As the school year comes to an end, another annual round of commencement addresses is being given. Sadly, most of them are forgettable. Curiously, I do not even remember my own high school or college commencement addresses. Having raised five children, I have sat through my share. Of all the graduation speeches that I have heard I remember only one. It was a message given at the college graduation of my eldest daughter. The speaker was the late John Osteen, founder of Houston’s Lakewood Church and father of Joel Osteen. Rev Osteen exhorted the graduates to make it their goal to always depend upon and be filled with the Holy Spirit. That message for some reason stuck with me.
The purpose of a graduation speech hopefully is that it will strike a chord of truth deep within the soul that will continue to resonate at critical junctures throughout a person’s life.
When Winston Churchill, speaking at the Harrow graduation in 1941, said “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never …” he struck a chord that reverberated way beyond the ear shot of those in attendance. It galvanized a nation caught in the grip of the Second World War and throughout the decades since has continued to inspire embattled souls whenever it is read or recalled.
This year, a high school English teacher named David McCollough Jr gave one of those rare memorable commencement addresses. When he told the graduates at Wellesley High School (Massachusetts) the following it went viral. “None of you are special. You are not special. You are not exceptional.” In an age when children have grown up being “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped . . . feted and fawned over” it needed to be said. The ultimate point that he was making is that exulting in being special is a self-indulgent deceit. “The great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.” That is a message which may discomfit the soul but can motivate those who hear it to noble action.
Graduation ceremonies as a rite of passage are fraught with both emotion and expectation. There is the celebration of accomplishment with all the accompanying memories, bitter and sweet, sacrificial and gratuitous that will be left behind. And there is the anticipation of the future burgeoning with hopes and dreams yet waiting, albeit with trepidation, to be fulfilled.