I come from a family of schoolteachers. My mother is a history teacher at a public high school. My sister teaches English as a Second Language to community college students. My late maternal grandmother also was a teacher. I have aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives who were or are teachers, or work in the schools in other capacities. And education was always a major emphasis of my parents when I was growing up. I guess old habits die hard, because in some ways I still think in terms of the school calendar, even though I’m no longer in school. So it is that my mind turns to graduates and graduation ceremonies each May and June.
I was happy to have a ceremony to attend this graduation season. One of my sisters-in-law earned a Master of Public Health degree, and I traveled the few hours to her campus on a bright afternoon for the festivities. My husband knows the perils of taking me anywhere near a college campus; it gives me the fever to go back to school again myself. But, aware of the risks and having made our peace with them, we both decided to brave it anyway. The commencement speaker was Howard Koh, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services. Among his words of encouragement to his audience of degree candidates in caps and gowns was not to overlook taking care of themselves while taking care of others, fine advice for anyone in the helping professions.
My own graduation from graduate school didn’t include a commencement address. I remember the commencement speaker from my undergraduate ceremony, though I can’t recall much of what he said: After all, it has been 16 years. Could it really have been that long? And while I might feel a twinge of envy for new graduates and the blank slate they have before them, one person I am not envious of is the guest who has to write and deliver the speech. Crafting a graduation speech is a tall order requiring the speaker to summon memorable wisdom without sounding overly pedantic for a celebration or relying on too many platitudes. It’s a job I wouldn’t want.
Since I can’t remember my graduation speaker’s suggestions, I’ll share a couple thoughts of my own. One thing I’ve learned is that the majority of life situations aren’t black-and-white. They are more nuanced than that, more subtle. And it is in that gray area that some of the most vexing dilemmas occur. Another thing I’ve learned is that education is never a waste. Even if a person doesn’t end up using their education in the expected way, they will always use it.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina