Not long ago I asked for your suggestions about what to say in my commencement speech to the eighth grade graduates at the school where our church meets. You had some quite helpful ideas, many which made their way into the speech. I’m happy to say that the address seemed to go well and I had the chance to talk with a number of the graduates and their families after the commencement. It was a huge honor to be asked by the school to deliver these remarks to their students.
I’ve copied the whole of my twelve minute speech here for those of you who might be interested.
Good morning. Congratulations to the eighth grade graduates of Drake Elementary School. Congratulations also to all of the parents, grandparents, relatives and friends of these graduates. As a pastor and community member I also want to thank the teachers, staff, and administration of Drake. I continue to be so impressed by your dedication to your students. Our city needs more schools like Drake. It is an honor to be with you this morning.In 1992 I graduated from the 8th grade at an English-speaking school in Quito, Ecuador. Now, attending school and living in a Spanish-speaking country might sound interesting to a few of you, but as I graduated I could really only think about one thing: I was leaving my South American childhood behind to move to the United States for the first time in my life and I was scared!
You see, my father was a pilot who flew small airplanes into the South American jungles. The places he flew were almost impossible to reach by any other means, so his small airplane served as the ambulance, mail truck and school bus. I grew up attending Spanish-speaking schools, playing soccer with my South American friends, flying into the jungle with my dad when there was an open seat, and swimming with the piranhas in the closet river to cool off from the jungle heat. And as strange as all of that sounds to me now, when I was an eighth grader it all seemed perfectly normal.
What did not seem normal was the fact that, for the first time, my family would be leaving South America behind for a new home in California. As my final days of eighth grade slipped away I tried to imagine what my new life in the United States would be like. Of all the things that might have frightened me, do you know what scared me the most? Entering the ninth grade at a new school.
The fact that I’m standing here this morning is proof that I made it through ninth grade at a new school in a new country. In fact, I made it through High School and then college and then, amazingly enough, graduate school. But would my eighth grade self have believed that? Would I have believed, 21 years ago, that I would move across the country after graduating high school to go to college in North Carolina? I doubt it. Would I have believed that in college I would meet a beautiful southern girl would be by wife? Probably not. Would I have believed that a year after we got married we would pack up our little pickup truck to move to Illinois, a state I had never even visited? Not a chance! And I can tell you right now that there is no way my scared, skinny eighth grade self would ever have believed that one day I would be pastor in Bronzeville speaking at the Drake Elementary School eighth grade commencement!
When thinking back to the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years I find myself wishing for something impossible. I wish my thirty-three year old self – the person speaking to you this morning –could have written a letter to my eighth grade self. I wish that, as David Swanson the eighth grader peered nervously into an unknown future, I could have received a letter from my older and slightly wiser self. What would I write in that letter? Well, since I can’t send a letter back in time to myself, I want to share with you three of the themes that would have been important for me to hear so many years ago. This is the letter I wish I could have received and it’s the letter I write to you, the eighth grade graduates of Drake Elementary School.
Dear Eighth Grade Graduate,
First of all, congratulations. You did it. You made it. There are some who will not understand the accomplishment of this graduation. But you know and I know that this is a big deal. We know how much work you put in. We know how you stepped up as your homework increased in amount and complexity each year. We know that there were sometimes difficult circumstances at home that made your role as a student massively challenging.
But you did it. So enjoy this moment. Do not rush too quickly ahead to the next thing. Take a minute to look over your shoulder at all you have been through over the past years. The pride and satisfaction you are experiencing is well deserved. Congratulations!
Even as you enjoy this accomplishment, I know your mind is creeping towards next school year. You cannot help but think about the ninth grade, and the years beyond that. I know that, from where you sit this morning, it is hard to imagine all the life you will live in the next few years. It can feel like standing at the edge of Lake Michigan, peering into the distance. From the shore it appears as though the lake goes on forever. But of course, as large as Lake Michigan is, it is but one part of the larger landscape. If you have ever flown into Chicago you know that with altitude comes perspective. Allow me to offer a bit of perspective this morning.
First, over the next few years you will need to know who has your back. Who are your allies? Who will stand with you in the good and the bad? It will be your desire to spend almost all of your time with your friends – some new and some old. This is understandable; after all, who can relate to your joys and pains more than someone who shares those joys and pains? But let me be blunt. There will be plenty of times when your friends don’t have a clue! Oh, they will act like they know what they are talking about. They – and you – will offer plenty of advice about how to handle girl problems and boy issues. Your friends will have opinions about dealing with hard family stuff and pressures to behave in destructive ways. And as important as these friendships are, they are not enough.
You will need strong allies who are older and wiser than you. Your parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles may seem out of touch but many of them have enough wisdom in their pinky finger to help when life gets confusing. You will meet teachers, coaches, and youth group leaders who care deeply for your success in this world. Listen to them. You will not always like what they have to say, but remember, they have been where you are and have made it through.
Second, as you wonder what the coming years will hold, may I suggest that you live today in the manner you wish to live eight years from today. What do I mean? Eight years from today you will be graduating from college. But over the coming years there will be many risky chances to sacrifice your future. You see, the greatest mistake that so many of your peers will make is not the lack of vision for their future. No the greatest mistake will be in how their lives today do not align with their vision for the future.
Let me be more specific. If your vision for the future involves going to college – and I sincerely hope it does – than how are you living now to see this vision fulfilled? College is not something that simply happens; it is the result of thousands of small decisions over the course of your high school years. If your vision for the future involves having a job that you love getting up each day to go to, a job that genuinely helps other people, than how are you living now to see this vision fulfilled? If your vision is to one day be a husband or wife, maybe a parent, how are you living now to see this vision fulfilled?
What I’m saying to you is that your lives matter now! Not someday. Not after you graduate from high school or college. Your lives matter right now! So live today such that the direction of your life today leads to the vision for your life in the future.
Finally, as I remember my eighth grade self on the brink of a new life, as I consider each of you and the joys and struggles ahead, I want to say as clearly as possible: You are valuable. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, but consider our society for a minute. We are told every single day that we are not good enough or smart enough or good looking enough or outgoing enough or rich enough. We are told, in so many ways, that unless we have the right clothes, the hottest shoes, the latest piece of technology, the right friends, the perfect family, and a life with no drama than we are not valuable. Without these things, our lives fall short.
But this is what I hope you will hear most plainly today: You are valuable. Right now. Exactly as the person you are. You are worthy of love and acceptance right now. Exactly as the person you are.
Why is this so important? Because you lives will take radically different paths depending on whether or not you understand your value. Your friends who are defined by their insecurities and sense of inadequacy will always be chasing after whatever it is that they believe will bring them value. In the coming years you will have friends who make terrible choices, who pursue shortsighted and destructive choices simply because they desperately want to know that they are valuable.May that not be true for you! May your actions and decisions flow from a deep knowledge that you are valuable. May your vision for the future be shaped by the confidence that comes from believing that your worth and acceptance comes not from what you own or wear or who you are with, but from simply who you are. You are valuable. Your lives matter.
There are many more things I wish I could say to you this morning, but I doubt that my eighth grade self would be interested in hearing much more. Eight years from now you will be listening to your college commencement speaker. I trust that between now and then you will seek strong allies; that you will live each day in a way that reflects your vision for the future; and that you will know to the depths of yourself that you are valuable simply for who you are.