Dear Graduate

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Dear Graduate

Congratulations! Today, you graduate. You may be graduating with honors or by the skin of your proverbial teeth. You may even receive an empty diploma cover, your graduation contingent on summer school. Throughout your life you are not going to care.

You won’t care if you have five tasseled cords around your neck, or zero. You will not care what Latin lauds follow your name, or what activities comprise the list of extracurriculars on your college CV. Likely, you will not care how fashionable you were or what model of car you or your parents drove. What makes you proud or makes you cringe will be an entirely different bugaboo.

Here’s what you will care about down the road, whether or not you choose to admit it:  You will care if you were kind or cruel.

As I survey the topography of my own life, certain experiences rise above the mundane like glaciers, like mountain peaks. These have nothing to do with honors, scholarships, or accolades I’ve received. I’ll start with the kind and move to the cruel.

There was a boy in my middle-school class who was mildly intellectually disabled. I’ll call him Jacob. He attended special classes, though he participated in recess, lunch, P.E., and other activities with the rest of the students. Whatever the nature of his challenges, he was astutely and painfully aware of how he was treated by his schoolmates. Which is to say, he was bullied and made fun of, and perhaps worse, routinely ignored and rejected.

Starting in ninth grade, Jacob and I began attending different schools. So when in the summer following 11th grade I started hanging out with Eric, Jacob’s long-time neighbor, I hadn’t seen or interacted with Jacob for three years. We had gone separate ways in the school system of our small town. But one day Eric told Jacob he was going to hang out with his new friend Tricia. “Is that Tricia Gates?” Jacob asked. Eric said yes, asking if he knew me. To this, Jacob answered: “She was the only person in school who was kind to me.”

This, Graduate, will until the day I die—no matter what I accomplish in the course of my life—be the thing I am most proud of. By a landslide. This, and a couple of things like it, may be the only things I am truly proud of.

On the other hand. One time I betrayed and ignored my closest friend, and this looms over my life as a behemoth. Another time I essentially absconded the guy a friend was dating, self-righteously ignoring and shaming her, trouncing all over her feelings as a way to shroud my self-absorption and inner chaos. Many times I put my cravings above the needs of my daughter’s developing psyche. In my 30s, I betrayed the one who loved me most. These are the cruel actions I am aware of. At times, I surely hurt people without even noticing what I did.

I will never look back on these and other cruelties without some pain. It’s not that I berate myself or self-flagellate over my failings. But if we are telling ourselves the truth, we must acknowledge the pain we have caused, and this never stops hurting to one degree or another.

I tell you this because you have been taught to measure your success by the wrong metrics. You were told to prop yourselves above others, and that this is the only way to be a “success,”  when in reality, the only way to truly succeed in life—in the ways that matter deep in your soul in the raw honesty of 3:00 AM—is to reach out to others. Go ahead and shine your light; do your best at your business or your craft. For this you will at times be rewarded. But these rewards are not the things that will make you proud. The losses you will suffer in your career, or your art, are not the things that will make you cringe. As you go forward, no matter what you do, remember along the way to be kind. That is what matters.

It is never too late or too early to start, dear Graduate. So start today.


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