The following is the commencement speech I gave this afternoon at Powell County High School in my hometown of Stanton, Ky. I was a member of the Class of 1993.
The first words my mother said upon being told I’d been asked to speak today were “Please don’t embarrass me.”
Not “I’m proud” or “good luck” or even “they should’ve asked your sister instead.” Nope. Just “don’t embarrass me.”
So, to honor my mom’s wishes, I’ve made a list of topics to avoid: meth, Donald Trump, asking where the after-parties are, stories about my mom, stories about my dad and more meth.
To the person who invited me here today, I’m afraid you’ve made a huge mistake. To Superintendent Michael Tate and Principal Kendall Kearns it’s an honor to be here, but you should know Martina Skidmore is responsible for what’s to follow. To be fair, she’s been a friend since kindergarten, and I thank her for having faith in me. I hope to make my mother proud. I cannot, however, promise I won’t embarrass her.
When Martina invited me to speak, I had two immediate questions. First, “How long should I talk?” She told me 15-20 minutes, which is like 120 Snapchat stories, so that’s definitely doable. My second question was, “Can I say ‘turd’”? She never answered, but I guess it’s too late as I’ve already said “turd” once – well, technically twice now.
Before being part of this graduation ceremony, I heard countless stories about how your generation is by far the worst generation on record. Lazy. Entitled. Whiny. Spoiled. Essentially, this is the worst group of turds this world has ever seen.
They got it wrong, at least with this particular group of graduates. It helps that I know many of you. I see familiar faces in the crowd because I grew up with your parents. To have known you from when you took your first literal steps as a child to being here for these metaphorical first steps into adulthood means more to me than I can possibly express.
I also know many of you through my own connection with a graduate: my nephew, Nathan Brooks. When I told him I’d be speaking today, his first words were “don’t embarrass me.” I soon stopped telling my family I was speaking today.
That said, Nathan, you and your brothers inspire me daily and it’s an absolute honor to be your uncle.
But there’s so much more to this Class of 2016 than just the people I know. Many of you have worked harder than I can possibly imagine to overcome obstacles that would have caused most of us to give up without the diploma. Among you today are students who have carried on despite the unexpected deaths of their parents. There are students who have struggled with their personal demons, from addictions to disorders.
And then there’s Daniel Bates.
Daniel, at 20 years old, is a bit older than the other students graduating today. He shared his story with me, and while I initially intended to write up a couple of paragraphs about him, I quickly realized nothing I wrote would ever compare with his own words:
“After my mom died I was put in foster care until I was 18. When I was 18, I was still in school, but my foster parents were not getting any more money on me and they kicked me out. So here I was half way through my last year of school with nowhere to go. So I had to worry about living more than school. None of my family made it out of high school and I didn’t want to be like that. I want to be somebody. I just want to tell people like me no matter how hard life gets and how many times it knocks you down you have to get back up. Because life is not all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not about how hard you can fight, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Daniel, I’m about to pay you the highest compliment I can think of: what you wrote reminded me of something in a Bruce Springsteen song. Anyone who knows me figured I would quote Springsteen today. They were correct. Carry these words in your hearts:
“Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in the land of hope and dreams.”
What this group has done is amazing, inspiring and gives complete hope in the future. I thank you for giving us that gift. I hope you find your land of hope and dreams.
As for now, here you are, mere minutes away from escaping the shackles of youth and being free to go out and conquer the world. It is without question a lofty goal.
So … how do we do it?
Frankly, I don’t have the slightest idea, and even if I did, there’s no way I could just give that away for free. That kind of information gets sold to the highest bidder, which would be, I’m guessing, Beyonce and Jay-Z. Maybe Adele or Steph Curry.
What I can tell you, however, is how to improve the world, and that, really, is even more important. Well maybe “how to improve the world” is overselling it a tad, but when you’re asked to be a commencement speaker, you’re generally speaking in grand overgeneralizations designed to impress impressionable young minds.
Instead, let’s tackle the big picture by looking at the smaller level, mainly how you can be the most awesome version of you and, in turn, make the world a better place. Long ago, Horace Mann, considered by many to be the father of modern public schools, said it best: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. #realtalk” Note: Horace Mann didn’t actually use the hashtag “real talk,” primarily because this quote is from the 1800s, but I like to think he would have used it had Twitter existed. His words, though, ring true, perhaps more so today than they did back then. “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”
So … how do we do THAT?
For me, there are three things you must focus on to make life, and subsequently, the world, a better place:
Honestly, it’s really as simple as that, and while I’m going to explain each a little more, I ask that if you only take away one thing from what you hear today, let it be this:
Noted philosopher, and by that I mean “popular rapper,” Wiz Khalifa has this to say about being yourself, and while there are many fantastic quotes about this topic, it gives me great joy to be standing on stage in Powell County’s high school and reciting words from Wiz Khalifa. I’m betting they aren’t getting that in Estill County.
