If…then… Let the Commencement (Speeches) Begin!

This weekend marked the beginning of college graduations, and with them, another season of commencement speeches. Being asked to deliver a commencement speech is the greatest honor an institution can bestow. But listening to one, is, by definition, drudgery. Commencement speakers are only memorable if they say something unforgivable.

Last Saturday I delivered the commencement at St. Andrew’s College in Laurinburg, NC. St. Andrew’s is a small school with Presbyterian roots. It has the heroic legacy of being one of the first campuses to be built with handicapped accessibility in mind, long before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was even imagined.

St. Andrew’s is not a fancy school; otherwise they would have asked a fancy person to deliver the commencement address. But it is a school with spirit and integrity. St. Andrew’s is a school that accepts anyone in who has a dream, an idea, a hope, and a story. There is something genuine, authentic, and more interesting about a community built out of luck, serendipity, providence, where first choice, second chance and last resort all mix together instead of a school constructed around a rubric, test scores and the disingenuous and illegitimate construct that we call “merit.” The sun shines as bright on the sidewalk with a crack in as it does on the manicured fairways of the rich and the highly selective elite schools that have come to define “excellence.”

Somehow, elitism has become the bar by which we measure value. Things that are harder to get into are, by definition, better. The more students a school rejects, the higher it is ranked.

I was raised to give everyone a chance, not to judge a person by the college name on their sweatshirt.

As is my custom, I visited St. Andrew’s the month before graduation to get a sense of what I might say in their final words as undergraduates. While there, I discovered a grace filled community where students prepare to meet the daily challenges of the world over the course of a lifetime with joy, resilience, and humor.

After my first day at St. Andrews, I got back to my hotel room and couldn’t sleep. Something inside me needed to out.

I remembered a favorite poem by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same...

I thought: what would Kipling write about these past two days? How would I capture the simple grace of a courageous community defined by its determination to meet the daily challenges over the course of a lifetime with joy, resilience, and humor?

With my apologies to Mr. Kipling, I came up with my own Ode.

“If, then.. An Ode to the class of 2017”
If you’re thirsty, drink water
If you’re hungry, eat an apple
If you’re tired, take a nap
If you’re stressed, do yoga
If you need help, ask for it
If it hurts, see a doctor
If you’re overweight, walk
If you love someone, tell him or her
If you’re curious, explore it
IF you know its right, do it
IF you can help, help
If you’re angry, cool down
If you’re afraid, pray
If you can imagine it, create it
If you are at odds, reconcile
If it’s broken, fix it
If you want a garden, plant
If you make a mistake, own it
If you save money, invest it
If you bake a pie, share it
If you’re cold, put on a sweater
If you fall down, get up
If you graduate, keep learning
If you remember, say thank-you
If you graduate from college,
Have high expectations for yourself.
Share what you gain with others​.
Create the world that lives up to your ideals.

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