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Column: Wisdom for life

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I was not asked to deliver a commencement address this year. That’s not unusual. I have never been asked to give a commencement address, not even at my own graduation. Seems that there were a couple of people the administrators thought were a lot smarter than I was. I think they were called the valedictorian

and salutatorian.

Funny, I don’t remember what they said. All I was thinking at the time was how hot it was in the gymnasium and which way the tassel should be hanging on my cap.


Someone always gives you a program as you walk into a graduation ceremony. That’s so you can fan yourself. Why is it always so hot at commencement exercises? The heat is compounded by the fact that graduates are wearing long gowns and family members are usually dressed up in a couple of extra pounds of clothing.

For college graduations, it’s fashionable to invite celebrities to deliver the commencement speeches. It gives the occasion some cachet while giving the speaker some cash and probably an honorary degree.

It’s interesting to look over the list of commencement speakers this year and see what advice they gave to young graduates. Comedian Jim Carrey spoke to graduates at Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa. He cracked a few jokes, of course, but the funnyman became serious when he talked about his father.

“I learned many great lessons from my father,” he said, “not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want to do, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.”

Peyton Manning was the commencement speaker at the University of Virginia. “When you are chided for your naiveté,” he said, “remind your critics that an amateur built the ark and experts build the Titanic.”

Bill Nye the “Science Guy” told graduates at the University of Massachusetts: “Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.”

At Wake Forest University, Jill Abramson felt something in common with the students she addressed. She had just been fired as executive editor of the New York Times.

“What’s next for me?” she asked. “I don’t know, so I’m in exactly the same boat as many of you. And like you, I’m a little scared but also excited.”

Commencement programs are perfectly named. Although they come at the end of a long term of study, they really represent the beginning of something. It’s that something that the tasseled heads are thinking about all through the ceremony.

I suspect that each one of us over a certain age has a commencement speech inside of us. Life has a way of teaching a lot of lessons, whether we want to learn them or not. We might share our hard-earned wisdom with those who are a few decades behind us on the road of life.

First, if I were addressing a group of graduates, I would keep anything I said under 10 minutes. I know how hot it is.

What I would say would probably end up sounding a lot like the speeches that graduates hear every year: March to the beat of your own drum, perform public service, be kind, keep learning, eat healthy, get good exercise, and don’t text and drive. I would add that, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is. I would tell them not to get overly excited when they learn their names have been included in any “Who’s Who” books, that annual and perennial flowers are not the same thing, and that they will seldom regret the words they don’t say.

I would say that happiness is a journey, not a destination, and that most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Then I would share the words on a little card that was attached to my high school diploma over a half-century ago:

“You have each been given a bag of tools, a formless rock and a book of rules; “And each must make, ere life has flown, a stumbling block or a steppingstone.”

My 10 minutes are up, graduates. You have heard enough. Time now to let your lives commence.

James H. Johnson is a retired teacher who lives in Greenwood. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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