High school graduations have gotten a lot of attention lately, because if not for the pandemic, another group of 18-year-olds would finally get to “walk,” and accept their diploma and the accompanying cheers.
Instead, many commencement programs have been delayed or canceled. So we are honoring the seniors with yard signs, neighborhood parades, or social media salutes.
I feel bad for them. After all, they have worked hard for twelve-plus years, leading up to this one moment. They deserve a moment. I remember my moment, or at least some of it.
Unlike the mega-high schools of today, with hundreds of graduating seniors, my class consisted of only twenty-four students. I proudly tell people that I graduated in the top twenty. I then change the subject before anyone starts asking questions.
With only two dozen people in line to shake hands with the principal, grab the diploma, and smile for the camera, my graduation could have been over in about four minutes. But Grandma and Grandpa did not get all dressed up to walk in, take a seat, and then turn around and leave. So the principal felt obligated to have a speaker on the program before we were shooed out of the cafe-gym-atorium.
I don’t remember the man’s name, but he was introduced as a preacher. I believe he was somewhere between the ages of 30 and 95. You see, when you’re in high school, all grown-ups are just varying degrees of old, from kind of old, to really old.
That cafe-gym-atorium was hot, and my fellow scholars were ready to disrobe. Don’t get the wrong idea. We didn’t have any sordid plans for that night. Well, come to think of it, there were a few wild ones in that class.
The evening seemed to last forever. The visiting speaker opened with a couple of allegedly funny stories (because “dad jokes,” then and now, always land with a thud to anyone under 18).
As he launched into his speech, he promised to share his “Rules for a Rewarding Life.”
This shouldn’t take long. Most of us were pretty good at following rules. Back in 6th grade, there were 44 of us. The herd had been thinned to 24. The 20 who were not among us, were not rule followers. Only the chosen few were sweating under our gaudy robes. Those other kids were out breaking more rules, and probably having a good time.
Okay, preacher man. Lay down a few of those rules so we can put this joint in our rear view mirror and start changing the world.
He led off with honesty, kindness, and respect, while giving detailed instructions on each of those traits. My 18-year-old brain started calculating, and I figured, this isn’t too bad. Maybe he’ll stop at five important Rules, and then we can go somewhere with a working AC.
Nope. Eventually he started in on Number Six. It was either persistence or perseverance, which seems to be the same thing. Either way, I was sure he would stop at ten. That’s a nice round number.
But he was just getting warmed up. In fact, I think determination was Number Eleven on his list. As in, he was determined to make someone pass out before he wrapped up his Rules.
A dozen would have been fine, but no. Fifteen seemed about right, but he kept on going. I’m pretty sure he got lost, and repeated a rule or two. Who knows? By this time, we were daydreaming about something more enjoyable, like picking cotton or patching a roof.
One of my classmates was pregnant when the program began. By the time he finally finished, with Rule Number 25, her son had learned to walk.
Many years later, I was invited to be a graduation speaker. My own graduation had prepared me well. First, don’t tell any jokes. And by all means, keep it short. I cautiously surveyed the class for any expectant moms. Who could be sure, with those robes?
I began with a promise. I told the seniors I would be brief. “I just want to talk to you for ten minutes,” I said. So I told a story or two, offered some quick snippets of old-man advice, and wished them well.
I was honored to be in the receiving line as each senior walked up to accept their diploma. From most of them, I got a handshake and a smile. One young lady walked up to me, offered her hand, and pointed at her watch. “Eleven minutes, and twenty seconds,” she said, rolling her eyes.
You may wonder if I was insulted by that. Absolutely not. I felt like I had completed her high school education, by sharing an important life lesson: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.