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My Advice to High School Graduates

Here’s an editorial I wrote when some high school seniors were lobbying to have me as their commencement speaker, but school administrators wouldn’t allow it. It’s the right time of year, and since I’m already in the habit of posting stuff from that page…
A few months ago there was some rumbling that students at my old high school were going to ask me to be a commencement speaker for graduation this year. Since my phone hasn’t rung with an actual invitation, I’m assuming that their parents and teachers succeeded in talking them out of it. –And so this week I offer you what I potentially may have said should the invite actually have been secured.
When I graduated from the old Chautauqua Central School, I did so as class clown, the school’s student council president and editor of the school paper. At that time, the school’s administration had threatened me and banned the last issue of our paper from being released because my editorial focused on the firing of a favorite teacher, the newspaper’s advisor. Years later in college, I learned that banning a student paper for such reasons is an illegal free speech violation. To return to these ceremonies all of these years later as the founder and editor of the area’s alternative weekly paper, one which stands for free speech, (would have been) quite rewarding.
I’m going to turn 30 this year, so before I do and you can’t trust me anymore, I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you. While I might not be able to insure that you won’t spend the rest of your life living in your parent’s basements, I hope that you find something inspirational in these words.
The class of 2004 enters into a far different world than I did. But when I sat where you do now, I’m certain I was thinking about some of the same things you’re thinking about now. What do I want to do with my life? Will I ever see my friends again? Is this graduation party going to suck? Did Alex put enough airport bottles of Jagger in his backpack for me to have some too?
Personally, my journey since graduation from high school has been a strange adventure, which has now led me back to my hometown to publish the Chautauqua Region WORD newspaper. I’ve dabbled in art, politics, music gigging and recording, bartending and publishing only to realize one simple truth: There isn’t only one path. In fact, if there is any success to my story it is that I’ve allowed myself to ignore every obstacle in the way of my dreams.
This is the first part of my message to you: Try your hand at every dream that comes your way.
I’ve never made a fortune, but I’ve loved, laughed and experienced more than most anyone I know. I’ve certainly made my mistakes, and continue to do so. Yet I get out of bed each morning with more drive and enthusiasm than the day before. When you chase your dreams, you may not always catch them, but you do catch one hell of a runner’s high.
High school is something you finish. Life is something you experience. Don’t believe the hype that comes across your televisions. Look past the social and political problems passed down to you from the baby boomers. Your generation can, and I believe will, rise to the occassion.
We live today in a society which has declared war on a verb. No longer are wars only on nouns. Soon we may live in a world where we have wars on adjectives. Members of my senior class, in our graduation video, predicted that I would become President one day. While I don’t see that happening, if I were President, I would consider declaring war on the adjective “pretty,” for the old French proverb says, “The ugly may be beautiful, but the pretty, never.”
What the hell am I talking about? The second part of my message to you is that nothing is perfect and everything is flawed. Society is flawed, America is flawed, this school is flawed, your parents are flawed and, in fact, we are all flawed. Because of that, everything is beautiful–IF you can accept the flaws.
You can always change what is going on in your life and this world. Despite the pressures put on you by teachers, parents, friends or your own expectations, remember that you are always in charge of your own destiny. Only you, either as an individual or as a collective, can change the world-or at the very least YOUR world.
Maybe you’ll pursue your dream and you’ll suck at it, fail or go broke. Who cares? Tomorrow is a different day. How many other people are actually trying something? Maybe putting forth that effort will just lead you to another, more enjoyable path. Competence is a rare commodity in this world, but even more precious is passion. Anyone can go through the motions. It takes someone special to push the envelope.
This my friends is the third and final part of my message to you: Don’t give in to apathy. Be passionate about living.
Maybe your dream is to go to college, get good grades and get a six figure income from corporate America. Maybe you’ll start a job at an auto shop next week that you’ll keep for thirty years. Maybe you’ll move to Amsterdam and grow old farming legal marijuana. Personally I don’t care what you do. The only thing I care about is that you do what YOU want to do, whatever that is at any given moment, and give it your all. The worst thing that will ever happen is that you’ll have to try something different.
Don’t let the man get you down, let alone dictate your future to you. I hope that your class clown and trouble-maker gives a similar speech on this stage 15 years from now. (It would have been) a highlight in my life to have this talk with you today. I have great faith in your generation, that you’re the generation that might actually clean up the mess the baby-boomers have left us. I truly believe that if you fight the urges of apathy and put passion into everything you do, you will change this world for the better. Screw Tom Brokaw, you kids are the greatest generation. Now, go prove me right.