You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Matt. 5:13-16.
Seniors, here we are. It has taken me 28 years to get to this point of leaving. You all are so much more efficient. Our lives change radically after this weekend. People keep asking me if I am excited about retiring. People keep asking you if you are excited about going to college. We probably all smile and respond with the expected: "Yes, can't wait."—all the while feeling a little bit unsure about what awaits.
You've ticked off your last games and performances, advisory, chapel, your creedal statement. I have ticked off my last college fair, sleeping on a gym floor, my last recommendation letter. Yours are the names on the last stars I've hung and yours are the last accomplishments the wand has heralded.
Just as I remember my first class with more clarity than the 26 that followed it until you, yours is the other bookend that will stand out in my mind. That is not to say that I don't have important memories of the ones in between, Fr. Bunting, but there is just something special about first and last.
I am honored to have been asked to speak tonight and I just hope to do right by you. Someone told me that I was supposed to share a bit of wisdom. That was rather terrifying. You probably won't remember much of it, but I have gathered a few points to ponder-actually eight. I cannot claim that any of these perspectives are especially original but they each, in a way, have helped me make sense of life and keep my head on straight.
1. "Life is what you make of it. Always has been. Always will be."
Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses was born in 1860, the third of 10 children born to a farmer and his wife in upstate New York about 3 hours north of NYC. She married a farmer and they had 10 children of their own, five of whom survived infancy. Beginning at age 12, she worked for 15 years as a live-in housekeeper. Her employer noticed that she enjoyed drawing and gave her some basic art supplies, but it was almost 60 years before she began painting. Arthritis made it too hard for her continue the needlework she enjoyed, so she started painting to keep busy.
(Show paintings.) Her work falls into the hard to define category of "folk art", but it had more staying power than the works of many others.
Art collector Louis Calder saw her paintings displayed in a local drug store and brought her work to the attention of the New York art scene. By 1939, she had exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1945, Hallmark licensed her paintings for a well-received series of greeting cards, giving her work mass exposure and contributing to her status as one of the best-known American artists. She was widely hailed for reinfusing common sense into an art world that was becoming increasingly overwhelmed by abstraction and for emphasizing happiness when many of her well-known peers were portraying existential despair. She sold one of her paintings for over a million dollars and had lucrative contracts with the Hallmark greeting card company.
She did not plan that out, she had no formal training, she just put time into something she enjoyed. Not everyone loved her style but her work had impact because she brought a different voice to the conversation.
And how does that relate to you? Life is what you make of it.
2. Fred Rogers, someone who radically changed children's TV programming and who was on the air for 31 years, once said that a characteristic of successful people is that "they love what they are doing, and they love it in front of others."
Do what you love. Early in my career, one of my bosses told me that you should be happy in your job at least 85% of the time. If you enjoy what you are doing you are likely to be more successful.
What are your gifts? What are your talents? Yes, you need to support yourself and provide for your future, but if you choose something only because you can make a lot of money, you may not stay with it. Be open to opportunities you have no way of even knowing will exist. At some point, most of us end up in a job we might not otherwise choose-maybe it is a summer job, maybe it is all that is open at the time. We do it, and we can learn from it, but we really fly when both interest and ability line up. I could never have done this job for 28 years otherwise. Know yourself, do what you love.
3. Use the word "never" sparingly. You are going to be surprised by where life is going to lead you.
Having been raised 20 miles outside NYC for the first thirteen years of my life, I had absorbed the typical NY attitude that all life stopped a few miles west of the Hudson River. I went to grad school in NYC and never felt more excited and alive. I loved the crowds and unending surprises to the senses and the going out to parties at 10 p.m. I discovered opera and ballet and wonderful museums and theater. I met my husband in grad school, we married and lived in Brooklyn, then moved to south Jersey for a year for a job, and then jobs brought us to OHIO. Before we left, I sat on bench on the plaza outside Lincoln Center one night and cried. It seemed to me that everyone in NY joked about Ohio. One of our friends was very concerned that we might not find shallots there. (I wasn't even sure what shallots were, but it sounded bad.)
We moved to a small town in Ohio and I came to realize that it was the people who made where you live a good place or not. And that move brought me to our first house with lilac hedges and raspberry canes in our back yard and, next to SAS, to one of the best professional experiences in my career-working at Ohio State. It gave me the simple delights of small town festivals and the incomparable experience of a midwestern state fair. I even grew to love the broad empty expanse of farm fields in the winter and the checkerboard arrangement of back roads. Our four children were born there. I cried when I left Ohio.
We have lived in Tennessee now for over thirty years. I would never have imagined that Tennessee is where my life would have led me, but I am not sorry it has. Planning is good, but you can only plan so much. You all are heading off to one of 32 different schools, and I know that where you will be in the fall is not necessarily where many of you thought you might be if I had asked you twelve months ago. But the schools you have chosen-and who have chosen you--are right for each of you, perhaps in ways you won't fully understand for a few years. Your education is what you make of it, just like Grandma Moses said.
