10 Things I'd Tell My High School-Graduating Self 🎓
here's the speech I gave last weekend at graduation
Hello, and welcome to June! I can hardly believe it, but I’m glad the madness of May is in the rearview mirror at last.
Last weekend I was the speaker at our small school’s graduation, and I was asked by a number of people to make my speech public. I thought Commonplace readers might enjoy it as well, so here you go — here’s the speech I gave to our senior class of 2022. Enjoy!
When I graduated from high school in 1995, I participated in my big graduation ceremony with my class of several hundred students, of whom I was friends with maybe five of them. We sat alphabetically, so I didn’t know either of the classmates sitting on both sides of me, and when I shook the vice-principal’s hand after he handed me my diploma, I was 100% sure he didn’t know my name, even though they literally just called it out. I was friends with the valedictorian, but I remember nothing she said in her speech, and I couldn’t tell you if my life depended on it who was our official commencement speaker. I truly only remember him saying one thing.
I start off with this to illustrate two things:
1. I know you guys are used to hearing this by now, but I hope you know how truly blessed you are to have attended Studio Prep, to be sitting with your fellow graduates of which you total a grand four, and that you know almost every face sitting around you here today, supporting you and cheering you on.
2. The one thing I remember that the speaker said from my own graduation was that the word ‘commencement’ means ‘beginning.’ You know I’m a sucker for word etymology — the origin of ‘commencement’ comes from Old French, and it means ‘a beginning, act, or fact of coming into existence.’
This means that what we’re all doing here, what we’re all in this room to celebrate, is not the end of your high school career. That might be a handy excuse, but we’re really here to celebrate your adulthood coming into existence. By walking across this stage, from one side to the other, you are walking away from childhood and into adulthood. Congratulations for entering the slow descent into no longer being able to mainline sugar without immediate ramifications, and calling it a night by 9 pm.
Don’t worry, you’ve got time to get there, and there’s plenty to do beforehand. Believe me, you’ve probably got a number of all-nighters headed your way (though, spoiler alert: I believe those come with a punch card, and once you’ve filled them up, they’re done). You’re here to start your journey of adulthood, and I’m here to tell you what to look out for in the coming years.
I’ve got my own ideas, but I also tapped into the sage wisdom of that modern water cooler known for its critical thinking: Twitter. I told people on Twitter that I’d be speaking to you today, and what would they tell their past high-school-graduating selves? I already had my own thoughts, but I was curious about what other people might say — and I was pleasantly surprised that their ideas were similar to mine. In other words, there’s a consensus on the advice I’m about to dispense. Collectively, I’d say that, combined with the ages of these people, this advice is about 1,400 years old.
So, consider what I’m about to say undeniably the most time-honored wisdom you’ll ever hear outside of the Bible.
1. Take naps on the south mall lawn.
I went to the University of Texas, and even though I took a lot of classes, at least once a week I had some time to kill on campus. Me being the obnoxious Hermione that I was, I actually initially felt guilty about this spare hour or two. Shouldn’t I use this in-between time to study? Maybe I should take another class to fill the time? By the spring semester of my freshman year, however, I discovered a sweet little spot under a tree by the English department out on the south lawn. And once a week, I’d go sit there and read. Or nap. Okay, mostly just nap, and sometimes accidentally through my next class and I’d have grass indentations on the one side of my face where I used the ground as my pillow.
My point is this: enjoy the process. You don’t have to speed through your years. When I was in middle school, all I wanted was to be in high school. When I was in high school, all I wanted was to go to college. When I was in college, all I wanted was to graduate and be done with school. Once I had little kids, all I wanted was for them to be older so I could sleep through the night. But then they became your age and I enjoyed having them around and then I realized that they won’t be in my house for much longer and that’s when I suddenly wanted time to slow down. I stopped living for the future and started enjoying the present. But I wish I’d done that earlier.
