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Graduation Wisdom

May 7, 2014

Today marks the 10th anniversary of my college graduation… nuts! That means that it is graduation season and my next few days will be filled with graduation ceremonies, hooding ceremonies, and various other graduation celebrations. It is a bittersweet time of year because I am so very proud of my students, but so sad to see them leave as well.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon this book called What Now? by Ann Patchett. It was at a time in my life when I was trying to figure out which direction I wanted to go in (the quarter life crisis) and it was exactly the book I needed at that time to challenge me and help me reflect and think about what I was going to do. It is hands down one of my most favorite books that I’ve ever read and is one of the few books that has actually had an impact on my life.

It is a small little thing, about a 100 pages or so. I believe it started out as a graduation speech she gave and then morphed into a little book. For the last six years or so I have always given a copy as a graduation gift to my graduating students. I actually think it is out of print now, I know I have bought every copy in my four bookstores in the area and have had to start ordering it online. I need to re-order, I’m giving out my last copy this week! I’ve had students come back and tell me they loved it… right after graduation, sometimes even six years later. It is meaningful at different times in my opinion. For me, it was when I was 27. Below are the first several paragraphs of the opening and it gives some great words of graduation wisdom.

“If all fairy tales begin with ‘Once upon a time,’ then all graduation speeches begin ‘When I was sitting where you are now’ We may not always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We lookout at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young 15 minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.
For me this feeling is compounded by the fact that Sarah Lawrence was my own alma mater. I look out at all these chairs lined up across Westlands lawn and I think, I slept on that lawn, I breathed that wisteria. I batted away those very same bees, or at least I batted away their progenitors. Time has a funny way of collapsing when you go back to a place you once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly much, so by an extension of logic I must not have changed either.
But I have.
That’s why I’m the graduation speaker. Think of me as Darwin sailing home on the Beagle. I went forth in the world just the way you are about to go forth, and I gathered up all the wondrous things I’ve seen; now I’ve brought them back to you. As the graduation speaker I’m the one with the wisdom, or at least that’s the assumption, but you as the graduates have something even better: you have youth, which, especially when you multiply it by several hundred, is a thing so fulgent it all but knocks the breath out of those of us who are up on the stage. I’d like to tell you to appreciate your youth, to stop and admire your own health and intelligence, but every writer has a cliché quota and I used mine up by saying, When I was sitting where you are now.
When you leave this place, as you will in a few hours, be sure to come back. Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours- long hallways and unforeseen stairwells- eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight- there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you are supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?”
– Ann Patchett, What Now

Hands down my best graduation gift to give and one of my favorite books. Go buy a copy and give it as a gift today! Do you have any great graduation gifts?

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