4. Don't do something just because that is always the way it has been done. Learn to ask why and why not—and not for the purpose of being confrontational. Ask just because you want to open your mind to other possibilities.
There is a reason why some things have lasted over time. If it is a good reason, fine. But even what was a fantastic idea in its time might no longer serve a purpose. Do not assume restrictions that might not exist.
5. If you don't already have one, get a passport. You have been given an incredible gift here of meeting and getting to know people from all over the state, the South, the country, the world.
You have worked with, been on teams with, lived and laughed with people from Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, China, Hong Kong, Viet Nam, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Rwanda, Mongolia, Kenya, Germany, Bulgaria.
Not everyone gets this experience. Carry that with you as you live your lives.
Study abroad, even if it is a short trip. You will learn that 1) it is not as hard to travel to another country as you might now think and 2) it changes your life.
6. Take time for the important things. This semester, more than 1200 students, the largest class in Yale's 317-year history, poured into a concert hall each week for a course called "Psychology and the Good Life". I found this rather interesting since some might say if you got into Yale, wasn't life already pretty good?
However, Laurie Santos, a psychology professor and the head of one of the residential colleges at Yale, designed this class after realizing that many students were stressed and unhappy, trudging joylessly through long days. In high school, they were stressed and overscheduled trying to get into Yale. Now, they seemed totally consumed by just getting through Yale.
Her observations were backed by statistics and research studies that found nearly one half of college students interviewed at a range of institutions reported overwhelming anxiety and feeling hopeless. These are very smart people, but they seemed to have trouble figuring out how to balance competing demands in their lives.
Professor Santos wanted to put a class together where she could share recent findings from psychology that would help students to consider how they made choices and how changing behaviors could help them to enjoy life more. But she never expected the response it provoked.
As the registration numbers grew, the professor and the administration decided to NOT close the section, but they kept moving it to larger and larger spaces until they settled on the concert hall, the only space on campus that could accommodate the 1200+ students who signed up for the class. The class drew such notoriety that the professor has posted a condensed version of the course online on Coursera, available to anyone—and, in the past two months, accessed by over 91,000 people world-wide.
What's up with this? All these smart people-I assume not homeless, not fleeing wars and horrible situations nor living under conditions that suck the life out of you-- and they are anxious and overwhelmed and just not enjoying life.
So, what did they learn? They learned that their brains sometimes trick them into unhealthy reward systems. They are learning that, among other things, the research shows a strong relationship between feelings of happiness and behaviors such as showing gratitude, helping others, spurts of down time, and getting an adequate amount of sleep.
7. So, let us take a few moments to think about one of these factors, let's think about gratitude.
I want you to think of the people in your lives who have helped you get to this point, loving you, getting you through challenging times, and helping to form you.
Remember to say thank you and to give back-and even to pay it forward. Remember that your accomplishments throughout your life are at least partly built on the support, example, and teaching of others.
And so, I want to thank my family, my husband and children, my sisters. And I also thank Susan Core and Sarah Carlos for showing me how important a good sense of humor is when working with adolescents. I thank Claire Reishman for her mentoring which made me a better writer and a more careful thinker.
I also want to thank the parents of the Class of 2018 for not being as crazy as many of your counterparts in large metro areas.
And I thank my current and past colleagues for encouragement, laughter, and patience when I crashed your classes to grab a student or make an announcement and for being the best group of people I could ever hope to work with.
I have worked several places but never another one that could top this group of colleagues who come to their jobs with dedication and love and passion. The only competition is within themselves—and you all have benefited from that.
8. Through it all, if you remember nothing else, remember this: be true to yourself. There is only one you and you have talents and gifts and a future no one else will ever have. Where we often get into trouble is when we forget who we are and what we know is important and when we forget that life is a communal event. No one can do it all. Admitting you have limits is admitting you are human—it is totally appropriate and a sign of strength because you can risk being fallible.
I chose the second reading this evening first for my advisory group but also for the entire class. It begins with "you are the salt of the earth". There are probably several scholarly interpretations of this verse, but here is mine. Think of French fries. Think of French fries without salt—OK but a little boring. You're the salt—and remember, there are many varieties of salt-you'll find that is true if you ever receive a gourmet gift basket. You each bring a slightly different flavor, you each bring about a unique result—don't lose that. Don't be afraid to be who you are—no one else can do that job.
The second part of the reading was about bringing light—and that is our job, too. Develop your gifts and talents. Write, invent, design, teach, dance, perform, heal, make art and music and laughter, continue to grow, be good people, make random acts of kindness integral to your life, be generous with your talents, your resources, your time, and your love. Maybe some of you will be famous, but for most of us, it is just about being good people and making the world a better place in our own unsensational way.