OK, so Wiz Khalifa said: “The most daring thing is to be yourself and to do exactly what you want to do at that point in time and not to be worried with what other people are doing or what’s popular.”
When you leave today, you start the path of becoming an adult, which includes leaving behind the labels slapped on you from your past. Up until this point, you have likely been defined by your parents, your siblings, your geographic location or some other thing outside of your own control. Not for long, though. This will soon be your chance to discover who you really are and who you really want to be. You get to decide the paths you take, the jobs you’ll seek, the people you’ll date, everything.
And you know what? It. Is. Awesome. Like the things you like, and don’t let any other person make you feel bad for that. It’s YOUR life, and you owe it to yourself to like what you want.
See, when you’re able to fully be yourself, free from the constraints and worries about what others are thinking, you can make more of an impact than you might fully realize.
When I was a sophomore here at PCHS, rap music had yet to really take hold on pop culture, and while a few people knew a few hits on the radio, most kids were clueless to the style. Not Herb Devary, though. Herb sat behind me in English and kept telling me about this Seattle rapper he loved. I was somewhat well-versed in rap, or so I thought, and I hadn’t heard of Herb’s rapper, so I mostly just humored him at first, before eventually ignoring his repeated requests to listen to a few tunes.
Herb didn’t mind, though. He kept listening to the music he wanted and walked through the halls doing his own thing.
Two years later, everybody else finally heard about that rapper, too. Thanks to his still-popular ode to big butts, “Baby Got Back,” Sir Mix-A-Lot became an international sensation. Herb never gloated, but to be fair, he didn’t have much of a chance – our friendship drifted apart as life in general intervened. Herb had become an afterthought.
A week after graduation, Herb died in a car wreck. Before his funeral, his family introduced me to his fiancée, and despite the terrible sadness, her eyes lit up. “You’re Kevin Hall? Herb talked about you all the time! It’s nice to finally meet you.”
We’d grown apart, but I hadn’t been forgotten. Herb has not been forgotten. Now, I owe it to Herb to remind you to live life like he lived it: Be yourself.
Next, express yourself
Every day, create. Create. Create. You might think you’re not creative. That’s not very creative thinking! Everyone, in some way, can create. The key is finding what you love and using that as your launching point.
Listen to Amy Poehler, former star of Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation and just an overall go-to spirit animal for anyone who needs it: “Creativity is connected to your passion, that light inside you that drives you. That joy that comes when you do something you love. That is the juicy stuff that lubricates our lives and helps us feel less alone in the world.”
If you write, write. If you paint, paint. If you repair cars, repair cars. You’re all about to be high school graduates, so I think you can figure out the pattern here. Find what you love and do it.
Too many of us fall into a trap of thinking that expression and creativity must only fall into the forms of artistic creations, but what growing older (and being myself!) has shown me is that anything you do can be considered an artistic expression. Once you realize that, you’re able to use those abilities to help define yourself, something that hopefully continues throughout your life. We are always changing, always adapting and, hopefully, always improving. “We’re all works in progress,” says Kanye West. “We’re paintings. The oil don’t dry till we die.”
Finally, love yourself
I realize in a gym full of hormonal teenagers, you might hear the phrase “love yourself” and giggle, knowing that’s not really a problem. That’s not quite what I mean, though.
Another way to phrase it would be “Accept yourself,” warts and all. We are not perfect. We never will be. But we must be accepting of who we are and love ourselves for ourselves. Lucille Ball, who was before your time and my time, perhaps even before your grandparents’ time, said this: “I have an everyday religion that works for me. Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line.”
I fully believe so much of the hatred in this world exists because too many people are unable to accept who they really are and have never learned to love themselves. We focus too much on the things that make us different that we fail to see how we’re alike.
It might seem shocking, but the world is filled with people who are different from you. From the way they look to the way they worship to whom they love to the way they identify who they are as a person, they will be different from you.
And that’s OK.
You see, they’re looking at you in much the same way: to them YOU are the one who is different. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I ask you to remember to accept who you are. Embrace who you are. Love who you are.
Then, stop and remember a rule so important that theologians have long referred to it as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Love yourself and love others the same way.
There is a quote from Roger Ebert, the late movie critic and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer that I keep on my Facebook page but more importantly, it’s on my Mom’s refrigerator, which is like a Facebook wall for old people.
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
Class of 2016, this is your time. Be yourself. Express yourself. Love yourself. Build a land of hope and dreams.
Now go make the world a better place.