Good morning/afternoon/evening parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, distinguished guests, and most importantly, Class of 2018! I’m honored to share in this special day of celebration and accomplishment with you.
You have taken the exams, passed the classes, and conquered the SOL tests. In fact, you have succeeded in achieving every key academic challenge over the last thirteen years of your public education that has led you to this important moment.
Thirteen years. That is a significant portion of your life spent in pursuit of one goal—a goal that you will reach very shortly. I wonder, though, if you’ve ever stopped and thought, “What now?” No, I don’t mean the more obvious responses, such as college, military, career, or even beach week. I mean the question in a much larger sense, as in: “What does it all mean?”
Robert Fulghum wrote a book of short essays entitled, All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. From the title, you might surmise that he is suggesting you have wasted the last twelve years of your life, and we could have held a similar ceremony when you were only five or six years old. Although his message transcends this notion, Fulghum does, in fact, make a compelling case. For instance, in one essay, he lists a variety of essential life skills that we learn. The first ten go like this:
1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. Clean up your own mess.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
It’s hard to argue with any of this advice. Will it be all that you need in order to be successful for the rest of your life? Probably not. I think that Fulghum’s larger point, though, is that the lessons we learned in our most formative years are applicable for a lifetime. For many of us, we made some of the best memories of our lives while viewing the world through the lens of a child. In the same book, Fulghum writes, “I want to be 5 years old again for an hour. I want to laugh a lot and cry a lot. I want to be picked up or rocked to sleep in someone’s arms, and carried up to bed just one more time.”
Obviously, for him, those days were perhaps among his very best. I, too, believe that we should strive to extend the innocence of childhood as long as possible, but I also feel that we can make incredible memories at any point during our lives. When we were children, though, a wide range of emotions seemed more vivid and occurred with more frequency. Perhaps, those who seek to reclaim their childhood, to be the Ponce de Leon in search of the fountain of youth, are really trying to recapture the vibrancy of life that is often experienced at a younger age. What if we could do just that, though? That is, experience life to its fullest every day.
The following setting is in stark contrast to an author reflecting on his childhood. It was 1993 and Jim Valvano, former basketball coach at North Carolina State University, was accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award at the inaugural ESPYs. He was also giving the final speech of his life that he knew was quickly coming to an end because of cancer. The message he delivered that evening is among the most memorable of the last quarter century, and among the most impactful, as it launched his V Foundation for Cancer Research. In several ways, it was reminiscent of Robert Fulghum’s desire to embrace the memories and simple lessons of his youth. Coach Valvano said, “To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.”
Facing the end of his life, Valvano was trying to live every day to its fullest. One might say, he appreciated it as a child might. During the same speech, he joked about the fact that he was being given a cue to wrap it up so that the TV network could cut to the scheduled commercial break and get on with the show. He continued speaking anyway, noting that those types of worries were no longer concerns for him. It put things in perspective for all of those privileged enough to hear him, whether in person or on television, and, frankly, no one wanted him to stop.
Robert Fulghum was on to something in his book. Kindergarten was a simpler time, with fewer cares and new experiences every day. However, as important as that first year was, we do not learn everything we need to know in kindergarten. So, what does it all mean? It means that the 12 years that followed your initial year of schooling has molded you into the person you are today. The lessons you have learned, the knowledge you have gained, and the experiences you have had can help you to approach life in a more meaningful way than when you were younger…if you will allow it to happen.
Now, as you prepare for the next chapter in your lives and begin to take on the mounting responsibilities of adulthood, I challenge you to take stock of what might appear important at the time versus those things that actually are important as Coach Valvano demonstrated. Perhaps then, we can slow down enough to laugh, to cry, to think, and to experience many more of those “full days” that he was describing. I also have to believe that some of those things that are truly important are the same timeless truths that Robert Fulghum described. So, as you take your next steps, I also challenge you to play fair, say you're sorry when you hurt somebody, and take the time to enjoy some warm cookies and cold milk.
Congratulations, Class of 2018. May each of you enjoy many more full days, and may you impact others so that they may do the same.