I’d tell my younger, just-graduated high school self that, as cliche as it is, to enjoy this time in your life, because it’ll go by really fast. You don’t need to power through it and make the most of every waking moment. Stop and smell the roses, and take a nap under that tree on the south lawn.
2. Let the drunk Irishman sing ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ to you on the train in Wales on your way to the ferryboat to Dublin.
It was Spring Break my senior year of college and a group of us went backpacking around the U.K. We stayed in cheap hostels, ate meals from the grocery store, and absolutely did not go to any shows on the West End or have high tea overlooking Hyde Park because we were poor college students. But we saved up our pennies and went on an adventure together.
One night, on the late train to the ferryboat for Dublin in the middle of nowhere in Wales, a rather inebriated man holding a pair of roller skates came over and started chatting with us. He was friendly, but clearly not all there. And when he asked where we were from and we said Texas, he cleared his throat and began belting out a rousing rendition of Rhinestone Cowboy, complete with a thick Irish accent, and which I will not recreate for you at this moment because this is a classy event. We all held it together as best we could as he sincerely serenaded us, and then he stumbled over to a seat on the train, where he then fell asleep for the rest of the ride.
What I’m saying is: travel. Go do things. Go see parts of the world that become harder to go to when you’ve got kids and a mortgage. Go eat gran mariner crepes overlooking the Eiffel Tower, ride in the back of a tuk-tuk on the way to the beach in Thailand, and talk to the taxi driver in Johannesburg, South Africa who knows 11 languages. I promise you, unless you take on serious debt to do so (so, therefore, DON’T), you will never regret saving your pennies to explore the world. As they say, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.”
So yes, travel, but have other adventures, too. Explore your own hometown and the town where you’re going to for school. Pull over and take the exit so you can see the world’s biggest ball of twine, or the historic markers in the middle of nowhere. Don’t be so driven that you don’t take the scenic route in life. Take the posture of life as an adventure.
3. Don’t destroy your knee on the Mambo.
The last time I went skiing was nine years ago, and it was right after lunch in the lodge and my legs felt tired. They were shaky. Something was off. My body was begging me to stay in that lodge and curl up with a book. But I wanted to make the most of my day on the mountain, so I went up the ski lifts and pointed my skis down a black diamond mogul trail called the Mambo. I went down about 100 feet when I heard an audible “pop!” and I could no longer move. Turns out that ‘pop’ was the tendons holding my left knee together, so let’s just say I spent the rest of that winter and spring having surgery and going to physical therapy three times a week.
Take this advice as the flip side of the coin of advice I just gave you: go on adventures and take risks, but listen to wisdom and don’t be foolish in your risk-taking. Failure is part of life. Heck, it’s a necessary ingredient to life if you’re to grow and learn in any way. You know this from your time at the Studio — it’s good to fail well; we talk about that all the time. But failing well doesn’t mean being rash or stupid. There’s wisdom in listening to that voice that tells you to look both ways before you cross the street, don’t touch a hot stove, or don’t ski down a black diamond covered in moguls when your body is tired.
That voice is very often the Holy Spirit nudging your conscience, imparting you with wisdom. You will make mistakes, and that’s a good thing. But don’t make needlessly stupid mistakes.
4. Call your mother.
Now, I may be a little biased with this wisdom here, but just like I’ve never once regretted getting stamps in my passport, I’ve never once regretted calling up my mom to chat with her while I fold laundry. Or my dad, or grandma, or siblings and cousins. But in particular my parents, because they were there for all the moments of my childhood, and I want to enjoy them as imperfect people on their own journey God’s given them. Your parents aren’t perfect either, but they DO know stuff — more than you know. They’ve also sacrificed a great deal for you, they’ve poured into you, and they would run in front of a bus for you if it meant protecting you. Don’t forget to stay connected with them, even if you ultimately move thousands of miles away.
