About twenty years ago someone asked me to give a commencement address at a high school graduation. About a week before the graduation I wrote out a speech that would take about fifteen minutes to deliver. I’d been to enough of these ceremonies to know nobody wanted to suffer through anything longer than that. I hit on the usual stuff that graduation speakers are expected to say and tried to make it uplifting. You know the whole, “you are the future” stuff that Whitney Houston liked to sing about.
When the day arrived, I went to the Empire State Plaza in Albany, parked in the underground garage and took the elevator up to the concourse level. When the doors opened, I found myself in a sea of kids in caps and gowns all walking in the same direction. I followed them into a large room and made my way to the stage assuming someone would see me and greet me, but nobody did.
I made my way backstage and asked for the person who had invited me to speak, but puzzled stares are what I got in return. “Who?” a couple of the school administrators asked. I said the name and again got blank looks. Finally, said, “I don’t get this. I’m here to give the main speech at the (fill in the blank) high school commencement, and you all seem surprised.” That’s when someone interjected, “Um, sir. That’s a different school. They are graduating today here at the plaza but in a different room.” Boy, was I stupid.
When I found the right room, I took my place on the stage and fumbled with my now wrinkled speech waiting my turn. Then they brought me up, and something came over me. I decided to be real. I told the students and their parents what just happened to me. I said, “I made an assumption, and it led me down the wrong path.” I told them there was some deeper lesson in that and they too should be careful who they are following blindly.
At that point, I looked down at my script, not sure where to jump in and said, “Ah, forget it. I’m not going to read my prepared remarks, let me instead tell you about failure.” I then told the kids, most of whom were about to go off to college, that I didn’t go to the school I thought I would. The reason? It was too expensive. Instead, I ended up at HVCC and SUNY Oswego, and it was the smartest move I ever made. Both are great schools, and I got a fabulous education.
Then I told them when I graduated with a four-year college degree; I couldn’t get work. Nobody wanted me. I needed money fast, but I couldn’t go back to my job scooping ice cream at the Stewarts shop in South Troy. I’d told all those people I was graduating and going to be a writer or reporter or something important. So, I took a job busing tables at a restaurant on Wolf Road in Albany while I worked on starting my career.
I used that reality check to tell the kids that real life isn’t like the movies and even though your mom thinks you’re special the rest of the world may need some convincing. I also told them if you need to eat or put gas in your car you swallow your pride and work whatever job you can; nothing is beneath you. Well maybe being a D.J at a strip club but other than that, take the job available.
At this point, I took my prepared script from the podium and shoved it in my pocket. This speech was officially off the rails now. I told them that once I got my career going in my chosen field, every single person told me “no” the first time. Job opening at a radio station? No thank you, Mr. Gray. A great promotion available at work? Sorry buddy but we’re giving it to your co-worker. Every single time it was a no before I got a yes.
I told them that when I was a boy, I had a knack for locking myself out of the house. On hot summer days that meant you had two choices, sit on the front steps and sweat to death or find a way in. Soon enough I figured out which screen window would come loose if you jiggled it just right. I told the kids your life will be like that. Whether it’s because of your age, the color of your skin, religion, sexual orientation, whatever…someone may try to shut you out. Don’t just sit there, find a way in.
January is here, a month when many of us set new goals. My advice, whether it’s weight loss, quitting smoking, a new job, fixing broken relationships? Swallow your pride, take small victories, expect setbacks but keep on trying. If you find yourself in the wrong room with the wrong people; get up and leave. Lastly, if you feel yourself unsure in a defining moment; toss out the script and speak from the heart. You are never wrong if you speak from the heart.