Last weekend my fiancé and I hosted a graduation party for his nephew at our house. He, like thousands of other local high school seniors, smiled and politely accepted the routine compliments (and cards stuffed with cash) from friends and family members.
His grandmother kissed him; his father shook his hand; his little sister continued ignoring him. All in family tradition.
Our recent graduate took pride in that he had just completed something difficult — at least that was the message posed unto him.
And then, amidst the sea of congratulations, I blurted out, “High school years were the easiest of your life.”
Another adult behind me grumbled in agreement, barking back that those were also the best years of one’s life, and it only goes downhill from age 18.
Way to rain on the parade, right? We may as well had sat in the cake.
Turns out I’m not the only person to take the post high school graduation celebrating down a few notches. A few weeks ago, I heard about David McCullough Jr., a high school English teacher in Massachusetts. He was the keynote speaker at a commencement ceremony there and titled his speech, “You are not special.”
Here’s an excerpt of what he said:
“Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have.
“And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! (EDITOR’S NOTE: Or, The Press) And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…
“But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
The speech concludes with McCullough stating that the graduates are not special because everyone is special. After the speech, he told reporters:
“The kids now seem so directed and scheduled — they’re tutored and coached and the degree to which parents are involved in their lives is … well, one notices,” he said. “They’re getting very little experience conducting their own lives and living with the consequences of their decisions. When they stumble, their parents step in, denying them very important formative experiences.”
It got me thinking. The part that jumped out at me is that high school students are not used to living with the consequences of their decision.
Well, recent graduates, that is all about to change.
The decisions one makes during high school are certainly important. Each decision adds up to create one’s character. At the end of high school, we’re pointed in a general direction of our lives, although that’s not to say the direction cannot be changed. Perhaps it’s college and a career in academics, engineering or the medical industry. Maybe it’s straight into the work industry.
And, possibly, it’s a road to a troublesome life.
In college, there will not be a teacher reminding you to do your homework. At work, there will not be someone suggesting you to manage your time properly or speak respectfully before you are fired. Out on the streets, there isn’t a parent to stand by your side, ordering you to get back home before curfew and to stop hanging out with the local group of heathens.
And if there still is someone guarding you, it will not pay off for you in the long run.
I recall the first few years after high school graduation. Every once in awhile, I would run into a former classmate (this was slightly before the onset of the Facebook era, back when you had to actually bump into somebody). I learned about 20 percent of our class had been married and divorced by the time we were 20 years old. I also witnessed a popular, nice classmate I had known since kindergarten evolve into a heroin addict, and several more begin stacking up a criminal history.
Others former classmates blossomed in college and quickly found success in the working world after a few years. Some are happily married with children, a dog and a suburban address. A few are traveling the world and chasing their dreams, one international backpack trip at a time.
There are many different directions for life. For the most part, my classmates and I came from similar backgrounds. We were all raised within the same square mileage in rural eastern Clark and Madison counties, and had the same basic education. Yet, we took so many different approaches to our post high school life.
That’s because of one reason, grads: Your life is what you make of it.
It may sound both cliché and rude, but high school years likely really were among the easiest and most carefree of your life. However, I do not think they were the best years of my life — despite what every adult who is disappointed in their own life harps to me.
If you make the right decisions, they don’t have to be the best years of your life. The best can be yet to come, if you choose.
Andrea Chaffin is the editor of The Madison Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AndeeWrites.