises. I will be your commencement speaker. I hope to tell you a few things you’ve never heard a graduation speaker say and because they’re new; maybe you’ll remember them. If I make you a little angry, uncomfortable, and question some of the truth you walked in here with this evening; then I’ll have done my job.
First, I want to offer my congratulations on graduating from high school. You’ve just finished the easiest part of your life. Your life will become immensely harder from this moment on. The past eighteen years have been punctuated by daily trips to a place of love and comfort. You’ve lived with your families. Your lives have been easy. Life only becomes more demanding from here. The world will not love, care, and appreciate you in the same way in which you’ve grown accustomed to in the past eighteen years. You’ve done a good thing today but you’ve not done it alone. This momentous event we celebrate tonight was the easiest part so far. Get yourself ready for tomorrow.
Secondly, take a look around. Today, you look your best. If you’re one to be concerned about appearances, superficial things like weight, hair, and skin; tonight is the best it gets. From here on out you will put on weight, you guys will grow bald like me, and stress will take a toll on your physical appearance. Maybe tonight is a night to think about what makes each other beautiful beneath our skin, hair, and other physical features?
Third, take another look around. You may never see some of these people again. They will leave this place to never return. Some will move, some will die, and some people will simply stop returning your messages. This is life. Someone needs to tell you the truth. You’ve heard about the truth. It’s like poetry, not everyone enjoys it. So enjoy this moment. If you’ve got any lingering baggage with anyone, tonight is the night to make peace. Be nice to each other. Say something kind; find meaningful words to say tonight. Turn to your neighbor and tell them, “I love you.” Bear hug one another. If I don’t see it happening, when this over, I’m coming down there.
Fourth, if you think you’re life is mapped out on a perfect course, think again. Most maps are out of date as soon as they are made and GPS’s are becoming increasingly unreliable. Most people in your generation will change jobs four to five times over the course of their life. That is an economic reality. And those jobs will have nothing to do with what you studied in college. Be flexible and be ready for change. Keep learning. If you see yourself in a professional or personal dead end, make a change.
Fifth, it doesn’t matter how good your GPA is here, how much scholarship money you’ve won, where you’re going to school (or not), or if you graduate from college with a high GPA and a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford if you’re a crummy human being who treats people like our world treats fossil fuels. Would you rather have good grades and be what the world deems successful but be unable to look yourself in mirror and say, “I am happy with who I am and my relationship to the human race.” Be a good person who is successful; in whatever form success comes. That is a tough challenge. I believe you are ready to meet it.
A few additional thoughts:
Thank everyone who is here tonight with these words: “This diploma is part yours, thank you for your help.” This includes your teachers and staff.
You will have no memory of the drama, conversations, and things which held life or death importance over the last for your years by the time you are 30.
When you talk about Instagram with you kids, they will roll their eyes and say “you’re old”. Your expensive phones will be sold at the thrift store. Spend wisely.
You will remember people. It’s better have one or two people you can count on than 500 people on Facebook loosely known as your “friends”.
You can be happy, successful, and do good things in the world no matter who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or how many justices sit on the Supreme Court.
Waste your time on the looking at blue sky and birds in flight or listen to the sweet sculptural rhythms of jazz legend Charles Mingus; not on who’s sleeping with who or who got drunk at a frat party.
Lots of people love you. Pay it forward. There are so many unloved people in the world.
Good night, good luck, and God Speed on your journey.