About four years ago, the seniors at Cretin-Derham Hall invited me to speak at their high school graduation. Four years later, many of these young students are graduating college. Those who are not graduating are doing amazingly interesting and intentional things instead. I am lucky to say that many of these former students have become friends and thought partners, keeping me young at heart, laughing, honest and passionate.
So folks, I am reposting my speech here for you, now the class of 2015. See if you were able to make something out of nothing in your next place. If you did, believe it again now. The stars await. I still believe in you. I still learn from you. You are, indeed, very good.
I recently had my last day teaching high school after five years at Cretin-Derham Hall. This last year was extremely special. I taught all seniors, and they invited me to speak at their graduation. So below is what I said on June 1 at the Cathedral. There are many inside jokes and specifics, but I think there are some good reminders for us all as well.
A bit over a decade ago, I was sitting right where you were, graduating from Cretin-Derham Hall. I had tried out to be the student speaker, but was told my speech was too feminine. I was beat out by this complete yahoo by the name of Ben Tierney. Turns out he, like Andrew, deserved the honor. I tell you this story because there is an amazing life lesson in it for me. At the time, I thought a door was shutting in my face, that the universe was giving me a resounding, “No.” But look? It was really trying to say, “Not yet. But wait. I have something even better for you. Yours was a good plan, but my plan is better.” I never would have believed it at the time, but the plan was for me to get a few more degrees, live in a few more exotic places, and come back to where I came from for awhile. The plan was to walk with this gorgeous group of people for their four years of time in high school. I would watch them grow, I would listen to their stories and I would fall deeply in love with them. And they would invite me to speak at graduation. May I just say, it was worth the wait. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for this deep honor, of telling me that you would like to hear what I have to say. I have to say that I am proud to know you, and I will never be the same because we met. And remember, there may be times when you try to control your story, and it does not go according to your plan. It may feel like the universe is telling you no. But, it is possible that if you let go just a little, there may be something so beautiful in store instead that you did not even dare to dream it for yourself.
Some days, I think it comes down to this: There could have been nothing, but there is something, and that something is very good. Think about it. Famous physicists as brilliant as Christina Dihn, Brian Monson and Connor Nolan would agree there should have been nothing. 13.7 billion years ago there was a sort of primeval soup made of light, energy and heat that started burping out matter, which became us. In these belches, there should have been equal particles of matter and anti-matter canceling each other out, but for every 1 billion anti-matter particles, there was 1 billion and one particles of matter, so against all odds, there is indeed something instead of nothing. It is actually shocking that you exist. There could have been nothing, but there’s this- there’s Nick Koop, Molly Levi, Jared, Maggie. And what is more stunning is that the something is not neutral, but very good.
To get at the goodness, well, people, I am going Biblical. Why? Because this is a story that we belong to, that we are a part of. It tells us where we came from, and if you read it closely, it is a stunningly beautiful story that holds truth. In our creation story, the Creator starts with watery chaos and fashions light and darkness, heavens and earth, plants and birds and sea monsters and cattle and creeping things. The creator stops, takes stock of all that God created and said, “Yeah, this is good.” Then God created you- women and men in the image of the divine. God looked at you and said, “This is very good.” God is forced to add an intensifier because you are better than good. And if you really think about it, this is true. Think about your classmates at their essence. Joe, you are very good. Madelyn, Emmett, Grace very good. Swanson- Jillian and Peter-both very good. There is no denying it.
There could have been nothing, but there is something, and that very good something is the class of 2011. Seriously, you might not have been. What if Matt Godfrey and Willie Roller had decided to go to Central? What if Sammi, Carson, Morgan, Zender and Alex Squared had not transferred? What if Daphne had stayed in Cameroon or Stephanie stayed in Cananda? But you all showed up, day in and day out for four years, and you created this. And this is very good. It is Juliet offering Erin her Crasins on a pink bus in Central America. It is Francie showing up at Ian’s swim meet so he could cut three seconds from his best time. It is, on a day I was feeling substantially less than mediocre, Brian Linehan interrupting me mid sentence to tell me that I am a good teacher. It is Rajion looking online to learn how to tie a ribbon so that Josie’s Secret Santa Math Topics gifts would be special. You go the extra mile with each other. You celebrate that you exist. You create beautiful things. You show up when Peter and Zach lose their fathers. You stand up and cheer when Mike finishes “Free Bird” at the last supper. When Mark has a court date to claim his Markness, you show up. You walked through the Albert Street doors, you emerged from the locker room, you got on that plane, you stepped on that stage and everything changed because of you. There was nothing, and then there was the rain garden. There was nothing, and then there was the rouser at the Nichol’s house. Nothing, and then Alonte met Mr. Luke and could figure out long division. And that, people, that is very good.
Class of 2011, congratulations. This is a big deal! In high school there is more brain, body, heart, identity and soul formation than maybe in any other four years of your life. You did it beautifully, gracefully, with style, and you did it together. You are so much more worldly- heck you are so much better looking than when you were pitching woo at the half wall in between sections of Values. This piece of paper will access opportunity that I know you will take with both hands and use to make the world more beautiful. Claim this accomplishment that you earned and all the power that it offers. Walk through the doors it has opened for you, knowing where you came from, cognizant of the people who were not given that access. You should be proud, and use this in the world to be the very best version of you. You are not just the future, you are the present. You are living in time of Twitter, Libya, Google and Cairo. You are living in a time when young people are changing the world drastically for the better. Your beauty and brilliance has and will continue to contribute to that. With the structure of high school taken away, you my friends, are ready to fly. High school will not be the best days of your life. The best thing you can do is be actualized, stay awake, follow your bliss. Do not give in to mediocrity, but do not equate greatness with being famous. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Dare to imagine together what we could become.
You are moving to your next adventure, and right now, there is nothing. But be assured, there will be something. And that something will be very good, because you showed up. Show up at places that matter like birthday parties, funerals, picketing corners and meetings. Show up to vote, when your friend gets dumped or at the hospital when your mom gets sick. And gosh darn it show up to class. I promise it matters. Revel in the very good something that comes from you existing in the world. And remember, you may find that one day your mountains turn to rocks and your oceans turn to drops. You are churning, burning, yearning to be great. Take stock of your inner state and meditate, ask your mate. That is where you will find the love that overflows from above. Be you- that is all you have to do. Show up, stay awake and be proud of the quake that you make.
The teacher in me acknowledges the teacher in you. Thank you.