Saturday, May 17, 2008


After I had “retired” from teaching, one of my former high school classes had the misfortune to ask me to deliver their commencement address. As this particular class had never seemed to enjoy my English lectures, I was unsure of why they would want to listen to me on what was supposed to be a celebratory occasion. Then I realized that they figured I would speak for free.

My warning to them as I began the address was that you usually get what you pay for. I went on to discuss traditional graduation subjects like setting and attaining goals, but if I were to give that speech again, I would also include the following advice that I have learned through the years.

* When you take off, make sure you know how to stop.

Graduates are usually quite anxious to speed off into the future, and sometimes they do not have a specific direction in mind, nor do they have the skills necessary to discern when they should stop. I still bear the scars from wounds I sustained as I learned the consequences of such a takeoff.

When I was a kid, I accepted the challenge of taking a solo ride on a motorcycle. I began in a field with few obstacles, and I made several wide circles. Feeling confident in my abilities, I began to accelerate, and soon I felt I was ready to hit the road. I maneuvered the bike through the gate and onto the gravel road of the driveway before I realized, in panic, that I had forgotten to ask how to stop.

The motorcycle was quite large for my tiny frame, and I was afraid that if I leaned to one side and put my leg to the ground that I would lose my balance and topple over. I was desperate to keep the bike standing. I surveyed my options and decided that if I could wedge the bike between a car parked near the house and the house itself, I would remain upright and, thus, safe.

The individual who was coaching me in this adventure was running after me, wildly waving his arms to attract my attention. He obviously had a different method of stopping in mind, but I was sure that my idea would work. I expertly steered the motorcycle to my target.

I was successful in remaining upright, but the large dent in the side of the house and the rapid swelling of my knee where it was wedged between the car bumper and the motorcycle indicated that my choice had resulted in painful consequences. I learned a valuable life lesson that day, and I am reminded of it each time I see the scar running across my knee.

* Mind your own business, and be sure you have enough business of your own to mind.

My oldest son has a need to know about a variety of topics. One of the challenges I have been tackling with him lately is to teach him that not everything concerns him, and some things are just not his business. After having been told several times in one day to “mind your own business,” he looked at me in exasperation. “Mom,” he protested, “I just don’t always have much business of my own to mind.”

His comment made me realize that the root of the problem isn’t so much that we pay too much attention to other people’s affairs. The actual problem is that we don’t have enough tasks at hand to keep busy. A mark of a successful life would be that a person is too busy with his or her own goals to be interfering in the affairs of others.

* Don’t get caught up in appearances.

It seems that our culture is becoming more and more appearance-oriented. A flaw in our appearance is automatically associated with a flaw in our character, while a smooth and polished appearance is judged as accordingly. I have learned that no matter how much we try to smooth and polish ourselves, we are all a bit bumpy on the inside.

My own appearance usually exasperates me. In fact, my sister and I refer to ourselves as the “queens of frump.” We don’t have that innate sense of style that some women are blessed with, and it can sometimes be frustrating to always feel bedraggled.

On one particular occasion, I felt like I had everything together for a change. Instead of my usual jeans, I had on slick chinos. Instead of a t-shirt, I wore a blouse that was actually tucked in. My belt matched my shoes, my socks matched my shirt, and my hair was smoothed back in a clip. I had even managed a touch of makeup.

All of that unusual preparation time had made me rushed for time, so I grabbed a granola bar on the way out the door to my meeting. I ate it in the car and arrived at the meeting on time, carrying my briefcase containing orderly papers to distribute to those attending.

I conducted the meeting with the confidence that I appeared the professional, but I noticed that not many people were making direct eye contact. However, I was still confident that I was the polished businesswoman, and I checked out my reflection in the restroom mirror after the meeting had adjourned.

It was as I smiled at myself, the professional, in the mirror that I realized the problem. There, stuck between two of my teeth, was a piece of granola. Horrified, I quickly pulled it out. Then, as I turned to leave the building in shame, I saw the second problem. The granola bar had been of the chocolate chip variety, as was evident from the large spot of melted chocolate extending down the right side of the rear of my light sand hued chinos.

It occurred to me then that had I skipped all the preparation time and was just true to my blue-jeaned self, I would have had time to eat breakfast at the table and saved myself such embarrassment.

So, my advice is to be true to yourselves. It is often a temptation to be ashamed of where you come from, especially if it happens to be a hog farm in the middle of Montana. But by disguising yourself, you will deny yourself many opportunities. Be thankful for your roots because they have formed the person you are today. And that manure just might be paying your college tuition.


Jenny said...

Good advice.

elliek said...

I love reading your blog. Keep telling us about your kids, the farm life and the small town setting.

Dawn said...

I hope your former students recognized how blessed they were to have someone like you as a teacher! (Maybe when they're in their 30's they'll look back and recognize it!)

I really enjoy your blog - keep up the good work!

Blessings! Dawn

Anonymous said...

What great advice.. Thanks..


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