The weirdest thing happened senior year. I was chosen as a student speaker for graduation.
No no no, that’s not the weird part. I was in speech and plays and used to speaking in front of people, so that part made sense.
It got weird when I suddenly wasn’t on the speaking list anymore. (Which was sad, but honestly, also a bit of a relief.) But then graduation day came, and it got really weird.
At the ceremony, my principal lied about how they chose their three speakers.
Why? I hadn’t asked him why I wasn’t speaking, and the decision had been made months in advance so I don’t think anybody else asked either. It was an elaborate explanation that–to this day–I don’t understand.
But every time graduation season rolls around, I remember and fume and scratch my head, still wondering what the heck happened there.*
And my poor husband is tired of hearing about it, so at his request, I give you what I would have said (remembering the themes I had considered before I was cut and doing my best to channel 18-year-old Michelle who was a very different person from 30-something Michelle).
1. Don’t let these be the best years of your life.
We will never have more freedom than we do at this moment, being sent out into the world with no strings or encumbrances. Most of us probably lack money and will have to go to school or work or the military, but beyond those obligations, that time is ours, just like it’s been in high school.
We’ve had the freedom to pursue interests or go to parties. To stay up late with few consequences and go wherever our cars would take us. I’ve learned that Perkins is way more exciting after opening night of a play or post-prom than it is any other time of day.
We have spent our lives thus far able to focus on discovering who we are and what we like doing, whether it’s band or football or drama or watching the clouds roll by. We have made friendships and learned how to navigate the way they change–sometimes gracefully, sometimes not.
There have been high highs and low lows, and for many of us, it’s been a great ride.
But. I worry that there are too many songs and storylines out there that look back on high school with immense longing, calling these “the best years of my life.” Friends, the average life expectancy in this country is close to 80. Can we really afford to peak sixty years early?
I hope that as we scatter from these place, the memories will remain warm and happy, but if they aren’t eclipsed by brighter ones, we have done ourselves (and society) a disservice. We were made for more than high school glory.
In that vein, I have two pieces of advice. The first one brings us to my second point:
2. Don’t chase unicorns.
We hear parents say all the time that they want their kids to be happy. They aren’t looking for their kids to become president or start the next Amazon; they just want them to be happy.
It’s a nice sentiment. But.
Happiness is like a unicorn. Happiness is an emotion; it’s fleeting in nature, such that when the candy or coffee or drug or Instagram or whatever spiked the pleasure centers in your brain is gone, so is that feeling.
Parents say that they just want their kids to be happy, but really, they want their kids to be content. But contentment is not as pretty as a unicorn; contentment is like a mule that plods along day by day, doing the work required of it, work that matters to you and to society, work that is needful and important, and you can do it well.
That mule-level contentment can mean finding in a person to love in good times and bad and building a life together, working together to invest in the community around you and in the next generation–through your own children or other people’s children for the sake of the future.
Now, this doesn’t always look like fun. Sometimes, mule life is full of frustrating co-workers or not knowing the next right step. Mules struggle with babies who won’t sleep at night or spouses who never pick up their socks, no matter how many times you’ve asked.
And sometimes mule life is so much harder. Failing. Admitting serious wrong against someone, or worse, being caught in that wrong. Working for a terrible boss. Losing a job. Losing someone close to you. Losing a baby. And then having to pick yourself back up and do whatever it is in front of you.
It’s not flashy, but over time, the mule life, one of consistent effort and commitment, leads to contentment and a body of experiences to proudly call your life.
Be useful and become content. Because the unicorn chasers out there will die searching, and mule life is full of bursts of happiness all along the way, the bright and shiny top-of-the-mountain moments that come from the days and weeks and years of faithful plodding.
And now, we arrive at our third and final point.
3. Look up.
This might be 31-year-old Michelle talking to a large extent, because 18-year-old Michelle did not know about the coming wave of smartphones that would radically alter how we interact with each other and the world.
You see, it is easy while living the mule life to keep your eyes on the ground as you plod along. And in this day and age, it is easy to keep your eyes glued to a screen rather than your shoes.
It is easy because this world is noisy–and has only gotten noisier since I graduated. Advertisers know that we can’t resist screens
In the noise are millions of voices selling millions of products aimed at fixing some problem you have, real or perceived. Even if they’re not selling you an actual product, they’re selling you on the idea that they have something you don’t have that you want, whether it’s influence or a perfect body or enough money to travel the world.
Chasing this noise is the same as chasing that unicorn. But if we look up from our shoes our own phones, we will see people. Real people. And when we look at real people, we can find real joy in being with them–singing and laughing and sharing stories–or in serving them and making the world a better place, which is worth more than any product any influencer can peddle.
So go out into the world, head up and ready to work hard. Build great things and let your best days be ahead of you. Good luck, class of 2005.