The same goes for your current friends, too. Yes, make new friends. But you won’t regret staying in touch with each other, and with the friends here in this room who still have more years of high school to go. I’m still close with some of the friends I made in high school, and we’ve stood by each other’s sides at weddings, we’ve babysat each other’s kids, and some of us now teach high school to their teenagers. Don’t stay tethered to your past, but don’t completely cut those cords, either. Those connections are part of what makes you, you.
5. Give Dostoevsky a try… again.
You’ve heard me in class say more than once that when we read challenging literature, I’m making a case to your 38-year-old self, not your 18-year-old self. I had you read old books that were tough to read, and that was on purpose. Not because I’m sadistic, but because the time-worn classics have earned our respect enough to heed their wisdom. Their stories have shaped the culture that we swim in, and they shape us, too. Now, I’m not saying read only hard stuff — read for fun, too. But the challenging texts, mathematical formulas, and complicated bits of politics or world history — are worth diving into because they shape our minds and our character.
Listen to tradition. Tradition is the stuff we humans have carried with us for a long time, and while some of it we’ve needed to shed over the ages, much of it is too quickly thrown out as outdated, unnecessary, or holding us back to the past. GK Chesterton called tradition the “Democracy of the dead, which means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes: our ancestors.”
It is very trendy these days to ignore anything that’s old. Don’t be trendy. Listen to good wisdom that’s been around a long time, whether that’s from Dostoevsky or from your grandpa. Our culture often believes the lie that new is always better. Yes, make changes where it’s needed, and add more seats at the table. But respect the good, old stuff. In 20 years, your 38-year-old self may dust off your copy of Crime & Punishment and you just may find a whole new slew of wisdom you never noticed before.
6. Listen to your crazy boyfriend’s theory about peanut butter and jelly and math.
When I met my husband, Kyle, we were both in our early 20s working overseas cross-culturally in war-torn Kosovo: he was helping rebuild houses for widows and I was teaching English to teenagers. And I remember one of the first things he asked me, as we sat with a group of fellow acquaintances in the middle-of-nowhere near the Serbian border and where we still had to watch where we stepped because of land mines, was this: “Do you prefer peanut butter or jam?”
I thought for a moment and said, “Jam.” (My answer would be different now.)
He then said, “Okay — do you prefer geometry or algebra?”
“Neither,” I said immediately.
“No, but if you had to choose — would you choose geometry or algebra?”
“…I guess geometry.”
He slammed his hands on the table. “There you go.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
He said, “I have an ongoing theory: people who prefer peanut butter also prefer algebra. And people who prefer jam also prefer geometry. I’ve been collecting this data for a while now.” He kept asking this same question to random strangers from all sorts of countries and cultures. And sure enough, the data seemed to prove his point.
Kyle’s deep, intellectual prowess eventually led me down the aisle to marry him two years later, but more to the point, it illustrates this: every person you meet knows something you don’t know. Even the person who could not be more different than you, the one you’ll have to do a group project with, or the client who sits in your chair and starts talking about her latest conspiracy theory. They will still know something you don’t yet know.
Take advantage of all the people that God puts in your path, and learn from them. Even if the wisdom is accidental, like don’t get drunk because you might inadvertently sing to total strangers on the train. The vast majority of the people you meet will have a story you need to hear, a tip that will make your day better, or an idea that’ll change your mind. If you let it, their experience will more who you’re made to be.
7. Serve pancakes at 6 in the morning.
I waited tables to put me through college, most notably at Kerbey Lane. Most of the time I lived with girls who didn’t “have” to work, so I’d get up at 5 in the morning and resent their heads on their pillows while I was in a back kitchen slicing strawberries and getting ready for the breakfast rush. There were times I was genuinely jealous of my friends who could finish studying and then go swim at Barton Springs, and I had to carry heavy trays of coffee mugs and repeat the pancake of the day a thousand times in order to pay my rent.
Looking back, I am so glad I had to work. It didn’t make me a better person than other people, but it sure as heck developed in me a work ethic that I’m grateful for to this day. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Don’t think of yourself as too good for an honest job.
