Dear Class of 1994: I'd like to request a do-over.
Fifteen years ago, I spoke to you at our high school graduation. You might not remember me; I was much shorter then and may have been obscured by the podium. In any event, I've done a few things over the years that might cause you to question my advice.
I've eaten fried Twinkies. I've shaved my head. I've submerged myself in a giant, public fountain during my lunch hour on a $10 dare.
I've jumped in the Maumee River on New Year's Day. I've worn duct tape pants to a Detroit Tigers game. I've paid to see Snakes on a Plane in the theater - and would do it again.
All of this is a long way of saying that maybe I haven't always made the best decisions about how to use the knowledge I picked up in school. At our graduation, I compared life to a shiny yellow Volkswagen and education to its operating manual. Too bad I found nothing there to stop me from eating a quart-sized sundae one summer day just because it was there.
I still stand by most of my valedictory address, which urged us all to shake off the trivial facts we memorized in class and use the bigger skills and concepts to find our places in the world. It just so happens that in addition to being a journalist, my place in the world appears to be enjoying oddities.
Today's circumstances call for something more, though, in terms of parting wisdom. It's a scary world out there, and it would be easy to fall back on the advice of the late writer George Plimpton, who once told graduating Harvard students: "Stop! Go on back to your rooms. Unpack! There's not much out here."
Who would want a place in the world as it stands today? Jennifer Post, for one.
The 18-year-old is a senior at Sylvania Northview High School, and as valedictorian she has the unenviable task of explaining to her graduating class why their collective future is so bright. For her, that's easy.
"You make the future," she told me. "The future hasn't happened yet."
Jennifer's not blind to the fact that the odds are stacked against her generation, even coming from a relatively sheltered suburban life. She watches the news. She knows what's happening in Detroit and across the globe. That's why she wants to join the Peace Corps after she attends Boston College and perhaps become a diplomat after that.
She's also seen the personal tragedies - and experienced some too - that many students have had to overcome daily just to make it to graduation. The fact that they made it despite such obstacles gives her the optimism to know that they'll be up to the next challenge.
"One thing that I have is a faith in people," she says.
Faith. In each other. Maybe that's the simplest, most inspiring message one could offer at this or any graduation season, something that was assumed but left unsaid in my own address 15 years ago.
For this year's graduates, it's faith that as they begin the next stage in life - be it marriage, work, college, or something else - they will do it with passion and gusto, no matter what the world throws at them. For the rest of us, including my beloved Class of 1994, it's faith that we will continue to be true to ourselves in the face of a world that isn't quite what we expected.
As for me, don't lose faith. I've got a deep fryer and a box full of Twinkies at home that are primed and ready to go.
Contact Ryan E. Smith at:
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