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Words of … wisdom? On giving a commencement speech

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BANGOR – When you get to be my age, the opportunities for firsts start to become rarer and rarer. So when they do come along, it’s important to embrace them – which is precisely what I did when I was invited to serve as the commencement speaker at the graduation of the Hermon High School Class of 2018.

The call came last fall. HHS principal Brian Walsh reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to serve as the commencement speaker for the following spring’s graduation. As a proud Hermon graduate (Class of ’94 – go Hawks!), I was thrilled to be asked and immediately accepted.

But then … the questions started to creep in. The doubts.

Was I really the right person to do something like this? What wisdom could I possibly offer to these young men and women as they were heading off into the world? My past is riddled with mistakes and misjudgments – who was I to tell them what was to come?

I spent weeks upon weeks going over what I might say. I found myself struggling to pin the thing down; I was in a spiraling, doomed pursuit of perfection. Every thread I pulled just led to an eventual unraveling.

And then – finally – I had it. I knew what I wanted my message to be. I wanted to tell these kids that our paths are fluid and we’re not bound by our choices. I wanted to tell them that there is always more than one way to get where you want to be – or need to be.

Now I just had to write it.

Words are my thing. I string them together by the thousands every week here in these very pages. I know how to make words do what I want. And I know how to say them the way that I want. Words have long been my staunch allies.

But this? This was different. This mattered.

So I wrote and re-wrote and rehearsed and re-rehearsed and finally arrived at something of which I was reasonably proud. I was ready to do this.

But when the day came, what’s this? Nerves? I’ve been getting onstage for decades at this point – I stopped getting nervous in front of people a long time ago. And yet, there I was, genuinely nervous about speaking.

To be fair, it was probably the biggest crowd before whom I had ever spoken. And the (very weird) reality of the situation was that some number of them were my high school peers – peers whose children were graduating that very day. There’s something very strange about that, about transcending the years and engaging with a new generation that nevertheless remains connected to the previous one.

I caught a few names, but it was really the faces that drove it home. Looking across that stage and noticing teenagers who looked exactly like the same teenagers I remembered from my own time in those halls. Even when I didn’t remember a name, the faces alone triggered memories of days gone by. It was a remarkable thing.

As for the speech itself? It was pretty good. In fact, at the risk of sounding egotistical, I’d go so far as to say it was almost great. It certainly seemed to engage in the manner I intended; the message I wanted to put forth was effectively conveyed. It was far from perfect, but it is my sincere belief that at least a few of the people sitting in the Cross Center that morning will carry something from it forward into the future. And really, that’s the best you can hope for.

Even now, days after the event, I find myself still humbled to have had such an opportunity. To be trusted as part of a send-off that is – at least to this point – one of the most important days in the lives of these young people is something special. I am grateful to have been allowed to play some small part in it.

And so, once again, I say thank you to the Hermon High School Class of 2018. Thank you for your joy and your ambition and your passion. And thank you for letting me share your day.

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