And right along with this — don’t ever look down on anyone that works hard for you, either. Thank your waitstaff and tip them well. Say thank you to the janitor when you notice her mopping the floor. God made us to work. It’s good to work, whether you’re a CEO in a corner office downtown or a mama teaching your baby their letters and numbers. Working well, with an attitude of humility, makes us more of who God made us to be.
8. Remember poetic knowledge.
What is poetic knowledge? (They will answer out loud, per our class catechism: “Poetic knowledge is the intuitive knowledge of the nature of things; when our mind and emotions see in delight or terror the signiﬁcance of what is really there.”)
If you remember anything from those tedious catechisms we recited in English class, remember poetic knowledge. God has instilled in each of us the capacity for poetic knowledge, the ability to understand the nature of things, the idea of what’s really there that’s not being said. Remember the etymology of the word knowledge: it means ‘to read between the lines.’ It means to understand the thing beneath the thing, what’s below the surface of what’s visible to notice the invisible hand of God at work — if we’re willing to look for it.
A whole lot of the world will tell you that the idea of God is a fairy tale, that we humans have invented the idea of an omniscient creator in order to assuage our inability to grasp the unknowable. But here’s the thing: God never made us to know everything, and we humans have had enough hubris since the dawn of creation to think that’s a big reason why we exist. Truth IS knowable, and belief in the hand of God at work behind all the incalculable ways our world works IS reasonable — but we would do well to learn to sit with the mystery of it all.
God doesn’t often make sense. Truth is knowable, but we’ll never know all of God’s ways. Evil in the world does not mean God is absent, but there’s a good chance we won’t fully understand God’s reasons for it on this side of heaven. Look for the poetic knowledge in life, for the things between the lines. Embrace God as a mystery to worship, not a formula to solve. Listen to God when he says the same thing to you he said thousands of years ago to the prophet Isaiah:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
9. Don’t settle for mud pies.
There will come a time in your life when you’ll be lying awake at night, and you’ll admit that you’re disappointed with how life is going, and you’ll wonder what on earth God is up to. This isn’t how life was supposed to be.
And so, you settle. It may be just a little at first — you take the job offered, you don’t fight for the one you want. You go on a date with someone you know isn’t quite right for you. You take classes that are easy, not the ones that’ll challenge you. You don’t do the hard thing because it’s easier just to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. But here’s what our friend CS Lewis says:
“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. …Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”
God has given you your desires. We silly humans far too often turn those desires into mud-pies. You are sons and daughters of God. He offers you a holiday at the sea. Don’t settle.
10. And finally — you are never too old for storytime.
Yes, commencement is all about the beginning of your adulthood — but don’t be so quick to shed your childlike spirit. Jump on a swing when you pass by a park, jump into a pool with all your clothes on, and never be too high and mighty to learn from our great sage, Winnie-the-Pooh.
I’ll end this with some of his best words of wisdom. For example, one is, “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It simply may be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”
Also, “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
And finally, there’s this: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
We all have been so lucky, so blessed to know you, and it will be hard to say goodbye. You have had the opportunity of a lifetime to be educated at the Studio, and I imagine it will be a little hard to say goodbye to that, too.
But Winnie-the-Pooh also says this: “If you weren’t you, then we’d all be a bit less, we.” We are all a bit more ‘we’ because of you. And hopefully, you’re more ‘we’ because of all of us, too.
Go with God. You’re not alone.
Good advice for any age! As a 33 year Austinite, I love the “Austin-y” references. #4 call your mom is probably the one that stood out to me most of the 10. Thank you for publishing.
Brilliant. So much to comment on here, but the one that stands out for me is this: Failure is part of life. ...It’s a necessary ingredient to life if you’re to grow and learn in any way. I spent so much time trying to be perfect, to never make a mistake or misstep, to never be vulnerable. If there's one thing I could impart to young people--and older people!--it's let yourself fall, pick yourself u (with help as needed), and start all over again. You learn so much, and it helps put your foibles--and others'--in perspective. A great compassion builder.