To The Graduation Class of 2015

FCI Milan / Image courtesy bop.gov
FCI Milan / Image courtesy bop.gov

By Justin Lewis Donohue

There are a million clichés that come with graduation. Sayings that have been carried over the years through songs, cards, poems, and speeches. Every year, one or more people will stand before a graduating class and dispense upon them a set of words that, although they are meant to be advice, often turn out to be self-congratulatory conjecture compiled with a heavy dosage of self-interest and probably even unintended irony. I am going to do my best not to be that guy.

I cannot stand here today and pretend as if I know what life was like before you came to Milan. Each of us likely came to this place by different paths. I also cannot stand here and say that the life I had growing up was anything like yours. I did not wear your shoes, and I’m not going to pretend that I did; however, you may be surprised by how much we have in common. “We’re not so different, you and I” the old phrase goes, and in many ways, it’s true.

I am not going to pretend that I know each and every one of you, because I do not. I do not know where you come from, I do not know what kind of life you had, and I do not know what made you make the decisions that you made. This is what I do know: I know that you have made two decisions–two of the most important decisions in your entire life. Two decisions that not only affect you in the here and now, but will also continue to influence the rest of your life. I know this because I also have made these same two decisions, and they are the most important decisions of our entire lives.

The first decision was to violate the law. Which law is probably different for each and every one of us, in one way or another. However, which law was violated is completely irrelevant because the result was still the same for all of us in the end–incarceration. Each of us chose to do something that has separated us from our friends, our families, our loved ones, and our children for a period of time that we cannot ever get back. Though our lengths of separation may be different, the results are still the same: hurt, pain, heartache, and sadly, sometimes even indifference. For some this is unbearable. For them, the only thing that can be done is to wallow in self-pity, crying out “Woe is me, look at what the system has done to me!” For others, however, this is a chance to overcome our pasts.

To those of you sitting here in this room today, I want you to know that the second thing I have in common with you is the desire to change, the desire to overcome, and the desire to move forward. With these desires I have made a choice–we have made a choice–and that choice is to not let our pasts dictate our futures. To move on with our lives, and to do something that puts us on a path to a better future. We have made the choice to get our high school diplomas. Though many of us are different in race, religion, and background, we have found ways to come together and help each other to become the class of 2015.

All that said, I would like to share with you this last bit of advice. These are not my words, but they are words that have had a tremendous impact on the lives of those who either read them or heard them–an impact so strong that they “went viral” long before the term was ever coined. From a newspaper column in 1997 to a song in 1999, these words are timeless and, I believe, more than appropriate for this very moment. So…

To the gentlemen of the class of 2015, wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked–you are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes your behind. The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive, forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this tell me how.

Keep you old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.

Stretch.

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Get plenty of calcium.

Be kind to your knees. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.

Enjoy your body. Use it in every way that you can. Don’t be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It’s the greatest instrument you’ll ever own. Dance–even if you have nowhere to do it but in your own living room. Read the directions, even if you don’t follow them. Don’t read beauty magazines, they’ll only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents; you never know when they’ll be gone for good. Be nice to your siblings, they’re your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few, you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft–travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander. You, too, will get old. And when you do, you’ll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders–respect your elders.

Don’t expect anyone else to support you. Maybe you have a trust fund, maybe you’ll have a wealthy spouse, but you never know when either one might run out.

Don’t mess too much with your hair or by the time your 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth… but trust me on the sunscreen.

Thank You.

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